Friday, February 11, 2011

Should you photograph tragedy?

News all around the world has reported on the giant cyclone that hit us recently - Yasi. The biggest cyclone ever to hit Australia literally wiped many small towns just to the south of here off the map. Hundreds of people lost their homes and it will take them years to recover.

I'm not a news photographer. I have no desire to photograph people's misery. While I understand there is a need for images of this story - to inspire people to donate to those who have lost everything, to help tell the story of the victims, to prompt governments to help prepare for when this might happen again - I don't feel it is my story to tell.

In situations like this I often hear amateur photographers say they want to go and photograph the destruction. And I ask myself why. What possible good could it do? If you plan to use the images in slideshows or prints used to raise money for the victims that's fantastic. If you have contacts who can publish those images for you, or indeed if you plan to publish them yourself on a blog to show what is happening then I think that's a noble idea. But if you just want to photograph it because it's there I would urge you to reconsider.

I can imagine how I would feel in a similar situation. And if it weren't for the cyclone swerving south at the last minute I could very well have been. I would be happy to be photographed by a news photographer wanting to get the story out there but less impressed by rubber neckers driving past just to snap my misery.

I had a similar situation years ago in Africa. I was in Zaire at the time the war started in Rwanda. We turned down a wrong road and ended up driving past the UN Refugee camp. Tourists were leaning out their windows and photographing the displaced people and the terrible conditions from the comfort of their vehicles. Why? What good did those images ever do anybody? Did they take the time to get to know the stories of any of the victims? See them as anything more than fodder for their cameras?

When things like this hit us here - which they tend to every year or so!- I like to photograph my family's reaction to the aftermath.  The kids playing in the flood waters in the back yard. Their reaction to the leaves spread out all over the road. The destruction the cyclones leave on the rainforest. Ways in which the natural disaster affects our lives but hasn't left sadness and desperation in its wake. I prefer to leave the hard stories to the photojournalists amongst us.

Remember just because we own cameras doesn't give us the moral right to be able to photograph whatever we feel like. So please leave the camera at home when passing victims of natural disasters unless you plan to put your images to constructive use. Otherwise your time would be a lot better spent helping people clean up their devastated homes.