Day 6: The Power of Photography 20 May 2012
Ever since yesterday I cannot stop thinking about Justine and her friends, they way their faces lit up when they saw the camera, held it, saw the pictures that were taken. I love photography and taking pictures, but their enthusiasm for it was far beyond what I have ever experienced. It was absolutely incredible.
The joy that one picture, especially a portrait, brings these children is something I cannot even explain with words.
When I think about how some of these children may have never seen themselves in a mirror, let alone a camera or a photograph of themselves… I try, but can’t quite comprehend what that must feel like. I grew up looking in the mirror, taking pictures all the time and posing and having “model photoshoots” with my sister when bored. I cannot remember the first time I saw a camera, my picture, my reflection in a mirror, anything… for me it is just… normal. It was bewildering to learn that this was not the case for these children. I had never sat down and pondered about this. If I had, of course the idea does not seem irrational or far-fetched, but since it is such a normal thing for me, I never thought of thinking of the power a photograph can have prior to coming here.
Some children know that muzungus (white people) have cameras that show the image in the back, and after taking their picture they look at you and at the camera, waiting for you to turn it around and show them the result. Others are surprised when this happens. But all of them, no exceptions, laugh like crazy when they see themselves on the screen! A timid laugh, but such a joyous one! True, true happiness.
There are also those that have asked me to take a “snap” of them. The ones that know a little English say “photo?” And the children… they just look at the camera with those beautiful eyes, full of excitement, enthusiasm and curiosity. Often they do not speak, but it is not hard to decipher what they want.
On the day we went to the market a young man walked towards me from one of the fabric shops and standing straight and still in front of me asked, “my photograph?” I never saw that man again, I interacted with him for about one minute and then he left, and I left. He saw his picture for about five seconds. I took the camera, with his photograph. He wasn’t even able to keep the photograph, but he was still so happy and excited to have it taken. Then there are those that have little interest in the camera and become offended if asked to take a picture of them, like the ginger woman at the market.
I find the stark contrast very interesting, yet so logical. Just like when we were walking around the market and everyone looked at us, taking pictures sometimes receives a similar response. And I could not understand them more. Who are we to go around taking pictures of people, as if they were museum pieces, or pretty flowers with bees on them? Since when have people and their surroundings, because they are so drastically different from our reality, become an object of art? Of exotic material worth showing to our friends and families so that they may see how far we went, how poor the people are, how horrible their lives are, how much they suffer. Again, we have no right to do so and should be ashamed if that is what our objective is when we point the camera at someone or something.
This had crossed my mind before, while in the US, but I had never pondered on it, nor did I know the answer to whether or not that was actually the reality. Realizing this has truly challenged me to reflect and question myself as to why… why do I take pictures of these people and their country? Am I unconsciously doing the same thing that upon reflection find so repulsive? Treating people as objects? Artifacts from a far off land, from another reality? As a sort of entertainment to show first world citizens to widen their knowledge of the world? I will be honest, this is not something that has been easy for me to do. Today I was taking some pictures of a few children we saw along the road and these questions and thoughts kept bugging me. I want to believe that I am not using my photography for these reasons. And I truly think that that is the truth. But I can’t help but to think that it could well be mistaken for all those selfish motives.
In reality, there are various reasons why I am so interested in photographing the people here in Uganda. And yes, one reason is because of the empathy component. Back in the US I saw many pictures of African children, on National Geographic, on the internet, on pamphlets of charities and NGO’s asking for donations to help the starving children. These photographs caused such empathy in me that more than once I donated money, read more about an issue, and tried to tell my friends, family and myself to be more grateful for what we have. And I know that others with more economic resources donate larger amounts of money, and travel to places like Uganda to help people, and create foundations, and build hospitals and schools like many of the ones we see here. And all because of photographs that they saw of individuals living in a reality different from theirs. This is one of the aims I hope to achieve with my photography here. But I have noticed that that is not as easily said than done. There is a fine line that separates the search for empathy in others and the use of human beings as objects of marketing, status or profit. And it is that line that scares me.
However, once I started reflecting on this, I realized that apart from the fact that I hope that one day my photography can help these individuals and not just remain as memories of a journey, there is something else about Uganda that draws me to photograph it. And that, I found out is the happiness of the children. It is so REAL. HAPPINESS as I have never seen it before. The children here are carefree, liberated, independent, brave, strong, curious, and confident. I am not sure why, but I just cannot help but to try to capture their character in their photographs. I don’t know if I photograph them because I want to remember their faces, their smiles, and their spirit, or simply because I want others to see their beautiful smiles. Those reasons seem so selfish to me that it’s hard to think about them.
But there is one aspect, the most important, about the children in particular that makes me want to spend hours and hours photographing them (as opposed to most adults or places) and that makes me feel better about the selfish reasons: their response. Like I said, they get so happy when they see their picture! They have very difficult lives, yet they see themselves on a screen and they seem to be the happiest children in the entire world! I keep on telling myself that I am making them happy with my photography, and thus, I am not doing anything wrong. But am I? Is this just an excuse that my unconscious mind is making? Am I just another self centered girl with a camera taking pictures of poor little Ugandan children to show my friends and family? I hope not. Yes, I want my friends and family to see them, their smiles are so beautiful and their laugh so contagious. And I want to somehow help them! But how? Is photography really going to do that?
I am getting confused. I am going to sleep; it’s too late to be thinking about this, I will get a headache.…. Maybe that’s an excuse too…
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