Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Being a professional intruder.

Even after more than two decades of work as a photojournalist I am constantly humbled by the open, generous nature of people I photograph.

What we do is often intrusive by nature. The sense of awkwardness that most people would feel when pointing a camera at a stranger is one of the first things that a photographer has to overcome in order to be a documentarist.

But it's all too easy for that initial reticence to be replaced by a strange sense of entitlement. This can lead to a disconnect between you and your subjects which means that pictures become insincere, glib, gimmicky or just no good at all.

Photography is communication, we should mean what we say.

Earlier this month I photographed Olga Rodriguez and her daughter Ana Attia who has been left in a persistent vegetative state for the last six years after hanging herself in custody. The hospital where she is being treated are understandably concerned with her welfare rather than media campaigns for justice, so discretion was paramount.

Packing a single body with my bright and trusty 35mm 1.4 into a small, ordinary shoulder bag, I met Olga and her adult son and went to visit Ana at her hospital bed.

So as not to disturb other patients or make anyone feel uncomfortable, we drew the curtain around Ana's bed and I took some photographs for the family of all three together.

Their tenderness towards her was extremely moving and doubly so for the fact that my presence did not inhibit them. They were baring their souls to a complete stranger with total candour and dignity.

Over the years I have photographed in many different situations, some very dramatic, others not. But here was one of those times where you are reminded of the covenant we have as photojournalists: A voice for the voiceless, or at least for those that struggle to make their voice heard.

As I took the photos, the thought kept coming to me, "When people see this picture I want them to see and feel the love that I am seeing now. I am an intruder here, do it justice but don't endlessly shoot the same picture."

It is an essential part of my work to really feel that discomfort of intrusion and not try to deny it. I never want to get to the point where it no longer bothers me. I only ever want to conquer it momentarily in order to take the pictures and while it has never inhibited me, the fact that it takes effort to overcome is something that I hope never to lose.

This tragic case and Olga's fight for justice on behalf of her daughter highlights some of the problems involved with the provision of mental health care in the prison system and I would recommend you read the article by Nina Lakhani writing for The Independent (here).


James Wm. Dawson said...

Justin... I just now came across your blog. I have to say that aside from very much liking your photos I really like the manner in which you write ... I've linked your blog to mine so that others might also find it.

I'll be back... frequently

All the best

Justin Sutcliffe said...

James, Thank you very much for your comment. I am really pleased that you enjoy reading these posts and would like to put a link on your own blog.

Just taken a quick look and you piece about Islay is very resonant for me as I spent lots of holidays in the Hebrides and several of my family have moved up to that area of western Scotland.

I look forward to reading some more of the back-catalogue. Hope you have a good trip and if you can, try and get a dram of the legendary "Black" Bowmore - if it can still be found (affordably).

If you can track it down, your mouth will thank you!


James Wm. Dawson said...

hmm "Black" Bowmore too bad I didn't know of it while I was staying at Bowmore... more reason to return. In the meantime I'll keep my eyes open for it here.

I had a wonderful time in Islay ... if I could find a way to spend a year photographing the Hebirdian Islands I'd jump at it. I truly love that part of the World and for whatever reason feel very connected to it.

My blog is just some wandering thoughts ... interspersed with some photos. I'd be interested in knowing what you think of the images ... I'm self taught so there are likely tons of mistakes ... that can be learnt from.


James Wm. Dawson said...

ps... thanks for the link to my blog .. :-)