For PDN’s issue on Ethics and Photography (July), we interviewed an editor and five photojournalists, asking them about the role of the photographer as observer vs. advocate, when to intervene in a story, how to gain access to subjects honestly, and the journalist’s responsibility to their audience and their subjects. You can find these full interviews here. In this interview, photographer Ed Kashi talks about his work and the choices he has made when working on stories.
A photographer and filmmaker, Kashi has worked for both publications and NGOs, including National Geographic, Human Rights Watch, TIME and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A member of VII Photo, he is co-founder of talking Eyes Media, a non-profit that produces films, exhibitions, books and multimedia pieces on social issues. In addition to answering our questions, he directed us to a blog post he wrote about earning subjects’ trust, stepping out of the role of neutral observer and the impact photos can have on their subjects.
PDN: When you’re first making a connection with a potential subject, or seeking access to their homes and their private lives, what kind of relationship are you trying to establish? Is it important to keep a certain distance and formality to the relationship, and if so, why?
EK: It depends on the nature of my story or project, but if I am seeking a deep intimacy and if the subject’s story takes place in the interiors of their home, etc, then I try to spend as much time as possible with them inside their homes. I always try to clarify from the beginning what my needs are and show explicit respect for their boundaries. Some of this has changed over the years. Earlier in my career, I pushed harder for this kind of access, but over time I’ve learned to finesse these situations and gain the intimacy but show more respect for their privacy. Sometimes it works out beautifully and other times it’s tough and very uncomfortable. Particularly when dealing with other cultures with either traditional or religious norms that make this kind of access to private spaces very strange and unacceptable. It is important to keep a certain distance, as this relationship is quite unnatural, photographer to subject, but you can make it a beautiful experience if you stay aware, sensitive and clear of the boundaries. Some subjects just click and the relationship is very warm, friendly and I move from a formal approach to a much more relaxed and friendly relationship.
PDN: When subjects ask you implicitly or explicitly ‘what’s it in it for me?’ how do you respond to that?
EK: Thankfully this does not happen too often and I only address it only when necessary. I try to be honest. I’ve increasingly had situations, especially with refugees and people in poverty, ask why they should help me when nothing changes for them? That is the most challenging moment. But when it’s asked explicitly I am always very clear who I am, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and what I want to achieve. Most of the time my goal is to benefit them in some way, either by telling their story, giving them a voice, or actually to advocate to raise awareness or foment solutions for their plight, or the issue they are facing.
PDN: Do subjects ever ask you for anything in return for access? What kinds of things have they asked for, and how do you handle those situations?
EK: Over the years I’ve been asked for many things by my subjects, from marriage to a passport or visa to America, for money, food, clothing, transportation, friendship, the list is endless. The only time I ever give anything, and it’s happened 10-20 times in close to 30 years of doing this work, is to give food, transportation, and sometimes companionship. There have been only a few times I’ve given money, but I feel very uncomfortable doing this. Those times I did it was to reward ambition. Last year I was in Sri Lanka working on my personal project about Chronic Kidney Disease and one of my subjects was sick, along with his father, with the disease at the heart of my project. They could not get out of the house to work, but the son showed me his fish farm in the back year and said he needed money to expand. I broke my rules and gave him some money. This is very rare. I do not give money to people that are poor or in vulnerable situations, otherwise that would be my full-time job and that is not my purpose. This is one of the many conundrums of doing this work.
PDN: Do you consider yourself a neutral observer when you’re working on a story? Is your goal “objectivity”? (and if so, how do you define that term?)
EK: It depends on my story, the assignment, project, purpose and goal. Increasingly I find myself less objective and more engaged with the issues I cover in my personal work as well as my commissioned work. Objectivity is important as a way to maintain an open mind and heart, listen clearly and not believe some predetermined narrative or opinion. Yet I find so many issues in the world, and America included, where there is an injustice and finding a way to show it with clarity and honesty is a guiding principal. As I’ve said before, journalism can be a force for good, and visual reporting and storytelling can make a difference in people’s lives as well as with some of the most pressing issues of our times. The problem with the term objectivity is when it means you cannot be passionate about what you observe and take a side, so your work can have greater impact. If objectivity is to always show both sides and be neutral, then that feels like a neutered approach to reporting.
PDN: What are examples of things that subjects have asked you to do for them over the course of time you’re working with them, and how have you responded to various asks?
EK: I’ve been asked more than once to get someone a visa to America, which of course I’ve declined to help. I’ve been asked many times for money and instead give nothing or buy some food. I’ve been asked to drive subjects to doctor’s appointments, to go shopping, to attend events, etc. I base these decisions on the needs of my subject and the needs of my story. I find that to stay completely uninvolved in their affairs is both insensitive, given they are making accommodations in their lives for my needs, and also foolish in terms of making a stronger bond of trust and cooperation. Working with subjects is a collaboration, no matter what people say. Our subjects give us permission, whether in an encounter that lasts minutes or years. It’s disingenuous to think otherwise. Yet we have ethical and moral boundaries to follow as journalists, and while they can sometimes be grey lines we must never lose sight of them. Subjects have become lifelong friends or acquaintances, so to treat everyone in a cold, clinical manner is not my approach.
PDN: Related to that, If you see that a subject needs some kind of help and you’re in a position to provide it, do you? why or why not? (by help, we mean transportation, help with bureaucracy, a small purchase such as food or medicine, or anything else)
EK: I believe I have already answered this, but let me elaborate and add some more examples. I have also taken subjects to the hospital in emergency situations, helped bring back the dead body of a subject to the family home for burial, taken part in watching over the death of an elderly person. See my blog post.
PDN: If a photographer who has helped a subject says, “I’m a human being first and a photojournalist second,” what’s your reaction?
EK: To be a better human being is to be a better photojournalist.
PDN: Do you sense a generational difference in how photojournalists set boundaries with subjects? If so, what are the differences, and what do you think explains them?
EK: I do not see this in my observations. I will say that when I was in Baghdad in 2004, and probably one of the older photojournalists there (I was in my late 40’s), there was one situation that struck me. A group of us went to Sadr City to photograph in a morgue with dead bodies, the morning after an American attack. There were dead children among the bodies. I began to shed tears and choke up. I noticed that the younger photographers reacted as though my reaction was strange. I had the sense they viewed this as a “great opportunity” for images. I was, of course, aware of the power of the situation, but I was mostly shaken by the death, sadness and anger of the people in the community that were affected. I don’t know if this points to a generational difference or an age and maturity element.
PDN: When you mentor students, do you talk about boundaries with subjects? If so, how has that conversation changed from the conversations you had with your own mentors early in your career?
EK: I have never had a mentor, which is something that I regret. As for my own mentoring of others, I speak about retaining the respect and dignity for our subjects, the importance of understanding how we impact their lives and in certain situations how must behave. As time goes on, experience has shown me that we cannot act like vultures or opportunistic voyeurs. We must understand what we are seeing, who the characters are, how their lives are being impacted by the issues they face and also our presence. I have found that the more conscious I am about these factors, the better my images are and my experience.
PDN: Who are your major editorial clients now, and what influence do you think they have on how much distance you maintain from your subjects? And related to that, are your rules of engagement with subjects different when you’re on assignment v. when you’re working on a self-funded project?
EK: While my work continues to be published on the digital platforms of The New Yorker, National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek, the Guardian, etc, my current clients are more in the foundation, NGO and nonprofit worlds. With those clients, adhering to the principals of protecting your subjects is much stronger than in the editorial world.