Photographing modern slavery: recommendations for responsible practice

Photographing modern slavery: recommendations for responsible practice

Photographing modern slavery: recommendations for responsible practice

How do you make in the invisible visible? From photojournalism, to artists’ reproductions of slavery, to portraits of survivors, there are numerous genres of photography which seek to illuminate the reality of modern slavery. These images will frequently be utilised by governments and NGOs in order to make the wider public aware of the realities of modern slavery. Formal reports often accompany their narrative information with images, and government campaigns often make imagery central to their message. As a crime that thrives in the shadows, portraying modern slavery can present a challenge for photojournalists.

The fight for the abolition of slavery has always had a significant visual component. Although other methods of visual representation existed, such as engravings or sketches, none purported to convey the “truth” of the world in the same way that photography did, and hence the invention of the camera in 1839 captured the public’s imagination. However, the culture of photography carries a legacy of colonialism and white supremacy: of a white male gaze informing us of how we are to view the enslaved ‘other.’ This kind of photography is imbued with voyeurism and implications of inferiority, portraying scarred backs and supplicated bodies. The ‘other’ in the image is not a thinking, feeling person; they are instead a vehicle by which suffering can be conveyed to an audience.

As a result of this history, and in effort to move away from it, image makers have attempted to be creative with how they present modern slavery to the public. Although the techniques used are wide and varied, there are four primary categories of photography within the anti-slavery movement that are most frequently seen:

1. Documentary photography – whereby a photographer enters a space in which modern slavery occurs and attempts to capture the reality around them.

2. Re-enactment photography – whereby a photographer artificially constructs a staged image which is based on their understanding of modern slavery.

3. Survivor-produced photography – whereby a person who has experienced modern slavery uses photography to portray their experiences. Of particular importance here is the methodology of participatory photography, which is a method of survivor-produced photography.

4. Contextualised photography – whereby an image is intentionally not revealed to be concerning modern slavery until reading the accompanying text (for example, portraits of survivors, landscapes of sites of slavery).

Each of these categories comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. Every interaction between a photographer and a subject is loaded with power dynamics and questions about agency, which will only be compounded if one of them is a survivor of modern slavery. Photography should resist objectifying, sexualising and demeaning those who have been enslaved. Equally, photography should seek to portray the true reality of modern slavery – as far as is possible – to help the public recognise it. Imagery can be both impactful on public opinion and of service to survivors of slavery – the two are not mutually exclusive.

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