Usually on these trips, the subject of photographing people in vulnerable positions comes up. Students don’t usually feel very comfortable pointing their cameras at people they don’t know, let alone people in compromised positions.
This trip, however, students were rarely put in such a position. I mean, not like in the Dominican Republic, and certainly not our first trip to Uganda, which had some truly difficult moments.
Nico shared some moments where his dad would point his camera at people in awkward, if not compromised, positions.
“My dad is weird. He would take video of fat people on vacation and would say things like, ‘look at how fat that person is’ while he filmed them in their swimming suits walking along beach.” He said. “That one is really fat.”
“He also filmed my sister eating sand instead of stopping her like most parents would. One time, I had an accident on my bike that my dad caught on film. I remember being hurt on the ground and crying out to him ‘Stop filming!’ and my mom yelled at him to help me, but he just kept filming.”
Usually, though, the moments are much more challenging.
While we were in Alaska, the Omaha World Herald ran a photo of the dying girl on a stretcher after a tornado hit Pilger, NE. They were criticized nationally, by some. I understand the criticism, but it reminded me of criticism they got after running a photo of a soldier flipping the bird at bystanders after an IED explosion in Iraq. War is hell, but people want it sanitized. Granted, I wasn’t trained in journalism, but I don’t believe in sanitizing things. I would rather allow things to be as raw as possible.
A moment came when I realized this group of students didn’t see really difficult raw situations which they felt uncomfortable photographing. A part of me wished they had seen much more difficult situations.
Trust me, I know exactly how that sounds. Of course I realize what that means and am actually glad that things were so much better than we expected them to be. For that I am thankful. I am thankful life is better for the people in Bethel and Newtok than it might have been.
Still, a part of me wanted students to see most of the difficult aspects of some of the people’s lives in the villages. I really do wish all the students could have made it to Newtok. I haven’t been writing about it (Tony did here), but Newtok might have affected me more than I realized at first. In some twisted way, I am thankful for that. So, while I’ll admit I am ultimately thankful people’s lives weren’t worse in Bethel, I’m still conflicted students weren’t put in more uncomfortable positions while filming people, I still want them to see how difficult life is for people living on the margins.
Mostly, though, I am thankful I got to spend two weeks in Alaska with such an amazing group.