Observations of a WoC Social Justice Photographer

Media photographers at Garfield High School [photo: Sharon H. Chang]
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a social justice photographer before.”

The white male teacher, an award-winning photographer with a career spanning four decades, was curious. I get a lot of weird and uncomfortable reactions when I tell other photographers that my focus is social justice photography. There is stuttering, confusion, complete silence. Sometimes there are warnings about the danger; that I need to be careful. Sometimes I get congratulations for doing good work, though the congratulator has no idea what I’m talking about. I hadn’t expected this teacher to know or understand much about what I do with photography either, so no big feelings. At first.

But then, during the workshop, things started to happen. The teacher continually referred to women in the room as “ladies” and made huge assumptions about us: that we did our makeup to accentuate contours (I don’t wear makeup); or that we find Matthew McConaughey dreamy in his recent contact commercial (??). When the teacher talked about posing subjects, he showed “masculine” versus “feminine” poses. He noted with today’s “political correctness” he wasn’t sure how to talk about these things, but then talked about them, anyway. The so-called masculine pose was confident, reflective, bold. The so-called feminine pose was coquettish, demure, folded in. He picked the two youngest, prettiest women in class to be his models. No men.

I began to feel things. Exhaustion, frustration, disassociation. When I came home the anger came with me. I felt like pounding something, then screaming.

It brought to mind the camera expo I had gone to the month prior. Of the sixteen featured speakers, only one was a woman. She’s a woman of color, thankfully, but during Q&A two men, a white man and a man of color, asked if she found being a woman was an advantage in photography.  In an industry that from the beginning, historically, and to this day is male-dominated, what kind of question is that? (One man asked if being smaller helped her weave through crowds, the other asked if being female led others to trust her more). I could see the WoC photographer bristle.

I haven’t been photographing as an artivist that long. But I came from many prior years in race and social justice writing, community of color and womxn of color activism. Walking into an industry that normalizes overt racism and sexism and has almost no social justice analysis at all has been kind of a shock. At this most recent photography workshop I attended, for instance, the teacher showed us iconic photographs for inspiration. The images were taken mostly (entirely) by white men. The photographs were predominantly of war and aviation, with a couple shots of women taken under controversial circumstances. You probably know the photos, but maybe not the controversies:


“The Kiss,” taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt at the end of World War II and featured in Life Magazine, supposedly depicted joyous elation at the end of the war. Instead, it was discovered only very recently, the sailor in this picture was drunk running down the street grabbing women and kissing them without consent. Worse, Eisenstaedt himself planned this photo. The photographer observed the sailor’s erratic behavior and dark suit, saw him heading toward a woman in white uniform, and knew the contrast would make a great shot. Eisenstaedt waited by the woman assuming the sailor would grab her–which he did–and voila! Iconic photo born.


“Afghan Girl,” taken by Steve McCurry for National Geographic, is probably one of the most famous photographs in the world. Depicting a young girl in a Pakistan refugee camp with piercing green eyes, the image supposedly conveyed “the fear of war” according to the magazine. In fact, the girl was a 10-year-old Pushtan who wore a burqa. She was not supposed to show her face, make eye contact, be in a room with a man outside her family, have her photo taken and definitely not have that photo published. But McCurry, through the girl’s teacher, told her to remove the burqa anyway because he wanted the shot. Sure war had terrorized her, but later she admitted in that moment–she feared McCurry taking her picture.

It is telling that neither of the female subjects in these iconic photos were identified at the time. Instead, it was the male photographers who were identified. All the credit, prestige (and probably money) went to them. These photos made their careers. Meanwhile, it took years to name the subjects and uncover their actual stories. The young woman in “The Kiss” was later identified as Greta Friedman. She was a dental assistant, not a nurse as everyone assumed, and told an interviewer, ““It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.” “Afghan Girl” was later identified as Sharbat Gula who lived a hard life while McCurry’s career flourished. She married at thirteen, raised five children, and was even imprisoned at one point for trying to get a Pakistani ID. She did not know her picture had become famous and was upset when she first found out.

The teacher of my workshop said nothing about these controversies. But he probably couldn’t see that there is even controversy at all. Because breaching the borders of culture and consent along lines of race, class, and gender seems to be the status quo in so much photography. Another example. The winning photo of this year’s prestigious Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA), a whopping $120,000 prize, caused an industry squabble. Taken by Malaysian photographer Edwin Wong Wee Kee, the image depicts a poor, rural woman in Vietnam with a speech disorder carrying two children. Dispute arose among photographers when it was discovered that the photo was probably staged.

Image created by PetaPixel

But there was little to no attention on, what seems to me, questionable ethics taking the picture in the first place. HIPA described the photo as “an intense humanitarian moment,” “a Vietnamese mother whose speech disorder did not prevent her from feeling hopeful and evoking a sense of strength for her children.” Yet the Vietnamese mother apparently just happened to walk into the group of photographers (who were likely on a photography tour) and agreed to pose for a portrait session. It does not appear her story is truly known. She has not been identified, and ten to one she posed uncompensated, or was compensated very little.

This voyeuristic objectification of girlhood and womanhood for personal gain with no investment in the subject’s authentic truth or improving their life circumstances, feels yucky to me. There is a lot I still have to learn about photography, the industry, and its history. I want to acknowledge that there are photographers deeply invested in social change. This post is not a sweeping generalization of every photographer who exists and has ever existed. It is simply a sharing of my observations as a womxn, as a womxn of color, trying to do something new and finding it hard. Sometimes it gets to a point where your feelings need to meet the page because you guess others might feel the same. So, here they are. Holler back if you feel me.


© 2019 Sharon H. Chang

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