Wednesday, 10 August 2016

POV : Say No To Cheap "Parachute" Photographers

A recent article (or a post) in the Hanoi Grapevine caught my attention, and aroused my ire.

It appears that an American photographer is seeking volunteers in Hanoi to assist her in producing a another of her photographic projects that involves making photographs of people living in their apartments or living quarters through their windows.

I am told the project does not involve surreptitious photography, but all is staged and arranged for beforehand, and although I fail to appreciate the aesthetics (if any) of such a project, others might find it interesting.

However this is not the issue.

According to the article, the  issue is that this photographer -presumably reasonably well-off- is soliciting the help of about 20 or so young Vietnamese photographers to scout Hanoi's neighborhoods (while she is still in the USA), take pictures of buildings and residents that may fit her requirements, obtain the approval of the residents to be photographed, and show her these prints on her arrival.

She would then pick and choose those that suited her best...and have the Vietnamese volunteers accompany her to these building, interpret for her, stage the various settings, and she would then click the shutter on her cameras, and that would be it.

So in essence...the way I read it is this: the fruit is peeled, sliced and ready to eat. But those who did all the work don't get a bite.

And what do the Vietnamese volunteers get in exchange? A decent day rate? A seminar on how to take their photography to the next level? Tips on how to improve their photography? A review and an edit of their portfolios?

No. According to the article/post, the photographer will provide meals (probably a cheap bowl of pho at some street corner) and a tankful of gas for the volunteers' motorcycles while she's in Hanoi.

I'm really sick and tired of reading and hearing stuff like that. This is shameful. There's no two ways about it. The United States has a abject legacy of war with Vietnam, and yet, I have seldom been in a country where they have not been welcomed more warmly, more effusively and with more generosity. And yet, this photographer cannot bring herself to do the right thing and give back something tangible to those she seeks help from.

I have conducted workshops in Vietnam, and employed assistants , fixers and guides...and never have I not paid them. Never.

Had this photographer's project been about the culture of Vietnam, its people... a social issue... something worthwhile... then I would accept and agree that the assistants could benefit from the "volunteerism", and learn and participate in a worthwhile production that projects well into their homeland.

Volunteerism is great when there's a redeeming value to it at the end of the day. But this, in my view, is not that.

This "photographer" should learn how to do research, how to develop friendships and relationships based on mutual respect, she ought to recognize that these young people have expenses and must be compensated fairly (perhaps not in line with United States' pay levels, but certainly with those in Vietnam)...these are not volunteers; they are fixers, who make things possible for this photographer to hang her work in expensive galleries in New York, London and elsewhere.

'Parachuting' for two weeks in a foreign land, and expecting people to help you for free just because you are a foreigner, is insensitive, unfair and wrong.