Photography as constructed reality

[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Photography is often seen as a medium that portrays an objective reality, showing the truth of a situation. Yet the subject, framing and composition of a photograph are all shaped by the subjective choices of the photographer. In other words, every photograph tells a story about the version of reality it is portraying. What is included in the frame (and what is left out), what the photograph makes its central focus and even the angle used to picture the subject all influence what message a photograph conveys.

The job of coaching program staff, volunteers and partner staff to make photos that are useful to MCC’s communications and fundraising work requires teaching culture, values and composition. Photographers need to learn what kind of photos MCC constituents in Canada and the United States will find engaging and inspiring and what MCC’s own internal values are around how people and projects are represented in images. This means showing project participants as active agents of change in their families and communities, even in times of adversity. Action shots, with smiling expressions, or portrayals of positive social interactions, represent the photographs used most often in MCC’s communication materials. Furthermore, effective MCC photographs must be grounded in strong technical composition, such as use of light and framing.

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In my work making photographs of MCC projects in Nepal and in coaching MCC Nepal staff and partners in making photographs for MCC use, I emphasized two main points. First: every photo tells a story. We tell stories about people who are triumphing over adversity, who have hopes and dreams for their future and who are taking action in their homes and communities to make positive change. The photos we make tell a story of Nepalis who are facing difficult circumstances, but who are resilient and capable, actively working for a better future for themselves and their country. Second: MCC is a partner in this work, not the owner of it. We show this through photographs that portray project participants as active and engaged rather than as passive subjects. Captions are also an important part of this, naming all people pictured in a photograph and explaining the role of the partner organization. Many partner organizations rely on MCC communications channels to help them share about their mission and work with the wider world. By agreeing to be photographed, or by providing photographs for use, both project participants and partner organizations are trusting MCC to tell their stories in a respectful way.

Yet there are tensions to be addressed as well. MCC’s preferred style of photography can at times clash with photography practices in other organizational cultures. In development organizations in Nepal, photographs are often used as evidence that project activities were completed. It is not uncommon for photographs to accompany a financial report as supporting documentation to back up the expenses made.

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Therefore, in the local organizational culture, the purpose of a photograph is to show that participants attended a training, or that relief supplies were delivered to survivors of a disaster. Evoking an inspiring emotion in the observer is less important than providing a visual proof that resources reached the intended beneficiaries.

Another common use of photographs in the culture of Nepal’s development organizations is to show the “neediness” of a situation to provide a justification for funding activities. When new staff members joined the MCC Nepal team, they required coaching and training in MCC’s culture of photography. Rather than focusing on documenting project activities, MCC focuses on telling impact stories of the positive changes happening in people’s lives because of their new access to resources. Instead of portraying people as needy victims, we portray people who are experiencing difficult situations, yet are resilient and capable of acting toward a better future. We show people who, with the support of MCC and partner organizations, act to bring positive change. My main coaching tool in training new staff members to take photographs for MCC was to look at photographs together in MCC calendars or other publications and ask the question “What story does this tell?” We then did the same exercise together looking at photographs taken by the staff members of local projects.

Cultural clashes in photography can also occur for social reasons. For example, in the case of Nepal, the general preference for photography is posed and formal, with the subjects dressed in their best clothes, and often with serious expressions. Many homes have family portraits like this on their walls. When a photographer for MCC wants to take spontaneous photos of people working their fields, or doing other manual labour, it can be uncomfortable for the persons being photographed since it is at odds with their preferences for how they want to present themselves in a photo. To address this, it is important for the photographer to understand and respect a person’s right to refuse to be photographed. This might also mean waiting for someone to go change out of their work clothes so that they can be photographed in their best clothes rather than their old clothes, even if the photos will still be taken of the person working in their field or tending their animals.

On a day hike in the Kathmandu Valley, I once took a photograph of some women carrying loads of manure from a pile by the road to spread in a nearby field. They were talking and laughing together as they worked, and it made a beautiful picture with their colorful clothes against the dark brown manure. When the women realized that I had taken their picture without asking their consent, they were very angry with me. I was a foreign stranger and had taken a photograph of them doing work that they were not proud of and felt demeaned by. I deleted the photo to respect their wishes.

In contrast, when I visited farming projects with MCC partners, the people I interacted with were receptive and willing to be photographed working in their fields. They knew and trusted the local partner staff members who had organized my visit. They knew who I was and why I was there. Often on these visits we would meet people at their homes and hear their stories of how they were involved with local projects, and then they would give us a tour of their farm, always willing to give a demonstration of working in their field or caring for their animals. The open communication and trusting relationship helped to break down cultural barriers so that people were open to being photographed in MCC’s action-oriented, positive style. If the photographer can succeed in explaining the purpose of the photos and how they will be used, and if they can explain the reasoning for why an action shot is more helpful to MCC than a posed shot, the person or group being photographed is usually willing to transgress their cultural norms to help the photographer achieve the desired photo.

Even after all the value sharing, cultural interpretation and relationship building work has happened, a photo will only be useful if it is also clear, in focus and well-framed. This requires that the photographer have a basic knowledge of photographic techniques, such as making sure the subject is not back-lit, and finds ways to compensate for the glaring mid-day sun in outdoor photos. In the end, an effective photo may look like a candid snapshot, but it is the result of many conscious and unconscious choices by the photographer to tell a particular story.

Leah Reesor-Keller was a food security advisor for MCC in Nepal from
2012 to 2014 and then MCC representative for Nepal from 2014 to 2017.

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