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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.