Photographer Portrays Local Desires in Portraits

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Photo by Aubrey Graham

On the right, a bright photo of Zelda, 59, shows her sitting with a slight smile and lightly touching her sewing machine. She is a seamstress in Mugunga III, a well-known internally displaced people (IDP) camp in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

A slightly greyer photo shows Zelda bent over, grabbing the volcanic rock in front of her, looking up with a sobering expression.

Aubrey Graham — the first Ethics and the Arts Program artist in residence at the Center for Ethics and Ph.D. candidate in anthropology — took the photo on the right. A United Nations (UN) refugee agency took the other one.

“Why do we need to think about humanitarian photography … as objective, as this found truth?” Graham asked an audience of roughly 30 in a small Center for Ethics classroom on Wednesday afternoon for the lecture “Portraits in Disneyland — Stories from Mugunga III.” “It’s also incredibly powerful to think of these things as constructions, where people … [advocate] how they want to be represented.”

For eight months, Graham photographed the people of the DRC. Often followed by a barrage of children, she walked through much of the 83 blocks of this camp near the humanitarian hub of Goma, conversing with residents in Swahili about their displacement and how they wished to be represented. After snapping the pictures — that Graham said were “co-created” because the subjects, consciously or not, responded to her as the photographer — Graham printed the portraits and returned copies to her subjects.

Graham’s photos, on display at the Center for Ethics, portray the transition from humanitarian expectations to local photographic desires, asserting the social politics at play in a region that has become a poster child for humanitarian agencies for the past two decades, to the point that it was ironically dubbed “Disneyland” because of the influx of visitors, including actor Ben Affleck and the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers.

Initially, the residents treated Graham like a humanitarian worker or journalist, she said. But, as the community began to trust Graham more, something changed.

“No one’s hardship had lessened,” she said. “However, how they thought about the photos and how they wanted to use the photos — that changed.”

The subjects began to take more control of the situation, taking the opportunity to add their stories to the pictures, to show themselves repairing cellphones or cooking, inviting Graham into their tent-like homes and incorporating local photographic elements into their decisions.

Graham said she aims to problematize humanitarian agencies’ photography that intends to “prove” situations in places of disaster. In reality, each photo is a dialogue between the photographer, the subject, bystanders and the environment outside the image.

“Whether people are showing suffering or whether they are showing joy … this is a construction,” she said. “This is not an objective … truth.”

Tricia Francisco, who graduated from the College last semester, found that Graham’s talk added layers to the topic of relief photography.

“When we look at humanitarian photos, we often forget that there is some conversation happening even though it’s unsaid,” Francisco said, who is interested in photography and studied anthropology.

Carlton Mackey of the Ethics and Arts program at the Center for Ethics, said he valued not only Graham’s ability to engage classrooms and curriculum across campus in her research but also her emphasis on the ethics of her project in each stage, from taking the photos to editing, choosing and displaying them.

“Those things [ethical standards] were drawn out in concrete ways and were a part of the entire methodology, from the plane landing [in the DRC] to her giving this talk today,” he said. “That stands out because that is what [the Center is] here for.”

By Karishma Mehrotra