Last week in a photographers forum I responded to a readers posted images of India which mainly showed centered individuals in the frames and little else.  My response to the post was:

I'm starting to develop what may turn into a troubling attitude about such things.  I've lived in Asia most of my adult life, over 23+ years to date.  I've been most everywhere from the ship breaking yards in India to the long necked villages of northern Thailand.  It is indeed good to enrich ones lives with more knowledge and to experience more of the world.

The troubled attitude:  When I first glanced at your thumbnails and like most images I see of the region I feel a bit offended.  When we go to the zoo we photograph the great apes and tigers and lemurs and show them because they are unusual, different.. so we photograph them in their cages and gawk at the images.  I'm offended when we do this with people no matter how different their culture is from ours.  These are humans and if the most we can come up with that makes them interesting is their difference in looks then I feel offended.

IMO.. it's not enough to show the common pictures we see of these people that only show their differences in appearance.  Tour bus loads of tourists do that.  We have a greater responsibility to these places we visit.  With animals I greatly prefer photographing them running and playing or tracking their next meal.. the natural things they do in the course of being 'wild animals' which encompasses more than their appearance.  An eagle flying or catching a fish or fighting in mid-air does justice to the eagle.  A picture showing only an eagle.. does nothing.

 

One small girl stands out from her peers with eyes you'll never forget

One small girl stands out from her peers with eyes you'll never forget

 

We need to show these people interacting, living, laughing, suffering.. and bring in much more than a centered picture of someone who looks different than us.

I understand the depth of my time in Asia has led me to think differently than my fellow westerners about many things.. and perhaps its over the top to actually feel offended about such pictures.  It just seemed an appropriate time to vent..

I think this works better if our expectations are realistic.  I do a fair amount of work for NGO's in the area and I've taken on much on my own.  I know I won't change the world or even a country.. but I have changed the lives of individuals and once even a small village.

Images invoke emotion, and emotion plays on our impulses.  Giving is most often impulsive.  The better the work the more zeros on the check.  That's the business aspect of this sort of work.

 

Looking out from the wire of the Mae La Refugee Camp.  His life stops at this wire.

Looking out from the wire of the Mae La Refugee Camp.  His life stops at this wire

 

The personal toll can be much different.  Its difficult to return 'home' knowing people are still living in these conditions, and the personal contacts you make.. the little girl who needed medical care, the smart student wanting to study medicine, or the long food lines at the refugee camps.. the images don't easily go away.  And I won't let them go away.

 

As you can see from the two prosthetic legs, land mines and booby traps continue to be an issue along the Burma border

As you can see from the two prosthetic legs, land mines and booby traps continue to be an issue along the Burma border

 

I sometimes take interested individuals inside Mae La or to visit the orphanages adjacent to the main camps.  Its best described as a "life experience", something that will forever change the way you interpret life.  No matter how good the images, and believe me I'm done my best to make the most compelling images possible.. nothing prepares you for the real thing.  Its no longer only visual, but you now have the sounds and smell and the touch of the little girls hand as she held yours during your tour of the camp.

 

A Karen 'teen' cares for her child as she carries it through the rain inside Mae La camp

A Karen 'teen' cares for her child as she carries it through the rain inside Mae La camp

 

One such evening along the Moei Me River we sat on the Thai side with the children around us with this look in their eyes that could only come from our listening to the mortars and machine gun fire rattling on the other side of this small river.. as they understood it was their families and relatives being eradicated.  A small fire surrounded by 30-40 pairs of the most foreboding eyes you've ever seen.

to far too many people it's about having that vacation picture of "different looking" people..  To a few of us its about much more.  I wish I was capable of explaining this better.. or why 'zoo' pictures of the locals offend me.. I can only encourage you to come see for yourself.  Its not the $50,000 Leaf camera that's making a difference..  someone who can 'see' will be more effective with charcoal and a sketchpad..

 

A Karen 'teen' cares for her child as she carries it through the rain inside Mae La camp

Young Karen Orphans

 

There is always one person: This person claimed to speak for 'all' the other forum members who were offended by MY attitude.  He told me he thought I was better than everyone else and this offended him.

You might assume he was one of the 'zoo picture' photographers, steps off a tour bus, snaps all the "natives" and continues on so when he returns home he can show the folks what the natives look like and that he was there experiencing Asia right along with them.  Perhaps.  I really don't know.  Maybe his feeling of being offended was justified.  I'll let you guys be the judge on this one.

However the outcome, I won't be changing my mind.  When we photograph people simply because they look different than us, and those people tend to be very underprivileged third world victims of starvation, genocide, or even natural disasters.. then I feel we're serving ourselves and not the people.  This offends me because they have so little.  It offends me because it doesn't take much thought or effort to photograph them in such a way so viewers will see their true world and possibly find a way to help.  They are people, not animals..

 

Until next time..