5. Power and responsibilities

On my last visit to the UK, I witnessed more violence in the first 24 hours than I had in the previous 8 years living in a Muslim country. That day I also read several Facebook posts from less enlightened ‘friends’ complaining about how Islam represented a culture of violence. This discrepancy between what I have encountered as I have traveled the world and the way much of the world is portrayed to those who don’t travel has become the main focus of my photography. I believe it is my moral duty to make images with a view to educating people not only in what life is like in other countries, but also how similar it can be to the lives they lead themselves. In pursuit of this, I make many images of people, seeking to show that despite the sometimes vast differences in their culture, their dress, their environment, they have more in common with those viewing the image than that which sets them apart.

My dilemma here is that I am still representing people as being ‘the other’. I find that there is often a faint whiff of the Victorian freak show about travel photography – come and wonder at how different these people are. My dilemma is whether or not it is possible to subvert this idea. Whenever I photograph people, I only attempt to take, and certainly only use, photographs that maintain the dignity of the subject. Although it may be an act of cultural imperialism, I do try and imagine that if this were a photograph of myself, would I be pleased with it? There have been numerous times when I have had the chance to make a good, often potentially humorous image that I have decided against because the humour relies on the difference of the subject from my imagined audience. And there is quite enough of that kind of shit about already, frankly speaking.

There is also, of course, the fact that photographs have very little power in inspiring long term change in people. In our social media influenced society, there is the assuaging of any discomfort at having our ideas challenged by way of a like or a share allowing us to publicly wring our hands and then move on. Such, I fear, was the case with Alan Kurdi. As with a great many people, I was moved to tears when I first saw the photographs. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth across the continent; then things carried on as normal. The despicable Daily Mail ‘newspaper’ howled about the horror of his death then, almost immediately went back to printing story after story about the horror of migrants and how they threatened Great British ideals. There is a really unpleasant culture of compassion-porn at the moment. Something horrible happens, people post about how horrified they personally are on Facebook then, feeling better for this purge, carry on as though nothing had happened. This has gone beyond mere compassion fatigue into new and uncharted territory. And yet these images need to be seen. If there is an answer, I don’t know what it is.


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