Out of the thousands of photographs I took this summer, I can count on two hands those that I absolutely love. My first project in India proved to be the most difficult in many ways: adjusting to brushing my teeth with bottled water, overcoming the language barrier, reaching the right balance of respect, and, of course, taking a good photograph. While I was able to control composition, lighting, and other technical aspects, I ran into problems with capturing a variety of subjects and emotions.
I have hundreds of photographs of happy smiling children, which I love, but I really wanted to capture the problems that are occurring, the problems that the students are trying to fix. There is a lot for us to learn from these communities, but there is a lot that we can do to help them out as well. They may be content, but they are still living in their own feces and suffering from malaria, malnutrition, diabetes, anemia, angina, and many other diseases.
Using my camera to capture the problems that exist proved to be very difficult because (1) the people often smile and seem happy, (2) a foreigner with a camera causes them to become even more excited, (3) the problems can’t always be seen on the surface, but may be hidden or at the root of other problems, (4) many of the diseases that these community members suffer from do not have visible symptoms, and (5) there is a stigma against both mental and physical disabilities, so families hide their visibly sick children in their rooms.
Every time I had my camera out, everyone became animated and enthusiastic. Some even struck poses. I consulted B.D. Colen, an MIT photojournalism professor (and a member of The Tech’s advisory board), and he suggested that I stay with them and keep shooting until they got bored of me. Then I might get some realistic and candid photos.
Unfortunately, I had to move along with the rest of my group, so this was difficult to do. Besides the immense language barrier, the camps were like a labyrinth where everything looked the same. I was also warned that my expensive equipment could be too much of a temptation to some of the inhabitants, creating danger for me.
While getting all smiles was frustrating, they were also inspiring. Alternatively, tears and sadness made a poignant subject, but it was heart-wrenching work. Two of the later communities I visited in India had many more miserable eyes. How do you take a photograph of someone as they look up at you in tears? It feels inhumane. Even by the end of the summer, I was still unable to completely let go of any inhibitions, something that is often necessary to get the most moving photographs. Some of the most famous war photographers died either in the field or committed suicide because they could not handle the pain and suffering that they saw through their eyes and captured with their lens. It is hard to see suffering, let alone capture that for eternity.
It is hard to overcome the thought that you are taking advantage of another human’s sad tragedy. The one consolation was that I was not taking the photographs for profitable motives, but rather in an attempt to educate and inspire others about the poverty and horrible living conditions that still exist. It is necessary to invoke emotion in viewers that are in a position to help.
I eventually developed a technique of making eye contact with my subjects and getting a nod or a movement from them that indicated they understood and did not mind if I took their photograph. It was especially difficult to shoot older community members because they became stiff and rigid, hiding their emotions and doing their best to look dignified and respectable. Photographing them presented an especially high barrier for me because I was raised to respect my elders, remaining quiet and deferring to their wisdom instead of treating them as equals.
I felt awkward in the position of the photographer, because the people treated me with reverence that I was not accustomed to receiving from my elders. I felt much more like an intruder trying to capture their lives. Many other photographers have explained that respect is necessary in getting a photograph, but that the photo should be taken first before getting an explicit go-ahead.
Once someone knows they are the subject of a photograph, they consciously or unconsciously act differently. Some get more flamboyant, others more reserved and rigid, and still others bashful. Most do not want to be captured crying in the midst of a depressing situation. This is an ethical issue that I have always struggled with. With the language barrier, it is even harder to deal with this problem. When my subjects speak English, I am more comfortable snapping a photo without their initial permission because I can then win them over with my (hopefully existent) charm. Without being able to speak their language, I’m worried that I’ll offend and leave them feeling that way. There’s no easy solution.