Suffering and Beauty – on the Ethics of Photography

I often think about the ethics of photography, about the lines that should not be crossed (or if, in rebellion against your own feeling of shame, they should be crossed) and about the dignity of your subject.

My own photographs cannot be said to be very striking or insightful, I think. They are in part superficial, momentary, sometimes beautiful and I hope that I manage to portray the dignity of the people I choose to photograph, and their sense of themselves as well as their joy. I do not photograph intellectually and I do not seek out suffering. If there is anything I choose to photograph, then it is the joy and wonder of travelling, of seeing the world, rather than of thinking about it.

  Photography, respectable photography, seems to be concerned with suffering. How a person goes through agony, madness, disease and ultimately death or how they take on the cruelty of the world, which does not care about them. Because these, or so the images would suggest, are the cornerstones, the irrefutable realities of our existence against which all other things pale and wither.

  Respectable photography, like respectable philosophy, has long dealt with ideas of despair and emptiness, a world devoid of god. It is a strange dogma, this stubborn existentialism, the idea of the purity of hopelessness. I do think that our time demands a more diverse approach, a more open and flexible philosophy, an eye for not only the connectedness of all things but also the contradictory nature of everything.

  Suffering is only a part of the truth, if I may use this heavy word.  The world, in my experience, is never clear. There are hundreds of contradictory emotions and impressions floating around at every moment and if one has clarity it is only the clarity of one’s own emotion. Speaking as a photographer, that certainly makes for effective images but they are rarely truthful.

    There are no pure, undiluted moments. Not even in despair. You have to look for them and keep all the other moments out, because they might change the mood. I am still looking for the photographer who aims to show glimmers of hope in desperate situations or moments of strange, unsuitable, contradictory emotions.  A photograph freezes the moment and makes it eternal. The man in agony is not in momentary but eternal agony. This, I think, is why I would like to see more contradiction. Because it increases the awareness that moments flow and change.

  Having travelled extensively in Asia, I have seen instances of disease, famine, despicable living conditions, depression, gruesome accidents and death. But I would not decide to photograph such moments, unless I would aim to show the human dignity that must be there underneath.

  To me it seems as if there is an accepted image of suffering, a representation of it that will reflect upon the photographer and bring him some sort of twisted glory. Prize winning photographs depict unspeakable horrors because unspeakable horrors, especially if presented artistically and resonantly, sell and find an audience.

  I find there is a danger in this. It creates expectations and desensitizes the audience as well as the image maker – the next reportage must be more shocking. The photographer becomes a seeker of gruesome images, no longer because they are a reflection of the truth, but because they have become the world in which he is successful. It also strips the subject of the image of dignity. The subject becomes an object of pity and a canvas on which one can project many things, one’s own fear of the primitive side of man first among them all.

  But is a beautiful image more truthful? Is beauty truth, as the old adage held? No, of course not, but it is antidote to an ethic and aesthetic of suffering.

  If you want to have a truthful image of Asia or of Africa, look at images taken by Asian and African photographers and try to see through their eyes. Look for photographers who have managed to get rid of their own cultural lenses or have understood them insofar as to make them unimportant.

  Many of the greatest photographers have taken time to develop an understanding of the person or the situation they want to photograph, along with all the contraditions and complexities. It is as simple as that. My own photographs do not even begin to measure up to such a standard, but I think it is a direction worth taking.

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