As a global health organization, we frequently use images to tell the story of the work we do. In our journey to think more critically about the images we take and use, to tell fuller, more accurate stories, we were recently joined by Tara Pixley, a visual journalist and professor with over 20 years of experience, for a conversation on ethical storytelling.
As a first-generation American born in Miami and raised in Atlanta by her Jamaican mother, Tara cares deeply about the visual rhetorics of immigration, Blackness, the African diaspora and the Global South. She co-founded Authority Collective, an organization dedicated to building community and opportunity for women and nonbinary photographers of color. Her documentary film work has screened internationally and her award-winning writing on media has been published widely in magazines, academic journals and news media trade journals.
“If we’re aiming to tell true and accurate stories, I argue that instead of objectivity, we need to lean into our subjectivity.”
You have stated that objectivity is a myth in storytelling. Can you elaborate on how embracing this idea can make us better storytellers?
The concept of objectivity assumes that anyone can step out of their lived experiences or implicit and explicit biases; it’s the idea that we’re looking at the world from nowhere and we don’t have all these other things that inform who we are and how we think influencing that view. That just isn’t true. What ends up happening is that the heteronormative, white, western gaze is often hailed as the typical way of understanding the world—as the objective, the neutral.
Objectivity is impossible—every single one of us is influenced by our environments, our upbringings, the nations, the towns and villages that we come from. It is more important in storytelling that we recognize those aspects of ourselves that make us who we are and produce the perspectives from which we look and from which we understand and perceive the world. If we’re aiming to tell true and accurate stories, I argue that instead of objectivity, we need to lean into our subjectivity.
For example, I would say: “I am a Black, queer, first generation American woman who grew up in the south and moved to California and I had children young.” All of these things make me who I am. This is not to say that I can’t tell true and accurate stories about experiences other than my own, it just means that all of these parts of my identity are informing my interpretation. I need to recognize that and dig deeper to understand the things I might not see from looking from this vantage point. We can’t possibly know the lived realities of all people, but we should always be in conversation and always be seeking to recognize what we don’t know.
I think this is really important, because many times people will say that we can’t tell the stories of communities we’re not a part of. But I don’t think that’s true—insider and outsider perspectives are both valuable. We all have something to add to the story of humanity. If we want to tell those stories and add to the global understanding of what humans are and what we can be, then we really need to come from the position of recognizing our own limitations and boundaries and valuing the experiences and knowledge that people have about themselves.
How can those working in development responsibly document and tell the stories of the communities they work with without falling into the traps of exploitation such as “poverty porn,” romanticization of poverty, or “othering”?
We need to unlearn certain narratives we were taught about how to perceive the world. I think most of us grew up surrounded by the notion that there are victims out there who are marginalized or oppressed and that we can help bring attention to their plight by telling their story. To help understand this concept, I highly recommend watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The danger of a single story.” She speaks about how growing up she was taught to think about the poor people in the rural areas around the city she lived in in Nigeria as the marginalized and vulnerable people. Then she came to the United States, and as a Nigerian woman, she was being treated as if she was marginalized and vulnerable. I don’t want to put a lot of words into her mouth, but that helped shape my understanding of the concept of a single story—that we all think of ourselves as being in a better position than someone else. When we situate ourselves in relation to someone else as a victim, we’re feeding into this idea that others have these issues but not us. How do we upend these narratives?
To start, we need to be in conversation with the people whose stories we want to tell. For example, let’s say we go into a rural space where people are starving, and our first instinct is that what they need is food. But by talking to people, we’ve found out that the reason they’re starving is that local political officials are corrupt and they’re heavily taxing farmers. Handing out food isn’t going to fix that problem; it’s a political issue—a policy issue. In this case, if we took images and told stories about “poor starving children who are hungry,” that would be a fact, but it is not the story. Instead, we need to emphasize: What, why and how is this happening here? What can actually be done about it? Then we can begin to tell a much more complete story that moves us forward in trying to imagine a different future.
The reason we call it “poverty porn” is because it’s not effective and does not produce anything. When we see images of suffering, we might feel empathy, sympathy or horror in that moment and some people might give money, but it doesn’t produce a solution or encompass the possibilities of how the community can help itself. Ultimately, we need to understand that we are not the saviors of a community, individual or particular issue anywhere in the world, but that we might be a conduit for working collaboratively with the people who are affected to understand what they need and perhaps assist in providing the resources, network or support that is necessary for them to do the work for themselves. So many more long-lasting solutions come out when we move beyond victim narrative and “poverty porn” engagement with global issues.
Why is it important to always understand the underlying power dynamics between the storyteller and the people whose story is being told, particularly in the global health context?
This boils down to the colonial era and who was always the story and who was always the storyteller because that history has continued to our contemporary moment. Think about the visuals, images, text and essays that Europeans wrote about the people in Asia, Latin America and Africa—about what they did and how they lived their “savage lifestyles.” Those narratives were taken back to the western, European context where they produced a story in the minds of people who were not able to experience indigeneity firsthand but only through those stories they were told. The people who had their stories told had no say whatsoever in how they were represented or who read and understood this completely skewed interpretation of their lives.
We can look at historical materials today and see the connections between how people in the global south were pathologized and ritualized as lesser than through tropes like the “gentle savage.” All of the stories that became tropes that became stereotypes that persist today, started from the power dynamic between the story and the storyteller. The people who get to tell their own stories are often people from western nations, white people and white men in particular; these are also often the same people who tell the stories of others. This all means that they set the standard for the kinds of narratives and rhetoric that exist about everyone including themselves. If we’re not understanding that historical relationship to storytelling and we’re reproducing that in our contemporary relationship to storytelling, then we’re always reiterating that power dynamic.
For anyone in the position of storyteller: interrogate your own power dynamics, why you have access to a place and what the work you’re doing provides for the people you’re telling the story about. Always ask yourself whether you are telling a story about them or whether you are telling a story for them.
For global health storytellers, how can implicit biases in the image-making and storytelling processes—from hiring photographers to gathering consent to photo use—hinder the ability to tell respectful stories about the people and communities they work with?
Always hire local. We need to respect local knowledge more, including the understanding and lived experiences of someone who is there living that life. Again, I’m not saying that’s the only perspective that matters, but I think it should be the default perspective. When we start from the idea that the outside perspective—most often the western perspective—is the one that matters and is the one that is going to be the lens and vision that we want to have, we’re already limiting what is possible in that story and what knowledge we can gain in understanding an issue.
It’s also important that we are clear where photos and stories are going. Any conversation that we have with someone we’re engaging with in this storytelling relationship, whether with images, text or both, should always start with interrogating your own motives (why are we doing this) and interrogating your audience (who is this for?) That does two things: it builds understanding and integrates consent into the process, but it also builds a level of respect, camaraderie and trust. The storyteller relationship is nothing without trust. If people can’t trust you and they don’t understand why you’re there and why you’re doing what you’re doing, why will they be open with you? You want to be trusted so you have to be trustworthy.
While these things might not be possible in every situation, we should be using a critical lens to recognize what should be done and should strive to do it even if it’s difficult.
“Ethical visual storytelling is about getting to the core of what is true and what matters, and not remaining on the surface because it’s easy or seems like it will be compelling to the audience.”
Can you please share some examples of images you have seen that reflect ethical visual journalism, and those you have seen that rely on harmful tropes?
Something I saw coming out of the recent movement for racial justice were two polar opposite approaches to telling that story. There were those who emphasized the violence and fires and looting in their images. This is nothing new. We have this horrible phrase in news: “if it bleeds, it leads.” It’s thought that people only care about scary things and that people don’t connect the same with images of community and camaraderie, love and joy. But studies show we actually do connect with that better and I wish the news industry would catch up to that.
The other approach that was taken by photographers during the protests was focusing on children. Usually, the image would show a young Black child facing off in some way with the police, whether directly or indirectly. I love that visual because it’s imbued with so much. It’s a statement about what the protests are actually about—the right of Black people in the U.S. to live peacefully and peaceably; to not be afraid to send their children down the street, to school or to the store; to want their partner to come home at night and not be afraid that they got killed at a random traffic stop. Ethical visual storytelling is about identifying what the story really is not just what it looks like or using the lowest common denominator of creating the “coolest” looking image with a fire in the background and a protester in a gas mask in silhouette. Ethical visual storytelling is about getting to the core of what is true and what matters, and not remaining on the surface because it’s easy or seems like it will be compelling to the audience. Nothing is more compelling than the truth; then a complex, holistic true story, and that’s what we should always be striving to do.
How important is it to forge connections to understand the layers and complexities in the lives of the subjects that we write about or photograph? How do you navigate this challenge with limited time?
Connection is the core of why we tell stories. As humans we have always connected with story; from cave paintings to the verbal passing down of stories, we have always wanted to convey our experiences. We want to live on through the stories that are told about us and by us. In order to produce real connection, we have to start from a space of connection, which starts from being in conversation.
Recently I went to a rural community in California to work on a story about oil production and water toxicity. I’m not from a rural community so I can’t relate to that but I can relate to family. I have children and the people I was photographing had children, so we sat down and talked about our kids. I didn’t pick up my camera the whole time. There were interesting things that were happening that I wish I could have photographed, but part of good storytelling is letting some stories go. I learned so much about their lives, community and family. Everything they told me about the toxic state of their water, started from them sharing something that they’re proud of and love (their children) and the space that they share together. Even in a crunch for time you can do that work of taking the time to slow down and connect.
To learn more about Tara Pixley, please visit: https://www.tarapixley.com
About Vital Strategies
Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please visit vstrategystage.wpengine.com or Twitter @VitalStrat.