Exercise 3-1: A subtle colour documentary

Read the article ‘Seeing and Believing’ by Max Houghton in Foto8.

In ‘Seeing and Believing’, Max Houghton discusses criticism levelled at the media for oversimplifying and reinforcing stereotypes in the representation of people in the developing world which results in a paternalistic attitude with those depicted shown as less fortunate and needing our help. As NGOs now commission, or at least facilitate, the majority of newspaper and magazine features, representations are influenced by the complex politics of aid meaning, “inevitably…journalists and photographers are viewing “the other” through the NGO prism.” Houghton believes that the practices of humanitarian efforts in war or disaster struck lands must be subjected to the same scrutiny as the power structures at play in these regions. The unquestioning approach of the NGOs is a concern as it shows a lack of self-examination of the role they play – although the aim of the NGOs is to help, there is a danger that in perpetuating images of the dying and helpless – at best they invoke sympathy and at worst indifference in the audience.

Houghton believes it is the duty of the NGOs to encourage the teaching of photojournalism in the areas in which they work. The aim of this is to allow indigenous photographers to be able to counter the western point of view presented and to create a culture of “intelligent activist photography”. The risk with this, however, is that the grammar of photojournalism and reportage was established in the US, Europe and Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. As Shahidul Alam of the Drik Agency observes, the language of photojournalism is that of the white man, and, “The danger…is of becoming a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and eventually becoming a wolf.” The ultimate ambition would be for the indigenous photographers to develop their own ‘voice’, learning to speak the language of photography by understanding the established grammar and then appropriating it and make their own mark.

Select two bodies of work from the ‘Eight Ways to Change the World’ that show different conceptual and visual styles and write a short reflective commentary. Discuss aspects like information, aesthetics and expression.

‘Eight Ways to Change the World’ was an exhibition in 2005 of work by seven Panos Pictures agency photographers with the aim of exploring the progress of the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the UN in 2000. The work has clear political intent in that it aims to illustrate the familiar issues of poverty in the developing world through new and challenging perspectives. One of the key differentiating aspects of the work is that six of the seven photographers have chosen to photograph in colour – as the course notes suggest, a conscious effort to avoid the gritty and sombre aesthetic of traditional black and white journalism.

Chris de Bode

De Bode - Feleke Shalachewu

Chris de Bode’s work for the project focuses on education and aspiration in Chimbiri, Ethiopia. His series is a mixture of portraits apparently made in collaboration with the subjects – each image is captioned with a short explanation and quote detailing the aspirations of those featured. Other images in the series show broader context either by depicting life outside school or sowing details of the school interior, facilities and equipment. Viewed as a whole, the work reminded me of the cinematic narrative technique of using an establishing shot followed by a medium shot and then close up to tell the story. The image captions are an integral part of the work, especially the testimony of the children and their ambitions which I found quite moving. It is also interesting to note the different ways the children pose in the images. For example, this portrait of Feleke Shalachewu is the antithesis of what we have come to expect from images of Ethiopian children – he appears cheeky, confident and full of life. His ambition to become a doctor is inspiring, especially combined with his testimony that one of his motivating factors is to make his eye better – de Bode avoids the obvious emotive strategy of concentrating on Feleke’s eye as a triumph over adversity story or something to be pitied – instead, whatever is wrong with the eye (de Bode is not specific about this) is addressed in a matter of fact way that suggests an admirable resilience. De Bode does not gloss over the poverty of the situation the young people in his photographs, but, he manages to create empathy in the viewer – rather than showing lives that are completely alien, the children here, their everyday realities and their ambitions seem very much aligned to our own western aspirations.

Dieter Telemans

Dieter Telemans uses the familiar subject of the struggle for water in the developing world. However, rather than focusing on images of drought, he shows the multiple practical difficulties that result in not having running water. At first some of Telemans’ photographs appeared to subscribe to the clichéd depiction of African women carrying water on their heads. By presenting a variety of images however, and employing a variety of styles, Telemans manages to show multiple facets to the very real problem faced by the people in his pictures who face a daily battle to get the water they need to survive.

Telemans - pulling water

A close up of water being drawn from a well shows this in a powerfully literal way – the sight of the heavy gouges made by the weight of the buckets in the rock at the top of the well gives an acute sense of how hard and regular this necessary activity is.

Telemans - woman carrying water

Another image manages to be abstract and unconventional while also being symbolic of the struggle for water faced by people in the developing world. Most of the frame is empty except for a figure carrying a bucket of water moving out of shot at the top left corner. After trying to understand what is happening, the eye is drawn back into the frame and we notice that the plain, dirt ground is covered in splashes of water which the eye follows to the bucket which has a hole in it. I found this photograph extremely effecting as it is a metaphor for how difficult making change in the developing world is – despite all of the effort being put into fetching and carrying the water this is seemingly thwarted by having inadequate tools for the job.

The seven photographers featured in ‘Eight Ways to Change the World’:

Chris de Bode – Website, Panos Website

Ami Vitale – Website, Panos Website

Zed Nelson – Website, Panos Website

Tim Driven – Website, Panos Website

Adam Hinton – Website, Panos Website

Dieter Telemans – Website, Panos Website


Evans, A. (2005) Eight ways to change the world (press release) Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/panos8ways [accessed 7th January 2018]

Houghton, M. (2005) Seeing and Believing. Ei8ht magazine V4N3. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto843seeingbelieving [accessed 7th January 2018]

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