Assignment 4 – Critical Essay Revised

Based on my tutor’s remarks I have made changes to my critical essay. Here is the new version:

 

What are the moral and ethical implications of Sandra Hoyn’s The Longing of Others?

Sandra Hoyn’s The Longing of Others depicts life in Bangladesh’s biggest brothel Kandapara. In a series of portrait and environmental photographs the viewer is confronted with the interactions between, often minor, sex workers and their customers, their friends and children and the place they live and work in. The images are intimate, close up and with a strong focus on emotions. Most seem to be taken with a 35mm or 50mm lens, which means that she must have been in very close proximity to her subjects when taking the images. This sense of proximity really draws the viewer into the scene, away from the objective distance, resulting in a very strong emotional engagement to what is going on in the photograph.

The Longing of Others has won numerous prizes and awards and was received very well in the media. However, questions about the morals and ethics of the work have risen, opening up a discussion about the implications of photographing sexual violence, the popularity of the subject and complicity of the photographer and the viewers . This essay will provide an insight in the ethic and moral implications of The Longing of Others through an analysis of Hoyt’s own reasoning and justification of her work, the responses from the photographic community and literature research.

The approach and style of Longings of Others is very similar to other projects of Sandra Hoyn; She establishes a relationship of trust with her subjects within a relative short period of time and through that Hoyn is able to document their lives in an unstaged and intimate way. Hoyn’s subjects are photographed in their most vulnerable moments; children being beaten by their caretakers, people sleeping or young boys beaten unconscious in a boxing fight. Hoyn is up and close, although her presence and photographing does not seem to make a difference in how her subjects behave, questions arise if the girls would have had different facial expressions if she had not been there. Since the girls have specifically asked Hoyn to photograph them, they want to show how they feel and how they are being treated. Has the presence of the photographer make the girls and clients show their emotions more profoundly, or the opposite? With a camera being there, does the sexual act become more like a performance than what it would have been without?

Hoyn’s main motivation for producing ‘Longing of Others was to raise awareness and recognition of the lives and existence of the sex workers. ‘Recognizing the existence of sex workers is the first step to ensure they have a right to live a normal life as any other human being. Getting this problem out in the open will hopefully bring change. Public awareness is important.’ (Hoyn, Cosmopolitan). The  depth of the photographs themselves do trigger this awareness. On the surface life in the brothel appears to be like any life in other village, in which people are interacting, drinking tea and having a good time. Sex work is shown like a legitimate profession, that gives women independence and a way to make a living. In between work the girls take care of their children, listen to music and seem to live quite an independent life. However, when the camera focuses in on the women doing their actual job, the harsh reality and abuse comes out. The Longing of Others shows girls with their clients in the fore- or after play of having sex, women being beaten or playing around. Hoyn focuses explicitly on the women’s facial expressions, showing disgust and pain. These emotions trigger an awareness with the viewer about the dark side of being a sex worker, and its profound impact on the girls.

hoyn7
Hoyn, S. (2016). [image] Available at: http://www.digifotopro.nl/content/aangrijpende-fotoserie-longing-of-others-sandra-hoyn [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].
There is an ongoing discussion amongst photography critics about photographing violence and injustice and whether looking at images ‘necessary imply believing or caring, let alone acting’. This subsequently questions the motivations and intentions of the photographer as well. Susan Sontag wrote in 1977 referring to images of Nazi Death Camps that ‘concerned photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.’ (Sontag, 1977) Fast forwarding to current photo journalism in which extreme and violent images are the norm, one might even question whether public conscious is not more ‘dead’ than ‘aroused’ in the first place. (tutor comments). Taking photographs and viewing them comes from a need for sensation, the wish to see something gruesome. A ‘love of mischief, love of cruelty, is as natural to human beings as is sympathy.’ (Sontag, 2017) Sontag also notices an ambiguity in how victims from developed countries are portrayed, compared to victims in our home countries. The more anonymous the portrayed, the more is shown and less respect given to the identity or consent of the subject in the photograph.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau goes even further in stating that the documentary photograph commits a ‘double act of subjugation’ in which ‘the hapless subject is victimized first by oppressive social forces, then by the regime of the image.’ The photographer is complicit in the violence happening in front of the camera and viewers are guilty of victimizing its subjects over and over again. The Longing of Others received similar criticism as well. ’We have built a fucked up world where voyeurism is disguised behind so called morals and the journalistic truth. And we enjoy it. This is how we consume the Other, how we make it an object and add on him a layer of violence’ (Maria, comment on Duckrabbit.com).

However, in her book A Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield explains that through showing personal experiences of suffering viewers are confronted with an individual’s worth, an affirmation of human rights and the presentation of a soul. It is not necessary to be afraid of the ‘unpredictable complicating things we might find if we look too freely and too openly at the world’, let alone fear becoming desensitized by looking at photographs of suffering. On the contrary, the camera has ‘globalized our consciences of what it means to be human’ and has become a ‘tool in enabling empathetic leaps’. Linfield continues to warn for blaming viewers and photographers of being complicit in the suffering portrayed: ‘To confuse the torturer with its prey – much less believe that you have somehow become one or the other – is not an expression of solidarity. It is, instead, an evasion of the immense, insurmountable difficulties – the inability to understand, the inability to grieve, to act on what these photographs present. ‘

Sandra Hoyn struggled with the reality she was presented with and how to photograph it. In several interviews Hoyn mentions feeling disgusted photographing the girls, of who she says they had become her friends over the weeks, being abused and violated. ‘I often wanted to throw the clients out, but the women wanted me to photograph them. I felt really bad; what am I doing here, watching while these women are being abused. I didn’t photograph them while they were having sex, but before and after, focusing on their facial expressions.’ She struggles with whether she should have photographed them, whether she should have been in the room in the first place, but the girls ‘insisted on her being there, they wanted their stories to be told, they wanted the world to see how they feel’ (interview ARD, 2017). In other interviews Hoyn states that she wants her photographs to enable people to gain a new impression of the world, so that they can change their way of thinking. She wonders if it will really make a difference though, but would it have been better not to show it? (interview ARD, 2017)

I believe the answer to that question depends on different factors. First of all, coming from Hoyn’s motivation for recognizing these women, it seems plausible to produce work that gives evidence of the lives they lead and the struggles they face. Does not showing their struggles and the violence they face equal to ‘colluding with the desire of the perpetrators to erase their crime’ (Linfield, 2017)? Should the fact that viewers have trouble looking, understanding and acting on images of violence stop photographers from telling stories that ought to be shown? The problem is that making, and looking at pictures that portray suffering, will always be a highly imperfect and highly impure activity (Linfield, 2017 ). A complicating factor of The Longing of Others is the sexual charge of the work. The life and experiences of the girls are determined by the often perverse desires of their clients and pimps. Can the success of the work (and similar series by for example David Soutta) be explained from the fact that the images portray sexual encounters and violence, resulting in pornographically charged images that are a socially accepted excuse to look at? If so, don’t the disturbing expressions of the women and girls immediately reveal the true face of pornography and sexual violence that would almost by definition be an anti-pornography and sexual violence photograph? (Nachtwey, 2017)

Besides the questions about the impact and ethical implications of photographs of violence and sexual abuse The Longing of Others was criticized for displaying underaged girls being abused by their clients. These so called ‘bonded girls’ are in the most vulnerable stage of life in the brothel. They have just arrived and need to pay off debts from their trafficker. They are not able to choose their clients and have to hand over a large sum of their income. It normally takes about 2 years to pay off a debt, after which the women gain more independency and freedom. Officially a woman has to be 18 years old to start working in the brothel, but according to Hoyn, most ‘bonded girls’ are between 14 and 16 years old. (website Hoyn)

From a legal point of view the photos of these bonded girls with their clients fall within the category of child pornography: ‘The concept of child pornography covers realistic images of a child, where a child is engaged or depicted as being engaged in sexually explicit conduct for primarily sexual purposes’ . Although it is clear that Hoyn did not take these images to further exploit the sex work of the girls, the fact that she has gained status and won money prizes with the work could imply she is guilty of the a child pornography offence, defined in the Sexual Offenses Act 2003 as ‘arranging or facilitating commission of a child sex offence. ‘Where the gain is only for the perpetrator/facilitator, there is most likely a financial gain or increased status as a result of the abuse.’.

Unicef’s Principles for Ethical Reporting on Children are very clear when it comes to photographing minors in precarious positions. Photographs should ‘not further stigmatize any child, avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals’. Photographers should ‘always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation. Even though Hoyn had consent from the girls and she was specifically asked to photograph them with their clients, as a photojournalist Hoyn should have been aware of these principles. The agencies and news outlets who have promoted the work also bear the responsibility of being aware of these principles and bear just as much responsibility. 14 to 16 year-olds are not mentally able to oversee the consequences of their decisions, nor the impact of their images being published world-wide, or the direct implications the publicity might have on their daily lives. Clients might get angry, traffickers might threaten them, if they would ever want to leave the brothel, these images might negatively impact their new life. The consent of a minor does not have the same validation as the consent of an adult.

On the whole, I believe that Hoyn’s Longing of Others has a place in the discussion on the legality of prostitution, exploitation and the rights of women. Her images give a raw insight in the lives of sex workers and show deeper layers of this complicated issue. However, I do think that the images of the minor ‘bonded girls’ with their clients should not have been part of the series, nor promoted through photo awards. They cross the legal and ethical lines of respecting the right of child to not be victimized, stigmatized or subject to the longings of others, whether that of clients, the photographer or viewers. Instead, through adding more of the personal, in-depth accounts of the girls who are suffering from abuse, like the photograph of Phaki with her baby, or where Phaki is listening to music with her friends, and stronger, informative captions the series might have been more effective at engaging audiences and raising awareness, without jeopardizing the girls. In the end, ‘every photograph bears the traces of the encouter between the photographer and photographed, and neither party can ultimately control that inscription nor determine what happens to those traces.” (Arielly Azoulay, 2017)

Cosmopolitan. (2017). Catch a Rare Glimpse Inside a Walled Brothel With These Powerful Photos. [online] Available at: http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a60332/sandra-hoyn-walled-brothel-photos/ [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].

Chesterton, W. (2017). I wish you’d listened to your heart – duckrabbit. [online] duckrabbit. Available at: https://www.duckrabbit.info/2017/05/photography-world-still-need-talk/ [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].

Crouch, <. (2017). The Exchange: Susie Linfield on Photography and Violence. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-exchange-susie-linfield-on-photography-and-violence [Accessed 10 Aug. 2017].

Dickerman, K., Hoyn, S., Dickerman, K. and Hoyn, S. (2017). Heartbreaking photos show what it’s like living in a walled city of a brothel. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2016/06/13/heartbreaking-photos-show-what-its-like-living-in-a-walled-city-of-a-brothel/?utm_term=.231d6d3e887b [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].

Fred, R. (2017). Toward A Hyperphotography. [online] Available at: http://sites.uci.edu/01807w14/files/2014/02/RitchinFred_TowardAHyperphotography.pdf [Accessed 10 Aug. 2017].

Linfield, S. (2017). An excerpt from The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield. [online] Press.uchicago.edu. Available at: http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/482507.html [Accessed 10 Aug. 2017].

Nachtwey, J. (2017). My wish: Let my photographs bear witness. [online] Ted.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/james_nachtwey_s_searing_pictures_of_war#t-1282078 [Accessed 8 Aug. 2017].

NPR.org. (2017). Outcry Over Photo Showing The Face Of A Girl Allegedly Being Raped. [online] Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/05/09/526797749/outcry-over-photo-showing-the-face-of-a-girl-allegedly-being-raped [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].

Photography, T., Azoulay, A. and Keenan, T. (2017). The Civil Contract of Photography. [online] MIT Press. Available at: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/civil-contract-photography [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].

Schulz, K. (2017). Believing Is Seeing – By Errol Morris – Book Review. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/believing-is-seeing-by-errol-morris-book-review.html [Accessed 10 Aug. 2017].

Sontag, S. (2010). On Photography. New York: Picador [book].

Sontag, S. (2017). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador [book].

Times Higher Education (THE). (2017). The Civil Contract of Photography. [online] Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/the-civil-contract-of-photography/404775.article [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].

Sandrahoyn.de. (2017). The Longings of the Others – Sandra Hoyn Photography. [online] Available at: http://www.sandrahoyn.de/portfolio/the-longings-of-the-others/ [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].

Unicef.org. (2017). UNICEF CEE/CIS – Media centre – Ethical Guidelines. [online] Available at: https://www.unicef.org/eca/media_1482.html [Accessed 9 Aug. 2017].

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Kingsmead Eyes Project

Ways work is presented:

  • Starting from a screen of school photographs, with children wearing the same uniform and are obviously a unity of children from a same place, each child is announced and from there introduced.
  • Children present themselves through the photographs they have taken, most are taken in their home environments, telling about their cultural background, space they grow up in, and events in their lives that impact them.
  • The children have had training in photography, which results in some extraordinary visual story telling. They use different compositional techniques, use of flash and colour. I am really impressed.
  • In the audio we hear children talking about their lives and sometimes reading a poem that they have written for the project.
  • I love how this entire project is a celebration of differences and unity, each child shows the unique way they live and grow up, their backgrounds and things they are proud of, on the other hand the viewer sees a lot of similarities, pride for who they are, their family and where they live.
  • Even though the school is not specifically mentioned in the project, it visually forms a basis for the stories of the kids and shows how it binds them together. I was specifically touched by the stories of the children that had left, they were told by other children. They really showed strong bonds of friendship and unity, which was beautiful.

 

I just started interviewing the kids for my assignment. I wish I had seen this before starting, it has inspired me to have the kids have a stronger say in the project. Maybe I could ask them to send me some photos of their daily lives as well, so I can somehow incorporate it in the project.

The Documentary Project – Photovoice

I learned about Photovoice a few years ago and have been following them since. I am really impressed with their methods and the idea that photography done by the subjects themselves can be so powerful and therapeutic as well. I believe that there are ample opportunities for schools, NGOs and even businesses to use their approach in order to get a deeper insight in their clients’ lives or problems, or to steer them to become creative and take responsibility for their own change.

I sometimes sub at a photography class in my children’s school and am always amazed at how they are able to photograph from a unique point of view and quickly find a very personal way to tell their story. I see this visual and storytelling quality back in the projects presented by Photovoice.

Looking at their website I feel inspired to do a workshop with them someday. I should really sign up!

Assignment 5 – Brief

After brainstorming and coming up with different ideas for Assignment 5, I have decided to photograph 12 year-olds. The reason for this is that it’s a subject that is very close to my heart. I have to 12 year-old girls and have taught this age group for a few years. Every time I talk to them I am touched by their innocence, wisdom and blooming personalities. I want to show this. Show the importance of these young individuals and the responsibilities we as adults have to provide a hopeful future for them in which they can realize their dreams and come to their potential. It’s a bit idealistic approach, but this is what I feel when I look at them, see them interact and explore the lives they have ahead of them.

An other aspect of this age is that there are such differences in development, resulting in different heights, stages of puberty, etc. These differences make the age group even more fascinating, but also are a main cause of insecurity and feelings of loneliness and not being understood.

I will interview and photograph children from as diverse backgrounds as possible, although most of the children will be kids from my daughter’s school. There are huge cultural differences in their school, but all are from very privileged backgrounds. So, as soon as I meet other 12 year-olds, I will try to include them in the series.

Here is my brief:

  • Produce 15 photographs and (video) interviews of 12 year-olds, in a setting that they have chosen themselves and feel at home.
  • The images should reflect the development stage where they are in.
  • Edited interviews should not be more that 2 minutes each. Questions should focus on looking back at their childhood, their expectations for the coming years and their future ahead.
  • Based on their expectations, I will try to find statistic predictions of the subjects they touch on, touching on the world they envision and harsh realities of the future we are facing.
  • I want the series to bring about a call to understanding and respecting teenagers, and compel to work on their future.
  • Maybe I could have the children do a photo project themselves, based on Photovoice principles.

Timeline:

  • Photographs and Filming: 9 September – 22 September
  • Editing and Final presentation 26 September – 30 September
  • Deadline 1 October

Assignment 4 – Tutor Report

I received Assignment 4’s tutor report yesterday. First of all, I would like to say how wonderful it is that my tutor responds so quickly to my emails and gives feedback promptly. It makes a huge difference and is very motivating. So here is the report, with my tutors comments in bold and my response in cursive font:

Overall Comments:

You have written an informed and mature essay, which explores a subject matter, that truly questions and pushes the ethical and moral boundaries of documentary photography. In this essay, you have evidenced your ability to understand significant issues, which is apparent in the topical subject matter of prostitution, but also with the legal issues surrounding the underage ‘bonded’ girls and questioning whether or not Hoyn has produced child pornography.

Your use of research skills has been realised competently, where there is evidence of a good range of sources; the Sontag quote has been positive, but there appears to be no reference to the source. You have analysed your source material well, where you have articulated your own ideas at an appropriate and mature level; this is evidenced in your objective conclusion and suggestion on how the series could have been better presented through the captions, well done.

I feel that I need to go through the essay and check all the quotes and make sure that I am referencing them correctly. Good to hear that my ideas have come across, it’s been quite a challenge to express myself coherently and even more, to decide what to leave in and which material to use.

In terms of using this essay as an ‘extension of your creative practice’, have you achieved this? Has your understanding and approach to documentary photography evolved, where you have acquired a better understanding of how your own and other photographers’ work and ideas, which relates to the wider cultural picture?

These are interesting questions. I feel that this research has definitely extended my creative practice, and certainly widened my scope. At first, I was very much put off by The Longing of Others, it seemed a bit easy to draw attention to the problem by simply showing the girls with their clients. However, after looking at more work and listening to interviewers with Sandra Hoyn, I found myself softening up to her work and intentions and being quite impressed with how close she is able to get to her subjects, and get to the nitty gritty of their lives.

I find it also quite interesting to experience my opinion going from one side to the other when I read different books. There is such a contrast in opinion between for example Sontag and Sinfield, and it was really good to think out loud, coming to the conclusion that there are no clear cut answers to the question of how to photograph violence and abuse of human rights and how to show them. This should propel us photographers to activiely question our intentions and practice with each individual photograph we are taking, editing or sharing.

However, despite this very grey area we are in, reading through Unicef’s guidelines and the law’s definition on child pornography made me realize that there are very clear guidelines, based on universal human rights, on what is acceptable to show to a broader public and what not. As a photographer I think I have become stronger in knowing and deciding on how to photograph people in vulnerable situations. It was good to exercise the mind in that sense and feel more knowledgeable and able to make decisions based on my own morals and ethics.

Feedback Annotated Essay:

I will add this in a separate blog entry.

Learning Logs or Blogs:

For this chapter, you have written some good entries; your post ‘Exercise – The Ethics of Aesthetics’ is interesting. The questions you have raised would be very good to see visualised; the food wastage topic is ongoing, and whilst some companies/fast food chains are trying to make a difference we are far from finding a solution. Have a look at this video of a ‘Dumpster Diver’ quite funny but serious at the same time:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJmCUSb-ZVo

Suggested reading/viewing:

I do not recall if I have referenced him to you, but look at the work of Joey L, his work is a mix of personal projects, documentaries and commissions, but his style of documentary photography is refreshing, see; https://joeyl.com/overview/category/quick-portfolio

I have watched several of his courses on creativelive. I really like his work. It makes me realize that I need to invest in lighting gear and become more technically sufficient. I feel that I am lacking technical skills to always get the look that I am aiming for and through that I’m not really growing as a photographer.

Pointers for the next assignment:

Your ideas for your personal project are intriguing; the two that stand out, are the portraits of children on the brink of childhood and the visualisation of foreign words. These both have a unique quality and interest to them.

With the portraits of children, the interview will be the key in unlocking your approach to both the composition and the process of how you take the shots. Consider setting up the camera ready to fire; then conduct the interview with the child, then at a certain point when they answer a question that perhaps has a profound sense of maturity to it, that will be the moment you take the shot with a remote trigger.

I like this idea, I will consider it in my preparations.

With the translation and visualisation, this could evolve into a study of semiotics, in some ways a photographic Rorschach test where the viewers interpret the scene based upon their cultural understanding. Something to explore further, perhaps for a much larger project.

 

Thanks again for your feedback Russell!

 

‘Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics – Ine Gevers

This article gives an insight in how to step out of the ethics/aesthetics dilemma and a new approach and vision on how to perceive documentary photography. A very good read, that I should probably read again to pick up more. Here are a few points that I want remember:

  • Postdocumentary photography doesn’t have a clear distinction between the roles of a photograph, documentation, registration or  work of art
  • Aesthetics used to have an ethical foundation, all that is beautiful is good, this has lost it meaning, because all that is beautiful is not necessarily true.
  • Focus on aesthetics threatens to colonize our gaze.
  • Stereotyped or system confirming messages are not just bound to one medium.
  • We have become part of the postmodern ‘society of spectacle’.
  • Artist should pursue personal truth and remain faithful despite opposition.
  • Contempary ethics come dangerously close to nihilism, there is a need to bring ethics back to concrete situations.

Ine Gevers. ‘Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ (Documentary Now! 2005)