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Human dignity violations in images

Updated on June 2, 2015

What picture comes to mind when you hear a title like poor, homeless, drug addict or even illegal immigrant? Those words – and many others like them - are labels. They are used to identify, or profile a group, for purposes of distinguishing or isolating the group from the rest. It is easier to use a word or phrase and convey an image than attempting a description.

So, when people are labeled “the homeless’, “the poor”, “the illegal immigrants” images appear in the audience’s mind. The images are generic even though the subject people are individuals with different and diverse circumstances.

Those mental images shape or inform on the audience’s attitude towards those labeled. Just sit back and think of “the homeless” – what image comes to your mind? Perhaps it is an image of drunken, dirty, even filthy individuals at a street corner holding a sign asking for a dollar (to buy another can of cheap beer). Or, maybe, it is an image of a mentally ill veteran whose family could no longer help and ended on city streets living on drugs!

Labels and profiles are not compatible with the Oneness of all human beings. Individuals and their circumstances differ but humanity is one. What those labels of poor or homeless or illegal immigrant do is to isolate those individuals (as a group) from the rest of society on the basis of economic factors – which, by the way, differ from society to society. When we think or embrace the Oneness of humanity, such isolation becomes contradictory.

Police profiling has been met with strong condemnation everywhere and whenever it has surfaced. Such condemnation has been based on legal ramifications. However, any person or group profiled or labeled is stigmatized by more than just legal implications. There are issues of human dignity as well as personal privacy.

This is indeed, the subject of this discussion, not legal or economic ramifications, but basic human dignity and personal privacy. This is where photographers and photojournalism come in.

Evan Goulet published an article in photo.net (photo.net/street-documentary-photography-forum/00JsJp) titled, “Exploitation of the poor on a different level” and stated this: “You can have that award winning shot of doe-eyed children begging for a handout. And what do the villagers get?” One can ask differently, “what do the “homeless” or “the poor” or “the illegal immigrant” get?

One may ask: How is this exploitation?

Photographers and photojournalists are paid for the pictures they take and the stories they write. Many of them are regular employees of media outlets. The media outlets are themselves making money out of the pictures and stories – you can bet, they would not hire or pay the photographers and photojournalists!

It is therefore exploitation for publicity. (It is the same exploitation that is seen in disaster photography and prompted Richard Woodward in ARTNews to raise the question of whether “spectacular images of victims is exploitation of others misfortunes or covering bad news”).

Exploitation of others’ misfortunes is the phrase. And how is it exploitation?

Here is an illustration:

A local photojournalist has twice published in a local media outlet – for which she is an employee – stories she has labeled “The Faces of the homeless” and “The stories of the homeless”. It is not coincidence that one story followed the other.

The most characteristic feature in these profiles are individuals holding large cards in front of them where they have written a message suggested by the photojournalist. Remember your mental image of “the homeless”? These individuals are led – by the photojournalist – to show in picture, the image that is already in the audience’s mind.

Think about it in the words of a commentator in a discussion in urban75.net: “Perhaps if the photographer considers the exact same situation but with a member of their own family in place…” Indeed, think of a family member in the images of “the poor”, “the homeless”, or the “illegal immigrant”.

Consider further, if one photographed does not want his or her image displayed in the media? What those photojournalists do is to entice their profiled individuals to sign a document they don’t even read. Even then, don’t we all change mind sometimes? What is one realizes that their privacy is being violated? In the eyes of the exploiters, they have no rights.

Of course there will be those who will claim that this exposure is meant to educate the public about the plight of “these victims”. Yet, in reality, their situation cannot be projected on an image – mental or copy. This is only a simplification which distorts the overall picture. Furthermore, the photographers are not doing any advocacy on behalf of those portrayed in their stories. They are making a living and have no interest even in going deeper into learning the circumstances of their subjects.

And so we ask: What needs to be done?

First, let the public be aware of this dehumanizing practice. Humanity is about dignity for all human beings despite their circumstances. “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him/her you will see yourself. As you treat him/her you will treat yourself. As you think of him/her you will think of yourself. Never forget this, for in him/her you will find yourself or lose yourself” (quote from A Course in Miracles).

Second, be a voice. No one needs a course in human dignity – it is a natural. Yet, many whose dignity is violated may not be aware of the fact at the time of violation. We must embark on educating the perpetrator as well as the violated. Speak against the practice, write about it, and create an opportunity for discussion – in training sessions, study groups and especially in social service agencies.

Thirdly, be an advocate. Confront – peacefully and forcefully – those benefitting from this exploitation. Voice your opposition in the media as well as through advocacy agencies.

Let us remember that we are all one – created equal and in the image of God. If one is exploited then all are exploited. When one is healed all are healed. When people fight for freedom they seek to set free the oppressor as much as the oppressed. This is our collective mission.

A baby sleeps under a railway wagon at a refugee camp
A baby sleeps under a railway wagon at a refugee camp | Source

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