Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how privilege affects our work
The fact is, even in spite of being a war refugee as a child and even in spite of having to deal with a bit of homophobia after my public coming-out, I’m tall, I’m white and my life on the whole has been one of comfort and safety. In a sentence: I’ve enjoyed an existence of privilege.
That cannot be said about the people whose life I’ve been documenting this last year. Oftentimes marginalized, discriminated and without exception facing invisible walls of exclusion, they experience life in diametrically different flavors than I do. Admittedly, I’m adding nothing earth-shatteringly new when I say that less fortunate people than me are not difficult to find — there is a lot of suffering and injustice in the world. However, it bears repeating that the privilege gap between the photographer and the photographed becoming apparent usually means consequences for both. I was reminded of this fact this past May while working with trans sex-workers in the Sicilian town of Catania.
The Catanese red-light district of San Berillo is a well-known haven for transsexual, transgender and transvestite people of Sicily. Deprived of economic possibilities in a society that rarely accepts them as they are, they arrive seeking safety and companionship among their own; and ultimately, usually due to lack of other opportunities, end up supporting themselves with sex work. Misunderstood and often mistreated, they strive to explain paths taken and opportunities lost to people willing to listen. This has been my second trip to San Berillo and, by this time, they all knew my name and I knew theirs.
Undoubtedly, the basic photographic maxim remains true: get up-close and personal. if you’re not getting the shots, you’re not close enough. However, too close can be detrimental.
After letting me in, opening their hearts, recounting their histories and inviting me to share the mundane — yet photographically exhilarating moments of their lives, a deep bond and a personal closeness was forged between us. Undoubtedly, the basic photographic maxim remains true: get up-close and personal — if you’re not getting the shots, you’re not close enough. However, too close can be detrimental. I found that keeping a professional distance between the photographer and the photographed is necessary to prevent an unwitting show of privilege that could harm an otherwise laboriously built relationship.
Let me explain. After attending a regular group meeting organized by a nearby Roman-Catholic parish that actively works within the red light district, Franchina and Wonder, two deeply religious transvestite prostitutes, invited me to accompany them while they shop for a table cloth for the next day’s get-together at the church. On our way back, having worked the whole day without a lunch, I suggested taking a coffee break. In a hurry, my mind jumped to picking a centrally located café with a summer garden right under a great tree where I leisurely sat every morning, ate an early breakfast, planned and set my goals for the day. To me, this was just another typical Italian café. Only after sitting down and ordering, I realized that the place was crowded and Franchina didn’t feel very comfortable.
Neither Franchina, nor Wonder were dressed unusually, nor did they attract unwanted attention from other guests, yet her face betrayed a discomfort caused by a sense of being out of place. After years of seclusion from a major part of Sicilian society, she was not used to coming out of her forced social exile, much less being confronted with a reality that was seemingly within reach – in fact, only meters away from the red light district, yet always beyond that invisible wall that separates her life from the lives of the others. Presumably, having realized herself that this place was nothing out-of-the ordinary for me, I must’ve instantly lost a bit of a that hard-earned trust that we’ve been painstakingly building by sharing our stories over the course of the past weeks.
Simply put, I strive to do worthwhile documentary photography because I care about the people and issues I pick. Yet, this care always carries a risk. The professional friendship that I maintained with Franchina and Wonder started slowly growing into a personal one and in turn, while letting my guard down, I started feeling the need to include Franchina and Wonder in my life more deeply. For a moment there, both our veils lifted a bit too much and we both realized that the gap between our day-to-day lives is too vast to be traversed in the space of a few weeks.
I quickly finished my coffee, picked up the tab and resumed the previous route. Franchina was relieved and, in the end, I lucked out: the episode did not affect our relationship as much as I thought. My care for the girls in the district has always been one of a deep connection and worry and this mindset won out over the lack of shared life circumstances in the long run.
Showing your photographic subjects (too much) of your privilege, even unwittingly, carries a risk of exposing them to an uncomfortable confrontation with a world they are painfully excluded from.
Yet, deep down, I know that this small misstep not only endangered the execution of my work – by manifesting my privilege, it also must’ve been deeply unsettling to Franchina. Showing your photographic subjects (too much) of your privilege, even unwittingly, carries a risk of exposing them to an uncomfortable confrontation with a world they are painfully excluded from. It carries a risk of manifesting the impossibility of their acceptance and, what’s more, reminds them starkly of a truth they strive to ignore in their day-to-day lives: my life could be better but for reasons out of my control, it is not and most probably, will never be.
It is a given that we, the documentary photographers, do our work because we care deeply about the people and the issues we strive to cover. If not, why then? And it is only human to have an urge to bond on a deeper level with the people we spend our time with. Most of us have been, in relative terms, blessed by a life of relative comfort and therefore, our main skill is not really the technical prowess with a camera, but rather the ability to walk among different worlds, cultures and peoples while being able to switch modes in which we comport ourselves, in which we talk to and approach our subjects. Empathy is crucial – and so is caution. Caution to not let the fragile momentary illusion of walking in the same shoes with the people we hope to photograph vanish because of lack of our care. It can hurt their feelings, make them feel used and prevent us from executing our vision.
So, photographers, check your privilege at the door — and be vigilant about letting your guard down too much.