Donna De Cesare is an associate professor of documentary photography at the University of Texas at Austin. As a photographer, writer and videographer, she has covered the spread of U.S. gang culture to Central America. “Documenting Migration’s Revolving Door,” her photo essay, appeared in Nieman Reports, Fall 2006.
In her remarks at the “Aftermath” conference, she spoke about taking photographs of those touched by violence during the drug wars in Colombia.
Upon becoming aware of the camera, people often assent to having their picture taken if they imagine that their image will create a bridge to a larger world in which people might care to act if only they knew. However, consent and consequences cannot be taken for granted. Even when you must move quickly and when respect demands a nonintrusive presence, there must always be time to ask for permission. Emotional intimacy, rather than simple physical proximity, makes nuanced images possible. This is achieved when the available time and the camera are used as tools for compassionate interaction. Balancing the public right to know with the right to privacy and the human dignity of those surviving conflict, disaster or stigmatized conditions requires collaboration with the affected individuals or communities.
As journalists and documentary photographers, our role is to witness and to communicate so we can get the stories out to a public. But in the 21st century the collaboration and the conversation must be multi-directional, not only multimedia. In carrying forward the tradition of concerned photography, photojournalists honor specificity with attentiveness. When we are present to record moments in an unfolding crisis, we become a witness to history. We record evidence and we ask the audience to identify with the details and with the protagonists. At other times, we document in the aftermath. As nonfiction artists we also explore the meanings of specific gestures, finding archetypes and symbols which coincide to amplify meaning.
In taking the image at the funeral in Medellín, Colombia, had I not been with the victim’s mother, who told the crowd that she wanted me there, I certainly would have been run out of the cemetery, or worse. The community was caught in De Cesare’s presentation “Witnessing and Picturing Trauma,” which uses many of these same images, is currently featured on the Dart Center Web site.battles among guerrilla groups, gangs and paramilitaries for control of Medellín. The mourners were extremely distrustful of the media. When terror grips a community suffering such violence, hair-trigger rage may erupt, or silence may fall like a dense fog. Part of our work is to earn trust.
How does one responsibly report when danger still exists? One thing is critical; in whatever time you have, you must invest in developing a relationship. When I work on projects that involve survivors of trauma, I look for ways to reduce the potential for harm, to engage in a collaborative relationship, and to make the process as transparent as possible and as helpful to the protagonists under whatever time limitations I face.
Donna De Cesare talks about a collaborative photography project and workshop she directed at a women’s prison in Colombia in which she took pictures of the women and children imprisoned there and provided them with cameras to document their own lives.