Kimberly Vrudny


Contributors to a recent volume called Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (University of Chicago Press, 2007), raise disturbing questions about the ethics of documenting human rights disasters photographically. Persuasively, these scholars demonstrate how photography often fails to acknowledge dynamics of power and privilege at play in the exchange, often stripping the humanity of the people it aspires to document, and circumventing the very reaction it aspires to elicit. By affirming the compassionate nature of the viewer who is moved upon seeing a photograph, these scholars argue, photographs rarely intervene to bring about social change. Viewers are moved to tears, but rarely to action, especially as the public becomes increasingly desensitized to images of suffering due to their prolific distribution in the public square. Moreover, the encounter with a powerful image can prevent people from asking difficult questions about the so-called “objective” source behind the camera who is “loading,” “aiming,” and “shooting,” to “ccapture” an image on film or in pixel for distribution in the public square. Recognizing that censoring documentary photography is neither realistic nor desirable (witness the problematic dearth of images in America related to the Iraqi and American dead and wounded in its recent wars), “30/30” attempts to forward one model for photographic ethics in the context of humanitarian relief. Among the ethical considerations of “30 Years/30 Lives” are these:

OPPOSING STIGMA: “30 Years / 30 Lives” confronts the problem of stigmatization of people who are living with HIV by acquiring the consent of every participant, and by including in the series portraits of people who, while HIV-negative, have nonetheless been affected by HIV through loss or care of a loved one or involvement in humanitarian response. The HIV status of the participants is not disclosed unless participants reveal their status in their journals. While giving a degree of protection to those participants living with HIV, this is intended simultaneously to discomfort viewers by preventing them from gaining access to information they desire to have in order to prompt questions, such as: Why do I desire to have that information? For what purpose? In opposing stigma, questions a photographer might consider are: Will the photograph threaten the security of the one depicted? Has the person consented to be photographed? How does the photograph challenge architectures of shame that feed stigma?

EMBRACING SOLIDARITY: “30 Years/30 Lives” is undertaken within the context of the photographer’s larger humanitarian response to HIV/AIDS, such that the project is not an enterprise of dropping in, shooting the image, and fleeing again. Rather, much of the photographer’s last decade has been spent largely devoted to the issue of HIV/AIDS. In embracing solidarity, questions a photographer might consider are: What degree of investment does the photographer have in the people and issue he or she is covering? Is it an assignment like any other, or is it the photographer’s passion? Is the photographer embracing solidarity with the people she or he is photographing and, if so, how—and for how long? Is the photographer accompanying the people, or viewing them from a distance? Are the people three-dimensional in the photographer’s mind, or flat? If flat, is it ethical to spread such a perception? Does the photograph tell a story and, if so, whose? If the story is the photographers rather than the participant’s, is it valid?

AVOIDING OBJECTIFICATION: “30 Years / 30 Lives” recognizes that related to questions about solidarity are questions about objectification. To some extent, it can be argued that to make a photograph of anything is to objectify it. By making a photograph from the “shooting” of a person, an animal, or a place, the photographer has created an object for consumption. Recognizing this, are there ways to overcome this consumerist tendency? Are there ways to accentuate distance between the viewer and the viewed, or to close the gap? Could exhibit events bring participants face to face with an audience thereby highlighting distinctions between the actual participant and their photograph? Can a montage be created to bring more than just one image to the public in order to prevent a flattening of life to a single moment? In what ways can the photographer educate viewers to look at imagery critically, and to engage questions of objectification and ethics in relation to viewing images? In what ways can the photographer, too, receive ongoing education in critical engagement with visual culture? Can such an education help to prevent sensationalism of issues on the one hand, and romanticization of difference on the other? How?

APPRECIATING DIGNITY: One intention of “30 Years / 30 Lives” is to recognize the inherent dignity of every human person. The intention of the portraits is to capture the beauty of the human spirit, and to call attention to that inviolable aspect of human nature that is beloved by God. By so doing, and remaining mindful that the entire world community is responsible for responding to violations of human rights, the series aspires to call the public to a just and compassionate response. In appreciating dignity, questions a photographer might consider are: What is the photographer’s philosophical approach to the human person? Are all human beings considered to be inherently valuable? Does the image that the photographer is taking capture such a philosophical approach? Do the decisions the photographer makes behind the camera in terms of framing, cropping, and zooming reflect his or her own philosophical perspective, or contradict it?

RESTRAINING VOYEURISM: “30 Years / 30 Lives” is created with the recognition that there is a voyeuristic tendency that is often operating behind both the taking and the viewing of photographs—a desire to be informed from a distance, without necessarily entering compassionately and actively into situations that are curious but sometimes dangerous or, at least, uncomfortable. By inviting the viewer to respond by learning more about the organizations that are responding to each structural driver named in the project, “30 Years / 30 Lives” attempts to overcome this tendency. In preventing voyeurism, it is important for the photographer to acquire the informed consent of the person he or she is photographing by providing as much information to the participants about the project as possible. Also, the photographer ought to think about the purpose behind the images he or she is capturing. What is the purpose of the photograph? Is it to inform? Is it to raise awareness? Is it to motivate a compassionate or justice-filled response? Does it sensationalize? Is it propoganda? Does it masquerade reality? Will the photograph provoke antipathy by creating a sense of hopelessness in the viewer, or will the project inspire and motivate action? Is there a mechanism in place by which to help the audience to respond?

AVERTING EXHIBITIONISM: “30 Years / 30 Lives” recognizes that, at the other end of the spectrum, is exhibitionism—another drive that is potentially in operation when covering anything from the aftermath of a storm to a human rights catastrophe. In approaching organizations to participate in “30 Years/30 Lives,” the photographer explained a desire to bear witness to the structural side of the story that is often overlooked in coverage of HIV/AIDS, when the emphasis is on individual human behaviors that lead to infection. In averting exhibitionism, questions a photographer might consider are: Do those who agree to be photographed have agendas that compromise the photographer’s integrity in some way? How might the photographer be up front in an effort to prevent exhibitionism? A related set of questions involves monetary transactions. Is it ethical to pay someone to sit for a photograph? Does payment invite exhibitionism? Does a monetary transaction by definition compromise the integrity of the image, or of the project? Has a person sold their soul for a loaf of bread? In the same vein, if a person is hungry, is it ethical not to pay someone to sit for a photograph? Is it possible to be even-handed?

OVERCOMING STEREOTYPES: In order to avoid broad strokes and generalizations that often come in reference to those at risk for or living with HIV/AIDS, “30 Years/30 Lives” has been intentional in including a demographically-informed representation of people to challenge stereotypes about who is living with and/or affected by the virus. Participants are both male and female, homo- and heterosexual, adult and child, from relatively higher income and relatively lower income levels, and with ethnic origins from Africa and Asia, as well as the Americas. In overcoming stereotypes, questions and considerations with which the photographer might engage are: Just as I, as an individual, do not represent all who are my age, gender, orientation, nationality, economic class, and so on, so are the ones that I take photographs of individuals who do not represent everyone of their age, gender, orientation, nationality, economic class, and so forth. Does the photograph resist the temptation to make the person a representative of something? How might that risk be mitigated photographically? Do the images underscore the public’s stereotypes, or challenge them?

ENGAGING RESPONSIBILITY: “30 Years / 30 Lives” recognizes that conversations about HIV/AIDS in the public square are focused overwhelmingly on choices that are made by individuals in their private lives, and the lion’s share of prevention funding has gone to an effort to shift individual behaviors. Given that 96% of those living with HIV/AIDS are living in the developing world, “30/30” attempts to address corporate responsibility by covering structural drivers of the pandemic—issues that require responses at the policy level. In engaging responsibility, questions a photographer might consider are: Is there a way to engage responsibility photographically, such that a holistic framework for accountability for the situation is addressed? Is it possible to avoid the tendency to “blame the victim”? Is it possible to engage in the photographs themselves the socio-cultural and socio-economic structures and systems that are in place to create situations of profound human suffering?

MITIGATING PRIVILEGE: “30 Years / 30 Lives” acknowledges that the one behind the camera possesses power in relationship to the participant. The photographer met with each participant prior to the photo shoot and, by conceptualizing the portrait and the still life with the participant, each participant had a controlling voice in how she or he was portrayed. Furthermore, journal entries offered participants something of a projection system, so that their voices could be heard. In relation to the journal, participants could opt either to have their words made public or private, thus giving the participant a controlling voice in the process of putting his or her photograph on the market. In mitigating privilege, it is important for the photographer to consider such questions as: Is there a way to mitigate the photographer’s privilege? Does the participant have a controlling voice at all in how he or she wishes to be portrayed? Does the participant have a controlling voice in how the image will be shared? Is it possible to include the actual voice of the person who is photographed in some way?

PREVENTING EXPLOITATION: “30 Years / 30 Lives” recognizes that it is possible, and even easy, to exploit someone photographically. The project does not exploit its participants. Each participant signed a consent form, and agreed to sit for a photograph in exchange for nothing more than receiving an 8” x 10” copy of the finished product. Moreover, the consent form stipulated that neither the participant nor the photographer would benefit economically from “30 Years/30 Lives.” The agreement further specified that the photographer would give any proceeds from the potential sale of photographs to the organizations through which she identified her participants. In avoiding exploitation, it is important for the photographer to consider such questions as: Is it possible to give someone who has agreed to sit for a photograph a copy of the image? Is it possible to share with the participant profits that will be earned from the sale of photographic prints and copyrights? Is it possible to work out such an exchange agreement at the time the photograph is taken?

This in no way pretends to be a comprehensive list of ethical issues and concerns involved in documentary photography/photojournalism, but it offers a start for those of us who are engaged in this kind of work, and who desire to do it respectfully. Certainly, shortcomings remain, conceptually, ethically, and aesthetically. Nevertheless, the project aspires to advance the conversation about documentary ethics, structural violence, humanitarian engagement, and theological aesthetics, all the while documenting the lives of thirty remarkable people whose portraits will, I hope, help us to recalibrate our vision in such a way that we learn to see beautifully.

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