“Disaster Porn” or Important Journalistic Art?

Seems like there’s been a healthy dose of disasters around the world lately. And when they hit, the images from the newswires are heart-wrenching. But a lot of filmmakers and photographers who don’t work for a news agency go to these locations to document the devastation. So much imagery of devastation is often referred to as “disaster porn.” Today guest blogger and commcercial photographer Alan Mattews shares his take on the topic using his own experience as a case study.

by Alan Matthews
As a photographer, I concentrate on the aesthetics of composition, perfect color and clarity. The majority of my photographs are meant to sell something or support a story so as to draw people’s attention. If emotion is present in my photographs it’s normally because the model does an outstanding job of giving the emotion I want or I capture it serendipitously. Capture the moment. The beauty of photography, right?

“Disaster Porn” is new term circulating around in the photography industry often used by critics, who want to cast aspersions (or at least doubts) on the motives of photographers who visit disaster areas looking to photograph emotionally charged images for their portfolios. I know of photographers who have flown to Haiti in the earthquake aftermath to photograph survivors and I have been personally moved with emotion by their resulting portraits. Jeremy Cowart is the first person I ever saw who did something like this with Voices Of Haiti. Not once did I ever think he went there for anything other than humanitarian reasons. I had the privilege of being around him and he’s all class and humble to boot. Plus, I know he has a history of traveling to other countries to make collateral photographs to aid non-profits doing charity work. Did he or others benefit from having these kinds of portfolio images? Absolutely. But is that so bad?

© Jeremy Cowart

After Alabama’s April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak I wanted to visit some of the devastated areas and photograph what I saw, but in particular, I wanted to photograph survivors. There were many hard hit places and I could almost pick from several places within an hour drive from my house as long as I either knew someone who lived in the effected area or went as part of a relief effort. I tried several routes but could not gain access to anywhere. So I didn’t go and I didn’t feel comfortable just showing up somewhere with camera and gear.

I struggled with the “why” question. Why did I want to take portraits of victims who had lost everything standing amidst their rubble? Was it because I saw Cowart and others who had done something like it? Those guys are trailblazers so who doesn’t want to be like them? Did I want to build my portfolio with work that took on more significance than showing the “good life?” My wife even wondered why I would want to go. I have to admit that deep down I, too, struggled with my reasons for wanting to go.

One particular day after I had given up on my idea I got a call from my friend John who works at an ad agency in Birmingham. His company just so happened to be doing a campaign for a new tornado relief non-profit and he wanted to see if I wanted to photograph in Cordova, a town hit by 2 tornados on April 27. It was the open door I’d been seeking.

I now had a “legitimate” reason to give people if I was asked why I would take photographs of rubble and survivors. Don’t we all want a “cover” for otherwise questionable motives? I wouldn’t have to make up an answer to cover for my self-seeking motives which were that I wanted images with impact and emotional for MY portfolio that would bring attention to MY work in a unique way thereby gaining access to those who could hire me to sell products. I want to be significant. Convoluted thinking right? Or is it?

Wasn’t my experience with these conflicting motives just endemic of the human condition? Isn’t everyone just like me? At least every photographer? Photography has its own built in rewards of satisfaction for creating a beautiful image. Think about the time we put into a single image from planning the shot, shooting the shot and tweaking it in Photoshop for hours sometimes. Afterwards we can stand back and admire what we have created.

I had several surprises in meeting with the survivors in Cordova some of which I can’t figure out how to express. They were normal people like me. They had the same struggles as anyone trying to make a living to pay bills and raise a family. Except now they had no homes or no electricity or job. The town’s only grocery store was gutted and destroyed. The only bank was blown away except for the safe. Neighbors were looting destroyed houses and home owners were having to house-sit 24 hours a day with rifle in hand to protect what was left from being stolen. Most effected people were waiting for FEMA to deliver a trailer for them to live in temporarily but even that was put on a long hold while politics ensued.

How could I have gone and just taken photos of these people who lost everything and attempted to gain from it? Work overtime on my rationale to make myself sleep better at night? How could I snap pictures of Kevin and his family and say, “Thanks have a nice day!” without “giving back?” But give back what? What an empty phrase: give back. Most of them lost everything or a substantial amount of their earthly material possessions what could I possibly “give back?” I wanted to be there for me right?

© Alan Matthews

Kevin lost everything that day. What the 5am tornado missed of his world the 5pm tornado cleaned up. He stood with his wife and daughter amidst their ruin and he told me how he lost family members in a 2002 tornado. He was determined to make the best of things but his spirit has been crushed and I think his face shows it.

© Alan Matthews

Yvonne has natural spunk which I think is pretty obvious in the photo. She was inside the now destroyed Rebel Queen restaurant (where she sat for this portrait) that her husband owned and where she was when the tornado hit. She sought shelter in the restroom with her cigarettes and 12 pack of Coke. When she came out after she found a jeep had landed on top of the men’s room where she had been. Only a bent pipe over a wall had kept it from collapsing on top of her.

© Alan Matthews

If you have ever been on a mission trip to a third world country you know how the enormity of need can completely overwhelm you. But, at some point you also have a feeling of hopelessness of just how little of a dent you can make in the lives of those people – their needs are great especially if you compare their situation against the standard of the United States which could be a mistake in itself. Most people do not return to report how they made a huge difference in the lives of children who live at the city dump of some city of poverty. The normal report is how much the short term missionary was impacted in their heart and how the experience changed and revealed many things about themselves.

My experience with shooting in Cordova was much the same as that but perhaps on a smaller scale. I couldn’t “give back” to them enough to make a dent in their world. But I did spend time and get to know some of them and hopefully give them some dignity and love. I can’t say that I made a big dent in their daily lives for the better. But, I was changed. Humbled. Revealed. Uncomfortable with myself because I am so driven at times I can become blinded to the weightier matters of life.

There is a lot of satisfaction in the visual arts. But, the intrinsic value of creating can be an empty goal if stopped there and truthfully we must keep shooting and creating newer and better work to get the same satisfaction because that feeling can be short-lived. Hours spent on “pretty people” and the “good life” are all important goals to support what we do and and make a living and art is a lot about fantasy.

If you want to tell a disaster story you should go. Photograph it well and with emotion to communicate to the world their stories and do so with confidence and ignore the critics because they will always exist. You have good motives along with self-serving ones so let the good ones move you first and the hardest but don’t forget to love the people in the process because that lasts longer than anything else.

Devoted husband and father. Coffee-addicted, Canon-loving incessant creator of photographic art. You can see more of Alan’s work at his website.

4 thoughts on ““Disaster Porn” or Important Journalistic Art?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful article Alan (and Ron). I was in very much a similar situation earlier in the year when I went to both Birmingham, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, following the devastating tornados in each of those cities. The following video is result of my time in Alabama: http://vimeo.com/23769114

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