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?