Ben Gilbert on the ethical dilemmas facing photographers out in the field.
I was sent to India to photograph for a story on rural to urban migration for Mosaic. I had never been to India before but knew of it as a ‘country of extremes’. Following the footsteps of migrants would, in some cases, inevitably involve following the economic ladder from slum living upward and at this end of the extreme I wasn’t entirely prepared for the choices I would have to make.
Although the story centered on a couple of research projects in Delhi and Hyderabad, the brief was extremely broad and allowed for a great deal of personal interpretation. As we were essentially looking at the movement of people and all the infrastructure that surrounds it, there would be nothing throughout our own travels that wouldn’t be relevant subject matter: airports, hotels, train stations, food outlets. It was impossible to clock off.
Photography is inherently exploitative. You ‘mine’ the environments – and more questionably the people around you – and you package them up into hopefully aesthetic or engaging tableaux that illustrate, inform and mislead in equal measure. There is always the grey area of permission to be navigated – implicit, explicit or simply unknown. This becomes all the more difficult when the people you are framing in the viewfinder are living in abject poverty, and the camera and lens in your hands probably represents several years if not a decade of their income.
We visited several slums in both Delhi and Hyderabad and they were without question challenging places. To photograph, however, wasn’t problematic. I was physically close to the people I was photographing who, for the most part, were continuing with their day. It was easy for me to see if they were happy to be photographed and easy for them to signal that they weren’t – and they did on many occasions. There was nothing covert about the photography. Thanks to our guides and reporter Michael Regnier’s questions there was a basic understanding of our intentions and motivations. Photographing in the slums raised clear questions in my mind concerning social injustice and the hardships facing people living on very low incomes, but didn’t raise any doubts about whether or not I should be photographing there.
It was on a couple of other occasions that my ability to take a photograph was stalled. We travelled a great deal by car throughout our trip and as a result a fair number of my photographs were shot from the car window. Whilst travelling though Delhi early one morning on our way to the airport we drove passed a line of very small children, facing the traffic, squatting over pools of diarrhoea. In itself a powerful image, one that would have possibly added to the story of slum living and health in the Indian capital. From the rear passenger seat of our car however, it was for me, a step too far; too explicit, too degrading and too fleeting for me to have any confidence in my justifications for photographing.
Another occasion was a closer call. Again sat in the back seat of our car, again in Delhi. Our car was a classic Hindustan Ambassador complete with a couple of tied back net curtains over the rear windows. We pulled up at a set of traffic lights and the weathered face of a woman dressed in scarlet approached Michael’s window, hand outstretched. She stopped a few centimeters from the glass and peered in at us as we sat in awkward silence. The image was a striking one, her questioning face and outstretched hand framed in the net curtains and Michael’s forward facing silhouette available if I chose to include it in the frame. I felt my hand tighten around the grip of my camera and the muscles in my arm tense in preparation of raising my arm.
I didn’t. I froze. Our car pulled away. Within seconds I regretted it and was slightly thrown by what had stopped me. In a selfish photographer way, I hoped the scene would re-occur and I would get a second chance. It did, more than twice. Each time, however, my reaction was exactly the same.
The rights and wrongs of my reaction to this scenario from either a photographic or non-photographic viewpoint aren’t clear to me. There are many photographers and non-photographers who would have taken the shot and been very happy and at ease to have done so, and this is in no way to judge those that would have. What is interesting to me is that I personally had been unable to take the picture. It was a close call and in my head the shot was already on its way, something residing in my gut however stopped it. Perhaps a weakness I shouldn’t reveal.
On later reflection it seems the emotions I subconsciously anticipated feeling were a mix of shame and cowardice. The privileged safety of the metal and glass box that separated me from these peoples’ reality was problematic and in stark contrast to the physically close and more equitable encounters I had had with those I photographed in the slums or out on the street.
From the scarlet dressed woman’s viewpoint, being met with blank expressions through a glass window is one thing. To be met by someone taking your photograph is an insult I guess I just wasn’t able to issue.
Ben Gilbert is a photographer at the Wellcome Trust.
Photography: Michael Regnier