Welcome back to our weekly series, ‘What is Ethical Storytelling?’ Every week we talk about a topic that falls underneath the umbrella term ‘ethical storytelling’ and how these apply to us as Photographers! This week we are discussing the ‘Western Gaze.’
The Western Gaze is defined as a more privilege audience (people from the west) gazing/ looking at people who are not from the west and projecting their preconceptions, biases and ‘what have you’s’ onto them. It's a power struggle that unfortunately still plays out today. The way this can be seen within the photography industry is when western Photographers fly into third world countries and photograph stereotypical images of poverty, suffering and everything else that sets them apart from people living in the west. The images are meant for a specific audience, westerners and the sole purpose of this is simple, for the western audience to gaze at non-westerners propelling responses such as curiosity, pity, misconceptions and unfortunately, the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.
You may be reading this and are wondering, “how does this apply to me as a Photographer?” Well, there are several ways. The first way is by asking yourself a simple question… “who are these images for and what are the responses that I hope to get from it?” Seeing centuries of the same images being regurgitated makes it easy to commit the same mistakes that colonial Photographers made. Many past colonial and western Photographers were focused on capturing what sets a group of people, country and nation, apart from the west. They were fixated on showing the suffering, poverty, violence and everything else that presented third world countries as less than, to a more privilege audience. These pictures were meant for a specific audience and unfortunately led to the generation of a fetish type curiosity, with many westerners being fixated on the way that people in third world countries live. Are you re-instilling these same practices by taking 'touristy' images that lack depth and soul but serve the sole purposes of tickling the curiosity of a more privilege audience? These are questions that every photographer should ask themselves before pressing that shutter button.
The Western Gaze is eternalised through various means, INGO photography, Tourist Photography, Photography publications, News Media and Print and the list goes on. The people guilty today of feeding the Western Gaze are not necessarily just Photographers who fly in from the west, but are Photographers who are also from those same regions that are continuously photographed, Photographers who were born and raised in third world countries but still push out stereotypical images that represent a group of people as being less than or ‘exotic' (a term and topic that we will discuss in the next series). We all have a part to play in counteracting centuries of damage that has been done by the Photography industry and we must all start by analysing our intentions with the images that we push out and wether these images will do more harm than good.
The Photography space is a very complex industry and with the popularisation of Photojournalism, the truth is that all eyes will usually be on third world countries. The need to capture news worthy events as they unfold, at times, do lead to Photographers needing to document negative and difficult situations. When scenarios such as these arise, it is then down to the audience viewing these images to consciously remember that these unfortunate events do not define the individuals in the images and certainly do not define an entire race, country or nation.
Us Photographers have alot of work to do, but by consciously educating ourselves and being open to evolving and adapting the way that we take images in this day and age will help us to create the change that we hope to see.