We are all inherently biased. We all have preconceived notions about one another, and pass unfair judgments on a regular basis. We must acknowledge this reality of human nature, and try to reach beyond it to understand the source of our bias—be it ignorance, or fear—and to disprove it.
In essence, this is what my the photography professor told me when I spoke with him about a concern I am having in completing our final class project, for which we are being asked to essentially tell someone’s story through our photographs. We will be graded upon our ability to make the class sympathize with an otherwise complete stranger.
My initial reaction to this project? Completely psyched. I envisioned following around a few residents of Detroit who I have come to know through by volunteer work. I could capture their perspectives of the city, their living conditions, and their enduring resilience. How noble. How intriguing!
I’ve been meeting up regularly with one man named Ron, who volunteered to show me around the city, and welcomed me into his home to take pictures of him and his family. He had overheard a conversation I was having with someone about this class, and extended the invitation. I have been completely honest and transparent with him about my motivations for photographing him. I told him I’d like to tell his story because I’m interested in it, and because it’s something that no other Michigan student knows. He loves photography, and he’s flattered that someone is taking interest in him.
However, despite the virtuous element of social justice that this project is attempting to achieve, I have never felt so exploitative in completing a class assignment. I am genuinely interested in Ron, and would definitely spend time with him even if I didn’t need to completely this photo assignment, however am I capturing his story through photographs because I think that it will raise consciousness, or reshape opinions and biases? No. I’m taking picture of him because I’m being graded for my ability to “move” my peers. I have to show them resilience, and strength amidst dire circumstance. Am I really capturing the true story of this man’s life, as I told him I was trying to do? Or are the aesthetics I find in urban decay, or the intrigue I have in poverty perhaps because I have never experienced it, shaping for Ron a story that is inherently biased, and perhaps untruthful. What does it take for one to be qualified to tell another person’s story?
This project has made me reflect on how we can reconcile our bias as photographers, or as painters, or as singers, or as writers. I’m not sure that we can overcome it, or that we should necessarily try to. Bias is perspective, and perspective flavors purpose. Perhaps all we can really do is reveal some slice of the truth—or at least what our own minds understand the “truth” to be.
I think I’ll give Ron the camera next time, and let him do the storytelling.