‘Does Art Matter’?

These are the rough notes for a talk I gave at the 'Socially Engaged Art Salon' (SEAS) event for Refugee week, on the theme of 'Does Art Matter'? The participating artists were asked to consider the question in the context of refugees and migration in particular. The photos illustrating this article are all taken from my series of portraits of Touareg friends and villagers from the Timbuktu region, who had to flee their homes when extremists took over Timbuktu in 2012. Prints of some of these can be purchased here - a percentage of the profits will go to the people in the photos or to projects in their village: https://art.tt/33r6


The question we’ve been asked to address is ‘Does Art Matter ‘? The simple answer for most of us here is clearly Yes.

But I wanted to look at the question from the perspective of documentary and portraiture photography – since this is what I do - and its place in our increasingly globalised world.

My personal view is that photography in general can be used to bear witness to peoples’ lives and struggles, and as such, it can make a huge difference in the struggle to challenge misconceptions, and to find a fair, respectful and meaningful depiction of refugees, migrants and other cultures in general.


... Simply photographing poverty and misfortune does not in itself change perceptions, and unless it is done in a conscious way it can actually serve to reinforce prejudice and misconceptions about other people.


IN THE PAST DECADE OR SO, the gap between rich and poor throughout the world has become wider and wider. People from the poorer half of the world’s population are often forced to migrate due to war or climate change, while the rich - us – are able to travel for leisure with far more ease due to cheap plane fares.

Together with the explosion in ownership of smart phones and cheap digital cameras, this has pretty much turned the whole western world into a 'travel photographer'.

Suddenly other people and cultures have become a kind of commodity – and poverty and suffering have become photogenic.

But with this new ease of access to other cultures and people comes a certain social responsibility, which sadly isn’t always apparent.

People go off  ‘travelling’ , and whilst away they plaster their Instagram feed with photos of beggars or other unfortunate people they’ve encountered away from the rich West.

Some people call it 'poverty tourism' .

There is a kind of de-humanising element to such photography; a sense of voyeurism - as the Sex Pistols once said 'Holidays in other people's misery'.

It often seems to me that images like these tend to be more popular than images showing relatively affluent looking people from non Western cultures.

Apparently there is even a ‘Favela photography tour’, in Rio, where you get taken round the poor slums of Rio de Janeiro, so you can photograph the picturesque poverty and slum life, and then upload it to your Facebook or Instagram feed.


There is also this thing with names... I find that professional photographers are the most guilty of this - they will accompany a beautiful portrait with several paragraphs of detailed anthropological information about their subject's culture, history, customs - yet the photograph is simply entitled 'Samburu Tribesman' / 'Masai Warrior' / 'Himba mother and child'.  An unnamed, de-humanised non-person, reduced to their community's collective history and customs

. I know that it isn't always possible to get someone's name, but if you have spent long enough with the person to take a well-composed portrait, surely you have the time to ask their name?


So... What I’m trying to say is that as socially conscious people - whether we consider ourselves to be professional photographers or we're just taking holiday snaps - it's incredibly important to always be aware of how we represent people.

This is something I struggle with constantly when I’m taking photos in West Africa, and it’s one reason why you will see very few ‘stolen’ photos on my website.

THE KEY THING FOR ME is to represent people how they wish to be seen, and not HOW I SEE THEM. This isn’t always apparent when you first see someone.

It’s also very important to remember that there’s always more than one side to a person’s story.

This means engaging with the person you’re photographing for long enough to understand their view of their situation.

You might see someone in desperate poverty, whose life seems to be a constant miserable struggle, but this isn’t always the whole picture, and it may be very far from how that person views themself.


To illustrate this point I just wanted to leave you with a story from the Calais Refugee camp, otherwise known as The Jungle, which I think shows that everyone has their own reality, which isn’t always necessarily what you might think on first seeing them.

Just before the camp was dismantled, volunteers gave residents disposable cameras and asked them to photograph anything they wanted. Given the conditions in the camp - that I’m sure we’ve all seen – you might have expected them to photograph the misery, the mud, the sadness – but actually, quite the contrary; when the volunteers looked at the photos they found amazing expressions of joy and solidarity – pictures of children playing ; of the communal kitchens they had shared; of flowers, of artworks painted on walls. In fact, they photographed anything except misery!

So... I guess all I’m trying to say is that photographing and showing other people’s struggles is incredibly important, but it has to be done in a sensitive and thoughtful way; in collaboration with the person being photographed, and treating them with dignity and respect. It may mean that you don't get the photo YOU wanted, but it will be the image that the person you photographed wanted....