Wednesday, 22 May, 2013 | in Photographic Context 1
It wasn't even a matter of what I was photographing as what happened to me in the process... When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen - 4,000 dead and starving lying around - and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop.
While this quote was only a small aspect of Kerstin's talk - a discussion on photography in Africa - I found it had particular impact. The comment was made by George Rodger regarding his time at the "notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp" in 1945.
John Tagg would refer to Rodger's concern as "the burden of representation". Another example would be Kevin Carter, who in 1994 won a Pulitzer Prize for photographing the image below. Shortly after, he met a barrage of criticism for not helping the child - instead spending twenty minutes "hoping the vulture would spread its wings", almost as if he were a documenting wildlife. Carter committed suicide only three months later.
Both Rodger and Carter's complete detachment from their subjects appears cause for concern initially, but then it raises the question:
Should these men feel guilty for inaction when at the very least they've raised awareness of the issues they're documenting?
There's no doubt Carter's raised awareness, at the time of publishing it became "a global icon". Along with Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and João Silva (the Bang-Bang Club), his work documenting the Apartheid played a significant part in drawing attention to the conflict and in turn assisting to end it.
What is certain is that the images taken by the Bang-Bang Club, distributed into homes around the world, brought intense pressure on the South African government to finally force change and end apartheid.
If you were to think of the overall impact he made with his work from an eye-for-an-eye standpoint, clearly he can justify his actions. But then, our instinct tells us he's totally insensitive for remaining on the sidelines. The same could be said for Rodger for seeking out aesthetics in death - yet that attention to the image strengthens its message. Being the first to ever document one of these camps, his photos were "highly influential" in revealing their activities.
The responsibility of the documentary photographer to intervene is a matter of opinion but certainly worth debating. All things considered, whether they intend their work to only influence and educate, or also take action and intervene, is up to the individual.