War on the Photojournalist

You hold a precious gem that could solve the world’s dependency on oil. You know the secret of what happens after death, but you won’t share it. Simply a picture of these items might change the mindset of the entire globe and you refuse to allow the public into your life.

All of these are hypothetical situations, of course, but why not open yourself up to the world?

Why am I saying all this? Because I am absolutely fed up with privacy! Ya, you don’t hear that too often. And don’t worry I’ll walk the walk; I am completely open and willing to allow everyone access to my life, especially if I have valuable information to share like that guy who recorded 1 second of each day for a year.

I believe that all knowledge should be accessible to the public. I’m a journalist, I have to believe that. So when people refuse to answer my questions, or refuse to have their picture taken it absolutely grinds my gears!

My frustration with this began when professors refused to answer questions from us student journalists on a deadline. All of those years of education, reading and writing books, for what? So they can keep it to themselves and their colleagues in the academia bubble?

On the other hand, some journalists like my former profs Bruce Hicks and Elias Makos can’t get enough of the media. They appear consistently on CTV Montreal for everything to do with media and technology, but why so few?

Perhaps “experts’” refusal to speak is good considering the media relies too heavily on those with university degrees and not enough on those with real experience. See: Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model or…

So, lets talk to the people! Ya, we’ll get real stories by asking various groups of people…wait. They won’t talk to the media, won’t give their name or won’t let you take their photo? Politics aside, because it is a journalists’ ethical role to protect their interview subjects and if they are talking about something controversial that could cause people to discriminate or persecute them, it irks me when people won’t talk about a noncontroversial subject.

That brings me to my current situation, cause you’re probably reading this for my travel blog right?

The most fascinating thing/things I have seen so far in Bolivia have been the wonderfully beautiful Cholitas. These majestic old women (not always old, but the young ones tend not to roam the streets) with their gleaming colourful skirts, tops and stylish bowler hats they are absolutely stunning. Their traditional cultural clothing clashes with the Western attire that every man and non-Cholita woman wear.

Their customs are fascinating:

i) Some wear their hat to a certain side to show their marital status.

ii) Their skirts puff out to ridiculous proportions to show their wealth/beauty – the opposite of the tight jeans/spandex, which is the uniform of many girls in the West.

iii) The colours of the robes can depend on occasion.

iv) Their gold teeth implants can cost hundreds of Bolivianos and can come in porcelain, acrylic, cold, silver and even in heart shapes.

v) Their bags cost at least 600 bs. (about $90 USD). Their hats at least 500 bs (about $75 USD).

vi) Their whole outfit can potentially cost more than a month of their husband’s wage.

vii) They have a weekly staged wrestling league.

viii) Some young Cholita rebels have performed in Cholita pornography.

I want to know more! I need to know more! The Cholitas are a perfect video documentary pitch, a perfect feature or a perfect radio documentary. A story about Cholitas can be astonishing in any medium, particularly visually, AND I CAN’T DO IT!

One other tidbit about Cholitas is that they believe that if a photo is taken of them they will lose a piece of their soul. It’s tradition, they say, and I wholeheartedly respect that. I can imagine that their colonial oppressors weren’t that nice when taking photos of them years ago causing them to develop this anti-photography tradition. It’s just disappointing because I know they have such a beautiful and interesting tradition to share.

Photojournalism ethics tells me that I must ask permission before I take a photo of him or her and I have done that. And in absolutely every instance, Bolivians have rejected me. Even after schmoozing for a while, men, women, Cholitas, non-Cholitas, young and old have rejected my requests and gotten either mad or extremely cold after I requested to take a photo of them.

The problem is, photos of indigenous people exist and I expect that at least one of them said yes. One of my favourite films of all time, Samsara (and its predecessor Baraka) feature people from dozens of cultures around the world spanning the globe and staring into the massive 35mm/70mm video lens of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson without blinking. They don’t seem to mind. Not to mention National Geographic…

While I have sympathy for Bolivians and the indigenous in particular, I have no sympathy for people who don’t want their picture taken because they think they’ll look bad in a photo or on video. Like come on.

Perhaps it’s a question of access. When watching video journalism today all I can think about is how did they get those people to agree to be filmed? I watch incredible Vice documentaries where a silly gringo protagonist interviews tranny models or clueless Communist North Koreans. How were they not spat on in the face or arrested in the North Korean case?

Perhaps it’s a question of approach. Maybe it’s just like telemarketing – don’t give the people a no-gateway out. If every journalist ran away from every vague no, we’d have no stories. And I’m not willing to give up!

I’ll leave you with a story.

Yesterday we were walking through one of South America’s largest markets – Ferio El Alto and encountered a perfect subject for my colleagues stories. The man was a public speaker selling a supposedly magical sap and he was going it with some serious swag. I then proceeded to take photos and even a video of the street performer – some of which were absolutely incredible if I say so myself :P. Then, when my colleague approached the man to ask for his number to speak on a different occasion he was chewed out and told to fuck off.

Maybe it’s just like George said to Jerry “a few bad strangers ruined it for the rest of us.” Damn you sleezy journalists for giving journalism a bad rap!

What is a curious journalist to do?! Comments welcome!

I purposely included no photos in this blog despite having taken about 2000 so far. Take that photography hobby/career!

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One thought on “War on the Photojournalist

  1. That is a bloody(darn) shame that people get upset by someone taking their photo. I know that your intentions are honourable, but not everyone presents themselves in an honourable manner. Maybe in the movies that we have seen and they were able to get amazing pictures of people, possibly they spent a long time with them, gave them money, food, developed friendships, etc I am not sure. Maybe one day your calling will be to Vice or National Geographic.
    Your frustration and points are totally understandable. You will find a way of getting pictures by being patient and learning from others how it is done.

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