The Ethics of Aesthetics
The worst drought in the Horn of Africa in 60 years continues to show no signs of abating. Over the last few months several bodies of photographic work focusing on the humanitarian emergency in the region have appeared in national and international media. One such body of work is a portfolio of images taken by Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam.
I first saw Chaskielberg’s work at the 2010 Brighton Biennial, where he exhibited a portfolio of photographs about the Parana river in South America. The photographs had been taken at night, which gave them a distinctive visual appeal. His latest work for Oxfam in the Horn of Africa shares the same aesthetic quality: they were all taken in the moonlight with added artificial lighting. As a result of combining flash and moonlight, Chaskielberg’s photographs have an almost tactile, three-dimensional quality. The colours are intense and the scenes and people depicted have a mysterious aura to them. Moonlight photography has become Chaskielberg’s trademark visual style. The photographer acknowledges that he likes exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction, which is evident in his images. In Chaskielberg’s photographs people look as if they were characters in their own dreams of sustainable livelihoods, dignity, and survival. Is it not at night-time that we dream anyway?
Alejandro Chaskielberg’s USP (unique selling point) is unquestionably effective. He has found a very personal, almost inimitable visual approach. And that achievement should not be underestimated. But I look at Chaskielberg’s moonlit images and I sense a tension between what the images show and what they are meant to tell. I detect a conflict between the images as visual products and their communication potential. In other words, I fail to connect what I see in the photographs with the plea of the people in them. Interestingly, I see that connection immediately when I look at Rankin’s images taken in the same region, on the same topic, also for Oxfam. Rankin’s photograph of a Turkana woman holding a day’s worth of food is beautiful and at the same time brutally honest. We get the message and the dignity of the person photographed remains intact. In fact, if anything, the dignity of the person in the image is enhanced.
Comparing Rankin’s and Chaskielberg’s images reminded me of an insightful article written by John Mraz on Sebastiao Salgado. Mraz eloquently explains how a documentary photograph should strive to achieve a balance between expression and information. I believe that these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. However, if that balance is upset then the effectiveness of a photograph as a visually compelling mechanism for sharing information is severely affected.
One image that made an impact on me, and that manages to strike that difficult balance pointed out by John Mraz is Tom Stoddard’s photograph of an emaciated woman in Ajiep, Sudan. This photograph is both a document and a symbol, as Mraz would put it. It is both specific to the events it refers to and universal.
The ethics and the aesthetics of the image are intimately connected. They can work synergically as they do in Rankin’s or Stoddard’s photographs, or, in the case of Chaskielberg’s, create a tension that prompts us to ask questions about approach and intention.
These issues may seem rather metaphysical but as photographers we need to be able to deal with them. It’s part of what we know as a healthy reflexive practice, which doesn’t have anything to do with ‘reflexes’ but with the ability to understand how the photographer’s cultural background, beliefs, intentions and preconceptions affect the outcome of their work.
80 thoughts on “The Ethics of Aesthetics”
We have become so used to seeing pictures of this kind of suffering. Their accumulation made more extreme because they do stick in the mind. It becomes so very difficult to get anyone to really look at such images afresh, with a sense of urgency. Any fresh approach, including Chaskielberg’s, should be looked at with an open mind.
Unfortunately all truly arresting images have a side-effect of making many other honest photographs seem dowdy and somehow historic rather than urgent.
But thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.
The photos for Oxfam do have the effect of making the subjects look like displays in an old-fashioned museum. Their lives are lived out under a blazing sun. The overall effect of the technique suggests to me that the poor — the tribal, subsistence agriculture poor — are always with us.
I’m trying to keep an open mind, while I think about this body of work, but the initial response is one of unease. I certainly do not believe that issue centred photography has to be straight deadpan photography, but the Chaskielberg approach is unsettling – it almost feels like fashion photography and prompts the question ‘why?’
I certainly feel unease looking at these photographs.
Wonderfully constructed and portrayed, they are not images we are being allowed to enjoy because of their message … poor people are starving, money is required.
My unease seems to be a conflict between the beauty and the harsh realities of existence.
These images raise questions that are impossible to answer.
I can’t look at the first image without wondering if it is intended to be seen as ironic. Obviously it isn’t …. but still I look at it and feel as though it is. Its the disjunction between what the image is saying and the text that does it. It makes me feel quite confused about the intention of the photographer. I just looked up post-irony, wondering if I’d imagined the word, found I hadn’t – maybe its an example of that?
I’m not sure how I feel about it – its possible that a photograph that gives one an unsettled feeling, where you don’t quite know how to react to it – could that have a potential to effect you more than an image that conforms to a pre-existing template of something you might expect?
This isn’t the first time I’ve found certain photography to have the appearance of irony when it doesn’t seem to be intended to be ironic, I’ve an uncomfortable feeling it could be something to do with me as much as the photography!
What is the real issue here?!
In the mid-1980’s, Live Aid raised millions for the starving of Ethiopia, a major country of The Horn of Africa; 25 years later, the population of Ethiopia has doubled and there are still too many people starving.
The photographs of Chaskielberg and others like Stoddard and Rankin are remarkable but are there not other things of relevance that they might be photographing?
Well maybe Amano. I think I would contest the idea that there is only one ‘real issue’ but that aside, one of the positive things I would say about Chaskielberg’s series of images is that there is quite an emphasis on the role of women and particularly mothers. My understanding is that Oxfam works on a model that says population growth tends to be excessive when women have few rights over their fertility and that a key development priority for them is raising the status of women.
So for me Chaskielberg has selected some interesting and important subject matter, but the creative treatment is unsettling.
I like Chaskielberg’s images because they give a sense of dignity to the people being portrayed; this is achieved by both what is included in the image and the way the subjects appear. A definite progression from previous images that merely portray starving people.
The photographer however is working to a brief – pictures of the impoverished to get sympathy and hence money from the richer nations.
People in these countries often feel compromised by this approach; Ethiopia is we understand virtually a dustbowl full of starvation and there is little understanding of the fact that it has one of the richest bird populations in the world (about 850) and there are luscious landscapes.
As a human being, I can not help but question the role of Oxfam. What are they doing to really relieve suffering? Might they not be perpetuating it? To question this is probably beyond the brief of the photographer.
Some of the captions to the photos are quite interesting. A farmer laughs at being given new cattle because apparently, the gift is not going to go far when there is not enough to sustain cattle for very long. Might not photos alone provide such insights?
What about photos of Oxfam? People who work for it etc Turn the eye inwards for a change and show us how our money gets to where it is going.
Just want to look at the situation a little differently because there seems to be something missing and repetitive in the way we look at the “Third World” (where I happen to be at present!). There is a sense that much aid is about promoting our western-democratic way of life above that of others. Is it really that much better?
The problem is not so much whether the work of international development charities is successful or not. The problem is that our understanding of success and failure here in Western societies doesn’t correspond with theirs – in the host country. For example, I recently saw a report by a Canadian international development charity which deemed that their well-building programme had been a failure because a very high percentage of well and pumps went our of order within months of being built.
That’s a Western view of success and failure. That sort of non-success doesn’t go down well with donors!
Now think about a particular village whose Canadian-built pump is still working properly. For people in that village, for the woman whose job is to bring 25 or 40 litres of clean water a day to her family compound, for someone called Aguira Zague perhaps (a real person btw) the programme has been a total success.
Success in developing countries, in my experience, always manifests itself at a very small, often individual scale. So small that here in the West, with our characteristic, culturally-induced myopia, we just very often don’t see it.
I saw one of the photos in a magazine at the weekend and was immediately drawn to explore it, and then read the accompanying text. I see many photos of “deserving causes”, and in several newspapers a double advert makes the point that we skip quickly past those that are familiar and uncomfortable (“did you see John?”).
The Chaskielberg photos demand attention because of their surprise (per Barthes) and are much more attractive (in both senses) than Rankin’s honest photos. If we consider the creative treatment of the photos in isolation then of course there is something disturbing. However I assume the purpose is to draw attention to their plight by more subtle means, and that aim is achieved.
Concerning “other things of relevance” I wouldn’t know where to start because there are so many, but the fact is that these people still need help despite Bob Geldoff’s best efforts, and Oxfam should be congratulated for accepting such an original approach.
A fascinating post. Thank you Jose.
Some thoughts and questions and writing off the cuff so hope they’re worthwhile.
I find Tom Stoddard’s image haunting and penetrating, for several reasons. As a message I wonder how different it might it be if the person were not fragmented? On the other hand the lower half of a walking body IS a symbol – and perhaps more symbolic for being asexual – at first glance we might see a human being before realizing the human being is a woman.
I think Rankin’s photograph is stunningly beautiful, dignified and empowering – I am almost at a loss to find words to describe it.
I think Anned raises an interesting point – the tension created by Chaskielberg unusual lighting could perhaps raise questions effectively.
An important point for me is that I find the extreme contrast of Rankin’s photograph with Stoddard’s powerful. And I think that this sort of juxtaposition could be a powerful way of creating a lasting memory/communication.
One last thought:
If, as Jose says, “the photographer’s cultural background, beliefs, intentions and preconceptions affect the outcome of their work”, might not a carefully edited juxtaposition of photographers’ visions have an impact for a commission given by an organistion such as Oxfam? If the message is more important than the artist then this must be considered.
From a purely journalistic perspective, their ‘beautifulness’ does seem to be in conflict with the reality of their predicament, and appears to do them a disservice. The photographer has used his technical abilities to manipulate and even exploit them to render this aesthetic, even if the exploitation is ultimately for their benefit. But the very fact Oxfam has commissioned Chaskielberg would suggest that new tactics are indeed necessary to ‘cajole’ us in to action. Which then turns the questions back at us… are we desensitised to the images we see or have we just stopped looking?
For Oxfam I imagine it will come down to pure maths. Advertising space is exorbitant….if a certain image performs better in terms of donations made, they will respond to this. There is no doubt that these images will ‘stand-out’ on a page but whether such images make us delve in to our pockets more than those of Rankin or Stoddard or others I guess remains to be seen…
Thanks Jose, certainly interesting.
‘…are we desensitised to the images we see or have we just stopped looking?’ Critically important questions I think and ones which are investigated in Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radience which was one of our books of the year in 2010.
Anyone interested in this discussion would be certain to get a lot out of the Zarina Bhimji study visit on 11 February – her work has been described as ‘post-documentary’. The visit is well subscribed but there are still four places left.
Thanks for the book reference, I will take a look. I’m intrigued by the term ‘post documentary’.
I’m sorry not to be able to make this study visit, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting day. There is an article that has just been posted about Zarina Bhimji here:
My sympathies lie with the children in this area, they are the real victims of all sorts of problems that have occurred naturally and man-made.
I have had problems with understanding why this problem continues when the UN and great western nations have pledged so much and delivered so little and the relief agencies struggle to cope.
What has this to do with the photography we’ve been drawn to by Jose? Well the images show that the Ethiopians suffer from a problem endemic to a lot of nations in Africa, polygamy and enlarged families. Whilst the images are good at presenting the message of poverty and hunger for Oxfam, they also show to someone who’s travelled the area of Sahara and sub-Sahara that the problem cannot be solved by aid alone and cultural change needs to be introduced as sympathetically as possible before any sustained good will ensue.
I’m not being politically correct perhaps, but I believe I am being a realist.
What I’d like to see is the follow-on images from the gardening project when the self-supporting citizens not only look happier, but are more likely to be so too.
Large family units are a characteristic of many sub-Saharan countries, certainly the ones I’ve been to, and these photographs show it. If we put that in its cultural and socio-economic context then we will realise that having many children is, for many families, the only way to ensure that there is enough manual labour to support the family subsistence economy and bring an income – if any of the children migrates to a town and is lucky enough to get a job.
Positive and sustainable change is rarely introduced by trying to change cultural perspectives; it’s a futile exercise – they are very much hard-wired, over there as much as they are over here. However, empowering locals to maximise their economic output and self-sufficiency with initiatives such as micro-credits, small-scale enterprises, village co-operatives, etc… is likely to have more of a positive impact.
Having said that I would also like to see follow-on images showing hope and sustainability. I agree.
My name is Jo. I work for Oxfam and I went out to east Africa over summer as a media officer for the famine response.
Media work plays a huge part in not only telling stories of the people who are effected by the drought, but also in terms of fundraising. Our advertising value equivalent in July alone for east Africa coverage was over £13million. And the money raised from the appeal has raised a record breaking amount, helping the lives of over 3 million people in the HORN region
We decided to work with Alejandro towards the end of last year. A majority of coverage of the crisis came in July when parts of Somalia were declared famine zones. This is where 4 out of every 10,000 people are dying each day.
The public respond when a crisis is in the news but unfortunately the stories, as they always do in emergency situations, drop off the news agenda. Alejandro’s work for us, depicted a new and very relevant way to tell the story of the people in the HORN and a starting point for discussing the future.
I would agree with some of the points raised that we as a society have become desensitised to images. You may be interested to know that Oxfam runs a strict photographic policy where our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen. We are not about flies in the eyes of small children. I am glad that you noticed a sense of dignity within these images. These are remarkably resilient people.
Getting people out of poverty in a dignified and self-fulfilling way is at the heart of Oxfam’s work. For example, wherever possible we do not give out food donations- except in extreme circumstances where food is not available. Instead, we give temporary cash grants. This prevents the local economy from collapse, gives people freedom of choice and in some cases promotes enterprise. In another example, in Senegal, we operate a clothing enterprise. Clothes that are deemed unsuitable for Oxfam shops in the UK (usually light summerware and bras) are sold to Senegalese market traders at a reasonable rate. This provides jobs to the local community and generates further income for projects in West Africa.
It may also be worth noting that these images are not the end or indeed the beginning of the story. There are a number of images by other photographers shedding light on the emergency operation at work. As with all narratives sometimes you have to set the scene as well as show the potential ending (the solutions)
I hope that Alejandros pictures have shed light on the difficulty of the situation that the people in Turkana face, but I also hope along with that, that their reliance will also inspire and promote discussion on how poverty can be overcome. It is of course, a huge debate, and one that Oxfam is working on tirelessly.
Thanks for your response Jo.
You write … “We decided to work with Alejandro towards the end of last year.”
Could you enlarge upon that? It would be interesting to know a little more of what this working relationship was perhaps still is.
It is not happening often that I can relate to a photograph about poverty or famine in Africa.
What did I see here. A family, that had put on their best cloths, because a photographer was coming. They want to present themselves as best as they can. They straighten their backs and put a smile on their face. These are proud people. But are they all that different from us? What would I do under these circumstances? Or you? If someone asks you how you feel, what will your answer be. Nine times out of ten, you’ll answer: Fine! You straighten your back, just as these people did, and put a smile on your face.That is how you want to present yourself to someone else. Not showing your misery. This family is just as my family. They are different in their skin color, the country they live in. Apart from that, they are just as human as I am, or you. These are not helpless people, but they need help at this moment.
That is the reason I am more inclined to donate to Oxfam by looking at these pictures, just because they show humanity and emotion.
‘These are not helpless people, but they need help at this moment.’
Beautifully put Edith
A little more food for thought …
Thanks for this link ….
Thanks for this interesting post and thread of comments. I wrote similarly about Alejandro’s images on my blog a couple of weeks ago. I think I was worried that they are a bit ‘too beautiful’ (a phrase that Oxfam’s Anna Kramer uses to put the finger on it perfectly). But I congratulate and admire Oxfam for being willing to experiment with photography to tell development stories – even if that means taking a risk sometimes. Keep up the good work!
Hi Russell, I couldn’t agree more. I also think that telling stories that matter is what Oxfam do with their photography. I also encourage them to keep taking risks and trying innovative ways to share a sense of common humanity.
Russell writes of these images …
“they run the risk of becoming the story themselves, of obscuring the story that Oxfam presumably wants to us to hear and agree with (about the fantastic work that they’re doing in Turkana to alleviate the impact of the current drought and mitigate the risks of future ones).”
It is good that Oxfam are supporting photography in such an encouraging way but it comes at a price; the photographer is expected to conform to a brief that relates not just to subject matter but also to particular ethics.
Would a Buddhist photographer who might not share a Christian outlook be able to accomplish this?
Jo from Oxfam writes …
“I would agree with some of the points raised that we as a society have become desensitised to images.”
The idea that we have become desensitised to images of starvation etc has become common parlance yet it is one that Susan Sontag challenges in her book, “Regarding the pain of others”…
What she appears to be saying is that we have not become desensitised by such imagery rather we have become inured to it. The Live Aid concert in the mid-1980’s raised millions for the starving Ethiopians since when the population of that country has doubled and the problem continues.
We are still sensitive to the issues but we experience a sense of hopelessness which Oxfam encourage us to overcome with its’ message of hope. The fact is the same problems continue and that exasperates rather than desensitises us.
Of course, this is taken from my reading of Sontag and I feel the need to read her work again to clarify my understanding.
Try the Linfield book (link above) Amano, it is worth it.
Thanks Gareth, Once I have covered the OCA recommended books I shall.
Sontag’s book though is short and to the point … in some ways a better book I think than her “On Photography”
Thanks for all of the above comments. It leaves me with little new to write in general terms. As a personal response I have been an Oxfam supporter for around 40 years now. I can still remember the image that started my interest. It was not a picture of famine or hardship. It was a picture of happy children smiling at the camera whilst playing outside their primary school. The school was breeze block and corrugated iron, with no windows or doors. The image spoke of hope for the future, and that any support or encouragement would be most welcome. I wanted to help continue the hope and happiness that I could see in the faces of the children.
We’re asked to revisit this thread in the Documentary module and comment both here and in our blog – hence its resurrection here !
Having gone through all the comments above I have to agree that the dreamlike, fictional quality of Chaskielberg’s images conflicts, in my mind, with Oxfam’s aims. I would think that a potential supporter or donor would be alienated by he fictional nature of the images and would be more likely to support a “real” cause. Admittedly Chaskielberg has adhered to Oxfam’s guidelines on the dignity of the subject (as Jo mentions above) but at the cost of the reasons for the image in the first place.
I do have a slight issue with Rankin’s images as well – taken as a whole the message is clear but in many of the images the subject is reminiscent of the Daily Mail website where a complainant, often trivial, stares belligerently into the camera, accusing the world of complicity in their “victimisation”. I’m well aware that this is wrong but it is my first impression when seeing some of the images individually.
One of the reasons for that is the lack of the environment in the image so that it’s harder to empathise with the subject’s situation. It’s only when viewing the portfolio as a whole that the message comes across and the empathy arises.
On the other hand Zarina Bhimji, as mentioned above, is very much about the environment of the subject even if the viewer has to consciously extract the information but that act of extraction will cause the information to stay fresh longer than it would if presented to the viewer on a plate.
Dieter Telemans’ work, Troubled Waters, is similar in how it gets its messages across. His images showing the gouges cut in the wood as the women haul up the daily water last longer in the mind than most of the images above because the viewer shares the experience of the daily hardship.
It’s that sharing of the experience that would encourage me to help but is lacking in the portfolios above.
This exercise asks that we read the blog post- The Ethics of Aesthetics, writing a comment both on the blog page and in our blog.
This post discusses the worst drought in Africa in 60 years, and explores one specific body of photographic work by Alejandro Chaskielberg that focuses on this plight within the region.
Chaskielberg’s work uses a mixture of flash and moonlight to create a three-dimensional quality that holds great visual appeal. His images blur the lines between reality and fiction; containing a dream like element that depicts the subjects as characters in what could be their own magical dream land. However, do these moonlit images depict the plight of the people accurately?
There seems to be a strong sense of contradiction between these calming, magical images, and the realities and struggles of the people in them. The two simply don’t co-inside. For a charity-appeal, these images contain little to no urgency; but only work to make these issues seem almost fictional to the viewer; undermining the message completely.
When discussing aesthetics within images, Martha Rosler states that “The very notion of fundamental ‘aesthetic rightness’ is flawed, and notions of classical beauty lead one away from the real world into an aesthetic eternality.(1)” This highlights the theory that aesthetics within these type of images remove from the real messages that are pleading and crying out to be portrayed.
However, one could argue that whilst Chaskielberg’s images are somewhat unorthodox; they do in fact portray the subject with total dignity. This is something that many other photographers, such as William Willoughby Hooper do not do. But surely there must be a balance between the two? For the subject’s dignity has remained in tact, yet the message has been completely lost in the fiction of the whimsical aesthetics of the image.
I think photographers such as Rankin and Stoddart reach a compromise between the two, as they photograph the issues in a starkly honest, yet beautiful way, but the dignity of the people still remains in tact. Their work portrays the issues honestly and effectively with minimum use of pleasing, yet fake aesthetics to do so. For to truly capture the plight of a subject; one must not worry about the aesthetics of the image, but must simply capture an honest and sensitive interpretation of the subject and the issue outlined. The image below by Rankin underlines the issue of lack of food within South America. It portrays a woman holding an entire days worth of food in her hands. The message is brutal, but the image is beautiful. Thus we see the perfect balance that every photographer should strive to adhere to in order to accurately and effectively portray an issue.
(1) Grange, Ashley la (2013), Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, Taylor & Francis
From P2 – documentary exercise:
I found both sets of images interesting and engaging; I would suggest both sets of images are ‘staged’ albeit to differing degrees – this is not a criticism, merely an observation.
To Amano’s points “wonderfully constructed and portrayed” and “these images raise questions that are impossible [for us] to answer”. Generally, if we are left without sufficient information we are inclined to investigate further; specially with regards the Chaskielberg images I found this was the case – stylistically there is something not-African about them.
I found Jose’s comments re the success or failure of any project very interesting and indeed concur with our pessimistic Western view of failure – even a partial failure means that overall project is a failure. When investigating problems at work, if a particular route does not yield resolution then the result it is considered another failure, rather than providing us with more data that enables us to make better informed decisions.
Brian refers to “Rankin’s honest photos” and whilst I don’t disagree with the Barthes ‘surprise’ reference, I do feel the need to challenge the word honest in this scenario because it implies that Chaskielberg images are dishonest. I think “Rankin’s understated photos” would be more appropriate.
Much later in the comments Edith discusses how these people portray themselves “straightening their backs and putting a smile on their faces” – this took me back to images created by the photographers employed on the FSA project – “poverty with pride!” Can you image the impact of Chaskielberg style if he had been one of the FSA team – I’ve no doubt that the images would have surprised America.
Back to Edith and her comment “These are not helpless people, but they need help at this moment.” – it really is beautifully put!!!
With regards to Stoddard’s image we have used interesting descriptors: powerful, haunting, penetrating, impactful… I wonder if this is simply because the legs appear to have been ‘transported’ to the Western world? The background is so spares, clean that it could be a photography studio and unless you look very carefully you don’t notice the little tuft of grass at the woman’s feet. The legs appear to have been completely taken out of their own context and moved into our context – “Starvation coming to a photographic studio near you!”
Throughout the comments there are questions about the efficacy of ‘beautiful’ images to convey an ‘ugly’ truth and rally the appropriate level of support to deliver sustainable action. Jo (from Oxfam) describes the rationale behind this type of image – hope and dignity, plus belief in change. I don’t doubt this and I respect this ethical approach, however, I also suspect that in general we have become inured to shocking images and that we find them difficult to process at an individual level because we have never had that degree of personal exposure. In answer to Marmalade’s question: “have we just stopped looking?” I think we perceive the scale of the problem to be so vast, that we feel impotent and thus rather than beat ourselves up over something we cannot change, we stop looking.
Gareth mentions ‘The Cruel Radiance’ by Susie Linfield – it is a great book and does really challenge our relationship with images.
“The flood of photos sweeps away dams of memory. Never before has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the intervention of illustrated magazines is one of the most important means of organising a strike against understanding…. The ‘image-idea’ drives away the real idea.” – Siegfried Kracauer’s (1889 – 1966) was a German writer, journalist and sociologist; reference The Cruel Radiance.
I appreciate Kracauer was referring to a completely different situation – post war Germany, however, I think it is apt for this discussion. One could ask, do the individual styles of Chaskielberg and Stoddard strike against our understanding and drive away the real idea? Or do they constructively challenge our erroneously pre-conceived ideas?
Looking at the images by Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam, they are visually very striking and different to previous images that I’ve seen to highlight the issue of famine and drought. Although stunning images, I don’t get the theme that they have a strong message, its more to show the lifestyle of the people living in the Horn of Africa than any hardships occurring that do need our attention. However is a more aesthetic image likely to stick in our minds for standing out with the beautiful composition and lighting as opposed to another emaciated figure where we have to some extent become immune or accepting more now than we once were? If any image makes us stop and think and wonder about the background, then its achieved its goal.
Photography 2, Documentary Exercise:
The images by Alejandro Chaskielberg and Rankin for Oxfam, fit into the charities photographic policy of hope, they do not cry for desperation nor do they try to shock the viewer into giving. The images by Chaskielberg and Rankin look more like a fashion shoot than a charity campaign. Oxfam are in the business of making money, the shock tactic has been tried many times before and in an age where people are not just desensitised to images but to charity organisations in general, from Oxfam to Help the Heroes, in magazines, newspapers, television and social media, from the charities adverts to friendly sponsorship of bike rides and fun runs. Due to this Oxfam have tried a new approach, to be the more fashionable charity to give to, from their organic eco friendly signs and packaging to the symbolic giving of goats as gifts. It is no wonder therefore that the adverts look like, adverts, fashionable adverts for a product for us to buy into (by setting up a monthly direct debit), taken by fashionable photographers with large client bases for the most fashionable brands. Chaskielberg’s strong vivid colours, studio style lighting with motion not frozen by the flash, posed images, reminiscent of a Benetton advertising campaign, as for Rankin’s, yes they are good images and they do get the point across but they also have the Rankin name tag, a creative director could have asked any photographer to take these images, but they haven’t.
As for the images I feel we need a balance, not necessarily just straight photography, as Curriehannah (14 Aug 2014) discusses a balance between dignity and the urgency and seriousness of the situation, it appears difficult to have both at the same time. Comparing the work of the three photographers it is evident that we see three extremely contrasting sets of images that all work as individual sets but also prove even more striking when viewed together. The portfolio of Chaskielberg is instantly inspiring with a fantastic expressive image concept, beautiful images that make us stop and look deeply into the faces of the subjects. It would be difficult for a westerner with a pile of photographic equipment to take a more natural image when they become the centre of attention so why not embrace this and let the subjects become the focus, involving people in their own portraits, photographed on their terms. In this respect Rankin, although visually different has taken a similar approach, engaging and involving his subjects, as he would do in his studio.
Tom Stoddart’s work on the other hand is sobering, black and white honesty stripped of all dignity, letting the viewer know that we can look at the colourful images as much as we like but the harsh reality and truth of famine, drought, war, radical Islam, tribal wars, dictatorships, politics, disease, contraception and death are still out there.
Alejandro Chaskelberg work proves us totally different seeing ,understanding and believing of photographed images. This kind of way saves people dignity and seems like those colours makes situation look better. Also looking through those images I feel like those people are closer to us than previous images based on famine, it seems more western. Could it be the case that photographers want to distract viewer form real situation, using his technical abilities? Or create situation better as he wished that situation would be better there. It can also be the case when press needed new and unpublished view on famine?
Photography 2:Documentary exercise.
If we start with a word (or several )from the horse’s mouth in a previous reply (above), this issue of ‘imaging famine’ will resolve itself more easily, I think.
“… we as a society have become desensitised to images. You may be interested to know that Oxfam runs a strict photographic policy where our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen. We are not about flies in the eyes of small children. I am glad that you noticed a sense of dignity within these images. These are remarkably resilient people.” (Jo Harrison Oxfam)
The staging of Chaskielberg’s images and their highly saturated colours and perfectly crafted appearance, when seen in the light of the statement above, soothes my wrinkled brow vis-s-vis the loss of authenticity of the situation. They speak of resilience, of tenacity and dignity. They look as if they are being prepared for a First World coffee table market, as were the photos in Selgado’s “Other Americas”. As a body of work, they inform about the agricultural setting, methods and products. As individual portraits, without text, they have a distinct, eerie, if not supernatural atmosphere, taken as they are in full moonlight with added, simulated studio lighting. The challenge for us, eurocentric practitioners of photography is to declutter the lighting and staging techniques to see what the author is really trying to say so that we can, at least, relate to them, at most, admire the ideals of Oxfam. I keep asking the same question Mathew Walsh asks: Are the people mere models posing in an advertising campaign?
Chaskielberg has his own voice and his work is easily identifiable which suggests that he is out to create works of art which speak more about himself than about the subject, as John Mraz highlights in his analysis of the work of Selgado. Mraz suggests that the best photojournalism fuses information and expression, document and symbol to create a metaphor: an image which portrays its signifier clearly but which has a signified which applies to a wider context. We must glean the information from the staged props & I don’t know if I can read what is fact from what is fiction here. The expression is theatrical & the set supernatural. How do we get from the signifier: the posed arrangement of people holding tiny harvests (we have to be told that), to the signified: famine? There is no metaphor that I can see because there is no implied comparison, that I can see. Oxfam is taking a different tack to deliver their message but you have to know what that message is before you look at the images. There is hope & dignity in these images but their staging makes me suspect their veracity.
Rankin’s images are far more accessible to me. His ‘people’ are real and have names. They have a humanity, a history (the roads behind them) and a need( their meagre harvests are very close to us) which certainly connect with me. Their position relative to the viewer makes me relate to them – I can touch them & they have touched me. I have much more credible information here and the expression is not lacking either.
Tom Stoddard takes a different approach because his images do not identify the subjects so they take on a universality while still indexing a specific event. There is information and expression without the need for text. There is a loud invitation to reflect in these images which is perhaps absent in the images of Chaskielberg or Rankin. The subjects in this collection on Sudan are moving metaphors for famine. The image which struck me most was image 8 / 18 of the Sudan portfolio on Stoddard’s website where you have a complete, human life cycle in one tableau and as surely as night follows day, you imagine that the baby about to be born will, unless there is some intervention, follow the emaciated woman lying near him/her. This is a complex image because the health of the mother & her attendant give you the hope that there is a healthy future option too.
This is my response to this thread as part of the Documentary course Project “Documents of conflict and suffering”. The ethics of aesthetics form part of this discussion.
The thread is about the work that Alejandro Chaskielberg has done in the area of Turkana in the Horn of Africa. He has pictured families who have received help from Oxfam in order that the effects of the ongoing drought can be mitigated. His style for these images is unusual in that they are beautifully (if unusually) lit and presented with saturated colours reminiscent of advertising photographs. This is where the aesthetic appears to conflict with the ethical consideration. The question was asked, “Are Chaskielberg’s images too beautiful? Given that we heard from Jo Harrison of Oxfam that “our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen”; I think it is perfectly proper that the aesthetics in this case be allowed to show the positive work that Oxfam are doing to try to prevent another famine. It is not just images of starving children that raise funds and it has been suggested that as a western society, we are inured to such images. There has to be some demonstration of positive outcomes for donors to want to keep giving. They are saying “This is how we are spending your money. Please continue to support us.”
Comparisons were drawn between Chaskielberg’s images and those of Rankin and Stoddard. We need to consider the context in which these images are taken and their ultimate use.
Rankin’s images are no less beautiful and have a more direct impact on the viewer, they are quickly understood and assimilated. Another plus for the communication of the idea that these people are facing hardship and need our help. The same message but more direct. The photographer used his images to illustrate a blog for Oxfam Blog Action Day which put the images firmly in context.
Stoddard’s images of famine in Sudan are of a completely different order. http://www.tomstoddart.com/gallery/sudan-famine They symbolise what the western world thinks a famine in Africa looks like. They are strong, uncompromising and disturbing, exactly what I would expect from one of the world’s leading photojournalists. Are these the kind of images to which we have become inured? I suspect they are.
Documentary exercise (p. 92). After reading all 38 replies and visiting numerous links, my short contribution:
I think Chaskielberg’s photos are too beautiful if taken out of context and without captions.
Imagine the plain photos being hung for instance on a wall of a café. What kind of stories the photos would tell people having a cup of coffee next to them? Not the intended ones.
In context with Oxfam, known for its fight against poverty and human disasters, these photos start to tell more relevant stories. Add captions and I believe everybody gets the message that Oxfam is trying to tell with Chaskielberg’s photographs.
I think Rankin’s photos work quite well without captions and context. But definitely, Stoddard’s photos work well without any captions or context.
Of course the issue of the context in which the images, all images, are viewed is a matter of continued discussion and has been since images started to be taken from their original intended locations and displayed in galleries and museums, usually for ‘their better protection’. John Berger has a lot to say on the subject in “Ways of Seeing”
I have read this blog as part of my Documentary Course.
Of all the entries I think that I have to agree with Richard (506896).
It seems that every day we see images of starving kids in Africa. Flies around their eyes and mothers holding half-starved babies. Some of the charities make us feel guilty if we don’t give them money. The images are forced upon us, no only in printed media but now, more annoyingly, by ‘Chuggers” in the street who stop us on the way to work on the way to the station. They are usually younger people who approach you asking you if you have had a good day, I sometime feel like saying “yes, until you stopped me.”
I, for one, have seen enough of these pictures. As long as these starving people are governed by Governments buying arms and war planes and with Government Ministers (mostly looking like it wouldn’t do them any harm to miss the odd meal) then I will not be made to feel guilty if I don’t give them money.
Better if they showed more of the images that Richard mentions, Look at my family- We had nothing, with a bit of cash we got a cow, now we can feed ourselves using the cow to assist in the growing of crops.
Some things will always be beyond the control of a Government, they can’t do much if it doesn’t rain, but they could use tankers to ship in water.
The problem is people will say I’m being harsh, that may be the case especially if you look at these images:-
I have been looking at images like this for years-what are their own Governments doing to help their own people and so we keep giving and kids keep dying, will it ever end?
The photographs of Alejandro Chaskielberg definitely have a ‘distinctive visual appeal’. His pictures are dreamy and almost surreal. They are highly composed with strikingly vibrant colours exploring the boundaries between fiction and reality. The use of moonlight and artificial light create a beautiful aesthetic drawn from the history of fine arts.
I think Oxfam were brave in choosing a photographer with such a distinct aesthetic style. Why do I say brave? Because his photographs are an obvious departure from the history of conflict/disaster photography. They do not show desperate, naked, starving people begging for food. These pictures are not a brutal frontal assault by a photographer on their dignity during their most vulnerable time. Instead the people in his pictures look dignified, proud even and they are definitely not begging. Why then would we in the West help them? Oxfam is trading on the positivity and hope generated by the pictures of Chaskielberg. It shows people that are not helpless but people that need help in a difficult time. This in way relates to much of the work of the Farm Security Administration who set out to represent (in a positive hopeful way) struggling sharecroppers during the great dust-bowl in the 1930’s. I think that Chaskielberg’s photographs would not work on their own though for the Oxfam campaign and they need to be shown in juxtaposition alongside the work of photographers like Rankin and Stoddard who although still showing the subjects in a dignified way also show them as in need of help (charity) in a more literal way. Rankin’s photographs are still beautiful but they have a brutal honesty about them which is lacking in Chaskielberg’s work. Jose mentions a conflict between ‘the images as visual products and their communication potential’ in Chaskielberg’s photographs. I see this conflict as well and that is why they need to be shown alongside Rankin’s and Stoddard’s more literal imagery.
I think this was the intentional strategy of Oxfam to show photographs with very different stylistic content and when all the photographers work is shown together as a single body of work it is successful in communicating their message.
As Jo from Oxfam commented, compassion fatigue has become an issue for photojournalism in the last decade and showing experimental aesthetic imagery of an already much photographed issue can help spark people into thinking more deeply about the impact of poverty and famine in East Africa.
I think that all of the named photographers and their contributions have a place in the “war” against famine because a variety of different pictures are needed. As mentioned above: Too many too horrible pictures gives compassion fatigue while too many too nice picutres leave the viewer with the question if it really is that bad as everybody says.
A good picture editor and coordinator of media have to use all of the different approaches to show the misery and to get the best out of it.
The lost continent might not be as lost as everybody thinks.
The Ethics of Aesthetics.
I looked at Stoddart’s, Rankin’s and, Chaskielberg’s pictures without reading the text first. I wanted to see what the impact would be without the stories behind them.
The Chaskielberg pictures, except for the colour, could have been taken on some long past Grand Tour. The subjects are posed, the lighting is very controlled, and there is no obvious sign of distress. The only hint of future trouble is the number of children.
Rankin’s pictures are also posed, but are more pointedly carrying a message, although it is only in the repeated use of the handful of maize image that it comes through. The differing camera angles give interest to what could have been a boring set of pictures. There is, however, little in these images to intimate starvation or the need of immediate aid. The people appear well dressed, the children looked nourished, and there is evidence of livestock. Without reading the text there is no immediacy.
Oxfam may not like pictures of fly blown children and stock shots of staving people scrambling for food aid, but the images by Stoddart have the power to move. These are the pictures that the World should be made to look at. To confront people to see what over population, poor governance, and diminishing resources will lead to.
Of the three main pictures in the article the one that conveys the true tragedy of famine is the one by Stoddart. One doesn’t need to see the whole person. These legs alone carry the message of hunger, displacement, despair, and hopelessness.
Photography 2 : Documentary exercise
Agencies such as Oxfam are attempting to use more subtle and aesthetically pleasing imagery to raise awareness of the importance of aid without reducing the subjects to objects of pity. Because there is always a danger of ‘compassion fatigue’ this needs to be balanced against the pressing need for immediate measures and donations. Positive images can be used to show how funds raised help alleviate suffering , which is surely the long term goal of aid agencies .
However I believe Alejandro Chaskielberg’s images for Oxfam , whilst being stunning to view , are perhaps too artistic to communicate the urgent needs of the people he photographed. Amano comments “my unease seems to be a conflict between beauty and the harsh realities of existence” , a feeling I share. Jose notes in his initial blog post “the photographer acknowledges that he likes exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction , which is evident in his images” . Whilst Gareth states “it feels almost like fashion photography and prompts the question ‘why?’ ” he additionally finds Chaskielberg’s unconventional presentation disconcerting.
The photographs are aesthetically pleasing , almost otherworldly , far removed from the more customary imagery of human suffering which can become almost unbearable to view , so can fully understand Oxfam’s rationale to commission a photographer whose approach is what might be considered unorthodox. Yet I feel because of their artistry the serious message being conveyed is lost , the context altered because of their beauty. However Marmalade makes a very valid point ” the very fact Oxfam has commissioned Chaskielberg would suggest that new tactics are indeed necessary to ‘cajole’ us in to action ”
I feel Rankin’s commissioned work for Oxfam uses this new strategy successfully. Like Chaskielberg’s the images are in colour yet Rankin portrays his subjects in a proud but unidealised way. These are neither the people of Chaskielberg’s dream-like images or hopeless victims but fellow humans, ones I feel empathy for without being overwhelmed by a sense of sheer misery.
Rankin discusses his work for Oxfam here:
Tom Stoddard’s B & W images are vastly different to both Rankin’s and Chaskielberg’s . Richard rightly suggests they are ‘the kind of images to which we have become inured’ and I certainly find them shocking (especially image 18 ) . Yet some have a surreal quality ( see images 3 , 7 ) additionally Stoddard uses juxtaposition to great effect ( see images 1, 2, 15 , 17 ) that I feel makes them quite contemporary despite being so hard-hitting.
Firstly I hope that the novel approach used by Oxfam of creating positive images by Rankin and Alejandro Chaskielberg was successful in terms of them gaining additional support by volunteers joining them and increased donations to provide practical help where it is needed. I do not however personally like the images by Chaskielberg and Rankin; the images have a sense of prioritizing aesthetic concerns over informing the viewer of the context and the difficult realities that those in need are subject to.
Of immediate importance to those who NGOs are assisting is practical assistance that has the potential to save their own and their family’s lives. The debate over the correct ethical and aesthetic approach is secondary to this but is still extremely valid.
A lot of references to the concept of compassion fatigue has been made in the above posts and I believe Amano in bringing attention to Susan Sontag’s view on compassion fatigue is very important. Sontag linked the concept of compassion fatigue with photography in her collection of essays On Photography, she however changed her view on this in her later book Regarding the Pain of Others, in which her view is that we have not been numbed by harrowing images and we should also not feel guilty for not being overwhelmed by them. By this time however the concept had become deeply rooted in critical analysis of photography, largely due to Susan Moeller’s book ‘Compassion Fatigue’. David Campbell, one of the authors of the Imaging Famine pamphlet, describes this and provides an extremely good interrogation of the concept of compassion fatigue in his essay ‘The Myth of Compassion Fatigue – The Dream of Photojournalism and the Cultural Anxiety of Images’:
In this essay Campbell primarily argues for the need for greater research into how we react to harrowing images. He does not explicitly state a view in this essay that compassion fatigue is actually a myth but the title of the essay and the arguments he puts forward do certainly lean towards this.
This is a view that I also share, I do not believe that harrowing images do not impact us, we may engage with them in a different manner, compared to generations who were not exposed to photography, out of the necessity to negotiate the omnipresent and complex visual culture that surrounds us. To say that they do not influence our political views and our motivation towards assisting those in need is for me an unfounded assumption and not a fact. An engaging image whether considered negative or positive will have an impact. A stereotypical image will not impact as strongly and without sounding cold some images used by NGOs have in the past and to some extent still are using the stereotypical image of a decontextualized African child in very poor physical health in their publicity campaigns. Campbell provides a very good semiotic analysis of such images in another his essays the ‘The Iconography of Famine’.
Going back to Campbell’s view on the need for further research on how harrowing images affect us, my own suspicion of the outcome of such research would be that some people will be more influenced by positive engaging images and some will be more influenced by negative engaging images.
I believe that instead of compassion fatigue it is actually a fatigue of the stereotypical that has the potential to fail to create attention for NGOs compared to how engaging images or a novel approaches can. This is where the images of Chaskielberg and Rankin become problematic, in one perspective the approach is novel provide a level of dignity to the subjects but from another they bring with them the tropes of fashion photography. With those tropes is the connotation of the fabrication of reality, what is presented in front of the camera is in fact constructed and cannot be fully trusted. Is there an ethical problem with the use of such images by NGOs, if they portray their subjects in a dignified manner and at the same time help in bringing in the means to provide practical support, I think not.
The images that NGOs use however serve a very different purpose to images from photojournalism or documentary photography. NGOs need the ability to provide practical help, for this they require the financial means to so and the access to politically unstable regions of the world to provide that help. It does not serve them well to create a disconnect with those who are more drawn toward positive images by using negative ones, just as they also need to avoid unnecessarily taking a partisan political stance against the actual political causes of famine or starvation which could hinder their access. The media and those involved in documentary visual story telling however have a duty to expose reality whether or not that reality is upsetting but of course in a manner that informs and does not perpetuate stereotypes. This is in terms of how individual’s lives are affected by events such as famine and to inform of the political context of why these events occur.
My own preference for images used by NGOs would be to portray both the positive and negative aspects of reality and to illustrate how donations can have a tangible impact on assisting those in need in a dignified manner. The best example I seen of this is from Médecins Sans Frontières and their photo essay approach such as ‘Alarming malnutrition rates in South Sudan’:
After reading the Blog We AreOCA and viewing Alejandro Chaskielberg’s work for Oxfam I then read through the posts and links on the Blog.
I agree with Gareth that the images are bordering on fashion photography and I think they are more aesthetic than substantial. Are these people models in an advertising campaign asks annag1611. The images seem posed as they would be if the same were asked of a first world family. I believe I saw a post asking if the images were meant to be ironic. If they are, is this the place to display them.
Oxfam are indeed driven by results. Do the images meet their requirements of showing Hope, Dignity and a realisation that Change Can Happen? I felt something else was needed in these images to get the public to engage and perhaps “give”. I am not sure what this should be but that is not my forte. It didn’t inspire me to contribute and this was not due to “compassion fatigue”. Were they a bit too beautiful? Are these images the result of Alejandro Chaskielberg’s background, beliefs, intentions and preconceptions affecting the outcome of the work? Is there a true balance between expression and information?
I particularly like gjcimages comments that he likes truth expressed in a down to earth manner. These images don’t, for me, include these attributes.
What is needed to control some of the issues in overpopulated African countries (not all have these problems) is a cultural change. It’s no good supporting people and reducing infant mortality as well as increasing peoples life-span if the birth rate still soars even more and internal economy can’t keep pace with the growth. Both Lerpy and Jose expand on this very theme. The problem seems to ingrained.
When considering compassion fatigue in particular philoca sums it up as “A fatigue of the stereotypical”. We have seen too much of the same for too long. Change is necessary and some one needs to help Oxfam and others to find the new panacea to increase their revenues and also direct the cash in the most beneficial way. I would suggest attacking cultural change as much as direct support.
A deeper point which I have been ruminating upon is could in some small way compassion fatigue contribute to more violence in our own society. If we add graphic images of atrocities in Africa in the same mix as violent films, graphic TV programmes and video games we end up with a generation unshockable by genuine suffering to which they have become inured.
When I looked at the images by Chaskielberg, I first thought that they were not “real” i.e. completely staged. They do indeed look like fashion sets – the skies are dramatic and appear altered, the colours are highly saturated, people pose or stare into the camera (in most shots). Listening to his talking about his work he explains how he likes to experiment with moonlight and night time photography and that controlling the light is important to him. Often the people in them might otherwise be in bed – in one case someone actually fell asleep during the shoot! Chaskielberg explains that he likes to take normal day time routine and stage it at night. For some shots he uses a 5-10min exposure (and some of the photographs in this series seem to have been taken with a long exposure judging by the streaks of rain or moving skies). This would mean that people are asked to pose without moving.
Clearly for Chaskielberg then, the style or aesthetic is very important – and I am almost tempted to say above content. My first reaction was very definitely that this is exploitation of the people. Making them pose in unusual situations for the benefit of a good photo – how can this be right? How far should a photographer go to meet the criteria set by Oxfam that images must “depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen.”? Rankin’s images on the other hand appear more earthy (use of a more restrictive colur palate). The message is clear in that many of the people are holding a handful of grain. The iconography of mother and child is very prevalent.
So up until this point I was agreeing with most people in the blog that Chaskielberg’s images are “too beautiful” and too stylised. I felt that these were images produced for the gallery wall and not to elicit a compassionate response from the public.
Then, I read the captions. I only did this after I had looked at the work of Rankin and noted the image titles. To be honest in my first review of Chaskielberg’s images I hadn’t actually noticed the words.
But when you read…
” Elisabeth lives with her eight children and supports her family alone since her husband died. She said: “I appreciate pastoralism but animals are not sustainable any more. When there is drought, your animals die and you are left with nothing. If I could make one thing happen it would be to have my own business and earn money.” or;
“John lives near the village of Lomekui by Lake Turkana with his two wives and 10 children. He is traditionally a pastoralist but has found things difficult during the drought. Most of his animals have died, leaving him struggling to feed his family. John received four camels and 20 goats as part of Oxfam’s camel restocking programme. He said: “It is challenging living here with this drought, the livestock don’t produce anything any more and I have very few options. I remember laughing when Oxfam gave me my camels. In the future I want to expand and grow my camels and goats.”
….the images suddenly take on a whole new meaning. These are proud people, who could be full of colour, life and vigour but who are suffering because of drought.
So we are back to the discussion about how important captions are and what happens when image and caption are separated. I am still not wholly convinced by Chaskielberg’s images but I am much less adverse to them than I was initially.
Like the last few additions to this thread, I am contributing here as part of an exercise in section 4 of the Documentary course. My responses to the images are similar to many of those who have gone before me, so I will summarise here and attempt to add any new thoughts of my own.
My one-word initial reaction to Chaskielberg’s work was: “unreal”. This is a little problematic, since I presume the viewer is supposed to recognise it as a ‘real’ scene of real people – as others have noted, the highly stylised aesthetic (and the stiffness of the long-exposure poses) does get in the way of engaging with the content somewhat. It’s a project that works better with the accompanying text.
My first thought on the Rankin portraiture was “dignified”. The concept of the day’s worth of food wasn’t initially clear to me but once I’d absorbed this information, and seen others in the series, the picture acquired a new depth.
Both aesthetics contrast with Stoddard’s more ‘traditional’ approach of showing the horror of famine, albeit in its own stylised way – graphical, minimalist, b&w. My reaction here was something like “heartbreaking”.
The most enlightening contribution to the thread above was from Jo Harrison of Oxfam, who went some way to explain the photographic choices. Oxfam’s stated principles that its photography “must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen” have clearly been enacted by Chaskielberg and Rankin, but I’m still a little unsure of the overall objective. The difference between traditional depictions of famine and these approaches brings into sharp focus the distinction between sympathy and empathy.
The traditional way to encourage donations is to elicit *sympathy* – the subject is ‘othered’, and depicted as a helpless, distorted variant of a human being (as in Stoddard’s image here), and the viewer feels pity and sorrow – leading to donation.
Ofxam seems to be experimenting with evoking *empathy* instead – showing how similar the subjects are to the viewer, not how different. The intended reaction seems to be more like ‘people like me are starving’. There is less urgency, and fewer visual indicators of suffering, making these images easier to ‘like’ than to respond to.
The Mraz reference of the “balance between expression and information” reminded me of John Grierson’s definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”. Famine photography usually tends to downplay the creative and major on the actuality, while here it looks like the photographers are looking to push the boundaries of the creative.
I think the effectiveness of the Oxfam campaigns depend largely on two things: intent, and viewing context. If the intent is to urgently encourage donations, and they are e.g. bus shelter ads – they are too subtle. If the intent is to raise awareness of ongoing issues and how they are being addressed (as implied by Jo Harrison), and the distribution method is, say, magazine articles or an exhibition – then they could be seen to be more successful.
This post is part of the Documentary course. Like many others, I see a conflict between the visual style of Chaskielberg’s photographs and the plight of the subjects. I too feel that the images have an ‘unreal’ quality to them. I feel that this is a good way to arouse the interest of the viewer in the absence of a guilt-induced photograph, but is it as effective?
It was interesting to note the comments from Jo Harrison who works for Oxfam in particular about their strict policy where images ‘must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen’. I think that this is achieved in the work of Stoddard, Rankin and Chaskielberg. But is this enough to get people to engage? It is also interesting to note her views on narrative and that these images only make up part of the story. Perhaps we are placing too much emphasis on the photograph alone. The text/captions really enhanced my experience of Chaskielberg’s images.
The reference to John Mraz’s article on Sebastian Salgado is very apt here. He says that a documentary photograph should try to have a balance between expression and information. The work of Rankin. Chaskielberg and Stoddard in this post highlight just how difficult it is to truly achieve this. It seems that with the exception of Stoddard the other photographers have opted for a more expressive response and this is something that we are not used to. Have they got the balance slightly wrong?
I believe that if the images were produced by the people themselves of a local photographer that the work would be very different. What we are getting here is the view of these photographers working to a very precise brief from Oxfam. We can never truly know how much of this has influenced the final outcomes.
Almost everything there is to say about the images of Chaskielberg has been said in this blog and in the replies to it.
To me most interesting was to find out what the intentions were of Oxfam: “Alejandro’s work for us, depicted a new and very relevant way to tell the story of the people in the HORN and a starting point for discussing the future” (reply of Jo Harrison 27th of January 2012). And the intentions of the photographer: “I would like to break with the idea that a beautiful picture of a hurtful situation detracts from its message or documentary value. My intention is to highlight a hopeful vision of the present, showing people’s strength and to inspire the viewer that a change is possible.” (https://firstperson.oxfamamerica.org/2012/01/alejandro-chaskielbergs-moonlight-photos-too-beautiful/).
When we regard the images as advertising we must ask ourselves do these images motivate us to donate? I think they can. Aesthetics draws our attention and makes us look at the images longer. And if the images are effective (in advertising terms) long enough to get the message through. I think these images are successful in this way.
When we regard the images as documentary we must ask ourselves what story the images tell us. I don’t think (the aesthetics of) the images help to tell the story of the work of Oxfam in the HORN. Instead the images tell a whole different story, especially when we leave out the captions and text. To me these images depict some kind of ghosts or elves who guard the village, fish, carry water and take care of crops and livestock when everybody is asleep at night…
Personally I think Chaskielberg’s work is a refreshing approach to documentary photography. I don’t think it is up to me to decide whether it is too beautiful or not, whether it does justice to the suffering these people go through or whether it is ethical for Oxfam to use such an approach in the first place. It obviously worked in raising a record amount of financial support.
Of course from here the discussion starts about the efficiency and sense of development aid in the first place, with its questions about dependency on aid, the business side of NGOs, how the money is spent and results in the long term.
What I miss in this discussion, is a connection with the West. In order to not be stifled by the images, or be able to make a significant change that goes beyond making a donation, I think photography and maybe campaigns that are targeted at people in the West should focus much more on how all our lives are intertwined through climate change, capitalism and overconsumption in the West. Instead of only focusing on how people in development countries live and suffer, these campaigns should activate the viewers in the West to not only donate money, but take responsibility for the way they live themselves.
For example, next to the daily food ration of an Ethiopian nomad, I would like to see an image of the amount of food we throw away on a daily basis, or the effect of our meat consumption on climate change.
I would like to see images that teach us viewers on how we should make a change, besides just triggering a short lived sympathy of making a donation.
All these approaches are still about ‘us’ and ‘them’, while the problems these people face are a result of how we live, and which we will face as well.
There are so many valid points and arguments within this discussion thread that is would be impossible to comment on all of them within this comment box. I have made a MUCH longer response on my blog which can be read here:
Having read Imaging Famine and completed research into the shifting trends of visual styles, I still am not convinced of either the sensationalist shock value, or the pretty, pretty approach. I hate to admit that I am one of those people who sees yet another appeal image and turns the page without donating or acting to resolve issues in any way, but I am. I have my opinions that something should be done, but on the whole tend to think the answer lies with the politicians and policy makers. Armed with the knowledge that there is a problem I can lobby the correct people to ensure action is taken, therefore I do think images and appropriate information needs to be disseminated.
In Nigeria, due to the rise of Boko Haram and the displacement of much of the population, agricultural production has stalled, sadly after eight years of conflict virtually no one is planting. Instead, families eat their remaining seedlings in order to survive. In September last year (2016) the UN assistant secretary-general, Toby Lanzer, warned that Nigeria faced ‘a famine unlike any we have ever seen anywhere’.
Doing a quick bit of research I found these current links and up-to-date charity campaigns. The first
was interesting as it had both positive and negative images. The current Oxfam page shows women with toddlers on their laps, so much for a different approach several years ago…
The Hunger Project makes no bones about using women. The tag line on the front page reads, ‘Start with women, mobilise everyone, engage government.’
It seems flippant for me to make academic comments, or argue the toss about how these people should be represented when so many are in danger of starving to death at this very moment due to climate change or war. People level criticism at the photographers for winning awards for taking these images yet academics are allowed to gain marks and prestige for writing about them with impunity? It makes me feel a little awkward sitting in my ‘ivory tower’ chomping away on a snack bar, cos I feel a it peckish, and saying ‘hey you shouldn’t show attractive people when portraying a famine, heck its got to be harrowing before I’ll contemplate sending you a few pounds….
Like many others who have commented here, I am doing so as part of my Photography 2, Documentary course and the first thing I would say is that as 52, people have commented before me, there is little new left to say. Secondly, maybe I should have read a little further into the course notes before publishing my last post, as I discussed both Chaskielberg and Rankin’s images, which form the basis of this discussion, there. That said there are some comments I would like to pick up on.
I agree that there is a real tension between the almost surreal beauty of Chaskielberg’s images and the serious message that Oxfam is trying to get across but for me, the very fact that we are debating this, raises awareness, gets us talking and hopefully acting too.
I disagree with the view that there is only one issue and that Oxfam should concentrate on getting food out to the starving. Of course they should but there are a number of different priorities and they are working at different levels; the immediate emergency aid required to feed those dying of starvation but also ongoing support to help people get back on their feet and become self-sufficient again and as Gareth pointed out, raising the profile of women who play a huge part in these communities.
Jose’s points about the Western view of success struck a chord with me. We do seem to set a fairly high bar in terms of what success looks like; 50%, 75%, more? Whereas Jose’s in example, for one village out of say 10 where the water pump is working, this represents total success for that village and the point being, who will support what is publicised as a failed or failing project.
I found the comments made by Jo Harrison from Oxfam very helpful in adding context to their work, particularly this one. ‘I would agree with some of the points raised that we as a society have become desensitised to images. You may be interested to know that Oxfam runs a strict photographic policy where our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen. We are not about flies in the eyes of small children. I am glad that you noticed a sense of dignity within these images. These are remarkably resilient people’ (Jo Harrison, Oxfam, 2012) This last point was picked up again by Edith ‘These are not helpless people, but they need help at this moment’. (Edith, 2012) For me, this is one of the key messages that come out of this piece, these are proud people, they have already suffered terribly and are now trying to move on and need some help in doing so.
Another point which I think has been missed but that I picked up from researching Oxfam for my last blog post, is that it seems clear to me that Oxfam target different groups with different campaigns. Chaskielberg’s Turkana images formed the basis of an exhibition at the Oxo Tower in London in 2012 and I would suggest that the people who would donate as a result of having attended an exhibition would be different from those who would pledge £10 following a charity TV programme. Furthermore, the information about the Turkana project comes under the heading ‘philanthropy’ on the Oxfam website and the suggested sums for donation are £1000, £5,000 and £10,000 as opposed to the £35, £60 and £100 on the normal donation page. So, when asked whether these more aesthetically pleasing images are likely to disengage the viewer, I would respond probably yes, some viewers will be put off by them. However if Oxfam’s aim for this project is to promote longer term benefits and courses of action, then they need to engage with a different target audience and in particular the business community and I think that these images are more likely to do that than those of emaciated children with flies in their eyes.
As number 55 on the comments list there is an element of being at a time of post discussion now. Perhaps this is a fatigue status much like war photography itself to reenergise the genre by doing or saying something different.
So I’m breaking down three clear approaches to aesthetics and briefings.
Firstly I look at Rankin and Chaskielberg in a similar way to the Eight Ways to Change the World projects discussed in part three. This era is much more commercially and brief orientated. Commercial photographers with distinct visual styles being asked to come in and art direct a campaign. Organisations such as Oxfam are indeed run like businesses these days and need imagery to support their agenda. My issue here is that while the images are much more glossy, indeed arty, they are essentially subordinates to brand message, indeed without the captioning they tell no story in image.
Distracted by the link to the Burtynsky Oil exhibition visit I went on to read this discussion as a companion piece as it also has a dilemma of aesthetics. https://weareoca.com/subject/photography/burtynsky-oil-oca-study-visit/
Ed Burtynsky is a photographer who’s work I find visually engaging (apart from his conversion to digital where the post processing is being over used to compensate for the lack of a film flavour to the images). He is more in the fine art world of publication. His process is laborious, engaging in protracted dialogue to be allowed consent and access to various sites. His Oil project involves being allowed on site to photograph industry he is critiquing. I find much of Burtynsky’s approach more relatable ethically. But I agree also with a point made Jose that purchasing a £2,500 print of Burtynsky off a white wall could be perceived as fetishising. And is that commerce actually going towards change or just sustaining Burtynsky and the gallery?
Lastly Sebastião Salgado is mentioned in this thread. When Mraz says that a documentary photograph should try to have a balance between expression and information it has relevance to Salgado’s process. He is engaged in the photo essay. His images are visually arresting while showing behind the curtain to a greater degree than what we receive from Rankin and Chaskielberg. But to what end? Salgado, Don McCullin, Nick Ut become characters within the story they are telling. Retrospectively acknowledged. In Nick Ut’s case sensationalised as the photographer who ended the Vietnam war.
So what is the expression and information we are being presented by Chaskielberg?
Is the expression a positive one? And the information we are to believe that Oxfam is engaged with the people in the images? In both cases there is a strong case to say yes.
Although that is ultimately a managed outcome of the marketing campaign.
Each approach and forum has its focus on aesthetics and is subject to ethical questions. No direction is definitive but perhaps as individuals we have a preference. This is important to me because I believe firstly a photographers role is as a visual communicator and secondly it is clear that in all examples the photographer wanted to photograph the topics they did.
I am commenting here as part of my Photography 2: Documentary course.
This is a very topical disccussion, given the recent furore about the behaviour of Oxfam staff. In 2012, Amano asked “What about photos of Oxfam? People who work for it etc Turn the eye inwards for a change and show us how our money gets to where it is going.”
There is an added poignancy to that question now. But even though the sexual misdemeanours of Oxfam staff have only recently been revealed, the issue fits within the longer term concern expressed by Amano (25 Jan 2012) and felt by many about how large charities spend the money they raise.
What does this have to do with Chaskielberg’s photographs? Well, he was presumably paid to take them so it is reasonable to ask if the cost was justified. Oxfam’s ultimate justification is presumably that it helps them to raise funds, by way of grabbing the public’s attention and raising awareness of the situation they are trying to address.
But that a question of ethics, not of aesthetics, and so would apply to any photographer commissioned by Oxfam. What of Chaskielberg’s photographs in particular?
Why photographs by moonlight? Clearly this is Chaskielberg’s usual modus operandi, so the decision toapply this approach to this campaign is Oxfam’s rather than the photographer’s. On the surface it could be that a different visualisation of a sadly common subject – famine victims – was intended to arrest the viewer’s attention. This must be a constant goal of charities competing to capture a sufficient fraction of decreasing attention spans to stimulate a financial response. Straight away there is a different look to these images from the more usual ones lit by harsh sunlight. There must be a hope that this hook will cause the viewer to linger and to read the associated text. That effect alone is presumably considered a success.
“The Chaskielberg photos demand attention because of their surprise… I assume the purpose is to draw attention to their plight by more subtle means, and that aim is achieved” says Brian (25 Jan 2012)
“…are we desensitised to the images we see or have we just stopped looking?” Asks marmalade (25 Jan 2012)
But there could be a subtext too. We are used to seeing victims of drought depicted der a burning sun, evidence of the harsh conditions which have caused the disaster. We see the environment first, and then the people. Seeing them by moonlight, and posed as if in a Victorian photograph, we are reminded that these are first and foremost people like us. They have lives to lead, the days come and go for them as they do for us, their struggle is a continuous one.
“This family is just as my family… That is the reason I am more inclined to donate to Oxfam by looking at these pictures, just because they show humanity and emotion.” (Edith Jungslager 27 Jan 2012)
Rob Townsend (25 Sep 2016) picks up on this theme: “Oxfam seems to be experimenting with evoking *empathy* instead – showing how similar the subjects are to the viewer, not how different.“
What of the ethics of presenting the subjects in such an aesthetically appealing way? Does this ethically devalue Chaskielberg’s photographs compared to Rankin’s more straightforward images? I agree with those who said the images made them feel uncomfortable. They create a vague feeling that they might be somehow exploitative. Are these people being used to bolster the photographer’s reputation by producing artistically pleasing images?
As is often the case, I suspect the answer lies in how the photographs are used – in what context they are presented. This was recognised by several commenters, such as Vesa Karhila (1 Sep 2015): “I think Chaskielberg’s photos are too beautiful if taken out of context and without captions.
Imagine the plain photos being hung for instance on a wall of a café. What kind of stories the photos would tell people having a cup of coffee next to them? Not the intended ones.
In context with Oxfam, known for its fight against poverty and human disasters, these photos start to tell more relevant stories.”
An interesting insight into how much attention we pay to images of famine and disaster is provided by gjcimages (28 Oct 2015). “It seems that every day we see images of starving kids in Africa. Flies around their eyes and mothers holding half-starved babies.” in fact, I recently searched the websites of five top humanitarian aid organisations and I found no images of this type. Nor, with only one exception, did I find such images on the websites of any of the UK national daily newspapers, Of course, that’s not a comprehensive survey and there are other places we might see such images, and this comment was written in 2015, but I get the impression that all the major charities have taken heed of the risk of compassion fatigue and the images they employ have become more positive. I wonder if gicimages was actually seeing this kind of image everywhere in 2015 or if inadvertently s(he) had stopped looking. The website gicimages refers to is that of an individual, not a charity. The images there are given no context, not even date and location, and are not clearly attributed. So these archetypal images of starvation in Africa are not as ubiquitous as gicimages suggests..
Jane (25 Sep 2016) is almost alone In questioning the impact of a Chaskielberg‘s working method on the actual subjects of his photographs: “My first reaction was very definitely that this is exploitation of the people. Making them pose in unusual situations for the benefit of a good photo – how can this be right?” Although she tempers this opinion have read more of the accompanying text, it is a fair point. It’s all very well creating aesthetically pleasing images to capture the attention of the Western middle classes, but we might ask if Chaskielberg“s subjects being used as unpaid models to grace his portfolio.
Is it right to use Chaskielberg‘s “beautiful” images to depict human disaster? Anne Bryson (3 Sep 2017) might have located Oxfam’s justification for this: “the Turkana project comes under the heading ‘philanthropy’ on the Oxfam website and the suggested sums for donation are £1000, £5,000 and £10,000 as opposed to the £35, £60 and £100 on the normal donation page.” So the ethical justification for the aesthetic approach of Chaskielberg‘s photographs might be the capturing of larger donations from an affluent, art-appreciating middle class. Horses for courses.
I am leaving this comment for the exercise in the documentary photography course. The intitial blog post and subsequent responses made for a very interesting read, and many people’s comments echoed my own thoughts on the matter. In recent weeks I have been giving more thought to the ‘ethics of aesthetics’, and whether images that are ‘too beautiful’ move the focus from the subject and onto the medium (Sontag). The three photographers that are the focus of this discussion (Stoddard, Rankin, and Chaskielberg) take remarkably different approaches to essentially the same subject matter. I will say straight away that I don’t find Chaskielberg’s approach appealing; it feels far too artificial and overly processed, cliches often found in amateur landscape photography. The images look like stills from a theatre production, and the stiffness of the people neccessitated by the long exposures result in images that could be of an anthropological display in a museum. When this approach is used in a documentary project it certainly generates discussion, but I’d say a discussion about the wrong thing. We are all talking a lot about whether Chaskielberg’s aesthetic style is appropriate per the subject matter, and a lot less about the actual issue at hand.
With regards to Rankin’s images, these are clearly less overt stylistically than Chaskielberg’s, but the posing of the subjects again make the images feel forced, and less ‘real’. I suppose this is a personal observation, and people may disagree. Stoddard’s images of the famine in Sudan are explicit, brutal, and frankly hard to view. Perhaps we in the West who are accustomed to an excess of everything should be looking at images such as these, but certainly from my own perspective the problems these kind of images generate are three-fold: 1) As philoca put very well: ‘I believe that instead of compassion fatigue it is actually a fatigue of the stereotypical’. Over several decades we are well aware of images such as these, although personally I don’t find them any easier to look at. 2) The images are so devastating that I am imbued with a sense of helplessness. The people depicted are so malnourished, their plight so far along the road, that there’s nothing I can do to help those individuals. 3) The people in the images are simply representative of those ‘type’ of people. On Stoddart’s own website, the people in the images are not named. The image showing the extremely emaciated legs in the background crops out the top half of the person, along with their identity. To make those depicted anonymous, I believe simply reduces them to an anthropologial ‘type’, and creates further distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
I’d like to offer a fourth body of images, that of Alex Masi, specifically his project ‘INDIA: Poonam’s Tale of Hope’. https://alexmasi.photoshelter.com/portfolio/G0000xoBr93N8sNY. These images of a family in poverty (each of them named), show them with great dignity, while also depicting their plight. On the back of an image he took of six year old Poonam, Masi was awarded a grant of $5000 which he directly used to build the family a new brick house (to replace their crumbling home made of soil and manure), install a bathroom with a septic tank, buy the father a cart from which he could sell vegetables (which doubled his previous income), and buy one of his daughters a sewing machine, with which she could help to support the family. As a viewer, we are invited to meet specific individuals, in a specific circumstance, and we can see how a cash grant has directly benefited the family. We can also see where improvements are still needed (in one image, Poonam is shown in her classroom, eager to learn, which has a corrugated tin roof and no tables and chairs). The images are aesthetically pleasing enough to draw and retain attention without stealing focus. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of, and ties in with Jose’s comment that ‘success in developing countries, in my experience, always manifests itself at a very small, often individual scale’.
I too am writing my comment to fulfill the obligation of doing so for the Documentary course and my views echo many of those that have gone before.
I don’t believe that there is any right or wrong way to image the famine situation in Africa., and it is Africa where the four regions most affected in the world at this present time are, so the stereotypical idea of Africa engendered throughout the 1980’s is not, in my oponion, wrong. No matter how much money is thrown at this issue, until such time as local political stability and ownership of the situation is obtained then famine, over-population and continued hand-wringing in the West will continue.
As to the way the photographers have approached their brief; each has done so in the style that was expected of them by the commissioning body and only they can decide if what the images portray is what they wanted and expected. As a consumer of imagery, and a potential donor, I find that Chaskielberg’s approach has the least profound effect on me and I would have passed them by under normal circumstances as well executed and inimical tourist photographs. Clearly that is not what was intended from them, but I get the impression that the subscribers to this feed all feel, in some way, that there is a lack of connection with the dire situation and what is portrayed.
The combination photographing via a photographic commission and the adoption of visual skills within the fashion industry make for an interesting exercise, but not necesarily an accurate documentary image. It feels a little forced with visually styled duplication of body language and an air of complicity. With that in mind, I have no doubt that the photography provided oxfam with a name to put to the exercise to an aesthetically pleasing campaign.
I often feel that many charities based in Africa are challenged for their marketing and yet I can think of varying degree of styles and aesthetics they have displayed to raise awarenes and gain funds. Using Rankin to promote a cause has a number of consiquences. The outcomes are difficult to measure, although the use of a publicised photographic heavyweight will by the name alone provide didvdends.
Even as a charity, campaigns are there to attract and are measured by how they are received, whilst there is also something admirable about trying to raise the dignity of the subjects. With this in mind I find the photography provides a compassionate tone and moments where Rankins empathy comes through.
Personally, I find the photography of Tom Stoddrad aesthetically provides greater depth and less manipulation whilst the grapic interpretation fosters a degree of understanding to a difficult situation. Rankin appears to be transposing skills he has from one area to another, which may well be aesthetic approach Oxfam were looking for at the time..
I have a real issue with the so-called justification of aesthetic images of hardship in any form. I am fully aware of the way Salgado has funded a factory to provide prosthetic limbs for children mutilated by land mines but it is hard to consider him a “humanitarian photographer” when his explanation of his (beautifully focussed and lit) images of people near death through starvation is ” I don’t photograph misery. Just people who don’t have material goods or food”. What the hell does that mean? Surely people in this situation are in misery?
Equally, I find Chaskielberg’s images self indulgent. Isn’t moonlight for romance rather than misery?
The hiring of Rankin is also strange as he is the highest paid photographer in the UK. Does this underline the concerns of how charities and particularly Oxfam spend donors’ money. I doubt whether a cost/benefit analysis was done to justify the fees of these two.
It seems that Oxfam’s own ethics in engaging Chaskielberg and Rankin are as suspect as their own controls on the behaviour of its people.
I often quote Sontag’s view on photographing atrocity (and famine is that!) – ” For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance. Pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being “properly” lighted and composed……..”
Oxfam needs to take a leaf out of the books of Comic Relief and Sport Relief who focus their fund raising on demonstrating outcomes – “this is how we spend the money and this is the benefit of what your money does”
I find it fascinating that the Turkana photographs of Alejandro Chaskielberg can be lamented as ‘too beautiful’ and ‘not real’ when the black and white images of famine in Sudan by Tom Stoddart are at least as constructed, if not more so – the only difference is that Stoddart’s austere black and white is the accepted ‘language’ of serious documentary. Could an explanation of the responses shared by many to the work be that the uncomfortable feeling they experience and concerns about ethics are more about their personal unease about how these images make them feel?
An example of a photographer that deliberately uses a strategy of aesthetic beauty in his work is Simon Norfolk. Norfolk was initially a ‘traditional’ photojournalist working in 35mm black and white. He is someone who is politically engaged and has chosen to work outside the traditional media, funding his practice through print sales. He would now call himself a landscape photographer who uses beautiful imagery as a “tactical approach” to reach a wider audience. For example, his image of the North Gate of Baghdad in 2003 is reminiscent of Corot or Pissarro, the beauty of the photograph disarms the viewer and it is only when they look closely at the detail, tanks in the background for example, they realise this is a place of violence. Norfolk describes this as creating a full stop or pause, it is a way of drawing in the viewer by seducing them into a place where a conversation can take place.
The North Gate of Baghdad, the scene of fierce fighting. Baghdad 19-27 April 2003
Interview with Simon Norfolk: Photographer Simon Norfolk on his battlespace and technology pictures. SmartMonkeyTV, 24th June 2012
When we accept that NGOs are in the business of raising as much money as possible, it seems logical that they would use the strategies employed by advertising. Is it that much of a stretch to then think of these images as propaganda? Why is it possible to separate the ideological intent of media outlets while those of NGOs are less easy to identify? I find the comments made by Jo Harrison from Oxfam in the thread fascinating, particularly these:
“Oxfam runs a strict photographic policy where our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen. We are not about flies in the eyes of small children.”
These comments make it clear that the intention is never about objective photographic truth (if such a thing ever existed) and I welcome the conscious move away from stereotypical images of famine (“flies in the eyes of small children”.) However, for me these images still reduce a complex and multi faceted issue to a simplification – and that is the heart of the matter. I see no moral problem with the use of Chaskielberg’s images for this campaign, if anything, that they are aesthetically beautiful is a benefit. My concern is wider and represents a trend that difficult problems in world affairs have to be reduced to simple narratives in order to be understood by a western audience.
I’m commenting as part of an exercise in Photography 2: Documentary.
The first thing that strikes me when I see Chaskielberg’s images is their beauty. The images are calm and dreamy, people happy and proud. There is a staged and posed quality that seem to remove them from reality, a reality of draught and famine. I imagine that if I would go to Turkana, reality would feel different than how Alejandro Chaskielberg portraits it. I feel the disconnection between the subject and the viewer that Anna Kramer talks about and is created through the long exposures that require the subjects to keep their poses for several minutes, rendering them stiff and passive. I’m reposting the link;
I also believe the photographic style should adapt with a new narrative. Chaskielberg has used the same style before. I ask myself how he would have captured the famine in Sudan had he been in the same region as Tom Stoddart? Depicting that level of human crisis with his trademark style would have been tasteless.
Rankin’s images are beautiful and have dignity. The captions are short but powerful, they lift the image and engages the viewer. There is a balance between expression and information.
Stoddart’s images of the famine in Sudan are hard to watch. They are incredibly strong, leaving me feeling sad and urging me to act. Describing them as beautiful seems inappropriate when people are going through hell.. In the middle of all the misery and death, there was a moving image of two children embracing and smiling. From hopelessness to an image of love, hope and dignity. An image that I can relate to and connect with. I realised how powerful this combination of images are and I agree with Philoca that a combination of positive and negative images are ideal.
I don’t mind a beautiful image that grabs attention but like others here have already mentioned; there must be a balance between expression and information. I fail to see that the people in Chaskielberg’s images need my help. These images are better suited for existing donors to see that their money is making a change. For new donors, I think Rankin’s and Tom Stoddart’s approach is more effective.
Jose’s original post that was uploaded some 7 (!) years ago has generated an interesting forum discussion, which in itself offers plenty of food for thought. Reflecting on the previous comments it seems that there are things that we all tend to agree on, for example that the ethics and aesthetics of an image are intimately connected. Yet, there is a huge variety of differences in opinion where the aesthetic and more traditional documentary approaches come in contact. I think this diversity of views mirrors the wider conversations outside of OCA on the challenges of representations and the place of aesthetics in documentary.
Despite many differing opinions, there is a shared feeling of unease and confusion that arises from looking at the images that aestheticise suffering. It seems hard to know how to feel about the appearance of such images, the ways they were created or the messages they contain. There seems to be an imbalance between the content and the visual presentation. For many, what is shown on the surface seems to overwhelm the senses and get in the way of the substance (as pointed out by Anned, Currie Hannah and others). Do these feelings indicate the tensions between the aesthetics and humane? And do some photographers intentionally emphasise such tensions to make us stop and to encourage a more thoughtful reflection? The aftermath landscape photographers is an example of such practice and Simon Norfolk was acknowledged in an earlier post (by M. Millmore) for his deliberate use of aesthetic beauty. Sarah James highlighted the strengths of such approach in her “Making an ugly world beautiful?” essay, “heightening the aesthetic and artistic status of the photograph enables a withdrawal from the medium’s purely documentary function, and consequently an unburdening of the image from photojournalism’s truth claims.”
There is a difference between the works of the aftermath photographers and the images by Chaskielberg, Stoddart and Rankin that are discussed here. Whilst the former are largely devoid of human presence, the latter are people-focussed. The choice to focus on people comes with further challenges and responsibilities. First of all, there are inherent challenges associated with representing someone else, especially if it is a person in need. David Levi Strauss wrote about this in “Between the Eyes”, “it is unseemly to look right into the face of hunger, and then to represent it in a way that compels others to look right into it as well.” He urges us to question who has the right to represent anyone else or their story. He reminds us that in essence, “to represent is to aestheticise; that is, to transform” and that among the numerous creative choices that belong to us as photographers who chose to represent someone else, there isn’t a choice not to change, alter or transform (and consequently, not to aestheticise!). I found this reminder helpful when comparing the works of Stoddart, Rankin and Chaskielberg. As Michael Millmore pointed out, Tom Stoddart’s images are at least as constructed as Alejandro Chaskielberg’s.
So, how to deal with the challenges of representation in this context?
David Levi Strauss suggested that “every photograph of this kind must be a negotiation, a complex act of communication.” I agree. Whether a photographer follows their own or someone else’s brief, it is their responsibility to adhere to ethical practice. Perhaps the sense of imbalance between the content and presentation arises when this kind of negotiation doesn’t happen.
Rob Townsend’s comments on empathy add an interesting dimension to the discussion. Empathy and ethics were the focus of Havlin’s article Empathy and Photography published by Magnum Photos. The article was based on Magnum Now Barbican discussion attended by Olivia Arthur, Colin Pantall and some speakers from the leading charities. The discussion highlighted the modern paradox of storytelling that more stories doesn’t mean more empathy. It was noted that in the old time the stories were mostly created and transmitted from one person to many whilst in the modern days there are many more people who create and curate stories and as a result there are many more stories in the public domain. As Jess Crombie (Save the Children) put it, we are storytellers and we don’t accept stories as easily. Additionally, having to deal with large volumes of highly edited and curated content doesn’t help the viewer to develop an emotional connection with an image, let alone establish a trusty relationship with the media. So, what were the recommended solutions? The participants of the Magnum Now discussion suggested portraying ‘honesty in mundanity’, showing the real life as it is with all its complexities, and as far as possible listening to and collaborating with people who are being photographed, which back up the suggestion by David Levi Strauss.
I agree with M. Millmore that simplification is part of the problem. Media reports tend to present hunger and poverty as something homogenous, yet it is more often a complex collision of political, economic and societal issues that require complex solutions. There is no simple solution to this issue though perhaps a multi-media approach could help to create a more balanced and fair report.
Finally I think it is really important to test any ideas on ourselves first. Can we imagine documenting hunger and poverty in our country and on our own street in the same ways as we may plan to do in a different part of the world? What would our neighbour or our relative feel or say about it? Perhaps if we start exploring these important ethical dimensions of documentary practice closer to home, there is a stronger chance of developing some sensitive and suitable working practices? Looking into the reasons behind our creative decisions and asking ourselves why we’ve done things in a certain way, as Gareth suggested, could be a helpful approach in this process. As Jose commented, a healthy reflexive practice helps to become aware of how our cultural backgrounds, biases and preconceptions may affect the outcomes of our work. All of this doesn’t mean that we stop experimenting and trying new ways. After all, as Brecht said, “defeats should be acknowledged; but one should never conclude from them that there should be no more struggles.”
As others have indicated, responding to this thread after some seven years provides a challenge to find anything fresh to say. I found it interesting to read the comments, especially the different perceptions on Chaskielberg’s work and how it contrasts with Stoddard and Rankin.
I especially agree with what has been highlighted about the strong sense of dignity in Rankin’s work and how dignity also comes – very differently- along with a strong sense of the unreal in Chaskielberg’s. I found this to be curiously compelling and made me look closer at the work – a shrewd antidote for compassion fatigue, perhaps?
What really stands out for me in his chosen aesthetic is how Chaskielberg chooses create a twilight effect by shooting at night with artificially lit subjects against a deep navy sky. For me this time represents neither day nor night, it’s something transient in between these two states. Unfortunately this feels like a metaphor for these peoples’ situation: still alive but not able to live fully.
I’m responding to this article as part of an exercise in the Documentary course. I’m number 65 in the long list of commentators and after reading seven year’s worth of replies am now suffering from “comment fatigue”. I’m finding it rather difficult to add anything new to this discussion. The links to the images referenced in the blog post were also broken. Like AnneB I commented on Rankin and Chaskielberg’s work in a previous exercise, so this exercise feels a bit repetitive. I come from Africa (South Africa to be specific) and so might understand the general African politics and cultures better than most in the West here on this post so some of my commentary may be construed as being non-PC . I agree with gjcimages and Eddy Lerp in that a lot of these famine situations are down to mismanagement by governments, both at the national and local levels. Unfortunately corruption is very rife in Africa and leaders (and businessmen) prefer to line their own pockets with appropriated funds, rather than distribute those funds where they should be allocated – just see this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983%E2%80%931985_famine_in_Ethiopia. Details about the Ethiopian famine can be read in Peter Gill’s book: Famine and Foreigners Ethiopia Since LiveAid (https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/file%20uploads%20/peter_gill_famine_and_foreigners_ethiopia_sincebook4you.pdf). Anna Sellen brought up an interesting Magnum article (https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/empathy-photography/) which I managed to track down and will put on my reading list.
As I mentioned in my previous post on Rankin and Chaskielberg, I found a total disconnect with Chaskielberg’s photos. Yes, they are beautiful, but they come across as unnatural for all the reasons previously mentioned by other commentators: long exposure, stiff stances, unfamiliar African skies. By choosing to shoot in the moonlight, he is actually romanticising the situation. The African sun is harsh, relentless and stark and this is reflected in the natural vegetation as well (dry savannah grasses, thorn trees, etc). By making his photos at night, Chaskielberg has hidden these important environmental aspects from the viewer, creating surreal depictions of Africanized-modern-day-Victorian portraits. I did find Rankin’s images (https://rankinphoto.co.uk/portfolio-documentary/#/pic0) to be more honest, but still found them glamourized, especially when I looked at his Oxfam Congo portraits which he has taken in a studio portraiture style, complete with white seamless backgrounds. These photos could be for a fashion magazine shoot (more so than the Oxfam Kenya portraits). Perhaps there is a trend developing to portray suffering in a “politically correct” way? David Levi Strauss (2007) (https://www.bookforum.com/print/1402/-258) correctly states that “One needs first to feel the pain of others before one can begin to act to alleviate it. And one of the ways humans recognize the pain of others is by seeing it, in images”. The test to act upon these three photographers’ images would probably be one’s willingness to donate money to the respective charities. Chaskielberg’s images would get a “no” vote from me, Rankin’s a “maybe” while Tom Stoddart’s a definite “yes”.
As with the last few posts my comment is in response to an exercise in a course.
For me the issue is not to do with the style of imagery its to do with the intended purpose. Firstly I am going to ignore the argument about intent from Oxfams side as I would hope that the photographs were done to elicit change in the area and help the people photographed and not for any business gains. We are also not aware of the conversation between photographer and organiser of these photographs so its hard to say what if any instructions either photographer got beforehand, Lastly I would guess Oxfam chose each photographer for their styles based on previous work and its likely they wanted a contrast in styles to give more chance of success.
So without knowing the back story the most important thing is did they evoke change? On .chaskielberg.com his official website it states ‘Thanks to this project photographed by Chaskielberg, Oxfam GB received donations of 150 thousands pounds to continue working in Turkana for three more years.” If that is true, then its job well done on his part.
So in cases where photographs are trying to get results, in this case eyes on an issue resulting in money there work should be judged more on the results than anything unless their distasteful which both are not. If these photographs are just personal works then the story could be completely different.
It has taken me two hours to read all the seven-years of blog posts here, and I still cannot reconcile the words ‘Rankin’ and ‘Oxfam’ together in the same sentence. In Rankins 2014 ‘Celebrities and Actors’ shoot for Oxfam, former Pussycat Doll Scherzinger said,” It’s positive and creates the feeling that people have and can really make a difference with just a small donation, helping people lift themselves out of poverty and changing their lives for good.”(Evening Standard, H. Duncanson,10 March 2014.). Forgive my cynicism, but changing their lives for good?
For my previous exercise post on The Ethics of Aesthetics, I interviewed a senior figure in the world of NGO’s. In that exchange, my contact described who and what decides on how images should be shot and to the best effect for gaining an audience’s attention – and therefore charitable donation. My NGO contact also describes “the people behind the images who have lives, families and expectations, but represented as ‘famine’ imagery fodder to raise money.”
If we are, as Scherzinger says, “changing their lives for good” then photography and imagery play just one small part and the case for, as many have commented, with compassion fatigue, etc., is weak both aesthetically and morally.
Continuing on with the above theme, I see that there are various ways of observing the work portrayed by the said photographers. Firstly the images are subject specific i.e not all situations here are trying to depict or save people from famine (so its seems to me) as we see clearly that people in the images are not always subject to that kind of abject poverty or social demise. So, it appears to me that there are different intentions within the remit of the photographers work: raising awareness, encouraging support, and perhaps voluntary participation.
The next thing that occurs to me is that we live in a time when social and political views have changed considerably thus peoples’ sensibilities are at times trained towards the sentimental end of the scale. What I mean by this is that we do not like to see suffering as it is, it now puts us of (so called compassion fatigue and it grates perhaps with contemporary narratives that we should all have what we need and be materially satisfied). But the reality, wether photographed or not, still exists for the people experiencing it. So do we then present a photo of people that are reasonably content and with their basic needs met to talk about and discuss extreme poverty (not illustrated in the photos) but insinuated or do we simply make images like carter of the ‘bang bang club’ and later have people ridicule and criticise us for not helping the subjects that were so obviously in need in that moment of something to alleviate their pain? I find this a dilemma that has no easy answer, as a photographer. I do not believe that there is a breaching of morality to depict overt suffering if the photographer’s intention is to move people to help. And I also think that some skilful aesthetic photography again if used to the above end, is not necessarily immoral if the intention is to…move people to help.
As a final comment, it would also seem useful for the subjects to see themselves photographed at least sometimes, from a more empowered position, and not just the visual specimens of our Western gaze.
After 68 previous replies it is almost certain that I won’t come up with anything that hasn’t already been said. Jose’s original post concentrated on reactions to the projects by the two photographers in purely photographic terms; are they aesthetically satisfying as pure photographic works? I find a couple of reactions from later respondents particularly relevant here. Marmalade (Jan 2012) said ‘the very fact Oxfam has commissioned Chaskielberg would suggest that new tactics are indeed necessary to ‘cajole’ us in to action’, and Philoca (Feb 2016) said ‘The images that NGOs use however serve a very different purpose to images from photojournalism or documentary photography.‘ These two comments sum up my issue with the original post, that treating these as pure art doesn’t work anyway. To different degrees both Chaskielberg and Rankin have manipulated their subjects and locations to tell the story they wanted to tell, and both lose a lot in naturalness as a result (Chaskielberg loses more than Rankin but so what?). Given the purpose for which they were intended though surely any discussion of aesthetic responses to these works is irrelevant if they do produced the result that Oxfam wanted?
In both projects the subjects were involved in the staging, so it seems a fair assumption that they were largely in agreement with what the photographer intended. Jo Harrison (Jan 2012) said that Oxfam’s photographic policy must ‘depict hope, dignity, and a realisation that change can happen’. That both works were produced for Oxfam makes it possible to differentiate them on those grounds. Rather than Jose’s coments about a connection in Rankin’s work that is missing in Chaskielberg, the real differentiator is surely which one had more effect on Oxfam’s fund raising?
Lloyd Spencer on 24th January 2012 states ‘the poor – the tribal, subsistence agriculture poor – are always with us’ and this is something I have seen throughout this module.
Gareth’s initial response of unease (on 24th January 2012) finds the Chaskielberg ‘approach is unsettling’ and matched by Amano. This unease seems to have been brought about by the conflict these photographs generate in the viewer and may raise more questions than they answer. One question of course is in the role of Oxfam in ‘what are they doing to really relieve suffering?’
Jose rightly comments on the Western view of success and failure and how success is measured differently from developing countries. Even small successes are successes. Who will invest in the failures? For individuals, and small groups of individuals there is success but perhaps there can’t be success for everyone at once. These interventions take time and through these photographs we can see not just the ever-present issues but also the pockets of success.
Stephanie on January 2012 finds Tom Stoddart’s image ‘haunting and penetrating’ sharing with us the pain and suffering that is happening. Rankin’s is ‘stunningly beautiful, dignified and empowering’ showing us perhaps the success of the work of Oxfam. It is still a true and honest image. Surely the purpose of any photograph that Oxfam would commission is to the message that it delivers. Oxfam require money from you to continue their work in alleviating the suffering of others. Which photograph is most likely to make you do that? In my case I would have to vote for the image by Tom Stoddart. I find that particular image (to me personally) to be more a picture of need than say the Chaskielberg photographs.
The danger is that the drive is not just to get aid to the victims but also to influence a cultural change Lerpy 25th January 2012. Perhaps the photographs by Chaskielberg do more about this, as the target audience may be different. Jo Harrison, who works for Oxfam (or did in 2012) mentions that these situations ‘drop off the news agenda’ (Jan 2012) as we are desensitized to images. She also mentions the strict photography policy that Oxfam runs where the people requiring our aid are depicted in a hopeful and dignified light.
Edith Jungslager states on 27th January 2012 that these people are ‘just as human as I am, or you’ and for me that is what is required in the photograph.
I understand the approach of things we can’t see but perhaps what we are seeing here is one of the successes. We are perhaps being shown what the difference our money makes.
In that case I feel good about this instead of guilt and I personally would be more inclined to give. Oxfam of course is not just about feeding the starving. There are all manner of relief options they do and they are providing the means for these individuals to improve their lives through necessary commodities, food being only one.
My question in regard to Chaskielberg’s photographs is whether these images convey the story needing told?
Blog Number 71 – Not sure why I need to read seventy comments before I write my comment, the exercise has no baring if we are all just saying the same thing in a different way.
I will write my comments and summaries the key points of the discussion.
Photography can be about the photographer or the subject oe a mixture of both. Alejandro Chaskielberg discusses his imagery like an art director, seemly more interested in the final product and the people are just props. Rankin photographs the famine in east Africa are classic NGO images, hands out showing the food been given or what’s left. These images look like a brief is being met, the photographer has been selected due to the fact his image style fits with the campaign.
Over time we judge campaigns and compare the past with today, the difference is today is different to yesterday. Like fashions our ethics and views are being modelled by societies values and the photographer, editors and publishers have to make decisions on what to publish.
Egos as well as a beliefs will have an effect on what is taken, photography is about communicating and images will vary according to thee purpose. This can be demonstrated with the controversial United Colors of Benetton adverts, adverts with a ethical message to promote a product.
Photography aesthetics and ethics are strange bed fellows, photography can be an art form, ready to be displayed on the a gallery wall and at the same time questions are asked about the photographer non-intervention. Time will create more questions than answers, academics will write papers for discussion and we will still have an appetite for more images in this media hungry world. the message is the safe, we will just show it differently
I suspect that no matter how much we care, photographers always want to make the most beautiful image they can. Which neatly turns ‘ethics of aesthetics’ into aesthetics over ethics. Mraz recognises this in Salgado’s work, Other American’s and suggests that his work is possibly a homage to Robert Frank as well as Salgado’s adherence to the “fine arts tradition of displaying imagery with minimal explanation”. (Mraz 2002). The question is: can this genre of documentary photography be both ethical and at the same time have a pleasing aesthetic? The three photographers under scrutiny adopt three very different styles, which one met the objective of raising both awareness, funds, sympathy and empathy? Rankin seems to me to be the most functional of the three, raising awareness without shocking his audience. Tom Stoddard presents raw and tragic imagery that may have the opposite effect on an audience anesthetized by tragedy – compassion fatigue. The photographs of Alejandro Chaskielberg are without doubt mesmeric and beautiful, but I would argue that their natural home is National Geographic rather than Oxfam. Jo Harrison (27.1.12) a media officer for Oxfam clarifies: “images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen”. Loyd Spencer (24.1.12) argues that such arresting images have a side effect of “making other honest photographs seem dowdy and historic, rather than urgent”. He has a point. There is none of the urgency in Chaskielberg’s work compared and contrasted with Stoddard’s. Which images would provoke me to action? Stoddard’s and Rankin’s. Which would I rather look at? Chaskielberg’s. Gareth (24.1.12) suggests Chaskielberg’s work is closer to fashion photography, a comment that may be indicative of a body of work missing its mark, or just one persons interpretation. But if that thought has crossed Gareth’s mind, I’m sure he is not alone. Leonie (30.5.17) questions whether it is up to her to decide if it (Chaskielberg) is beautiful or not, but we cannot answer the question by sitting on the fence. We have to have an opinion, which of course doesn’t make it right! On a personal note I think the greatest tragedy is that wealthier African countries appear unable to help their neighbours and historically leave the burden to Western aid agencies. Why is this? Oxfam are working hard to enable a greater female role and the emancipation of women can only help, but change must surely come from within too? I realise I am digressing here but there would appear a consistent theme of war and famine across Africa spanning at least the last 60 years. At the risk of sounding completely heartless, is this Africa fatigue?
I agree with Rob Harris (31.10.20) who asks what is the point in reading all 70 odd blog post responses, as they become repetitive. This is my response to the original post rather than reactions to other’s posts. Although I appreciate the aesthetics in Chaskielberg’s images and they make a refreshing change, I feel they have the appearance of studio shots, seem theatrical and staged and lack authenticity as images that are to portray people experiencing hunger and drought.
I can relate much better to Rankin’s images, where the people look real, dignified, not distressed but taut, and the food in their cupped hands brings us back to the reason for the image. Rankin also wanted his portraits to do something different, as he felt the stereotypical images of disaster zones have produced anesthetised audiences; in his Congo images that he wanted to depict their humanity and I believe he has done this.
I have to ask myself have become too used to more direct images like Tom Stoppard’s representing famine, and is this why I find Chasleilberg’s images too beautiful? Possibly. However if I was using images to provoke interest in fundraising and action I would use Rankin’s more realistic but dignified images as a fresh alternative to the more traditional Tom Stoddard famine images. I don’t believe Chaskielberg’s images will for most convey the necessary message.
After looking at a lot of photographs by different photographers, it seems to me that they are all putting their own voice into the image. I strongly feel that the photographers’ life experience will dictate how to portray a certain situation, whether it be famine or any other topic.
Chaskielbergs’ images give a positive, although haunting message of, (as previously stated), a dream-like experience. In his own words, he states,
“My intention is to highlight a hopeful vision of the present, showing people’s strength and to inspire the viewer that a change is possible.”
Perhaps dreaming of a more fruitful future, and dampening down the ‘here and now’ in his photographs moves his images to show what can be achieved. Tom Stoddart’s, images are more shocking and depict the ‘here and now’ in a totally different light. One image in particular of a child, skin and bone, on hands and knees, crawling along the floor, as if trying to get the attention of (what looks like) a well-fed man carrying (what looks like) a bag of food, in my opinion, shocks the system.
It’s the difference between, giving a man a fish to feed his family for the day, or a fishing rod to feed his family every day.
Alejandro Chaskielberg says, “I’ve always been attracted by the night, because it is the time when the most fascinating things can happen” https://www.chaskielberg.com/turkana
From the project statement on Chaskielberg’s website, it is evident that his intention is to avoid harrowing images of suffering and instead show how the pastoralist way of life in Turkana is under threat, and the people are striving to find new ways of getting enough food to feed their families. However, it occurs to me that this apparently positive intention has morphed into Chaskielberg telling his story. His visual process seems to have backgrounded the real stories that he is intending to tell about the people of Turkana; the captions which accompany the pictures appear specific but are actually quite vague. The video on his website on this link shows him acting as director, and suggests that the subjects of the work have become his characters to be moved around. What did the people he was working with from Turkana think?
So much already said which I don’t intend to repeat. I tend to agree that Chaskielberg has a refreshing, totally different style, which does not represent the suffering Oxfam is famed for championing, but used in content with explanatory words showing the future hope and independence that is around the corner would work. Chaskielberg brings to play healthy reflexive practice – the ability to understand how the photographer’s cultural background, beliefs, intentions and preconceptions can affect the outcome of their work. I lean towards Alan D Horns who finds Chaskielberg’s work “indulgent”. It is a style of work he enjoys and perfects and he has seemingly used Oxfam to pursue it. In the right context Chaskielberg’s work could benefit the Oxfam campaign and take the world from being desensitised by familiarity when it comes to linking famine and Africa.
One of the challenges in trying to comment on the work Alejandro Chaskielberg and Rankin produced for Oxfam is to view it in context. Although the images are available online, it is difficult to find out how they were presented when first used back in 2012. Because of this, I am not sure if the images produced by both photographers are meant to be viewed as documentary images, or as seems more likely, advertising images; and if the distinction matters.
A post by Jo Harrison on the 27th January 2012 is insightful as at the time she worked as Media Officer for Oxfam. She wrote that Oxfam had a photographic policy that set out types of images they would use stating that ‘our images must depict hope, diginity and a realisation that change can happen’ (Harrison, 2012). The current Oxfam Ethical Content Guidelines is is broadly similar and can be read here.
Although Alejandro Chaskielberg’s images fall within the guidelines in terms of respecting the subjects in the images, when I look at them I do not feel they are telling me something about famine in the Horn of Africa. If I came across them without knowing the context I would not recognise them as images depicting famine, partly because they are visually very stylised and partly because there is no reference to the plight they face present in the images.
Despite my misgivings the images were successful and according to an article on LensCulture the images helped raise £150,000 enabling Oxfam to continue their work in the region for three years. When I read that the images had helped raise enough money to enable Oxfam to continue working I realised that my initial reservations about Chaskielberg’s images said a lot about my preconceptions about what images of famine should look like and what Oxfam hopes to achieve. People in an area hit by famine do not have to be emaciated to be at the point of death to be suffering from the effects of lack of food and Oxfam’s aims are more diverse and long-term than just providing emergency famine relief. Going back to the original blogpost where Jose states ‘I fail to connect what I see in the photographs with the plea of the people in them’ I think that in my case it is a failing on my part because I’m looking for images that conform to my expections and not challenge them.
In contrast to Alejandro Chaskielberg’s images, Rankin’s are much easier to understand as being about famine. Once again the people featured in the images are presented in a respectful manner but the use of the device of holding a day’s worth of food in their hands is a powerful symbol about the lack of availbility of food in Northern Kenya at the time. Rankin’s elegant portraits, shot against arid backgounds, are easier to interpret as being about food shortage and are presented in a way that is more recognisable as symbolising famine in Africa.
The other work mentioned in the original blogpost was that by Tom Stoddard. Stoddard’s images taken in Sudan in 1998 are truly harrowing and I wonder whether Western viewers have been conditioned by images like these to expect photographs about famine to show people looking like Giacommeti sculptures and at the point of dying.
I initially when I looked at the work of Chasekielberg, Rankin and Stoddard I had a preconceived idea about their images and what photographs of famine should look like. Although Stoddard’s images are the most uncompromising and powerful, Rankin’s and particularly Chaskielberg’s work, I think challenge the viewer to think differently about famine and high-light the need for intervention before situations become a matter of life and death.
Both Rankin and Chaskielberg’s photographic work here use elements of staging and performance. I think to maintain relevance and to avoid falling down the trap of simply repeating what has come before, photography needs to adapt, experiment, flex, and constantly shift in different directions to maintain relevance and excitement. I like the idea of using artificial vivid lighting, moonlight and staging of subjects in Chaskielberg’s photography, there is certainly an aesthetic quality that confronts the viewer and draws them in to then question what they are looking at and what it all means. We see these kinds of technique used by other photographers, the approach is just different here, as we’ve seen elsewhere on the course when looking at British colour documentary photography some photographers will use elements of humour to initially drawer a viewer into their work, it has a disarming effect on the viewer. I guess you could say the photographer kind of plays a trick on the viewer in this disarming process, your guard is down.
Acquiring and maintaining the attention of viewers today is as challenging as it ever has been but I would argue it’s become more difficult in an overly saturated world of images, particularly online. However, in this saturated world, patterns, repetition, mimicking is common place; the task of the photographer is to continue finding ways of cutting through the white noise. I would argue that people today read less than ever before and see/experience/witness the world around them more in still images or moving images – visual language, communication and understanding have become an integral part of how we view each other, other selves, our communities and the world. People as a whole exist online in a very visually stimulating environment and have become a bit more developed in visual language. The past 2 years since 2020 has even sped up this process, with online meetings, exhibitions/gallery space, VR, the Meta universe.
There is ample space within the photographic world for all of these different approaches to exist, alongside each other. One could almost argue, that whatever works bring attention and vital funding to aid agencies is worth a shot, of course within reason. I would argue that it feels more appropriate to me for a photographer to fully engage with their subject, get to know them, interact, even collaborate in the construction of an image, it’s seems like a fair/reasonable social exchange. The other side is to photograph people without their consent, knowledge; willingness to interact in a way they feel doesn’t truly represent them. For me personally, for many reasons, I am comfortable with the aesthetic qualities and approach of both Rankin and Chaskielberg. I feel more confronted and uncomfortable with other, perhaps traditional approaches to documentary photography concerning war, conflict, famine, disaster – they feel like stealing an image of someone.
Tom Stoddart’s image of the man stealing maize from the starving child in Sudan seems to strike an appropriate tone and balance. The image really cuts you; it is striking, sobering, heartbreaking. For me, this is achieved in part due to the framing, composition and placement of the two subjects within the frame. The fact the viewer can’t see the face of the man with the grain, illustrates to me the arrogance of the man, we don’t need to see the face, it doesn’t matter. Stoddart was a real master of using the frame, his approach sometimes reminds me of Elliott Erwitt, I‘m not sure if others will see the similarities but for me it’s there in the cropping out of parts of the human form, they are recognisable yet distorted – what isn’t included within the frame is intentional and just as important as what’s in the frame.
I have looked through the comments and tend to agree with a lot of what is said. The Alejandro Chaskielberg pictures are very pretty and quite striking in an aesthetic way, the use of moonlight produces some very striking skies and atmospheric images. Perhaps the backgrounds distract from the people in front, make you think, this a beautiful place to live and how lucky they are. You may imagine taking a holiday to see these sky views at night in Africa.
In contrast Rankins pictures are harder hitting, taken in daylight, showing a more realistic view of Africa, no sumptuous sunsets here. Africa is very hot in the day and cooler at night; the day may be unbearably hot so not showing the midday sun is perhaps to hide a cause of problems in Africa, the extreme heat which causes famine and hunger if the rain does not come often enough for food crops to grow, such as Ethiopia in the 1980’s (Live Aid, Bob Geldof) with global warming making it worse in 2023 and future.
These are great photos no question but what message do they send? If you wish to strike a balance between expression and information, perhaps Chaskielberg pictures juxtapose beautiful landscapes with human poverty, too easily; the subject is too serious to be made visually pleasing, we need to see the hunger and despair and Rankin shows this better with food in hands. There is an artificiality in using flash with moonlight which makes the pictures seem staged, maybe this breaks the spell and lets us in on the trick; it is a western view, made pretty for the (western) tourists.
Dazed (n.d.). Photo Essay: Alejandro Chaskielberg’s Turkana Collection. [online] Dazed. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/gallery/13225/10/photo-essay-alejandro-chaskielbergs-turkana-collection [Accessed 2 Jan. 2023].
Rankin photographs famine in east Africa. (2011). The Guardian. [online] 14 Oct. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/gallery/2011/oct/14/kenya-rankin-famine-in-pictures [Accessed 2 Jan. 2023].
I have read through all of the comments on this blog post and agree with a lot of what has been said. Chaskielberg does have a unique approach to documenting something so disastrous. He takes his images at night, using long exposure and either the moonlight or artificial lighting to illuminate his subjects. However, he clearly started in the article with Kramer, A (2012) that he “likes to express the hopeful vision, showing the peoples strengths and to inspire the viewer that change is possible”. I do think that his images do this. Do we get this feel because they are in colour and not the usual black and white documentary style we are so use to seeing?
Regardless, his work is still documenting the Drought in Africa, that given with the context from Oxfam behind his images allows us to make a clear connection. Without such context, I question how obvious it would be but neither less, it is his style and I don’t think we can argue that, it is just showing us a different side to how it can be shown and what else it can represent (e.g. the positives rather than the brutality of such disasters).