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. 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 its viewers . This essay aims to 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, but her presence and photographing does not seem to make a difference in how her subjects behave.
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. However, zooming in on the gutter, we see condoms. Sex work is shown like a ligitimate 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 afterplay of having sex, women being beaten or playing around. Hoyn focuses explicitely 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.
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 photographer as well. According to Susan Sontag, ‘concerned photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.’ 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 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 critisicm 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 exerce on him an added layer of violence’ (Maria, comment on Duckrabbit.com, Maria).
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, that 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). 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)
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’ (Sinfield, p157)? 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 (Sinfield). 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 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)
Besides the questions about the impact and ethical implications of photographs of violence and sexual abuse The Longing of Others was critized 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 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. 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 serie 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)
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