One of the hardest things to reconcile as a photographer interested in using photography to explore and enhance people’s lives is how exactly to do this without being exploitative. When I started working with the ICP community programs, teaching photography to teenagers and young kids it was partly because in my own life, photography had provided me with a direction, a reason to explore and ask questions and a desire to seek answers. Photography had become the pivot around which my interest in everything else spun and had helped me focus on what I wanted to do with my life. Of course, I was in the privileged position of being able to make that choice, though it has taken me many years of hard work to get started on the path to where I want to be. I thought that if I could take what photography has done for me and pass on some of that to a younger generation then it would help them on their own path, as it has helped me.

I used to think that it was ok to turn up somewhere, take some photographs and get them published. That it would be enough to tell a story in the hope that someone, somewhere might see it and do something about it and to a certain extent I still believe this is the core of a journalist’s role. However, we are human beings before we are reporters, artists, documentarians or whatever and we should be doing more than that. Thankfully, many people do just that. People work with organizations, charities, governments and NGO’s. There are many journalists and photographers who will help those they are photographing on a personal level and not just point a camera in their face, take a snapshot and disappear.

I believe that more and more this is the way a journalist should behave. As a photographer, as an artist, it is important to engage with the world around you. To make an effort to work with the community and not just become part of the pack engaged in what has been labeled as ‘disaster tourism’.

There are things in this world which concern me greatly but one of the reasons I don’t hop on a plane to the latest war zone or disaster area is that I am not sure I'd feel like I was helping much. Don’t get me wrong, I have utmost respect for those who do go to the most stricken areas around the world at a moments notice and show us what is happening there and I know for a fact that many of them often struggle with the notion that they can only stay for the briefest of periods and that when they leave, others stay. I know of correspondents who have returned again and again to places, who have made lifelong commitments and are fully engaged with the work they do.

The question as always is what do I do and how? Is this really making a difference to anybody. Over at the excellent blog by Jim Johnson – (Notes On) Politics, Theory & Photography – I came across the work of Photographer JR and in particular the project Women Are Heroes.

He has focused on women who are leading difficult lives by virtue of their surroundings, dealing with war, disaster and crime as a constant neighbor. Looking at this project brought up some of the above issues – how involved is JR with the communities and vice versa. To what extent is this work actually helping the women he photographs for the project. The website for Women Are Heroes includes the portraits he has done, video footage of the process, and some contextual photography of the places where he is working.

Sierra Leone


I love the project’s concept. I think the portraits are excellent and I think the way he has chosen to display the work is very powerful, but I wish there was more information on the women involved. There is only a short video in which a woman describes being attacked by men. This is not enough. More detail on the plight of these women is needed to put the project in its proper context.

The other thing that is missing is the result and the effect of this work. What happens after these portraits have been displayed in the community? What happens to the women?

In all fairness, this last point is a claim that could be leveled at almost all photographic projects carried out, but isn’t that the crux of the issue?

When I was a student I attended a lecture by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. They had some very interesting things to say about the role of photography as documentary in today’s world but one thing really stuck with me. They said that the projects they do are always ‘Unresolved’.

This is always a struggle for me. When I lived in London I photographed the lives of my friends and the culture we were engaged in. I photographed the nightlife and club scene in England simply because it was my life. I knew it and was part of it. It is one of the hardest things in the world to step out of your own life, to enter into someone else’s and record it faithfully. There are many ways people have done this but often the result is – as Broomberg and Chanarin so accurately pinpointed – unresolved.

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