photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.19: Do local photographers have a distinctive eye?

Do local photographers offer a distinctive perspective on their worlds?

That question was prompted by reading Patrick Witty’s interesting account of a photography workshop held in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq earlier this month. The workshop was organized by Metrography, the first Iraqi photo agency, and sponsored by Washington-based IREX International. Witty writes that the workshop was “the brainchild of Stephanie SinclairSebastian Meyer and Kamaran Najm,” and that he was one of four instructors, along with Kael AlfordNewsha Tavakolian, and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Interestingly, the venue was the Amna Suraka, the national genocide museum, which offers an account of the ‘Anfal’ campaign waged by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurds in the late 1980s. (The museum is the subject of an interesting project by British photographer Ben Hodson). With regards to the Anfal campaign – which included the infamous gassing of the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 – it is vital to recall that Saddam Hussein was then a US ally and the US was well aware of Iraqi chemical weapons capabilities. None of that stopped the US later – in the run-up to the 2003 invasion – hypocritically citing the Halabja gas attack as proof of Saddam Hussein’s barbarity.

Back to the workshop – Witty’s account and the enthusiastic comments of the participants testify to the value of the event. As the headline suggests, we benefit from seeing “Iraq through Iraqi eyes.” The gallery of images from the workshop showcase some interesting images, with Gona Aziz’s photo feature here one of the ones that stood out for me. But I’m sceptical about the idea that a person’s national identity offers a naturally distinctive eye.

Can we say categorically that local people would be better storytellers? To me that assumption has as many problems as the reliance on the international photographic elite it seeks to replace or supplement. Are “local people” a single, homogenous entity with only one voice? Surely they are as diverse, plural and conflicted as our own societies, so which local voices are going to get to tell their stories, and which local voices are we going to pay attention to?

The issue of greater attention to and work for indigenous photographers is an important issue of labour justice and political economy. There are many talented non-European photographers in this world whose work deserves greater play, and initiatives like Majority World are important in redressing the economic imbalances. And nobody could object to more assistance and training for locals to tell their own stories.

But the idea that their work, simply because they are non-European, offers a fundamentally different and automatically better visual account of the issues and places they cover is as sweeping a generalization as that offered by the stereotypical images that dominate our media.

It is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international,” and this Iraq workshop is an example of that. Some of the participants already work for international wire agencies, and the instructors are global, both personally and professionally, and the skills they are passing on come from the global image economy.

None of this is to criticize the organizers or instructors. All of them deserve credit for creating an important opportunity for Iraqi photographers. They are not necessarily making the general claims I am highlighting. Being ‘local’ means potentially easier access to ‘home‘ and can thus be the starting point for original stories. But being ‘local’ is not in itself the basis for a unique perspective. Originality and context come from sources other than national identity.

Photo: Copyright Gona Aziz – A portrait of Ashti Abdulrahman, from the series, “Women,” from TIME Lightbox 23 June 2011.


10 replies on “Thinking Images v.19: Do local photographers have a distinctive eye?”

Hi Tiffany, thanks for commenting. I’ve often heard claims about the intrinsic value of ‘the local’ in critiques of the photojournalism industry, and a couple of years ago I wrote a similar post that linked to a debate with those perspectives. I think its part of a common argument that always posits things in either/or terms – if the object of critique is global photojournalism, the remedy supposedly relies in the reverse, indigenous photography, without subjecting that side of the coin to the same degree of questioning.

Does it matter who presses the shutter? Yes, but not because of reasons to do with simplistic notions of their identity or nationality, because these do not pre-determine the type of view they are creating. They may influence it, but they do not determine it. What matters most is the attention paid to context, narrative, and story – and those skills are not restricted to any particular group, global or local.

Hi David, I’m coming to this a bit late but it is an interesting post that touched on a load of relevant issues for me. Echoing some of the other comments – I was wondering which specific parties you feel make claims that local photographers offer a ‘naturally distinctive eye’ or that local people offer a homogenous view or are better story tellers? And if you have specific people in mind, what do you think is their motivation for pushing such a view? It is a opinion that I too have heard but often when people are pushed they are unable to substantiate it.

In the world of participatory photography, there are plenty of projects that trade on a romanticised idea that the localised non-professional photographer can give a some-how more authentic point of view. Such claims though are often just made as part of the rhetoric used to draw attention to the work and raise funds for projects with non-photographic industry audiences – as with most fundraising it is often the overly simplified quick fix representation of things that gets the most immediate results. Perhaps it too comes from a place where people are overly keen to re-address the imbalance that has always seen the white, male photographic voice dominate over all others. Ultimately though most people who work in the field would dispute any suggestion that local means better

In my rounds of talks and conferences I have often encountered the opposite perspective – that underplays, rather than overplays the importance of the local view – that questions the value or point of providing cameras to communities, that question if there is any photographic merit in such enterprises and dismisses the contribution of participatory photography projects can make (particularly those with children) to the photographic world. This view often comes from professional quarters who feel increasingly threatened by the democratization of media and shifting professional market and economics of the photographic industry. As with many things – what it comes down to is money and who does (or doesn’t get it)!

As you and other comments have suggested, the debate needs to move on from discussions about whose perspective is best, acknowledge that input from a range of people is needed- professional, non-professional, local and international – and work towards creating platforms that give space to a multitude of perspectives and voices. In the meantime I continue to play with the

Does it matter who presses the shutter? – this is the question I continue to play with no hope of ever coming to any definitive conclusions!

”The ‘local’ is as complex and contested a space as the global, and the boundaries between the two are regularly blurred. Can we look at images and read from the surface whether or not they are the product of locals?’

Absolutely agree and I don’t think anyone could disagree with you.

We can also flip this a little bit. Sometimes we can look at photos and have a very strong sense that they are not shot by a local (although we could be wrong about this as well).

Hi David, thanks for a timely post. This depends on the context of the media assignment itself. I think it’s great for foreign photographers to do workshops abroad and help empower local people to tell their own stories.

While local photographers can provide to access for a community to open up, it is not very easy for them to comment openly on sensitive issues like government corruptions, or questioning taboo religious / cultural practice etc. For example, it’s much safer for foreign journalists to do ‘parachute journalism’ and get prompt international rescue. Indigenous photographers seldom have this luxury and face reprimand. Self-censorship are always at work in many countries in South East Asia, even more so in Central Asia.

Foreign photographers lend brilliant eyes on social critic and global affairs, so we should always preserve this point-of-views. They have great flairs and set high aesthetic standard. However, in my experience, to persuade difficult countries in Central Asia to change their minds on tough issues like oppression of Muslim women – it’s better to get indigenous photographer with international portfolio, or foreign photographers who come from similar culture or have assimilated into it, to gently offer empathy and then open up serious debates in stages. Soft power is much favourable that parachute photojournalism that creates animosity and would sabotage the persuasion effort.

As for satisfying local or international publishing/media demand, that is down to experience working with the organisations. Any good photographers can fulfil this assignment given the opportunity to work on these projects.

Ben – your last question is a very good one. I tried to make clear I was using the workshop as the prompt for a question rather than making it an object of critique. As to the privilege granted ‘the local’ – I’m thinking of all those arguments against ‘parachute’ photojournalism, and those arguments for indigenous photographers, that state those on the ground are essentially better. Like me, I’m sure you’ve been to seminars where the views are strongly made. And to an extent they are right, but I don’t think it makes any sense to say one is always, intrinsically, better/worse than the other, or that each group has an homogenous aesthetic vision. The ‘local’ is as complex and contested a space as the global, and the boundaries between the two are regularly blurred. Can we look at images and read from the surface whether or not they are the product of locals? I don’t think so, but I think some of the standard arguments I’ve heard assume this is so (not that you are making the standard argument).

Hi David,

This post is set up on the idea that there are people that think ‘categorically that local people would be better storytellers’

But who ‘categorically’ does?

A story about immigrants that is going to be ‘better’ for the Daily Mail is different to one that is ‘better’ for the Socialist worker.

Photographers almost always rely, and work with, a local person (fixer). If you don’t speak the language, it’s very difficult to tell someone’s story in any real depth (though not impossible), except with a the use of a translator/fixer.

I think a more pertinent question is how do we improve the quality of storytelling about places where more often than not the only visual representation we witness is from Western photographers?

That seems to be the question that the workshop was trying, in part, to address.

I totally agree with all points.
Access is really the most prominent advantage for local photographers, whether in Iraq, London or NYC, however this access it’s again, only relative…
Photography and photojournalism are expensive practices, and the industry itself it’s more and more hard to reach, even if the digital era has brought a camera into the hands of almost all!

“Local” photographers have been recently used, for obvious budget reasons by the mainstream western media. Before photojournalists were sent on assignment for a longer period of time and in much farer places than today. Now it happens that for budget reasons (or other) magazines call local photographers, and often they do so to minimise risks related to insurance and more…

Witty’s workshop sound extremely interesting and indeed it places itself into the “re-building” of Iraq perspective. I’d be curious though to know what Iraq has produced, in terms of photography, during the time of Saddam’s government.
It would be interesting to see to what degree and how a dictatorship influences the development of creativity. Was there a space for illustrated news? Was there an underground art scene? It might sound all a bit obvious but I believe that these are necessary questions to pose when introducing a photographic workshop in Iraq.

Other points could be: How local is “local”? Is local defined by geography or sympathy and knowledge related to something? Is there a local market for local photographers, or, are these local photographers trained for the international outlets?

Thanks for the responses, Rob and Prezemak. There are good practical reasons to favour local photographers in many circumstances, access being one of the key ones. Its just that a person’s identity doesn’t guarantee a better or even different perspective, and in other circumstances the estranging effect of the outsider can have real benefits. When it comes to context, narrative and story so much more is at play than where the photographer comes from. The combination of all perspectives, though, is an interesting thought!

Thanks David, always interesting. Personally, my preference is to work with local photographers. This is partly to do with practical issues such as access, economics, environmental concerns and developing talent. But it is also about ‘cultural reading’ – as an outsider to the countries I work on I need someone who is primed as an expert reader of the nuances around them. Few foreigners can bring this unless they have years of experience in a country. That ability to read the cultural environment can, potentially, lead to a ‘better’ story – or rather, a different story. Obviously though, the approach of NGOs is different to photojournalism. I have heard it equally argued that an outsider’s eye sees what the local takes for granted (or ‘stopped seeing’ due to familiarity). What story is told will also depend on who controls the editorial aspects of the content shot by the photographer. If you talk to the guys at Drik they will likely come out in favour of the local photographer, but they will also concede that most of them are middle class and so their local insight into the lives of a rural farmer or brick kiln worker remains limited. This issue also applies to participatory photography and some of the claims made about the images produced being more insightful. Whereas they do often tell very personal stories (and serve a function beyond the images themselves) they do not on their own necessarily tell a better story. In many instances I wish I could use local, foreign and participatory images all together to get the story from multiple perspectives but that just isn’t practical!

imho. Local photographers (generally) just have access (or better access) to
places/people/situations than some non-local wire snappers (btw even 4 years old kid have a “distinctive eye” if compared with some wire-snappers 😉 ) so therefore this is where the “distinctive eye” comes from.
(this is just a assumption, no real data, research behind this thought)

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