Perspective: Subjects Are More Important than Photographers


In our rush to laud evocative documentary images, we forget the human lives they portray, says Jon Stapley





The image above (left) is a portrait of Amadou Sumaila, taken moments after he was rescued from an inflatable boat that was drifting 20 miles off the coast of Libya. If you’re up on your photography news, you likely know it as the winner of last year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, and if you have a decent memory (which I do not), you may recall that it was taken by photojournalist César Dezfuli.

The reason I bring up this image is because a tweet by senior research fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research Dima Saber lodged itself in my brain recently, the way tweets sometimes do: “The name of the photographer and the prestigious prize he won always make it to the title, yet the 'migrant' remains anonymous.” 



Saber elaborates, “I wonder if Amadou Sumaila agrees that ‘the directness of [his] gaze is striking and unsettling’. That ‘the portrait powerfully conveys his loss, solitude and determination’ … I wonder actually if he feels ‘determined’ at all, or is just the caption some Western photographer decided is the right way to describe his ‘subject’ and win some prize [sic].”

Some people view photography as a tool — a way to explore, document and relate to the world we live in. Some view it as an art form — a means to make something beautiful. Some view it as both. However, these two functions of photography can uncomfortably clash. A good example of this, in my view, would be a photographer taking a picture of a near-drowned man whose home has been destroyed by war and that image going on to win a prestigious portraiture prize sponsored by an insurance company. The subject’s face and photographer’s name are both spread around the world, but only the latter reaps any benefit. The photographer receives a cheque for £15,000; the subject receives nothing.

This is not new. If I write the name Sharbat Gula, I’m willing to bet that fewer people reading this will have an image instantly flash into their mind than if I had written Afghan Girl. What’s more, if I had written Afghan Girl, the first name that would have come to a lot of photographers’ minds would not have been Sharbat Gula; it would have been Steve McCurry. Lots within the photographic community are likely aware of the controversy surrounding Steve McCurry’s photo-manipulation that emerged last year. How many are also aware that, later that same year, Sharbat Gula was deported from Pakistan?

None of this is meant as a criticism of César Dezfuli, or Steve McCurry or you. Unpacking cultural biases is more complex, nuanced and labour-intensive than finding the right people to give a telling-off to, despite what certain people on Twitter will tell you.

However, it’s striking to me that this year’s Taylor Wessing winner is essentially the exact same photograph as Afghan Girl, right down to the piercing gaze and anonymised subject. The Wikipedia entry for Afghan Girl says the following in its opening paragraph: “The image became ‘emblematic’ of ‘refugee girl/woman located in some distant camp’ deserving of the compassion of the Western viewer.” You could slip that phrase into a description of last year’s Taylor Wessing winner with minimal tweaking, and no one would notice.

The uncomfortable conclusion is that we are lauding and celebrating images that are doing the exact same thing they were doing 34 years ago, and honestly, that thought is a little depressing. There’s an oft-repeated saying in journalistic circles: “You are not the story”. It’s time we also reminded ourselves that subjects are more than a piercing gaze down the barrel of a lens. Subjects are more than a “refugee … deserving of compassion from the Western viewer”. The image at the top of this post is an image of Amadou Sumaila, and a £15,000 cheque should not make us forget that.

You can read Amadou Sumaila’s own account of his story via The Guardian.

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Please note: The opinion(s) expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion(s) of Wex Photo Video.


About the Author

Jon Stapley is a professional journalist with a wealth of experience on a number of photography titles including Amateur Photographer, Digital Camera World and What Digital Camera. See more of his writing on Jon's author page.


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