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Every photo tells a story – but which story?

EVERY PHOTO TELLS a story, they say. I believe it’s true – but then there are usually many sides to a story, and a question that every appreciator or viewer of photography should perhaps ask themselves is: which part or side of the story is this particular photo telling?

Photo: Duncan McNicholl

Even when photographers don’t think they have biases, they do. It’s impossible for any sentient being to not be influenced one way or another by his or her political, social, cultural backgrounds and/or immediate environments. Aside from that, there’s the ever-present danger of adhering to cliche – photographing in a particular style that’s worked for others in the past.

This important point was raised yet again recently when I came across a article about a photographer called Duncan McNicholl. McNicholl takes photos of Africa that aim to “expose the dehumanizing way in which Africans are depicted through the media.” His project “Exploring Different Perspectives Of Poverty Through Photography” involves taking two photos of the same person – one with the typical symbols of poverty (a miserable look and ripped clothes, for example) and another of the same person looking their very finest.

The images are striking, showing something we don’t normally see – the other (or at least another) side of the story. As McNicholl states in the article, “a change in perspective is needed to see beyond the familiar stereotypes of poverty, and to see development [as] a means of collaboration for investing in capable people. Collectively, we can initiate a shift in perspectives towards viewing the rural poor with the dignity and the respect that they deserve.”

A very similar perspective is embraced by a new online photography project called African Lens. The site owners state their aims clearly: “The dominant representation of Africa today is one of war, poverty, disease and everything that can go wrong with humanity. It is famously referred to as the “forgotten continent”. African Lens is designed as a platform to document and present a visual Africa in an unbiased way.”

Content comes from a mix of established photojournalists and users and the site makes for an enthralling trawl, with stories and photo essays emerging from all kinds of places and viewpoints. You really get the sense you’re experiencing the continent through multiple perspectives, a liberating feeling compared to the one-dimensional ‘mediation’ we ordinarily experience through the news (and even via famous photojournalists).

I feel both these projects should be applauded and supported for providing us with deeper insights into Africa’s beautiful complexity, and for broadening our understanding of Africa and the world.

Do you know of other sites that offer similar ‘alternative perspectives’? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section…

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About The Author

Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan is a freelance writer, author, editor and photographer covering music, travel and culture. His writing and photography work has been published in The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, National Geographic UK, Matador Network, Wax Poetics, XLR8R and more, and he has scribed/snapped several guidebooks for Time Out, HG2, Rough Guide, Cool Camping and others. He currently lives in Berlin, where he runs the sustainable travel portal Slow Travel Berlin. Check out his photography website, follow him on Twitter or join hisFacebook photography page.

  • Ameya

    Thanks for these links! This is a great idea, and much needed, in my opinion.

  • Agnes Cioffi

    I agree, in that many camera lenses focus on ‘poverty’ and the ‘ills’ of a ‘developing’ country instead of focusing on the beauty around them and forgetting that every society has problems of its own.
    The dehumanising portrayal of Africans through media is hardly surprising, it is a tactic used against many groups that pose a threat to the social order to the control of the superior white elite; young people are a classic example.
    In the late 80′s/early 90′s the house/rave movement had young people belieiving that they had power to change society; today consumerism targets our young people and is a strong contender against freedom and unity.
    Having visited Ghana recently, and wanting to be deliberately ignorant in my knowledge of Ghana, i decided to research the country on my return, based on my experiences there. For example, during my time there, Ghana was celebrating its golden jubilee of independence. Yet i experienced much that made me question exactly how independant a country like Ghana really was. I later dicovered that Ghana was one of the richest countries in Africa before its conquest by the British, and whilst it regained its independence it joined the Commonwealth which has Queen Elizabeth II as the Head, and sponsored by BP (the UK’S largest corporation) and Urenco (operators of a nuclear fuel supply chain).
    The relevance of this is that neo-colonial masters are continuing to oppress African countries through various ways; through the exploitation of national treasures, resources and attacks on cultural practices to the portrayal of the incapabilities of the people themselves. Yet against all the odds, i witnessed how people in the poorest parts of Ghana had a strong sense of unity, strength and warmth. They seemed to possess the understanding that they actually need and rely on each other to overcome their difficulties, completely exposing the “survival of the fittest” theory as a moral fraud.
    Anyway, i took loads of photos which i hope captured the beauty of the county and its people, and I also attach a link to a very quick article i wrote 10 minutes before the deadline was due, so you will have to excuse its simpleness:

  • Nick

    Really interesting links, Paul, thanks for them. I think the “Perspectives of Poverty” project is particularly powerful.

  • Heather Carreiro

    I’ve been thinking about the Perspectives on Poverty project a lot in light of the recent Postcards from Hell photo essay on Foreign Policy. For example, the first photo (link) basically looks “poor” because of the lighting used. The focus of the photo is on the dust and the gray skies, but you can’t see the faces of any of the people in the photographs. What if the man looking at the camera was smiling? What is the boy was laughing? The photo could tell a completely different story with a change as simple as how light is used in the photo.

  • Jen Sandberg

    Thank you so much for your words about this topic. I’ve had this gnawing feeling for years that human beings are actually being exploited in the process of photography at times, even when the intentions of the photographer appear to be humanitarian. It’s totally true, I believe, that the paradigm from which the photographer approaches their work affects the outcome. I’ve often wondered, while processing my own thoughts and feelings related to poverty as I travel, how much potential inappropriate guilt plays into the process of humanitarian work. I love the idea of photographing the same person in a new or different way. I would guess that the thought response and/or emotional response of the photographers and the viewers varies widely between the two pictures. Thanks again.

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