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Alejandro Chaskielberg’s moonlight photos: Too beautiful?

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John Ekono Ekiman is a herder who lost most of his animals to drought. He received four camels and 20 goats as part of Oxfam's restocking program. "I feel really proud of having them," he said of his animals. "In the future I want to expand and grow my camels and goats." Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg
John Ekono Ekiman is a herder who lost most of his animals to drought. He received four camels and 20 goats as part of Oxfam's restocking program. "I feel really proud of having them," he said of his animals. "In the future I want to expand and grow my camels and goats." Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg

Judging from the comments on our Facebook wall, many of you liked the stunning new photos taken in Turkana, Kenya, by Alejandro Chaskielberg. The acclaimed Argentinian art photographer traveled to the region with Oxfam to take portraits of people affected by the recent East Africa drought and food crisis. Last week the photos were featured in a slideshow on BBC News, raising awareness of both the crisis and Oxfam’s ongoing response.

In most of the photos, Chaskielberg used his trademark technique of shooting by moonlight, illuminating these scenes of herders and their families with a dramatic, unearthly glow. The results are memorable (and newsworthy) because they’re so distinctive.

However, when we saw how the photos came out, some of my Oxfam colleagues loved them, but others gave them mixed reviews.

Women tend gardens they built with support from an Oxfam project, which aims to help mothers improve nutrition for their children while also earning an income by selling extra vegetables. Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg
Women tend gardens they built with support from an Oxfam project, which aims to help mothers improve nutrition for their children while also earning an income by selling extra vegetables. Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg

For one thing, as Chaskielberg explains, the moonlight photography technique requires subjects to hold their poses for extended periods of time. Because of this, some of the people in the photos look stiff and detached, standing motionless like wax figures in a museum. Maybe that’s not a problem in itself, but neither is it completely in line with the way Oxfam strives to portray people living in poverty—as active, empowered agents of change, rather than passive objects of our regard. When people don’t seem to move or act as we do, some of the human connection between viewer and subject gets lost, resulting in images that risk “exoticizing” the people portrayed.

Second, some felt the pictures were a bit too beautiful, given the situation. Is it OK to photograph families who have lost nearly everything, in the midst of the world’s biggest crises, looking like they’re part of a glossy spread in a fashion magazine? Does the artist’s technique—so much a part of these images—enhance the subject matter, or does it obscure it?

"I appreciate pastoralism but animals are not sustainable anymore," said Elisabeth Ekatapan, a widow bringing up eight children. "If I could make one thing happen it would be to have my own business and earn money." Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg
"I appreciate pastoralism but animals are not sustainable anymore," said Elisabeth Ekatapan, a widow bringing up eight children. "If I could make one thing happen it would be to have my own business and earn money." Photo: Alejandro Chaskielberg

The latter is a tough question to answer, and one that Chaskielberg himself identified as his “main challenge” in his interview with the BBC. “I would like to break with the idea that a beautiful picture of a hurtful situation detracts from its message or documentary value,” he said. “My intention is to highlight a hopeful vision of the present, showing people’s strength and to inspire the viewer that a change is possible.”

So what do you think? Did he succeed? Or is there such a thing as a photo that’s just too beautiful?

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  1. Pingback: Photography Digest for 1-20-12 Through 1-26-12 | inspiredvisionstudios

  2. russellmwatkins@gmail.com'Russell Watkins

    Hi Anna, Thanks for this honest and open post. I wrote about Alejandro’s images on my blog a couple of weeks ago. I think I was worried that they are a bit ‘too beautiful’ (a phrase that puts the finger on it perfectly). But I congratulate and admire Oxfam for being willing to experiment with photography to tell development stories – even if that means taking a risk sometimes. Keep up the good work!
    http://developingpictures.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/in-pictures-combating-drought-in-the-horn-of-africa/#comment-121 -

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  3. Anna Kramer

    Thanks, Russell! I enjoyed reading your post and the related one at http://www.weareoca.com/photography/the-ethics-of-aesthetics/. It’s good to see other people debating and discussing these photos in the context of Oxfam’s work and the drought in the Horn.

    In your blog, you wrote, “We’ve come to expect ‘photojournalistic’ images from NGOs, to tell us a ‘truth’ about what we’re witnessing – even if we know that that ‘truth’ often has an ulterior motive (whether it’s to prompt us to act, to donate, to support or to share). Images produced for or by NGOs are rarely put into the public sphere purely to inform us objectively.

    Chaskielberg’s images take us into somewhat different territory. Part art, part photojournalism, part intervention, partly choreographed, they run the risk of becoming the story themselves, of obscuring the story that Oxfam presumably wants to us to hear and agree with…”

    As a storyteller and photography fan, I think that’s a very apt observation, though it’s so hard to draw a line. When does it become about the medium and not the message? Does a photo that’s more “art” (e.g. staged) lose some of its journalistic value? Or does the art just give us another way to see the same truth? All very good questions, even if I’m not sure I know the answers.

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