Sometimes, Poking Your Camera into People’s Lives Just Doesn’t Feel Right

Man with HIV/Aids in Myanmar

As a photojournalist, are you ever embarrassed, uncomfortable or even ashamed of what you do?

I recently spent a week at the Arrupe Center in northern Cambodia documenting the lives of villagers. The center works with people who are mostly landmine victims, but it also helps villagers who suffer from polio and HIV/AIDS.

Searching for Photogenic Victims

I went from village to village looking for people to photograph. The first group of HIV/AIDS people I met were too healthy looking, so I rejected them.

The woman in the next village was actively doing work that was not photogenic enough.  So I rejected her.

Late one morning I came across a grandmother sleeping with her newly born grandson. The grandmother was HIV positive and I photographed what I believed was a very poignant scene. After all, that was what I was doing, wasn’t it — looking for a photographic scene?

In another place, I found a boy who was in a wheelchair with obvious physical disabilities, but he had polio and I needed landmine victims.  So I rejected him.

For days I visited people who had lost limbs — an arm, a leg, maybe both or more — and assessed whether they were photogenic enough. I also wanted the person working on something interesting because, after all, I’m a photojournalist, and we don’t set things up, do we?

In one village, I came upon a landmine victim who was a farmer working with his cattle. At last, something I could photograph.

I moved in close to get a shot as the farmer gave one of his cows an injection — making certain, of course, that his prosthetic leg was prominent. The animal leaped in the air as it reacted to the pain of the needle. I got what I needed, a photograph of a landmine victim working on his farm.

What Gives Us the Right?

For most of my life, I have worked with marginalized people, documenting their struggle for a better life. What I sometimes wonder is what gives me the right or justification to poke my camera into these people’s lives and make decisions about whether they are photo-worthy or not?

We often justify what we do by saying that photographs can make a difference and change things. I don’t believe that. Photographs can inform people and be part of a series of events that change things, but they don’t change things by themselves.

Am I embarrassed, uncomfortable or even ashamed sometimes? Yes.