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The Road to Other Worlds
If you stick around long enough in this business and manage to retain a few tattered threads of credibility you will be asked to join advisory boards. It's an inevitable progression, like the increasing strength of your reading glasses. The reason that you will be asked is that those asking assume you must have acquired some wisdom during your long tenure in the industry, and that you no longer need to be paid for your efforts, assumptions that are often erroneous on both counts. However, if you agree to join the board that's generally the limit of your involvement, and no further demands will be placed upon you. Rarely will you be asked to actually advise, and hardly ever will your advice be taken.
It, therefore, came as somewhat of a shock when Chris Rainier of the National Geographic e-mailed me asking for suggestions of suitable recipients of the Society's All Roads photographic awards. That's the trouble with Chris; he's so active that he expects others to be as well. I had agreed to be on this project's board because its aims, to provide support to documentary photographers from those parts of the world where such assistance is difficult to come by, seemed to be both admirable and needed. For me one of the worrying aspects of photojournalism as it is practiced in the United States and Western Europe is that we see much of the world through the eyes of photographers from the United States or Western Europe. This is troublesome not because of the quality of the work that they produce, which is often excellent, but because with all the good intentions in the world the results are still tinged with a kind of photo-colonialism. Rainier himself has done some outstanding photographs of indigenous cultures in New Guinea and elsewhere (Digital Journalist, November 2004), but is the first to point out that "my version is only one version and it tends to be a western male perspective."
He was invited to be a part of the National Geographic Society in 2001 to help steer its thinking along more international lines, especially in the representation of indigenous cultures, and the All Roads project was one of the results of the society's shift of focus in this area. It has both film and photography components, and the idea is to provide support to and get exposure for "photographic storytellers from around the world who are documenting their changing culture and community through photography," to quote from the All Roads press release.
It is not a competition but rather an acknowledgement of excellence for photographers already working within their own communities. You cannot enter it, but must be nominated by the advisory board, and in fact one of the recipients of the 2005 awards, Marcela Taboada, thought that the notification she received was some kind of elaborate joke. The criteria for selection are:
The awardees in 2005 were Andre Cypriano from Brazil for his project about "Rocinha, An Orphan Town"; Neo Ntsoma from South Africa for her work on Kwaito Culture; Sudaharak Olwe from India for "In Search of Dignity and Justice: The Untold Story of Mumbai's Conservancy Workers"; Marcela Taboada from Mexico for "Women of Clay."
All these projects are worthy of support, but we all know the paving composition of the road to hell, and one of the problems with the approach as outlined in the criteria is that it can create a kind of reverse discrimination. Chris himself admits, "Indigenous is a dangerous word because it has implications that we really don't want to set up." He goes on to say, "We have intentionally not clearly drawn a perimeter because we want to be inclusive and not exclusive." He asserts that an Irish photographer documenting a small community in Ireland would be equally eligible as somebody from a developing country.
From my point of view the value of having photographers from within a culture tell its story is that they often understand their communities in a deeper way than an outside observer. I always advise students starting out on their careers to begin documenting in their own backyards before buying a ticket for Afghanistan or Botswana. It's not only cheaper, but they will probably have more profound insights, and sometimes make more exciting discoveries in the place that they comprehend the best. The photographers who are most successful working overseas are usually those who take the time to learn about the cultures in which they will be photographing - Philip Jones Griffith and Susan Meiselas being two that come to mind.
The cash and prizes of the All Roads Awards consist of a check for $2,500, cameras from Olympus, printers from Epson, PhotoShop from Adobe, backpacks from Lowepro, and tripods from Manfrotto. In addition to this the recipients are flown to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where the film festival part of the celebrations is held. While in D.C. they attend seminars with picture editors from not only the Geographic but also from other leading magazines. They themselves will give seminars in many parts of the world as well as having traveling exhibitions. The greatest prize may be none of the above, but comes from the affirmation that recognition provides. Neo Ntsoma had studied photography in college during the years of Apartheid, and just as she was about to graduate the white authorities told her that she didn't deserve to be a photographer and that they wouldn't give her a degree. She was crushed, and left the field for many years before returning to it quite recently. For her the award affirmed that she really was a photographer. Andre Cypriano also expresses the same thought when he says, "The highlight of my experience was to see what is out there and feel confident with where I am in my photography. I was treated with respect every minute of the program for what I have been doing and for what I want to do."
What he has been doing, and what all the recipients have done, is to give us an extraordinarily intimate view of the communities in which they have been working. Whether or not an outsider could have achieved the same level of penetration into their subjects is irrelevant; the fact is that all these photographers were clearly accepted by the people they were photographing, who gave them emotional as well as physical access to their lives. I think that this is especially true of the work of Neo Ntsoma. She has chosen to concentrate on an aspect of the youth culture of her country, the Kwaito culture, an identity that she says is "proudly South African." That she should focus on a youth is important because South Africa, a country that she describes as "dancing into the future" is not only young as a democracy, but also as a society, where over half of the population is under twenty-five. The word Kwaito comes from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which means "angry" and is used in the same way that young people in the United States use the word "bad" to describe something good. It is the language of the townships, the ghettoes that the racist apartheid government set up to have a ready supply of cheap labor. She quotes the writer Franki Hills who describes the phenomenon as "a wild, eclectic mix-up, a boiling cooking brew of language and sound that could have happened nowhere but in South Africa." Given that photography was so important in communicating to the rest of the world the many injustices of apartheid, it is refreshing to see images coming out of that land that have the verve, energy and style of Ntsoma's, and which give a real sense of the creative chaos of an emerging nation.
If the Kwaito pictures are an affirmation of the life that is released when injustice is banished then the photographs of the other three projects are angry expressions of life, and death, under it. Two of the most heartrending are Sudarak Olwe's photograph of the body of a baby literally thrown away on a trash heap, and the hauntingly sad portrait of a young girl by Andre Cypriano. Equally powerful is the image from Marcela Taboada of an exhausted woman brick maker lying next to the forms that she uses to create the building blocks of her life from the hard earth of her environment. The unifying force of each of the projects is the passion that the photographers bring to them. It is one thing to be moved by the plight of others, but that which is yours, a product of your own land, raises the intensity of joy or outrage to a whole different level.
It is so easy to scorn projects such as All Roads as being overly worthy, paternalistic and condescending, the rich people giving handouts to the poor, and it would be understandable for an organization as instinctively conservative as the National Geographic Society to not expose itself to such potential criticism. The fact of the matter is that the Geographic does have the power to make a difference in the lives of not only the photographers, but also its audience, and hopefully the subjects of the photographs through giving this work wider exposure. Andre Cypriano describes his motivation for photographing the favela as twofold: "I hope to bring to light the necessity of government action to effect change. In addition I want to address the global conundrum that we must all face. That is, when a community has been, for all intents and purposes, ostracized from a larger political and societal framework, how much can we, as outsiders, question the resulting criminal system, especially when that same system, while detrimental to the residents, also supports and provides for them?"
The Geographic has to be commended for the courage that it takes to open itself up to such challenging questions, and making us face them as well. It also shows that there are smart minds at work there because it is only through endeavors such as All Roads that the society will remain relevant and avoid the inevitable sclerosis that afflicts large, bureaucratic organizations unwilling to take risks.
One of Rainier's biggest challenges going forward with the program - and this is only the second time the awards have been given - will not be finding suitable honorees, but selecting them from the many hundreds of as yet unknown photographers whose work deserves recognition. If there is one thing that the awards so far prove it is that the art of photographic storytelling is not the purview solely of Western photographers, but is truly an international language spoken by many nationalities. Andre Cypriano sums up the spirit of All Roads when he says, "This program showed me that we must keep on enjoying the unknown, a divine thing on life." Amen to that.
To learn more about All Roads go to http://nationalgeographic.com/allroads.
© Peter Howe
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