Many images, One View – a look at photojournalism and documentary photography inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s speech ‘The Danger of a Single Story’.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think there is something rotten at the heart of much contemporary photojournalistic practice. I tried to put this off, I tried to admire those who had been to the toughest places, taken the toughest photos – things I knew I could never do. It was easier to self-criticise rather than raise my objections in the face of those who have shown determination and bravery in difficult situations. That is, until I realised that it wasn’t that I couldn’t do these things, it was that I didn’t think it would help anyone in any significant way if I did. And I think it’s to do with the often privileged photographer who tells the story and the underprivileged subject who must submit to the story. I see image after image produced by these privileged photographers who do not fully realise the great gulf that their privilege creates between them and their subject – no matter the sympathy with which they undertake their work – and despite the fact that there are so many thousands of pictures, I see only one view; only one story. Of course, critics have written in great depth about the power of the gaze and what it does to its subject, but I do think it’s worth locating this stance within photojournalism once again, and I think Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful and fierce speech about stories would be a good way to do that – because after all, photojournalism is about stories; telling stories, showing stories (1). Adichie essentially argues this: Stories have the power to persuade and define, and if the same story about someone or some groups of people you don’t know and will never meet is told again and again and again you are going to believe that that is the only story they can ever be a part of; that story becomes their whole identity. (Link to speech at the beginning of this article.)
Adichie describes how she first met the single and repeated story about Africa and about Africans that those in the West are told:
“I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked be me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position towards me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”
Adichie’s speech focuses upon literature, which is of course an important vessel for those limited and limiting stories which come to dominate discourse with the Western perspective. However, I’d also like to ask, what role did photojournalism play in Adichie’s roommate’s perception? Where did she get her ideas about Africa as a total and ongoing ‘catastrophe’
Photojournalism is largely responsible for the image that loomed so large in Adichie’s roommate’s mind that she could not conceive of an African as her equal. As Adichie says, her roommate ‘felt sorry’ for her ‘even before she saw’ her. One story, one image had obscured her vision of Adichie far beyond Adichie’s power to ever claim her actual image and identity back.Layer upon layer of imagery has depicted Africa (as if it were one country and not a huge continent) as an ongoing catastrophe involving famine, aids, poverty and helplessness. Similarly, we are surrounded by a swarm of images of Indian’s living in slums, drinking polluted water and so on. It is important to maintain a balanced view here: I am not stating that these images should not be sought out and should not be shown. It is vitally important that aid agencies and other charities and NGOs have images to move their supporters and to raise awareness. It is important that injustice is witnessed as this is the first step towards tackling it. However, it is also important that there are other images, not only to show the diversity of existence so that one nation or ethnic group are not repeatedly typecast but also for the very ends of the images of catastrophe – if we are to act against injustice and suffering we must feel there is an alternative for the subjects. The ongoing catastrophe of Africa, the ongoing helplessness of ‘Africans’, makes the Western viewer feel helpless as we see that our efforts mean nothing. Dangerously, we can begin to ascribe essential qualities to these apparently helpless Africans, we begin to read into them the spectre of famine, the lack of resources, the complete dislocation from the modern (read Western) world. Ultimately, it puts the West in the normative position: we are the modern world, we are informed, we should try to help – and the ‘third world’ other into the deviant position: they are behind, they are uneducated, they can’t do anything to help themselves. The West can then either look to this pathetic cousin with sympathy or choose to turn away, or worse, blame that cousin for its problems. Images that were meant to bring out our common humanity have divided us, and with this overpowering single story remaining so central in our vision it is increasingly difficult to challenge that division.
To take an example, we might regard Tom Stoddart’s widely acclaimed images of famine in Sudan. Now once again, I must stress that I am not criticising these images themselves, but I am asking, ‘Where are the other images?’ and, ‘Is there not something amiss in the fact that a photojournalist’s career is frequently built upon revealing horrror and suffering again and again?’, ‘Doesn’t it become overwhelming?’. Take a look at this image of emaciated people running for air-dropped food supplies: It’s hellish and huge and hopeless, the mass of people obscure the horizon and race to take the whole frame. They are seemingly endless and at such a distance they are multiple and indistinguishable.
Tom Stoddart, Sudan, 1998.
There are of course a variety of structures and frames in Stoddart’s story of the famine, but my argument is that this image is one that not only provides visual information for the local moment depicted, but one that also acts as a metaphor for the emotional and visual impact of the whole series. As Stoddart says, these pictures are “sad and necessary”, but he also urges the viewer not to feel ‘sorry’ but to feel ‘angry’. This is where I struggle: I want to feel angry but I just feel horrified. I see ongoing, all-subsuming catastrophe, I see a whole world of hopeless suffering entitled ‘Africa’, and I don’t know who has caused it. It seems apocalyptic and Biblical in scale – something handed down from a much higher power than myself and against which I cannot even hope to stand. Stoddart’s own words reveal the troubling enormity and vague identity of the enemy: “mankind’s greed, intolerance, prejudice, inhumanity, lust for political power, and sheer stupidity”(2). Perhaps if there were other images in my vocabulary about Sudan and about other countries in the North-Eastern area of Africa, told by other voices, told from many different perspectives, I would be able to question these images, analyse them and see them for what they were in an appropriate context. Rather than seeing terrible and blasted ‘Africa’ I would have African comparisons with which to understand this tragedy, with which to see that this isn’t the way Africa has to be; that this really is a specific tragedy that deserves specific action and that it is not the massive, ongoing, unstoppable reality of ‘Africa’.
It is also the case that it is not enough to make a one off ‘happy’ image to challenge the images of despair. I’m not suggesting that Stoddart should go out looking for some upbeat images after having shot the horror of the famine. Instead, we need a far-reaching, insightful variety of stories and a way to consistently bring them to a Global audience. Many of the ‘happy’ images of Africa and India and other ‘third world’ countries enter into the same power structures that depict these people as a homogenous mass. By these ‘happy’ pictures I am thinking of the images of poverty which are supposedly meant to subvert our assumptions about the impoverished other – the kind of images that people coo over saying ‘But look at their brightly coloured clothes,’ or ‘Look at how well they dance,’ or ‘Look at how cute that smiling kid is’- as if we should not have expected any of these features to exist in a continent as massive and various as Africa. In both cases, the West patronises and continues with the ongoing infantilising of ‘Africans’ which is rooted in the Colonial narrative and used to justify all kinds of control, interference and dominance. As Adichie reminds us, Rudyard Kipling called the African “half devil, half child” and this dichotomy still defines such imagery and stories today.
The problem is one of scale. Adichie summarises both the importance of recognising the power of the story and how this relates to issues of scale when she talks about the Igbo word, nkali:
“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali”. It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependant on power.”
Her definition, ‘to be greater than another’ is key – greater means both better and bigger. It is the scale of the imagery that is damaging – the vast amount of catastrophic images that come to represent ‘Africa’ relative to the tiny pile of alternatives. It also the scale of coverage, the power and size of the platform for these catastrophic images compared to the minimal platforms offered to other voices. Photojournalists may defend their position as ‘storyteller’ by pointing out that they have the greater access to an audience, they have better skills and better equipment, they have a bigger platform, but all of these things are symptoms of the disease of power inequality rather than the solutions. The photojournalist as the storyteller, even as he/she claims to be merely representing the story of an otherwise unheard other, is asserting him/herself as bigger and better than that other. The photojournalist has access to the platform the story needs and he/she essentially ventriloquizes the voices of vulnerable people in order to tell and retell the same overwhelming story of catastrophe. Perhaps this story would not be told if the photojournalist were not present, but on the other hand, perhaps this story is not fully told because of the photojournalist’s overshadowing presence.
As an example and metaphor we can look at Mike Well’s image, winner or World Press Photo of the Year 1980, which is often referred to as ‘Uganda’.
Mike Wells, Uganda, 1980.
Here the agony of scale is evident – not just in the immediate moment where a starving child’s hand is held by and compared with a fleshy white Missionary’s hand – but also in the grander meaning and resonance of this image. Both sides of the awkward paradox are illustrated: that the photojournalist enables the representation of an injustice and that the photojournalist overshadows the representation of an injustice. This image is tense with comparison: black/white, starved/well-fed, weak/strong, child/adult. The image relies upon comparison and division to make it’s argument – it’s very strategy is about division, and not about togetherness or common humanity, despite the half-attempted holding of hands between black and white that echoes anti-racist symbolism from America. Although the image makes a gesture towards unification, in fact it then reasserts the divide even more powerfully in the painful and totalising contrasts that it presents. These contrasts are made more powerful, and more dangerous, because they are ones that enter into the long-running narratives, discourses and symbols that surround the West’s patronising and narrow view of ‘Africa’: that ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ are somehow childish, frail and hellish compared to white Westerners . Once again, I stress, I am not saying this is a ‘bad’ image, what I am saying is its effect is dangerous, as much as it might be powerful, in a context where the Western viewer has few alternative points of reference for the country that is apparently depicted. The commonly used title of the photo, ‘Uganda’, raises this issue in all its totalising inaccuracy. The dislocation of hands from specific bodies – we cannot see a face with which to more specifically identify the two people – further universalises this image. It is an image that in both construction and title claims to speak for a whole nation, a kind of eternal truth, bigger than the two people whose hands are featured. It demands a grand scale in order to present something that is intrinsic, that is beyond the local image, and that ultimately adds to those Colonial narratives which infantilise and belittle Africans. In the absence of other imagery, in the absence of labels and identities through which to view this image as a specific tragedy, it dwarfs a complex idea of Uganda or Africa just as the white hand dwarfs the black. Although the fleshy white hand helps us to understand the suffering of the black hand, it also condemns that black hand to a contrast the photo asserts as universal. In the same way, the photojournalist helps us to understand suffering, but he/she also labels his/her subject as the ‘other’ who eternally suffers when other imagery is absent.
Perhaps an alternative is that the privileged photographers, writers and editors of the West need to pay some penance to this problem of scale. A group of people who recognise the value of stories within their own lives should surely wish to support and facilitate that value within the lives of others. If photojournalists truly wish to help people tell their stories – why don’t they do just that? For every image from which they make money that reaffirms the catastrophe of Africa, or the slum-life of India or the gang warfare of Columbia, perhaps story-telling professionals should donate a little bit of money to organisations that help disadvantaged people to tell their own stories and to move beyond images of helplessness. A storyteller’s equivalent of ‘carbon offsetting’. Like carbon offsetting, there is the argument that what is needed is a fundamental shift in perspective and behaviour, rather than token gestures, but also a bit like carbon offsetting, when opinion and practice is slow to change, some routine recognition of the imbalance is better than nothing and might actually foster that long-term shift in mentality. As these many stories told by many people reach new and bigger audiences with sponsorship and access to the platforms that major photographers and editors hold, perhaps we would see a new multi-view emerge in strength. Adichie’s Farafina Trust is one such an organisation that seeks to enable people to tell stories rather than tell the stories for them:
“My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust. And we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist, and providing books for state schools that don’t have anything in their libraries, also of organising lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.”
She concludes by clarifying the importance of facilitating these many stories:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
If storytelling professionals can then use their access to platform and audience – their advantage of greater scale – to disseminate and publicise other people’s stories, then the hugeness of the one image might be broken down into an overture made of many images, many views. In the context of many perspectives, each image can take on its own specific meaning and not have to submit to the larger meanings forced upon it by the photographer who may unwittingly enter it into a condemning, Colonial narrative.
1) See C.A.Lutz and J.L.Collins, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, 1991. And Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972. And also P. Phelan who writes, “The combination of psychic hope and political-historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.” (p.4) in Unmarked, 1993.