Saturday, August 25, 2007

If I Don't Look, Will It Go Away?

Blog owner and photojournalist Sidney Snoeck recently wrote a series called "The Lost Children of Manila" at My SariSari Store. As a result, what ensued this week was an onslaught of controversial comments aimed at questioning his motives in the spirit of fair journalism and social responsibility. Despite the oxymoron, I do not know Sidney nor have I done extensive research on his blog - in fact, it was my first visit. But it is fair to say that I have carefully weighed in on both sides of the conversation. Mine included. The crux of the matter is really in the heart of the photos themselves. (Sidney Snoeck's photos posted below used with permission)

In a nutshell: A German photographer contacted Carlos Celdran (Walk This Way) and asked for information about the bat people of Manila. Carlos, a well-known and successful tour guide in Manila, refused to allow - in his words - this "carpetbagger" to reap any knowledge from him and suggested that people living under bridges in Manila would be hard to miss. He refused to assist the German gentleman on principle; citing that the world's eye view of the Philippines is often skewed by an overemphasis on poverty, street kids and the stark differences in the haves and have-nots. His reply to the German gentleman? "To many, the Philippines has become the cliche/easy picking for the grotesque and I will not enjoin this cause. Once again, my apologies if I offended you or seem a little politicized or upset, but poverty and bat people is NOT ALL that we are about.

It's about balance, wrote Carlos, and putting our best Filipino foot forward to the world (paraphrasing), although I do give him credit for suggesting to the man that he contact a relief agency, instead, if he really wanted to help. OK. Fine. But then commentors dangerously skirted around the "tourism will help the poor" mantra - which pushed me right over the proverbial bat bridge.

Sidney disagreed with Carlos.
So do I.

What's more, in defense of his photos and intolerance for non-activism, he quoted my favorite author Elie Wiesel, whose work on the Holocaust I have admired and studied for years. His groundbreaking autobiography Night changed my view of the world once upon a time - as only a survivor of such atrocities can.

If you've never read this disturbing and stunning memoir, please read it. It is short and powerfully painful. But necessary to digest. After all, there are still people who don't really believe that the Holocaust even existed or at best, was an exaggerated political imagination.

To quote Wiesel....."I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference”.

Am I comparing the politics of Poland's Auschwitz to Manila's poor and outcast? No. It isn't that complicated. The point is that suffering is suffering is suffering. And somebody had to tell the story. Elie told it. Others told it. Sidney told it. There was no fair and balanced view in the face of the Gestapo nor should there have been. There is nothing fair about starving and abused people - whether in the streets of Manila, the desert of Darfur or within the walls of Nazi hell.

Carlos did point the gentleman to an organization where tangible solutions are in the process and I believe he loves and is proud of his heritage and country - but the children are still in the streets and the bat people are still hanging their lives from the bridges. No country, no society, no culture is ever just one thing. But some things scream. Not looking will not make it go away. Neither will pointing to programs that are slowly working to whitewash the dirt. The poor walk on American streets too, skirting in and out of alleys of wealth and under the shadows of hi-rise steel everyday. Do I want to see a teenager lying on cardboard? No. But I need to see it. I don't give a rat's behind how uncomfortable it makes my congressman, my blood pressure or my tourism department

If taking these pictures evokes an "emotional response" in people, then so be it.
It should.
It should make me cry. It should make me angry. It should disturb my sleep.
"Photojournalists have that moral and social responsibility to show the whole picture in any given situation" was one comment posted by Jayred, a self-described Filipino storyteller living in Switzerland (who actually wrote a heartfelt piece called "Swiss Daddy") but whom I felt was biased in her assessment of the motives of both photographers. Sidney still lives in the middle of great poverty that he sees on a daily basis. Therein lies the difference.

To say that excluding the positives and revenue-baiting images in a country hinders the movement towards eradicating the unsightly sores, is naively close to closing your eyes.

It is dangerously akin to indifference.
Are there photojournalists who purposely capture and sell the most disturbing and dramatic images for a day's pay? Of course.

Are there unscrupulous photo-vendors in the most poverty ravaged corners of our world? Yes.
Does inequality of representation happen when a photojournalist chooses to photograph ONLY the impoverished fly-ridden dirt-soiled children in Manila or starving children in Darfur? Does the wealthy entrepreneur wrangle in cover-my-eyes disgust when he sees his neighborhood, his village, his country, his little world represented in a side-by-side visual with the mansion he rambles in?
Who cares?
Comfortable? Palatable? Touristy? Oh please. Cut to the chase and call the naked children pictures uh....say.....unmarketable? I suppose it depends on which side of the dollar you sleep.

Do these photographs look real to you?

All I know is that Sidney's pictures do not lie. And I believe his post is a balanced and passionate view in the face of an interesting dialogue.

A dialogue that is missing the naked point.


Hammer said...

Most of the third world is like this. Dirty, corrupt, backwards and with a total disregard for the plight of children.

The governments of these nations would rather build palaces and buy weaponry than help get these kids off the streets.

Lizza said...

Whoa, Mims. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

I see Carlos' point; Manila has its good and bad sides like so many other cities, whether they're in the first, second, or third world. But homelessness, poverty, the "bat people" aren't exclusive to Manila! This city also has its good sides, and I hope photographers can show those too. A balanced portrayal, that's what Carlos is asking for. And I don't think it's an unreasonable request to make.

Sidney (a Belgian) has been living in Manila for many years now, and his photos show many aspects of life here and in other parts of the Philippines. No one can say he takes conventionally "pretty" photos of the sights here. But they're real, and they show both the pretty and the "pretty ugly."

I like him. I'd like him even more if he sent some Belgian chocolate my way. And Belgian beer. (If you're reading this, Sidney, I'm kidding! Sort of.)

Akelamalu said...

Geat post Mimi

Poverty needs to be written about and photographed, affluence doesn't!

Sidney said...

Thank you so much for this post.

In hindsight I think I did a mistake. I should not have entered the debate. My role was to show the pictures and let the viewers decide.

Lizza, I hear you! ;-)

Mimi Lenox said...

Lizza - I found the debate and photos via your site this weekend. I do not believe that this type of suffering is particular to the Philippines. It is a global tragedy. I agree that Carlos Celdran's article has merit as well, and I hope I made that clear. Thank YOU for sharing your thoughts here. I hope readers will take the time to click through and read the whole debate.

As for Sidney, will you share the chocolate???

Mimi Lenox said...

Akelamalu - I agree but also think a photographer has a right to snap whatever he desires. Of course, with photos like these, the humanitarian value of both are at the heart of the debate.

Mimi Lenox said...

Sidney - Your photos are wonderful but I disagree about the debate. How can you take pictures that are so lovingly captured and not react? Now...about that chocolate.....

Bud Weiser, WTIT said...

This is as well written and thought out post I have read from anyone in quite a while. Well done, Mims!

Mimi Lenox said...

Thank you,Bud.

Travis said...

I think you capture the essence of the debate well. And you are clear that poverty is global no matter what part of the world you live in.

Imagine, there are barefoot and starving children in the richest countries in the world. There are also incredibly wealthy individuals in the poorest countries.

Fighting global poverty requires words and pictures and activism and money. It takes us all to fix this problem.

Sidney said...

The debate/talk is good and I am happy that some people reacted and wrote about it (like you and Cess).
As the photographer maybe I shouldn't have enter the debate.
My role was to show the pictures and let the viewers make up their minds. Some people emailed me that I was too political. That I should have been less vocal.
Take the pictures, show them and let it go...

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