How not to photograph the Rohingya genocide in the making…

Yesterday Guardian Published its photo-essay “Documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis – in pictures.” There is so much wrong with these images — especially its aesthetics. These images evoke the past, but not the urgency of the present or its politics, and bear an uncanny resemblance to Salgado’s project on human migration. Almost 30 years after the pictures of cold war’s proxy wars, genocides and massacres caused by imperial exercises abroad, we are still relying on the visual language alien to the crimes these people have endured and the genocide in the making to tell its story.

The first thing that hits you is the highly texturised nature of the images, their artificial grain, and human pain captured and rendered in high definition. The pain is photographed in all its flamboyance, that it is almost kitsch in its sensibilities. The aesthetics here completely reduces the politics of Rohingya exodus to “captivating” theatre.

There are no names either. They are all rendered as black and white caricatures of pain. 

A month before, writer Maaza Mengiste raised these concerns in her talk, ” Unheard of things – the vocabularies of violence”.  Here we discussed this phenomenon of “posterizing”, and “texturizing” the faces and bodies of brown and black people who are victims of war, famine, poverty and violence.

 

At 40: 28, in the video, Maaza Mengiste talks about the texture of images. She calls it “the exploitation in post-production”.

Here is the  excerpt from the talk:

“I think, also, if there are any digital photographers here, people who work with Photoshop, maybe someone can help me understand what it is that I’ve been seeing for a little while now. And I’ve seen this in Instagram, I’ve seen this in the news, but particularly when people go to shoot images of people who are very poor, people from countries that are devastated by war, people who shoot refugees, people who shoot Black people, Africans, Black people in the US, Africans on the continent, there’s some type of a process that’s being done in post-production that’s rendering the skins almost dirty-looking. It looks gritty; I don’t know what that process is.”

Posterized. – The posterizing? – [Woman With Brown Hair] It’s posterized, and it’s also, on Instagram, it’s structure.

“I don’t know what it is, but what it does to skin, it’s been used a lot with people who are poor, with homeless people, and black skin, is that it turns the skin into the texture of dirt, and I see it again, and it turns the whites of the eyes so white that it’s unreal, and I see this again and again, and it’s everywhere. I don’t know what it is, but I’m seeing, and especially the photographers taking Black people and taking homeless people, it’s rendering the– – [Man In Green Shirt] Matte, almost? Matte finish? – It’s not even matte.

– [Woman With Brown Hair] I know exactly what you– – Do you know what I’m talking about? – [Woman With Brown Hair] Yeah, it’s posterizing it, and it’s also using an adjustment filter, inverting the – So, what the effect is of that process– – [Woman With Brown Hair] … Is to render skin, and if you see a homeless person or even an old person, and it’s a close-up shot, the skin looks so textured, the wrinkles look very deep. Everything is exaggerated. – HDI. –

“What happens with that is, okay, what is it that we are supposed to be seeing of this human being? What’s being emphasized here through that process? It’s really disturbing to me that this is being done with certain groups of people, and why is a photographer doing this? It’s the same reason that a photographer feels like they need to go “slum it” and go into certain neighborhoods and communities, ’cause it gives them legitimacy if they have these pictures from these groups of people, and it’s a kind of an exploitation that happens in post-production. “

But the post-processing is only one aspect of it. Long before an image is “processed”, the idea of the kind of image that is required, and an image that will be published is already in play.

 

There is a photograph of a family resting, exhausted – titled “An exhausted family after crossing the Naf river”. The shot is taken from above, in a standing position looking down. It’s an intimate moment- the father, mother and the two infants, half-naked and asleep on them. The image is intrusive. I wonder if I would let myself be photographed this way if I had left everything behind, travelled for weeks in fear, and I am precariously unsure of what the future holds. Was there consent? What do these images tell me, that I already do not know? What do I do with this image, now I have seen a private moment of vulnerability splashed on the pages of The Guardian? Where do we go from here and what are the political possibilities of this image? 

Edward Said, introducing Auberach’s book wrote, and I paraphrase here, that each generation has to find the optics to represent their reality. It’s a simple but an almost impossible demand to satisfy. What does it mean to represent the reality occurring before us? Especially one that is birthed by violence? If we use images to tell that story how do we do justice to people’s lived histories without reducing them to clichés or returning to the language, grammar and syntax of photographs taken 10, 25 or even 50 years ago?

If I removed the images from this photo essay and all that is left are the words, what does that tell me? I urge everyone one to do this. When you do, you are left with this :

“Refugees bring with them the few belongings they have” — (No – shit – Sherlock)

“Dangerous crushes can occur as the desperate crowd receive aid” – (Right!)

If without the image, the words add up to nothing more then a descriptive banality, then don’t expect the pictures to be any better. Because images, especially these kinds of images cannot exist without politics, or the empire being implicated in its violence. Ergo they cannot survive without words that question and implicate the political.

I have often heard people say this, “don’t tell me, show me”. Nothing has done more damage to writing and creative process than this terrible phrase. When an editor says this, you can be assured that either Columbia Journalism school got to them or they are handcuffed to a narrative form that is reductive and unfamiliar with what it means to think and write about human reality. Sometimes you cannot show, you have to tell; sometimes you have to scream, sometimes words can no longer depict the reality before us.

Writing and creating images have become, formulaic because they have become standardised and professionalised to an extent where the struggle to make an argument is beaten out of you. I have seen photographers discuss equipment and what is considered a good image – never what is the process or the form that this story or argument must take.

We are exactly at the moment where we should be struggling, disagreeing and screaming, if necessary to make sense of our reality, that is increasingly lost to the battles of what is and what is not. Yet we find our selves returning to the known, the familiar, the acceptable, “the tired and tested” and what is considered “captivating”.

 

I have been asked how I would photograph this exodus, in response to my initial post, and some have argued that ” this reality and it needs to be shown?” The answer is this – I don’t know how I would conceive of a place, write about it or photograph it. Each argument I make eventually finds its form. But there are other answers, how not to photograph a place or a people fleeing genocide and crimes against humanity. You can start by not writing stupid shit like, “The crisis has coincided with the monsoon rains.”

 

Additional Reading

  1. Narrating the Refugee Crisis

    Since the Second world war, talking about refugees have become standardised. The language, grammar and the context of visual and textual representation used by States, NGOs, Refugee relief agencies typically mimic each other. This standardisation has made its way into journalism, and story telling that report on refugees and document their grief. These reductive explanations and narratives are de-historicized, de-politicised accounts of suffering. These stories follow an established representational practice that has important systemic consequence. It most often silences people who find themselves categorised and labelled as ” the refugee.”

  2. Politics and Rhetoric of the Refugee Crisis