Why information should remain free, but I will stilll charge for my photography

Well, my last post caught the attention of Jörg Colberg over on his Conscientious blog and I have to say I took objection to a couple of angles he took in his post as I felt he had misunderstood what I wrote. Despite what Jörg wrote, I am fully in favour of people paying for content, but my argument was that charging people directly for accessing information through the Internet in the form of a paywall is something I do not agree with and it will not suddenly increase the funding of quality journalism - nor return it to the mythical age when journalism was well funded (which didn't ever really exist in the first place) - even if I think it will become more common. Therefore, if I want to continue to pursue photojournalism as a career then I cannot rely on the news organisations alone being the source of funding for me to do it, however they generate revenue. This would be true if the NY Times charged me $2 a day to read it online the same as they do in print.

However, Jörg tells me he was actually arguing in my favour and trying to state that the content producers should be getting more money for what they produce and therefore not have to rely on other sources of income - a point I couldn't agree with more! So it turns out that over the course of a few emails it came to pass that we actually agree on a number of points and I had misunderstood him as much as I thought he had misunderstood me. Blimey, what a lot of misunderstandings... In any case, the exchange did prompt me to think a little more about the issue of charging for online content.

I used to work in the post production industry. Most of what we did was advertising jobs. I like to think I developed some sort immunity to the effects of advertising (which probably is just the kind of self delusion advertisers prey upon) but I remember thinking and remarking to anyone who would listen that advertising would kill the Internet. Perhaps a little over dramatic, but then I'm given to hyperbole on occasion. However, what I really meant is that commercial interests will destroy the Internet and I still think this is true. For me, the Internet strength comes from the fact that anyone with a computer and a connection can access and contribute to a tremendous amount of information and debate. I'll only mention in passing that the big drawback of this is that many many people are excluded from that debate and denied that information precisely because they don't have the privilege of being able to access a computer and a connection. Not a small point, but I'll gloss over it for now.

One thing that has become apparent in the media industry is that by giving away their content online, they have shot themselves in the foot (financially speaking) by allowing people to read and view for free what they used to have to pay for by buying the paper or magazine. There is no doubt a general decline in sales and revenue across the board as more and more people access their information online. The biggest mistake I see though is when organisations try to translate the business model that worked for print to the web.

Last year, I wrote in a post that "It is my opinion that we users will need to pay for content online in some way shape or form. If this does not happen, then all our news will become 'infotainment' and advertisers will rule. Ever seen the film Idiocracy? That vision of the future looks very likely unless we realise that advertisers are not philanthropists and if we want to see and read quality content, and moreover if we want that quality content to be produced at all then we will have to pay for it. If we don't then others will pay for the content they want, and the real news will be buried further under advertisements for Victoria's Secret and the latest relationship woes of movie stars. I think the future of news and information will exist both online and in print. Daily, breaking news will be delivered online, as the medium is perfectly set up in order to deliver this information in away that can be constantly updated. More in-depth analysis will exist online but I see it being published in print on an infrequent basis. Perhaps some of it will only exist in print. It takes me all week to read the Sunday Times anyway. A good example of this already exists in the form of one of my favourite photography publications - FOTO8. Their magazine is published bi-annually while they're website is updated regularly with photo-stories, articles and blogs. They also have a physical presence in the form of a gallery and host talks and presentations. I don't know what their balance sheet looks like but in theory it looks good to me. I read online and I subscribe. Their content is something I want to see/read and as such they have my eyes and my money. And that is what any publisher is after; bottom line."

Given the above, it may seem strange that I advocate free access to content on the Internet, but in reality it is not so strange. Yes I think that all those who produce the content (which includes me) should get paid for doing so, so where should that money come from? The business model will have to change. I think this will be a huge problem for large corporations as I see the future of successful media outlets as being an interconnected series of 'boutique' operations, with smaller individual overheads, a dedicated and passionate cache of contributors and a variety of revenue streams that all flow together to fund the operation. This would require a restructuring of the company. The larger the company, the harder this is.

For a large newspaper for example, this may mean creating smaller newsrooms split up and independently operating, while all contributing to one aggregate site. These dedicated newsrooms would then engage with and source from the wider community of their readers through comments, blogs, links and social media - the web based 'cloud' that is such a hot topic right now. With online content accessible for free, the Internet based 'front page' would be the first place the news reader/consumer would go to find breaking news and links to the wider content of that organisation. The organisations edges would blur into the wider web in this way, as is quickly becoming the case now. Users could tailor the 'front page feed' to suit their interests or locale - this tailoring could even be a premium service the organisation could charge for, the content would be the same but for a few dollars more you could have it sifted and sorted for you according to your own criteria. A weekly print edition provides an overview of breaking news and in depth articles on important events or ongoing trends and offers an opportunity for those without a computer to access some of the information and for traditional designers to go to town with their craft. Anthologies of content on particular themes or by particular authors are published and sold. Events, talks and presentations are hosted and charged for. Services are offered, such as the travel section offering holiday packages though a partner organisation. If some of this sounds familiar, it's because it is already done. I just see it becoming a more prominent part of the way media organisations work and how they use that to generate money.

In his post, Jörg quite rightly points out that someone will have to pay, and - until the abolishment of money - I wholeheartedly agree. Though he is wrong about my own situation when he writes that; "In this case, it's Tom's wife bringing in the regular wage, thus - essentially - paying so that Tom can do his job." I have to say in my defense that I do earn enough money from my job to support myself, but currently only myself - what my wife's wage allows us to do is live in a decent sized house and have two wonderful kids and a family holiday a year - things I would not be able to do with my current earnings alone, and for which I am most grateful to my wife for that quality of life her hard earned wage provides. My aim is of course to increase my earnings so that I may better contribute to and improve upon the quality of life I enjoy. As I said to Jörg, based upon what I earned last year I could have survived but I would most likely have been only able to afford renting a room in a tiny shared apartment without a cable tv subscription and other such luxuries. He is absolutely right to point out to me that that should not be the case and that the work I do should earn me enough to have a good standard of living. Too true. Would I like to earn more? Sure I would, and I'm working on it believe me! I would have loved to have been able to spend ten times the amount I did on my kids christmas presents, so yes please, more money for what I do would be welcome.

As it stands though last year less than half my earnings came from freelance photojournalism. The rest came from teaching, private commissions and print sales. As I say, it didn't add up to a hell of a lot, but it was enough to survive and even fund some new equipment. But as I have pointed out, my situation is not unusual for photographers working in the fields of journalism and documentary. Many of us effectively live hand to mouth. The truth is though that my income will continue to come from various photographic practices and as I'm only (officially) 3 years into my career as a professional photographer I'm still finding out what these are.

So who should pay for the content? Well, one person who should pay is the one who is reading and consuming. I do think that ultimately a lot of this will be done indirectly as it were, with the consumer paying for products, specialised content and services they can access via the free portal of the web. For example, if I can read an article by a journalist for free, and I am interested in what they write and want to know more, I might wish to purchase an anthology by that author available to buy through a link by the article. A journalist may wish to only release certain content through a print medium, thus creating a source of income that way - similar to the way musicians might offer a download version of their album but then have a higher priced special edition with fancy packaging for those who wish to buy into that. I certainly hope this will be the case, as otherwise someone like me, who is interested in thoughtful, reasoned, informed and in depth information, but has very shallow pockets is going to be out priced in my ability to fund the content I want by the advertisers who want me to watch American Idol, drink coke and buy a new car. Which, in fact, may well happen anyway.

This is my fear; that charging people for access to Internet hosted content will actually close down debate, reduce the flow of information and take the best thing about the Internet and destroy it. The free access to information, and the ability to freely share it is such an amazing concept that to ruin it for the sake of a profit margin seems insane to me. We have to stop trying to put a monetary value on everything we do and find another way to quantify the value of things (believe it or not there are other options but I won't start with that now...)

I believe that instead of worrying how much to charge for online content, we should be celebrating the ushering in of a new age where we participate in a truly global community and that we can share and learn with people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures to our own, where people produce content they truly care about and have a stake in beyond the reward of a pay cheque. The potential to unite and solve problems is greater than ever and if we reduce this flow of information to the status of commerce, we are doing no less than taking an backward step in the evolution of our consciousness that will take generations to undo.

See, I told you I was given to hyperbole.

Anyway, take this blog for example. Nobody pays me to do it. It takes up a good deal of free time I could be using to do something else (like earn money) and the benefits of doing it are so hard to quantify that it often seems to make no sense why I should even engage in the activity at all. But that is not why I do it. For me, it is like a notebook, but instead of being one that contains information I keep to myself or can pass around and share with a few friends, it is one that potentially anyone can read, add to and comment upon. Is that of benefit to me? Without a doubt. Is it worthwhile to anyone else? Maybe, maybe not. I hope so. In the near impossible scenario of someone sending me a thank you note and a cheque for a $1000 because they enjoyed or appreciated something I put on here am I going to send it back? Hell no, but I would never charge you to read it up front. If you like this is one of the areas where I choose to give away content for free in the form of my thoughts and opinions on photography related matters.

My photography itself is a different matter. I do it because I love it first and foremost. It is a skill I have worked at, studied, practiced. My cameras cost money. My studies cost money. You can see a number of my pictures for free, because I post them on a blog and I have a website (in need of an update). But, if you want me to produce a print of one of my pictures, that is a product that I am not willing to give away for free. If you want me to take pictures of a particular subject or event, that - for the same reasons - will cost you. If you want me to teach and train you, that'll cost you. Unfortunately I live in a capitalist society. Photography is what I am selling, it is my products and services. At a certain level I will give it away (low res versions hosted on my blog, charity causes and occasionally for other various reasons). But, if the only way you could consume my photographs was for free on the Internet, I'd either think about charging for access (which I object to) or I'd have to rethink the way I earn money.

Because I want to keep putting my work on my blog (and will eventually get round to updating my website) so you can see it without paying, then guess what I'm trying to do. If I want to continue the journalism aspect of my photography, and get paid by an organisation for them to use and distribute that work, then I am hoping that they too will come up with a way of funding such content while still keeping the access to information online free. In fact, I know that that is in the central point around which the whole debate hinges.

The truth is that there will be no one size fits all solution and that a variety of evolving measures will have to be implemented depending on the circumstances, and that is why the answer to the questions of who should pay, for what and how much are so difficult to answer in a general way and why most of the debate throws up more definite arguments and opinions about what should not, rather than what should be charged for.

Well, this post has gone on for long enough, but I'm sure it's not the last I will write on the matter. I'll close with a link emailed to me by Jörg (which I never did thank him for so - thanks Jörg!). It is for the Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab blog. I had never seen it before and it is excellent. The particular post he pointed me to is this one which in turn led me to enough reading material to keep me occupied for a long time. And none of it I had to pay for. Well, directly at least.

Why information should remain free

The internet is a means to distribute information. Many people often confuse distribution with content. This may have something to do with the philosophical aspects of media criticism with many using Marshall McLuhan's 'The medium is the message' mantra. No doubt McLuhan's excellent book, a copy of which sits on my shelf while quotes from it are seared into my brain, is a masterful piece of critical thinking, but it also serves to add to the confusion that content and the means of communicating that content are the same thing. They are not. What McLuhan meant is that the medium is a message; the re-imagining of the way we view the world of information. Content and message are intertwined of course, but they are different entities. Think of the old line: 'Don't shoot the messenger!'

Following on from this, David Campbell recently wrote part 5 of his 'Revolutions in the media economy' entitled 'The pay wall folly for photographers', where he eloquently argues the point (again) that journalism has never been funded by media revenue to the degree that many who talk about some mythical golden age of journalism seem to think.

He notes - importantly - that newspapers have never charged for content per se but instead for the paper and ink. This is backed up by the fact that the lion's share of a newspaper's costs goes to printing and distribution. This is where most of the money goes. Not to the journalists, who have always - in the main - worked long hours for low pay. If I work out my hourly pay for a freelance photography job, it is usually pretty shocking (so I don't do it unless I feel like scaring myself into chasing more work...) and as I freelancer, I have to provide my own (expensive) equipment.

It is my personal belief that media organisations will charge for accessing content. Some already do and others are in the process of putting a paywall in place. Whether this will work as a long term strategy or not, I am skeptical. I think this is because they have looked and failed to come up with a strategy for making money for themselves by using the internet. The point is that the cost of distribution using the internet is so much lower than the cost of printing and distributing a physical copy that it is difficult to justify the charge, and that is how many consumers see it. Personally, I long for a future where information is freely available, knowledge is freely shared, money is obselete and we all live in peace and harmony. But then I would probably only use my camera to record memories and take up farming or something instead.

But I digress. Is it doom and gloom for photographers and journalists? Not at all. As the internet has exploded and evolved I have come across so much more work than I would have in the past. I still buy newspapers, magazines and journals because I find them useful as objects. I like them. I can carry them about easier than a laptop sometimes. I hate reading stuff on a handheld (but I do that too sometimes). A lot of them I discovered through the internet. Indeed, many I buy over the internet. And here is the key for me. The internet is a great tool for the distribution of content, but it is also a potential market place for goods. The buying and selling of goods and services is what generates revenue. To argue that journalism is a service is one thing, but you are not going to convince many wallets to open with that argument.

David Campbell writes: "The successful visual journalist in the new media economy is therefore going to be someone who embraces the logic of the web’s ecology, using the ease of publication, distribution and circulation to construct and connect with a community of interest around their projects and their practice. Like the media players beginning to understand that developing and engaging a loyal community is more valuable than chasing a mass audience (while being open so those passers-by can become associates), photographers need to do the same. If people now understand they are publishers as well as producers this puts them in a new and potentially powerful position."

He also links to this interesting article by Eric Schmidt, the chairman and CEO of Google Inc. He argues quite well on the point that the free nature of accessing information on the internet is a benefit, not a drawback. He writes: "The flow of accurate information, diverse views and proper analysis is critical for a functioning democracy. We also acknowledge that it has been difficult for newspapers to make money from their online content. But just as there is no single cause of the industry's current problems, there is no single solution. We want to work with publishers to help them build bigger audiences, better engage readers, and make more money.

Meeting that challenge will mean using technology to develop new ways to reach readers and keep them engaged for longer, as well as new ways to raise revenue combining free and paid access. I believe it also requires a change of tone in the debate, a recognition that we all have to work together to fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age."

I currently have a freelance contract with one newspaper, which impresses people who are not in the industry. If I did a job for them every day, then I might be on a livable wage, but I don't. In fact, at the time of writing I haven't worked for them for over a month. Last year I made money from freelance journalism, teaching, print sales and private commissions. It wasn't a lot, but this is my future and is probably the future for many in my field. The internet will help me distribute my work, but it is not in itself going to pay my bills or put my kids through college. I am lucky that my wife brings in a regular wage from her day job which allows me to have a family in the first place and not worry if next month's work is going to pay the rent or not. If I am going to survive and thrive, I have to understand how the internet can work for me. If newspapers charge a subscription fee for online news, I may well be one of the ones who pays it, but I am under no illusion that that business model is going to increase my revenue or even save my freelance career.

Onè Respe

All proceeds go to the American Red Cross International Response Fund for Haiti relief.

Several photographers, including the iconic photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, have donated photographs to help create this special fund-raising collection of captivating images to benefit the people of Haiti. The title Haiti: Onè Respe comes from a traditional Haitian greeting meaning "honor and respect."

Since MagCloud has generously offered to pay for the printing costs, your purchase price will be donated in full to the American Red Cross International Response Fund for Haiti relief.

Axel Öberg in Haiti

First thing this morning I received the above picture from a friend of Mine, Axel Öberg, who is in Haiti working for the Swedish press. This is a short conversation I had with him:

Tom White: Hey Axel, So you are in Port Au Prince right? But first you were in Jacmel.

Axel Öberg: Right. I landed in Jacmel on Friday morning, we flew in with a Danish team and was the first journalist there. On Sunday I took a motorbike north through the mountains to Leogane which was close to the epicenter of the quake. Then I went to Port-au-Prince

Tom White: How were things there in Leogane? Most of the media attention is on the capital but there must be a lot of devastation elsewhere too?

Axel Öberg: Yes, Leoagane was really bad, one in ten is dead and 80% of the houses are gone, at least that's what I was told

Tom White: Is the aid effort mostly centered in Port Au Prince still? I read this morning that the migration of Haitians from the capital out to the countryside has begun in earnest. Are aid teams and medical workers following them?

Axel Öberg: I actually dont know, Feels like people outside have better understanding of the overall picture.

Tom White: Tell me a little about that. What is it like on a day to day in the city. Do people have an idea of what is going on or is it too chaotic.

Axel Öberg: I think apathy (?) is a better word. At least the first days, now people seem to become desperate. The US military has taken over the airport to keep people out, I was threatened to get shot by a federal agent.

FED: where are you going?

Me: To do a story on a Swedish UN worker.

F: Lots of journalist say that and the tries to get on a plane, If I see you trying to get on a plane I shoot you.

Me: Why?

F: Because its a federal crime to lie to me.

Me: Ok.

Then I walked off.

Tom White: Right, so a bit of good old martial law then. As a tall blond Swedish guy you must stand out a little, even among foreigners. How do the Haitians respond to you?

Axel Öberg: Ok, everybody ask for money supplies anything. Nobody knows Sweden, but everybody knows Swedish soccer player Zlatan from Madrid. Good icebreaker.

Tom White: I get that too sometimes when I'm abroad. They know England, but often it's Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool FC they talk about first. Football is universal right.

Axel Öberg: I guess so. I don’t even like football but now I’m happy for it.

Then, just as I was about to ask him about supplies, food and drink, electricity and the like, he disappeared offline. Either he had to go, his internet went down, or the electricity was cut. It seems like he'll be there for a while so hopefully I'll hear from him again at some point soon.

UPDATE: I received this message from Axel later in the day, while I was out:

Axel Öberg: There’s not any electricity, they started giving out food, but not enough it seems like. My reporter brought food and water from Dominican Republic so we won’t live off aid food for the Haitians. Since I’m working for a tabloid it’s lots of case stories, Today we been chasing the two kids that been rescued after 8 days which included finding a Israeli army hospital, after that an American rescue team, finding the house where they were rescued in some shanty part of PaP, then having to find the place where they were supposed to stay now, It turned out they moved to a city outside PaP. Going there, not being able to find them and then finding out that SUN had taken them somewhere else to get everything exclusive... so no shooting more or less today, so it’s been very frustrating not to be able to shoot just spending all day in a car chasing a story and just seeing other stories rolling by in the car window...

Divine Horsemen

This is the title of a remarkable book by Maya Deren, a woman whose work I first saw as part of a film festival in London around 2001. It describes in intimate detail the rituals and culture of Voudoun. Since reading that book I have felt a slight tugging at the back of my mind to visit the region where this fascinating culture resides, but I never have. The closest I got was a beach resort on the east coast of Hispaniola, where I managed to drink plenty of rum and take a day trip to Santa Domingo with my camera, scratch a little of the surface of the history of the island, and see a few sites without getting anywhere near the world of Ghede and Erzulie.

I refer of course, to Haiti and to a holiday I took in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The two countries share the Island of Hispaniola, which is an island of pivotal importance in the history of the Americas.

Last week, a massive earthquake brought the Haitian side of the island to the attention of the world. Haiti is by all accounts the poorest nation in the Caribbean and one of the poorest in the world. If you want to know why this is the case, the history is easy to find and clearly and obviously documented. Colonialism, slavery, economic and social repression by foreign powers, American Imperialism have - both directly and indirectly - all taken a huge toll. It is partly because of this that the effects of last week's earthquake have been so devastating. As one commentator noted: "It is hard to imagine what a magnitude 7 earthquake might do to a city that on any ordinary day already resembles a disaster area."

The photography coming out of the country in the aftermath of this terrible natural disaster is of course incredibly graphic. NPR has lots of photography and The New York Times has some good reporting on the Crisis, with plenty of photography and short interviews with photographers on the Lens Blog. As I write this, Michelle Obama is on my TV screen appealing for donations to the American Red Cross. She begins the message by stating that the images are heartbreaking. Not the news, mind, but the images. And indeed they are. Piles of bodies rotting in the sun, being loaded onto trucks with bulldozers. A tiny baby being mourned over by a father who left to go to work in the morning and didn't have a family to return to in the evening. Truly, heartbreaking is indeed the word to describe such events.

As always it's the photos of the kids that get me the most. This child photographed by Ruth Fremson tears me apart. I cannot honestly imagine how frightened and bewildered this kid must feel. It destroys me to think about it.

Of course, among all the good work being done by people helping and reporting from Haiti there are those who attract the label of disaster tourists. Whether this is justified or not is again a matter for debate that I won't enter into here, but compare here the following two photographs. The first one is by David Gilkey for NPR. The second shows the same situation but from a slightly different angle.

Photographers often get accused of preying on other people's pain. Of course it is true that sometimes we do. Sometimes we don't or can't help. Sometimes it's just not our job, but there are many many times where photographers do put down the camera and help. You rarely see it though, for the simple reason that (duh) the cameras have been put down and they are helping. However, here is a glimpse of CNN's Anderson Cooper in his role as a have-a-go-hero. Although I'm certain these photos are up on his web page in part to show what a great guy he is, it does serve to illustrate that journalists are not always vultures and often pitch in. When people talk about the press preying on people I always say one should be a human being first and a journalist second. You have a job to do, but that doesn't mean you should forget your humanity.

photograph by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty/CNN

For a slightly different take on Haiti, check out the Cine Institute, an organisation in Haiti that provides media and film making education for Haitian youth. Thanks to Tiana Markova-Gold - a wonderful photographer who has many links with the country - for pointing me in the direction of this through her constant posting of related links on her facebook profile.

I am not going to make judgments about the effectiveness or speed of the response to the quake, nor on the accounting of aid agencies, as I believe these are important but secondary considerations, and besides, I'm thousands of miles away in a New Jersey suburb, so what the hell do I know about it.. I care less about how long the U.S. took to mobilise their military and governmental aid and more about what they do while they are actually there. As a few people have noted, and as the quotes seem to indicate, people are glad to see soldiers when they are there as helpers, rather than killers, andthough the military are trained to do both it is refreshing to see them take on the role of the former.

No doubt the misery and pain of the people of Haiti is far from over and as the crisis tapers from a shocking sensational event daily reported on to a long slow drawn out aftermath and as the journalists and aid workers return home the long task of working to rebuild shattered lives will begin and the attention of the world will drift on. I have no doubt that many people will continue to work for the good of the Haitian people after this tragedy, just as I am sure that others will forget it and move on. What I hope is that the rebuilding of this nation will be something that brings it out of the neglect, oppression and abuse of the past and will mark the start of a new and better chapter in Haiti's history, one where the people of Haiti take control of their own destiny, and the horsemen of the Haiti are truly divine, and not those of the apocalypse.

Yasutaka Kojima at Place M

Yasutaka, a friend of mine, has a show at the Place M gallery in Tokyo next week. If you are in the area, be sure to check it out. The opening reception is on Monday 18th January from 7-9pm.

What We Saw - Dialects Exhibition

If you are in the New York area this Friday, I strongly recommend you check out this exhibition at the education gallery of the International Center of Photography. Work on display comes from the What We Saw collective, a group of dedicated and hardworking photographers, many of whom I know personally. Not to be missed.

What We Saw: Dialects

presented by collective “What We Saw” at the ICP Education Gallery (Rita K. Hill)

1114 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036 | Phone 212.857.0001

On View from January 15 through March 28, 2010

Opening Reception on January 15, 6-8pm

Dialects exhibits the recent work by the 27 photographers of What We Saw, a collective formed upon graduation from the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism Program at the International Center of Photography in 2008. What We Saw functions as a platform to collaborate globally and to exchange work, ideas, and experiences. It is also a vehicle for fostering an ongoing dialogue on current developments within the collective. As individuals and as a group, the work of the collective is continually evolving as the subject matter—the real world—continues to change. Group members come from fifteen countries, including the United States, Mexico, South Korea, India, South Africa, Turkey, Australia, Germany, and Brazil.

Dialects showcases projects ongoing from 2008–9: images from a changing world; documentation of social and political events such as the election protests in Iran, the remembrance of veterans of the Cuban Revolution, the impact of chemical manufacturing on neighborhoods in the American South; and more reflective works that deal with personal relationships or our natural environment. Collective members are photojournalists, artists, and story tellers. Their visual languages are molded by historical, geographical, political, and social influences, and informed by different nationalities, thematic interests, and photographic practices.

A fully illustrated 64-page catalogue produced by What We Saw accompanies the exhibition. It includes selections of images from individual photographers.

What We Saw: Dialects
10x8 inches
Softcover; US$ 34.95
Available for purchase during the opening reception and from www.blurb.com/bookstore


Press Contact :

Sheila Griffin: info@sheilagriffin.org/+860.559.3254

Minny Lee: minny@minnylee.com/+1.917.566.9614

Heroes of Our Time: Rwandan Courage & Survival

While in London at the end of December, I went down to the London School of Economics where I saw an exhibition produced by the Survivors Fund (SURF) and organised by LSE Arts and the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

In this exhibit was the testimonies of survivors of the Rwandan genocide, told through video, photographs and writings.

This is yet another reminder that the consequences of war go on a long time after the conflict has officially finished, and people have to live with that on a day to day.

One thing that particularly struck me was this portrait of a woman named Julienne.

Julienne, a survivor. Kigali, Rwanda. Photograph by Andrew Sutton, 2006

It was her smile I saw first. She has a wonderful joyous expression that just makes me want to grin right back at her, as if we just shared some private joke. Then I saw her hand and I actually exclaimed "Oh shit!" out loud.

This, to me, is the remarkable thing about this woman's portrait. The fact that I can see her first as a fellow person before noticing her as a victim. Is that a testament to the the photographer or to Julienne herself? Most likely both. Too often people in her situation are portrayed as suffering victims warranting our help and pity. Too often we forget that it is possible to undergo tremendous hardship and trauma and still retain the ability to laugh and smile.

Many organisations involved in working with the aftermath of all the horrible things we humans do to each other often go to great pains to put a human face on the suffering so that we who live outside of such events might be motivated to help.

What could be more human than to smile in the face of adversity?