Photojournalists Seek New Audiences To Affect Change
April 02, 2006
In eastern Congo, warlords have seized control of the country's gold mines, exploited the labor of the local population, and perpetuated war and violence by using profits from the sale of gold to buy more weapons.
British photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale has been documenting this story, but after six years of covering conflict in Congo, he's learned to expect scant interest or support from U.S. and European magazines. Still, he was determined to find ways to make a difference with his pictures.
So Bleasdale teamed up with Human Rights Watch, which used his images in a recent report called "The Curse of Gold," and also exhibited the work in a Geneva bank lobby frequented by some of the European financiers of the African gold industry.
"It was a good spring board to educate not the general public—they can't do much about it—but to go directly to industrialists and financiers to show them the effects of their actions on the general population," says Bleasdale.
Bleasdale "named and shamed people," observes fellow photojournalist Paul Lowe. (The story is titled "Rape of a Nation" at <www.marcusbleasdale.com>.)
Bleasdale explains that his goal wasn't to shut down Congo's gold mining industry, but to wrest control of it from the warlords so that the resource can benefit the general population instead. At least one mining company has withdrawn from Congo while it works with Human Rights Watch to find a "more morally conscious way" of doing business there, he says.
Bleasdale is among a growing number of photojournalists looking beyond traditional outlets for their work. They are driven by necessity, of course, since support for documentary photography is dwindling among magazines and newspapers. But they are also driven by their activism to search for target audiences who are directly affected by the issues documented and who have the power to change things for the better.
"Photographers are asking, 'where's the audience? Where can we push this stuff,'" says Tim Hetherington, who has covered West Africa, particularly wartorn Liberia, for the last six years. "I'm not negating the press, but it's not enough to say I'm happy having work appearing on the printed page."
Hetherington feels an obligation to engage the communities he photographs. One way he reaches those communities is by mounting his images in fly-poster exhibitions in public spaces. "Fly-posters are easy to transport, easy to put up and space is not an issue," he explains. The idea is to help his subject communities recognize their own problems and to open dialogues about solutions.
Recently, he documented the historic Krio (Creole) houses of Freetown, many of which had been destroyed during a rebel attack on the city in 1999. One goal of the project was to help rebuild a photographic archive of Freetown's history, which had also been destroyed in the attack. While he was photographing the houses, some residents took him to task for focusing (yet again) on Africa's poverty.
But after he mounted an exhibition in Sierra Leone's National Museum, he says, "People were amazed by how beautiful the houses were, and started talking about the need to preserve them." Activists have since petitioned the government and UNESCO to provide funding for historic preservation, Hetherington says.
Paul Lowe, meanwhile, has spent the decade documenting the reconstruction of Bosnia, a story long forgotten by the media. Saqi Books recently published his book, Bosnians, and Lowe decided to mount an exhibition of the work in Sarajevo.
"The magazine industry is really jaded," he says. "When you show pictures to a photo editor, they'll say, 'Oh, these are really strong, but the editor won't like it.' When you show that quality of work to people who are not in the industry, they're often really blown away by it. They're astonished by the quality of the work and the level of comprehension and understanding that photojournalism can produce."
But to reach and move non-traditional audiences to action, photographers have to think more carefully about their goals, agendas and intentions, Lowe says. "If you don't really know who your audience is, then what's the point?" he explains. "My [instructions] to my students is to think of your audience first—whose opinion are you trying to change?—and therefore make your work much more tightly focused to that specific community."
One of his students, Morag Livingstone, has taken the advice to heart with her multimedia project on poverty in Scotland. Her goal, she says, is put pressure on the Scottish authorities to do more to alleviate poverty, especially childhood poverty. "We as photojournalists need to move on [and] use our art to promote causes, rather than just report the news."
Livingstone focused her project on the inability of the underclass to access amenities most Britons take for granted such as a warm winter coat, basic levels of nutrition, a bank account and Internet connection, to name a few. The regional government, called the Scottish Executive, has already concluded that the lack of inclusion helps perpetuate a cycle of poverty. But so far, the SE has lacked the will to allocate enough money to address the problem, Livingstone says.
The images on her 18-minute DVD show shabby living conditions, kids cooped-up indoors because playgrounds are covered with broken glass and stressed parents making choices between food and medicine or clothing. Scrolling text provides facts and figures about poverty and its effects, particularly on children. The voices of her subjects personalize the issues and music amplifies a sense of both desperation and hope.
"When I showed it to the mothers, they said, 'You can read about this [poverty] all you like, but until you see it, it doesn't become real,'" says Livingstone. (A version of the project is online at <www.livingstonesphotos.com>.)
Two small charities that originally helped her find subjects are now introducing her to larger charities with more political clout. Through them, Livingstone hopes to reach Scottish Executive rainmakers with her project. The charities are also trying to arrange a screening of the project at a global poverty conference the SE is hosting in Scotland in June. At the same time, Livingstone is trying to convince a large network of charity organizations to buy copies of her DVD for use as an educational tool so she can get some money to continue her work.
Photographers here in the U.S., meanwhile, are exploring similar issues of advocacy and audience. New York photographer Nina Berman, for instance, discovered by accident the surprising power of her Purple Hearts project when she started presenting it directly to high school students.
The project, about the lives of soldiers maimed in Iraq, began as a self-assignment. "I felt like I wasn't seeing a full picture of the war in the mainstream press," she says. The only U.S. magazine willing to publish any of the images was Mother Jones. Afterwards, a (then) obscure veteran's group named the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) saw the spread and got Berman's permission to use one of the images on its Web site. WWP ended up raising $50,000 in donations as a result, Berman says.
Meanwhile, her Purple Hearts Web site <www.purpleheartsbook.com> was generating inquiries from active duty soldiers, veterans' groups, political groups, educators and others. "I started thinking maybe there was another audience for this project, way beyond magazines," she says. An invitation to show her work at a New York City high school confirmed that. As she was showing the pictures, Berman says, she felt it dawning on the students that war was something other than what they were hearing from recruiters and seeing in military commercials.
"The reaction was so strong. It was something I had never experienced as a photographer, where you see an immediate reaction to your work," Berman says. "It was a mind-blowing feeling that pictures could do this in such a short period of time."
The experience has changed the way Berman is thinking about new projects. "In the past, I wasn't really concerned so much with the audience. I took my pictures as sort of a personal conversation with myself, as a way to kind of understand the world. But once you experience a reaction like I've experienced to these pictures, you don't want to go back to the old way."
Finding retail audiences for a project isn't always easy, though. Berman is currently working on a project about mega churches cropping up in American suburbs. Those churches have become a powerful political force and have changed the concept of church-going in America, Berman says. But she adds, "I'm not sure how I can turn this project into something beyond a magazine story."
Another challenge, related to finding audiences, is finding the funding to support such projects. Non-professional audiences often don't recognize the value of documentary photojournalism. And they're frequently too narrow or lacking in resources to provide much support anyway. That forces photographers to self-fund their projects, and then scrounge around afterwards for support from foundations and other charitable sources.
Berman won a $5,000 grant from the Documentary Photography Project at the Open Society Institute (OSI) to present her work at high schools and other venues around the country. The grant covered her travel expenses and exhibition costs, but didn't compensate her at all for the time and expense she spent on producing the project in the first place, she says.
OSI has provided limited support for the non-traditional distribution of a number of other documentary projects, including Bleasdale's gold project. (See our feature this month on PDNOnline, "OSI Grants: Bringing Photo-j Into Communities.")
Beyond OSI, though, sources of funding for advocacy projects are scarce. NGOs would seem like an obvious source of support, but most still don't use photography effectively.
One exception is Human Rights Watch which, in addition to working with Bleasdale on the issue of gold mining in Congo, has worked with Susan Meiselas in an effort to improve conditions for the Kurdish people, says Veronica Matushaj, HRW's director of photography.
"A lot of humanitarian groups use photography for fundraising, but we're using it for advocacy," says Matushaj. "We want the power of photography to help push our message out there, and change the destiny of people."
The challenge for photographers, then, is not only to find other organizations whose missions dovetail with their documentary projects, but to convince them that photography can move hearts, minds, and possibly even mountains. If only it can be presented to the right audiences.
To read our feature, "Photojournalism and Advocacy: Can They Mix?" visit PDNOnline, <www.pdnonline.com> this month, where we will also post a feature on the OSI Grant.
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