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Exploration and Exploitation – The Fine Line

Since the first year of this course I have been looking for the perfect subject to document. I wanted to show my tutors that I could gain access to sensitive stories. I wanted to prove to myself that once I’d succeeded in gaining that access I would take astonishingly powerful and moving images that really made a statement. During group tutorials or crits those who showed images of time spent with drug addicts or disabled children or underprivileged youths always seemed to come out on top. The reaction from lecturers and fellow students, including myself, towards images of vulnerable people got me thinking about the fine line between the exploration and exploitation of subjects.

This was further reinforced after watching part of ‘Knuckle’, a documentary exposing bare knuckle boxing in the Irish Gypsy community.  The access is phenomenal and the subjects honestly is blatant and at times rather brutal. Creator Ian Palmer spent 12 years filming and interviewing the individuals and has footage of every fight (whether filmed by himself or dug out of an archive).

This film maker had the access to something brilliant, full of colour, narrative, excitement and adrenaline. He was accepted, not as a photographer but as a friend. Invited to the local as a member of the clan- from both opponents. He was in the position every photographer or film maker would absolutely relish. Its not this access that matters though, its what you do with it. How you use it, abuse it and treat it.

As the friend I was sat alongside began explaining who was related to who and why they did this and that, it was just like sitting down to watch a soap opera you’d missed for a couple of weeks. The terrible thing is, and I presume one of the reasons it has been so popular, is that I wanted to look away; but I couldn’t. My eyes were literally glued to that screen. After fifteen minutes of hearing about why the fight was arranged, how much money was on it, why they were participating.. I was ready to see the fight. Ready to know who won. Despite the inevitable violence and brutality that I knew was to come I sat cross legged on the sofa ready to watch the outcome.

With this, it no longer felt like a documentary where the subjects were represented respectfully, I felt as though I was watching only to judge. To compare our so called civilized social existence to their seemingly brutal and animalistic way of life. It seemed to me that we weren’t watching to learn about the different values within their community, we were watching to gloat about ours. To feel superior and almost reassured that our values are much more sophisticated and humanistic. In short, it felt as though we were watching to massage our egos and make ourselves feel better about the way we live.

After seeing enough, I made my excuses and left the room. I have been told that I didn’t see enough of the program to truly appreciate it. I have also been, what I interpret as challenged, to watch it in its entirety. Perhaps I will feel differently afterwards. What I did see brought to light the choices that photographers make not only with subject matter but also whilst shooting and how these decisions can often affect whether a piece is in fact exploration or exploitation.

Having chosen their subject, for whatever reason, a photographer must not only be clear of their intensions of portrayal to themselves but also with their subjects. Whether or not the subject has control over captioning or edit, engaging in human photography is an instant collaboration between subject and photographer and the two must be equally informed and honest about their intensions and the way they will be portrayed. The collaboration must be respected by the photographer.

Another example of the fine line between exploration and exploitation is the work of Shelby Lee Adams. Adams’ most famous and well-known work is his ongoing documentation of Appalachian culture, this work is also his most controversial and arguable his most exploitative. Adams visits every summer to photograph families and feels his photographs show ‘the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people’. However, many believe that Adams is simply exploiting his subjects and only adding to the unfair and ill-informed stereotype of Appalachian families created by the mass media.

Watching the footage taken by Adams during his visits shows the true nature of the images as he tells the individuals where to stand and what expression to wear. So how can this be regarded as a true representation and an exploration? With this information it seems as though Adams is manipulating his subjects to create portraits that will satisfy the wider audience. Images that, as opposed to educating us about a community of often unfairly stereotyped individuals, seem only to exaggerate this stereotype and feed an unhealthy curiosity. A curiosity for an audience to want to point and stare at something unknown and detached from how the majority of the population live.

Some critics believe that the individuals within the portraits are not educated enough to realise how their images are not only being used but how they are perceived because of them. Although watching the children grinning and clutching onto a book of Appalachian Portraits may appear to depict a satisfied subject- it begs the question, do they really understand how they are being portrayed? Why people are keen to look at their portraits? Why people care?

Cynical though it may seem, this dark and sometimes sinister curiosity will always be there, similarly to morbid curiosity. To seek, see and experience the unknown is only human. It’s the reason we travel, take risks and make mistakes. It is often the reason we are drawn to images; whether a beautiful Ansel Adams landscape we may never stand in or an individual we may never shake the hand of. It would be impossible to expect a photographer to stop us being curious about their images, it would be ludicrous in fact, because curiosity is what draws us in, grabs our attention and makes us stop and listen. Once this is achieved though the photographer must endeavour to   educate us. Teach us about the Appalachian culture and the Irish Gypsy traditions. Photography is not only a way to make an audience curious but a way to educate and that is what we must remember. As Susan Sontag states in ‘On Photography’ : “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability” and we, as professional photographers or students of the medium  must respect that and not become vultures, seeking the vulnerable for personal gain.


  1. Tim

    Excellent and well articulated. Many ‘photographers’ should be directed to this!

  2. Bernadette Bauer

    STUART MEDIA BLAIR STUART FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER, BIKER, POET, WRITER and PERFORMER Hopefully my images and words will not only foster creative thought but will touch and move people on an emotional level.

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