Home > benjamin chesterton, james nachtwey, photojournalism > Hacking the tall poppy

Hacking the tall poppy

James Nachtwey’s work on extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB, which I blogged about previously, has attracted its share of critics. This is nothing new, of course. Nachtwey has always attracted his share of critics, ranging from those who accuse him of exploiting the suffering of his subjects to make a buck to a recent chorus of voices complaining that his subjects should speak for themselves. Some of those critics say interesting and intelligent things. Others do not.

A typical example of these complaints surfaces at the duckrabbit blog:

Are we really supposed to believe its difficult for someone of Nachtwey’s talents to show people being cured of TB?

Roughly one in twelve hundred people will die after becoming infected with TB, that means the other eleven hundred and ninety nine will survive. (although far less in countries in which Nachtwey photographed)

I’m no statistician  but something about that number tells me that you wouldn’t have to search very far to find an alternative ending to the last image presented on the blog (or at least in the preceding photographs something to balance it out). No question though that if I was the editor of Lens I would have used this photo. Why?  Because this is a story about death and dieing [sic] and loss and pretty much that’s all the viewer sees.

The first suggestion they’re making here, of course, is that Nachtwey’s subject, XDR TB, isn’t really a matter of death and dying, and that he’s dishonestly misrepresenting what TB is really like. He has, the post snidely suggests, an “unflinching commitment to the dark end of this story,” not to its reality.

Except that Nachtwey’s story isn’t about TB, with it’s low mortality rate; it’s about XDR TB, which has mortality rates of 50% or higher. And the high mortality rate of XDR TB is exacerbated by its association with HIV infection in Africa, where one study found that “XDR TB was rapidly — and almost uniformly — fatal.”

You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that this is, in fact, a story about death and dying; high school mathematics will help, but all you really need is the ability to use something called “Google.” I understand it’s all the rage these days.

Benjamin Chesterton at duckrabbit may be suffering from Google fatigue because attention to mere facts might detract from his broader point, which he expounds on at length in a post at Nieman Storyboard: he’s suspicious of our ability to tell the stories of others, and would rather see them tell their own. Nachtwey is the avatar of the traditional approach, the photojournalist who lets the pictures, rather than their subjects, speak — and as such, he’s the tall poppy at which Chesterton hacks.

In fairness to Chesterton, there is nothing wrong with his preferred approach, and he makes a number of good points, particularly about the importance of context and of accurate captions.

But this is not a game of absolutes. The right approach for one story or project is not the right approach for another. Chesterton’s point of view, I’d suggest, is more that of a producer of publicity pieces than of a journalistic storyteller — which is entirely the right point of view for someone working for Medecins sans Frontiers.

A broader problem is the implication that the kind of work Nachtwey is doing is inappropriate, which is dragged in with a reference to Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story.” And it’s certainly true that our view of the developing world as a pit of misery is informed primarily by journalism that focuses on suffering, as it’s true that the perspectives of local photographers may often be more accurate and valuable than those of photographers who parachute in.

But journalists cover stories. “City prospers in relative peace” is not a story. Stories are about problems, and this is not going to change.

Would it be better if no one told us about XDR TB at all?

  1. March 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm | #1

    Why don’t you google ‘BD and TB’? You might discover one of the companies who will profit from increased spending on TB testing. A little more googling and you can probably work out that’s the company that funded most of Nachtwey’s project. So if you want to suggest that doing some freelance work for MSF (recently praised by the BBC College of Journalism) makes you a publicist, where does that leave your assessment of Natchwey’s TB project?

    This is what he is quoted as saying on Lens:

    ‘“I wanted to do it through the lens of people actually being cured for TB or treated in some way, to show that there was care going on but it’s difficult,” he said.

    Even by your figures half survive. Are you actually suggesting that someone of Nachtwey’s talents really would find it ‘difficult’ to reflect that or to introduce balance into his story? I’m amazed that as an author you are suggesting the way to tell this story is by mining its darkest element? Even the most backward of colonialist types have moved on a bit since Conrad.

    I totally agree with you that different approaches are important. I’m producing a number of documentaries for the BBC at the moment in which the photographer is the lead voice. However I can assure you that if we took the same approach as Nachtwey these documentaries would not make it to air.

  2. March 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm | #2

    You yourself, in one of the pieces I linked to, draw a line between advocacy and photojournalism. I wouldn’t say you were acting as a publicist — sloppy on my part to say “publicity” — but I would say that work done for MSF qualifies as advocacy, and I would characterize the approach you favour as one of advocacy. I don’t think that’s unfair.

    The very strange thing about Nachtwey’s remark as quoted on Lens is that his photos do show treatment and care; they just don’t show recovery. This, I think, is kind of odd, and suggests that the quote is missing some context.

    I would say that when dealing with African XDR TB patients, where mortality has been near 100%, Nachtwey would undoubtedly have found it difficult to show people being cured. Even in Russia, where mortality approaches 50%, what do you do? It’s easy to photograph treatment, but at what moment is someone cured?

    Some things are difficult to photograph, and this is where I think you do have an excellent point: when we focus on the photos, as Nachtwey does, then it is very easy to lose their context and to leave out those parts of the story that don’t photograph well.

  3. March 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm | #3

    You’ve written a good blog post. Its important. We need to debate this stuff and I appreciate you taking the time and trouble.

    I think what we did for MSF was just old fashioned storytelling, but you’re right it was used in an advocacy context. I also think that our work is also guilty of some of the things I’ve criticized.

    I never want to see journalism replaced by advocacy. We need both. We need news sources we can trust and we need campaigns that get under our skin. Nachtwey is an amazing photojournalist. Probably the best. But his photos here are advocacy not journalism and I think this is the problem.

    In the Nieman piece I pointed to Magnum’s work in the area of HIV and TB. We see people die and we see people survive. Is the work any less powerful for emitting hope?

    When I lived in Ethiopia I went to the wakes of the family members of my staff who died from AIDS related TB. I see their stories in Magnums work but not in Nachtweys. As one observer pointed out in Nachtweys pictures you never see a patient smile.

    A story this important cannot just be about the ‘best pictures’.

  1. March 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm | #1

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