Assignment 4 – Critical Essay

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.

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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 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)

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].

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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Assignment 4 – Draft

 

Here’s a draft of the ideas that I want to include in my essay. It’s a bit too much right now, but I’m sure that once I start writing, it will funnel out.

Titel:

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

 

Introduction Paragraph

  • Longing for Others has won a lot of international prizes,
  • short explanation of the work,
  • add a photo
  • First responses
  • Critiques

Why did Hoyn photograph this?

  • Reasoning Hoyn
  • Rise of projects in this subject area, why this popularity? (David Soutta), How come there is not formal response from Magnum and Lensculture?
  • Personal reasons, Captions seem to be aimed at justifying her work.
  • Importance of documenting injustice/evidence?

What is the sense of these photographs?

  • Influence of looking at these images
  • Does it raise an awareness?
  • Difference pornography (betrayal of human sexuality, which celebrates intimacy and privacy) – photos of suffering (revelation of something that ought not exist, which should not be kept private)
  • Value of documenting, value of evidence

Ethics

  • Legality of photographing minors
  • Complicity by photographing and/or looking at the photographs of minors as sex workers
  • Rights of the subject, privacy versus telling story for the greater good
  • Protest by showing? Making change after witnessing?
  • Is prostitution a job?
  • Photographic practice of Sandra Hoyn, her own response
  • Pornography or not?
  • How can we photograph in such a way that it is empowering to those impacted by human rights violations?

Conclusion

  • Human rights point of view – Hoyn crossed a line, not a clear explanation of her work and intentions.
  • Alternative ways to raise these issues.
  • All sources offer incomplete understanding.
  • Personal photographic practice. How to raise issues without crossing ethical lines? The value of photographic documentation.

 

Assignment 4 – Ideas

I remember the first time seeing Sandra Hoyn’s The Longings of Others, photographs of the lives of young women and girls in a Bangladeshi brothel. They gave me a discomforting feeling and I wondered why. Was it the subject matter, which is discomforting in the first place, the way the project had been executed or the images themselves? Even if I felt like this, would that meant that I did not appreciate the work or saw its value? What kind of reasoning and which values formed the base Hoyn’s work and my feelings? Was I being too judgemental about the photographs  and why?

The Longings of Others has been received very well in the photo community, having won several prestigious prizes in the past year. There is obviously a wide appreciation for this type of work and subject matter. I wonder why.

A few weeks later I read the following post and discussion on Duckrabbit. I was triggered by their alternative view and clear ideas on the ethics of this kind of documentary photography. It triggered more questions:

  • What explains the popularity of showing sex workers in a documentary context?
  • Where do you draw a line between being a documentary maker or accomplice?
  • What is the effect of these images, regarding the subjects and the viewers?
  • Will it have the desired effect that the photographer has in mind?
  • What would I have done if I had been in the photographer’s shoes?

Based on all these questions, I started doing research for my 2000-word essay. I’ve read Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, done online research about this particular case and similar projects ( posted a question on the OCA forum for ideas for research and got a lot of good ideas:

  • You should look at Errol Morris book of Essay “Believing is seeing” and especially about the section about the Abu Grahib photos.

    There is also some really good essays in “Picturing Atrocities: Photography in Crisis”, especially toward the end – the one by Fred Richin should be of interest.

    These books bring the ideology of looking and reading an image to the forefront, they reminds us than ethics is not only about the moral aspect of it.

  • Try The Cruel Radiance by Susie Linfield.

    John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation may not deal directly with this but is nevertheless worth the effort to give you some basis for forming your own moral stance on representation in general, not just those suffering.

    It might also be worth thinking about who is doing the representation, read Primo Levi The Drowned and the Saved and maybe even Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

    It is not difficult to be looking too close to the particular case in this sort of research. Theories of the gaze, Feminist critique and a post-colonial perspective may seem wide of your topic but all feed into a full understanding of the whys and wherefores and can lead to a more reasoned argument.

  • You might find this James Nachtwey TED talk of interest … https://www.ted.com/talks/james_nachtwey_s_searing_pictures_of_war2

I have started reading and commenting more on the OCA Forum. I wish I had started doing that earlier, it helps me to stay connected, informed and motivated. Now I just need to reply a bit more to other students’ questions, although I don’t always know what to say!