As a parent, images of children suffering hit me squarely in the gut. I find looking at such pictures physically painful. And yet, for me, they also are becoming somewhat cliché. I’m on the mailing lists for what seem like dozens of organizations trying to help children, and while it’s hard to open those envelopes, the pictures are all starting to look the same. Despite that, when I opened up issue five of Need Magazine and saw the images of Indonesian street kids photographed by Paul Corbit Brown in Breaking the Cycle, I was moved. Mr. Brown opened my eyes to a new facet of the challenges those kids face, and also gave me encouragement that there are solutions. I’d like to share with you how Mr. Brown did that, and also offer Mr. Brown a couple of small suggestions for making his photo essay even better.
Christian Documentary Photography in Advocacy
Before I dive into analyzing the specific images created by Mr. Brown, I think it’s important to understand the context for this essay. Previously I’ve mentioned that Need Magazine was, before it had to close down, committed to telling the stories of humanitarian causes, in an effort to encourage support. In short, every story in that magazine was a form of advocacy for the cause reflected by the story.
The beauty and the bane of documentary photography is that such images can be so powerful they may lead viewers to believe that what they’re seeing is some absolute truth ripped right out of real life. But documentary photographers know their photographs aren’t that, and indeed don’t pretend to be. Documentary photography always has a perspective imbued by the photographer. Such photography is often intended for use in advocacy, to have some impact on the world. Less often is such photography merely intended to chronicle a day in the life of its subject, neutrally capturing everything whether relevant to an advocate’s purpose or not.
On the other hand, good documentary photography is always authentic, grounded in truth and real life. To be credible with the audience, it must reflect a depth of understanding of the subject. Further, documentary photography should not omit relevant information needed to avoid misleading the viewer. The effectiveness of any advocacy piece is measured in large part by its credibility, and also by how well the essay connects its audience to its subject.
The same is especially true for the sub genre of Christian documentary photography. All this should be done with great integrity, I would submit, reflecting the aspirational principles described in this blog. My plan, therefore, is to review this photo essay from the vantage point of assessing its impact as an advocacy piece.
Mr. Brown’s Story
Mr. Brown tells the story in three distinct chapters: 1) background on the causes and extent of street children in Indonesia; 2) the specific problems faced by those children and 3) the solution — free schooling and care. The three chapters aren’t explicitly denominated as such, but Mr. Brown uses lighting to clearly define each chapter: 1) daylight; 2) nighttime and 3) interior light. Visually, it’s an easy story to follow.
Mr. Brown opens the first chapter with a powerful image of a woman looking forlorn, holding her child. The woman, in the upper right-hand corner, gazes down at her environment, as explained in the caption a makeshift home under a freeway in Jakarta. She is surrounded by a few empty food containers, and a couple of buckets that contain presumably her family’s water. The platform looks something akin to a treehouse, with dark and foreboding emptiness beneath her. The image places the primary emphasis by volume on the environment, but her look is what initially captures the viewer’s attention. While there are dark parts of the image, it would appear to be daytime under the bridge. As in many great photo essays, the opening image doesn’t answer many questions, but poses them. Obviously she is troubled, but we don’t know much more than that.
From there both the images and the accompanying text and captions start to paint the broader picture of life in Indonesia, and the specific living conditions these people must endure. The purpose of this background is to set up the context around how and why children end up in the street. This background is essential, because otherwise we might wonder what kind of a parent might send their kids out into the world to beg. We need to understand that these are people with very few choices. The chapter ends with the following predominantly gray image that serves as the transition from the daylight in the first chapter to the nighttime of the second. We see a young girl who must live only a few feet away from a train track and, according to the caption, sandwiched by a river.
The second chapter begins with what for me is the most powerful, and the most devastating, image of the whole essay: two children standing in the middle of the night in the pouring rain with their hands out looking for any kindness a stranger might offer. The nighttime makes these images anonymous, but at the same time the silhouettes of the children in the headlights of the vehicles leave no ambiguity. We see them standing literally on the fringes where the street turns to mud and where it would appear a motorcycle is imminently going to pass through.
As a parent, I recoil in horror at seeing the children in the next several images darting in and out of traffic, doing the very thing I’ve always protected my children from doing. The images tear at your heart, as they are supposed to. The next three images include a clearly lit face of the small boy standing in the midst of what appear to be dozens of motorcycles driving down the road at night, his hand out looking quite despondent. A boy plays guitar for music, and little girls pass right in front of what appears to be a car stuck in traffic at night, and again relying on the headlights for the only illumination. Thankfully the chapter ends there.
In the final chapter, we come back into the light–this time indoor illumination — as the photographer shows us a path forward. The text introduces us to a school principal who we never get to meet through the pictures. Achmad Dedi Rosadi, after graduating from university, decided to help street children by opening a free school in the hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty.
This chapter is full of pictures of kids studiously participating in class. The opening image for the chapter is of a small boy who appears to be studying quite hard, with the not uncommon band aid around the tip of one of his fingers. While the Band-Aid obviously indicates a wound, more importantly it indicates care, and a universal experience of kids everywhere.
The pictures are generally filled with kids happy and engaged in their education, being cared for by a physician and eating much healthier food. There’s even time for the arts, as a young man sings accompanied by a friend on the guitar. The boy singing faces the edge of the frame with his face illuminated as though from a window or door in front of him, eyes closed. The viewer gets the sense that he’s concentrating on his song, but we also get a sense of passion when a singer is so focused on his music but he has to shut out other stimulus.
A photograph of an English teacher shot at an angle shows some of the dynamic engagement of the class.
In other images, girls seem to be eagerly learning their lessons, while a young boy sleeps with his head on his desk. The location changes, but some things stay the same, such as young boys taking a nap in class. But in this case, the viewer can’t help but wonder if it’s because he was up late into the night working on the streets.
Mr. Brown’s Perspective
As an advocacy piece that offers a perspective, through the editing process the photographer and the magazine have chosen what not to include. In this short essay, Mr. Brown can’t hope to capture the whole existence of street children. Presumably the children also beg in pedestrian areas, even though the essay mostly shows them in traffic, with the exception of the guitar player. Further, the essay focuses on the act of begging, while I suspect, kids being kids, at least some of the time they do other things. I would also assume they beg during the day, and not just at night. So the goal, we must admit, is not to tell us all about their lives, but to tell us about their nighttime begging in street traffic. That, quite simply, is Mr. Brown’s focus.
I do not know Mr. Brown, but I did a little bit of reading about him in some newspaper accounts as well as his published biography and his website. He is quite an accomplished photographer dedicated to activism, that is getting you and me off the couch to embrace the causes he highlights. He works primarily for NGOs that focus on human rights, social justice and environmental responsibility throughout the world. His long term projects include stopping mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and documenting the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Interestingly, Mr. Brown appears to be working to create a home for street children in Rwanda. While apparently a practitioner of civil disobedience, he on more than one occasion has been arrested, as many of his activist predecessors have been.
In an interview for an Irish political weekly magazine called An Phoblacht, while attending a conference of Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Mr. Brown reveals considerable distrust of government, the coal industry and the establishment in general. He argues for freedom of the press, and asserts that government is repressing the truth. About now, in full disclosure, I probably should mention that most people would consider me very much part of the establishment. While I’m not part of the government, I am an attorney mostly representing industry (although not coal). Undoubtedly that colors how I see things.
I should mention, as I try to remember to do in each of these reviews, that I’m assessing the photography and not the photographer. Among other things, I have no idea what Mr. Brown’s religious beliefs might be, nor do I wish to infer that he might have any particular beliefs. [My lawyers told me to add that.]
I selected this essay to review because it touched me. It got through to me. Clearly the essay is in no way a neutral, dispassionate assessment of the lives of Indonesian street kids. Nor does it need to be to qualify as Christian documentary photography. Instead, it must be borne out of caring, and that clearly it is.
I have also advocated that Christian documentary photography essays need to be balanced. They need to show the world as it is, as well as the hope that exists. This essay covers both of those bases. The images are beautifully crafted, and the story flows well, conveying a clear message. That said, as usual, I do have a couple suggestions.
First, while the essay is balanced at a high level between depicting good and evil, within each of those two categories, there are not many shades of gray revealed. Perhaps in an effort to be clear, Mr. Brown photographs the world in black and white, not literally but metaphorically. The bad conditions are all of the worst sort, and the good circumstances are depicted relatively purely. Unfortunately, neither extreme is probably the whole story, and so the essay runs the risk of looking a bit superficial and simplistic. Mr. Brown’s goal, it would seem, is to encourage his audience to act. To do that, as I’ve asserted, credibility is the key. While I have absolutely no doubt that all of the issues are completely accurate, the absence of shades of gray makes me wonder what I’m missing.
The issues are undoubtedly complex and nuanced. I don’t know the actual facts, so I’m just speculating to come up with examples, but I wonder if some parents look after their kids better than others. I also wonder perhaps how many must engage in the very dangerous nighttime begging, as opposed to more benign forms of panhandling. I also wonder if Indonesia doesn’t have at least some safety nets and social programs to help them. In other words, I wonder if for the thousands of street kids Mr. Brown tells us exist in Indonesia, do they all have it as bad as the ones depicted in this essay? Perhaps they do, but the lack of shades of gray in the essay make me wonder if the essay isn’t missing elements that don’t clearly support the thesis.
On the side of good, try as we might as humans, no good is pure, other than what the Lord himself does. So given the whiteness with which the essay depicts the good done by the school, I have to wonder whether there are some limits to the school’s effectiveness, some kids they just can’t reach or some kids for whom education is just not an option. Are there challenges the school just can’t overcome?
Showing us only the extremes of the good and the bad runs the risk of the essay being perceived as hyperbole, and limiting its persuasiveness. Finishing the overall picture by adding a few more shades of gray at both ends of the spectrum would help reassure the viewer that she is seeing the entire picture.
My second suggestion for a way to perhaps strengthen the essay is to make it more personal by focusing on fewer subjects. I find that the essays that connect me with individuals are the most effective. So, for example, selecting one or two children to follow, so that I can really get to know them, and one or two educators so that I can see what challenges they face and what successes they have would engage me much more in the essay. Right now, the discontinuity of the individual people keeps me from deeply connecting with any of them. And frankly, call it shallow, but I connect with people better than with abstract issues.
While I can always come up with suggestions, these suggestions are simply meant to make a very powerful essay even more so. Mr. Brown has obviously dedicated his life to helping others, particularly suffering children around the world. He has forsaken personal gain so that instead he might aid others. His technique obviously requires him to live in the conditions he photographs, establishing rapport with his subjects to thoroughly understand their conditions. He willingly goes places I would never dream of entering. My hat is off to him, and may God bless him in his work.