Monday, 21 January 2008

NY Times Magazine: A Cutting Tradition

Image © Stephanie Sinclair/NY Times-All Rights Reserved

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine brought us an 8 pictures photo-essay by Stephanie Sinclair titled "A Cutting Tradition" which accompanies an article authored by Sara Corbett on female circumcision in Indonesia.

I was initially glad to finally see a serious topic addressed by the Magazine in a photo-essay format. After all, it's about the cruel, abhorrent and abominable tradition practiced in some Islamic countries on the pretext that it's condoned by Islam. However, the tradition of female circumcision does not originate from Islam nor from the Qur'an, nor is it condoned by either. For more on this, here's a link from the BBC. The tradition has been banned by many Islamic and African countries, and the internet is replete with articles from reputable news organizations confirming this.

However, after reading the accompanying article and looking at the photographs, I regret to describe the photo essay as 'lazy'. I'm not claiming that the photojournalist was lazy; just that what was published as the photo essay was lazy. Stephanie Sinclair's work credentials are impeccable, and her humanitarian efforts are praiseworthy. She founded Operation Azra, a charity aimed at helping a Pakistani woman who burnt by acid thrown by a male relative. So I have no questions as to her professionalism and compassion.

What I'm unclear on however, is whether the photo editors chose these photographs to shock or to inform? There is no narrative thread in the photo essay...none. All of the photographs are of unfortunate young girls going through the procedure, looked over by their mothers and medical attendants. Where is the narrative 'texture'? Where are the contextual photographs? Where are the photographs of the mothers consoling their children as they arrive? Were the mothers saddened or happy with this horrible procedure? Where are the portraits of the mothers and their daughters after the procedure? Having seen other examples of Stephanie Sinclair's work, she must've photographed all over the place, especially as the article mentions that she had full unfettered access at the clinic to photograph at will.

On the other hand, I found the article as authored by Sara Corbett to be fair and even-handed , although I was surprised that it quoted a dubious statistic. I'm not an statistician, but its parameters are risible.

So here's a photo essay limited to these 8 narrowly focused photographs...was is the editors' decision to cull them down to these 8 based on layout design, space, or was it just lazy editing, or for their shock value....? I can't answer that. All I know is that I expected better from the photo editors of the Sunday Times Magazine, especially on an issue such as this one.

The article ends with this: "Nonetheless, as Western awareness of female genital cutting has grown, anthropologists, policy makers and health officials have warned against blindly judging those who practice it, saying that progress is best made by working with local leaders and opinion-makers to gradually shift the public discussion of female circumcision from what it’s believed to bestow upon a girl toward what it takes away."

The photo-essay: Inside A Female Circumcision Ceremony

The article: A Cutting Tradition