The woman scans the faces staring down from the ferry decks. As soon as she sees the glint of metal in the morning sun, she drops her oar and dives in after the coin, leaving her infant lying alone in the rickety bangka. By the time she surfaces, her boat has drifted between two others plying the field, and the jostling outriggers threaten to capsize the little craft. She shoves them away angrily, barking insults, before climbing back in and checking on her baby. Her eyes rove back to the ferry…
… And one of the things she sees is a white face half-hidden behind a camera, taking photos of her begging for pesos in the dirty Cebu harbor. Every speck of dirt and missing tooth enhances his photographs. Her precarious situations are opportunities for his canvas, and her poverty is a gorgeous paint.
It’s easy to hide behind a muckraker’s mantra, It Must Be Shown, and usually that’s enough for me to justify documenting slums and beggars and all the decrepitude of an impoverished world. But I’d be kidding myself if I said that was the only reason I want to do it.
The things that we find ugly, pitiable and unjust in the real world become striking art in photographs and other media. Perhaps the pictures provide us with enough distance that we can care about the photo without having to care about the subject, or maybe they can even give us an easy and false sense of empathy.
Not always; often these things are exposed for legitimate reasons, and history has shown that this exposure can change things for the better. I can tell myself that I take and post these photos to show people in the States how some people are forced to live here in the Philippines. And that is true… but I also take an artistic interest in the rust, rags and desperation.
On these ferries, people often intentionally throw coins into the water rather than to the people in the boats, so that they’ll get to enjoy the dangerous spectacle of the divers. I’m disgusted by this. These people are already on display, and there’s no reason to make them perform tricks so the sharks on B Deck can get their five pesos’ worth of entertainment. That certainly isn’t compassion.
But still I take photos of them doing it. It’s regrettably easy to convince myself that since I’m not the one forcing them to take unnecessary risks, my pictures aren’t doing any further harm; but doing something simply because it doesn’t directly hurt someone isn’t a good reason to do it.
Our consciences are easily soothed, and I don’t doubt that this is one of the primary reasons so many people in the world continue to live in deep destitution. I have actually thought to myself, Well, I’m giving two years of my life in service to this country, so I’m entitled to take these photographs without guilt. I’m doing my part already.
And when you’re justifying callousness with your own works or achievements, something essential and human has been misplaced along the way.