My Comment on The Melcher System

I just posted this comment on Paul Melcher’s blog, The Melcher System.

I really like his blog, and I think he tends to come up with topics that don’t get a lot of play. He looks more at industry trends and business tendencies. His latest post is about all the multimedia pieces regarding the death and dying of Africa, and how this is so overplayed. I think he has a valid point, and I’ve certainly had conversations with many photographers about this exact thing. He also touches on NGO work and how it seems to be what everyone wants to do now. Take a look.

First of all, I think there are plenty of good photographers doing valid and important NGO work, and in fact I have friends who do. Their heads are on right and their hearts are also in the right place. They are professional, get paid for their work, and are constantly reassessing what they are doing and if there is a way they can do it better. They are respected by the people they work with, and for, but earned this respect by being real photographers, and by not just doing what is expected. They supply more than just images. And…you have probably never heard of them.

But, I think there are also a lot of photographers who gravitate toward this work for a variety of other reasons, and I’m not sure how many of these reasons are often talked about. First, I think this work is easy. I know that might sound odd, but when you shoot things of this nature your subject matter is right there in front of you. I’m not saying it’s easy to get to, easy to look at or easy to stomach, but the contents are provided. It’s a lot different coming up with projects in your neighborhood in Brooklyn, or Boise or wherever else it is that photographers live, and there are plenty of people in these places that also need help. I’m not sure how skilled the photographer needs to be to get this imagery, perhaps you need to be a more skilled traveler, to get in and out, than a skilled person behind the lens.

I also believe that this work is as much about lifestyle as it is about the work. Hey, I think we have all had romantic notions about being photographers, and typically when we do, these notions don’t come in the form of running a portrait studio in suburbia. Most of the time these notions revolve around travel, major events, etc. I think this is natural, but again, we don’t seem to want to talk about this. Ever seen a portrait photographer in a scarf? How about photojournalist/documentary photographer? I’m guilty. After my first trip, many years ago, I came home with a scarf. A few years ago I was in a gathering of photographers in New York and we were all introducing ourselves. As my turn came I introduced myself and added, “I shoot weddings.” You could feel the air come out of the group. Photographers scattered. A friend of mine in the group asked, “Why did you do that?” I told her I just wanted to see the reaction, and a reaction there was. I do shoot a few weddings a year, and many portraits and documentary work, and I have an interesting observation. When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, if I say, “I shoot weddings,” I NEVER get a follow up question. When I say, “I shoot portraits,” I will occasionally get a follow up question. But when I say, “I’m a documentary photographer,” I get a follow up question, typically many, every single time. I don’ think there is anything surprising about this, but I think this is, again, about lifestyle. For every Elliot Erwitt, there are hundreds of photographers focusing on death and dying.

I also think that this work shows up on industry radar, Brooklyn and Boise are less likely, and can afford the photographer name recognition in the most macho of photo-circles. This is, after all, the genre that presented us with the “concerned photographer” title, which I’ve never really understood. Again, there are great photographers doing this work, but I’ve also run into a fair number who don’t really seem to be concerned about what I think we have been led to believe they are concerned about. We are all concerned about money, getting work, getting published, getting more work, doing the right thing, having those we photograph represented in the most accurate way, etc, but this seems to bounce off this crowd, masked by the “concerned” label. I think being a “concerned” photographer can also be used as a crutch for asking for more things, whereas a portrait photographer or commercial photographer maybe just has to work more to get where they are going. Anyone who does journalism, documentary, or most any other genre of photography is a “concerned” photographer. I think PDN recently did a piece titled, “Photographers Making a Difference.” I think this is a far better way of labeling these photographers and their work. In the end that is what matters. Are the images incredible? Are you making a difference?

I have also found there are huge numbers of these young, and sometimes not so young, NGO photographers who are working for FREE. Is doing volunteer work a good thing? Yes, it can be. Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place. But, I’ve found many of these photographers think that “nonprofit” means the company doesn’t make money. I’ve found photographers that don’t realize many NGO’s have a budget for photography. NGO’s are in business, so if they can get images for free, they do it. It’s not a malicious thing, it’s financial. Working for free, for me, isn’t sustainable, and frankly I’m not sure how anyone else does it.

A while back I was at an NGO gathering in Los Angeles, a fairly large gathering, and was introduced to an NGO coordinator from Latin America. Finding out I was a photographer she said, “Oh, I take advantage of you guys all day long.” I was a little surprised and when I questioned her further she said, “Photographers just don’t know the business, so we get them for free every time.” This might be an extreme example, but I think the message is true. How many times has a photographer heard, “Well, so and so is way better but so and so will do it for free.” In the end, everyone suffers, most importantly those in the photographs. We are bombarded by so much of this work, that continuing to rapidly produce the visual overload we are creating will only contribute to the image fatigue regarding places like Africa. Our technology has allowed us to mass produce incredible numbers of images, and then instantly load them into the information pipeline, flooding the world with work that frankly should have never been released. I think it would benefit everyone to slow down and create work that is top-notch, thought out and presented in ONLY the most critical of ways.

Death and the dying will always be covered, more so today than ever before, but perhaps photographers should also focus on the humanity and the glimmer of hope. I’m sure it will be a harder sell, and perhaps not viewed in the same daring regard, but you just never know. And, the outlets for this work should also widen their coverage…….I know, I’m crazy.

Writing this email made me think back to the recent Africa stories, those I can remember, and most are as you point out, war, famine, but I can also think of an education story or two . What I wonder about is farming, agriculture, transportation, commerce, the elderly, debt, the residue of colonial times, etc, and wonder where all the stories are about these topics? Maybe there out there and just not getting the chance?

Maybe the answer is that you can’t win awards with these stories?