02 November 2009

Ed Kashi and photojournalism

I went to an amazing talk by Ed Kashi, a well-known American photojournalist. He came to a) promote socialdocumentary.net and b) show some of his latest work.

The website socialdocumentary.net is designed to be a low-cost online exhibition for photography that emphasizes social problems around the global. Anyone can submit their photography. Kashi said that he was honored to have his work appear in prestigious publications like the National Geographic but it wasn't good enough for him. That's why he helped start the website.

Kashi also showed us some of his work. He uses a Canon 5D Mark II, which allows him to also record video. Kashi is well-known for being one of the first photographers to pioneer multi-media photojournalism. The first piece was about oil and poverty in Nigeria. Despite the millions of dollars being made by oil companies in Nigeria, the people there still have no running water or electricity. In the 1990s, Ken Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent protest against oil companies. He was found dead, hung. Now the Nigerians are arming themselves and trying to chase the oil companies away.

Kashi spoke of a terrifying experience when he was captured by the Nigerian military. An unspoken rule of photojournalism is that you don't photograph the Nigerian military. The boat guide Kashi hired lied and told him that the buildings he was photographing were not military. Then the military showed up and hauled him away. Fortunately, he had his cell phone with him, there was reception, and he managed to make one phone call back to the US. Since Americans (journalists, National Geographic, his wife) were aware of his situation, he was released within the week. Of course, he had no idea how long he would be detained. It could have been years. Kashi remarked that at least, in Nigeria, he didn't have to worry about suicide bombers. Nigerians only want your money. They don't trust outsiders, so even if you say that you are a photojournalist, they still want to be paid.

The second project Kashi showed was a piece on rapid modernization of India. The traditional energy sources are not enough to sustain growth in India and China. Yet, they have the right to first world conveniences like cars, refrigerators, air conditioning, etc. Kashi presented a short video clip of the Tata auto company taking over some land in rural India to build a car factory. The villagers claimed that their land was taken from them unfairly.

The third project Kashi showed us was about the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East. Even though most outsiders think that all Middle Easterners are Muslim, there used to be a large Christian population there. In fact, the Christians and Muslims lived in peace for a long time. Kashi told us that everywhere he went, the Christians said the same thing, "Every time you [outsiders] do something stupid like the infidel cartoon, the Muslims take it out on us." Now, most of the Christians are leaving the Middle East, leaving behind a very small, aging group.

I knew that photojournalism can be dangerous, but it was fascinating to hear it first-person. One of Kashi's most memorable photographs is a woman walking through her village, holding a colorful Shell (yes, the oil company!) umbrella. She's stepping over oil pipes that are running through her village. Kashi told us that even though the photograph looked peaceful, there were all sorts of things going on around him. People would yell at him "hey, white man, what are you doing?". After taking that particular photo, some people drove up in a car and told him to get in. Kashi had just been released from detention five days earlier and he went into a frenzy, screaming "No f***ing way!" Not all experiences are so intense. Kashi talked about trying to photograph a Christian family leaving the Middle East. It was a lot of work just to get a family to agree. Then he showed up at the house to find them packing. It was so "visually boring" and he didn't know what to do. Suddenly, one of the children crawled into a suitcase and curled up on the lid. Kashi snapped the photo, relieved. "It was like the photo gods smiled on me."

I was especially struck by one of Kashi's statements (paraphrased from my memory):
I'm so glad I grew up in America. People carry so much baggage. People all over the world are victimized by their history.
Nigerians hate white people for exploiting them for their oil. Koreans hate the Japanese for invading their country and raping their women during World War II. Then there's Palestine and Israel. It goes on and on. As much as we complain about America, there is something to be said for having a place where you can literally throw away your baggage.

Aside from his work, Kashi offered his views on the digital revolution. He said that the availability of information was a wonderful thing, but that compensation was a huge problem. He was having a hard time getting paid for his projects, and even self-financed them sometimes or had his wife to some of the video editing. Kashi said that we still need reporters and photographers to physically go gather information, interview people, or else a fundamental support for democracy will be lost. Something to think about.

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