PhotoVoice is interviewing established photographers to gain a wider insight into the power of photography and the different approaches to ethical issues. This month, we interviewed Meredith Hutchison on her photography and passion for the medium.
Meredith Hutchison is a photographer and photo-facilitator. She collaborates with marginalized groups to create images that spark dialogue in communities and show that there can be change. Her ‘Vision Not Victim’ project asks young Syrian girls to envision their future selves.
Where did it all begin and why did you chose photography and not another medium?
I started my career as a humanitarian aid worker. As I explored different parts of the field, I began to see the real impact that media had on people’s perceptions, on norms, on choices. I became especially interested in the images that were used to define crises and solicit funding, and the tropes and stereotypes that were so often played up and highlighted in these images. Imagine being a refugee and only seeing yourself reflected back in the media as a victim. Imagine being a young girl thinking about your future and not seeing any images of successful women from your community. Imagine being a woman leader fighting for your rights, only to see yourself and women like you portrayed as powerless and weakened. How does that impact how you see yourself and how does that influence how others – whether they are people in your community, your government, organisations or donors – see you and treat you?
I had always done photography on the side, and in thinking through these questions, I decided I wanted to find a way to use photography in a different way – I wanted to creatively challenge these stereotypes and support people in telling their own stories.
I chose photography because it is powerful. Even if you read a photograph against the grain, it remains stuck with you in a way that written language or even video does not. Photography is relatively easy to do in collaborative ways and it is a medium that allows you to show others not just present day reality – but show them what the future could look like – show them that change is possible.
Tell us a bit about your approach to photography
I approach photography as a facilitator. I work with oppressed groups to – together – create images that reflect what they want and need to communicate to others – whether that is girls around the world breaking down societal beliefs around what they can achieve for their future, activists showing their communities that change is possible, or refugees challenging governments to look beyond stereotypes, take action, and live up to their commitments.
For me, photography is about process. It is not enough to create a powerful photograph – what happens before and after the shutter is pressed is critical. Holding space where people can explore their own creativity, their visions for the future, the visual language that reflects their thoughts and views – and working with groups afterward to ground images in a strategy for advocacy and action is important.
How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?
I don’t make that decision on my own. I talk with the people I am photographing and working with about what is important to them, how they want to be portrayed or want their context to be represented, what is crucial to show.
Is there a single image that defines you as a photographer?
If I had to choose one image that defines me, I would choose the image of Yvette – a young woman from the DRC – posing as her future self – a photographer. It is the first photograph I took with Vision Not Victim, during the pilot of the process. I worked with Yvette and about 30 of her peers for several months – building skills, exploring creativity, and talking with in mentors. Normally, when I start working with groups of girls, they are timid and make themselves small – in all senses of that phrase. Yvette so beautifully shows how the process gives girls the space to transform themselves. In the image there is nothing small about Yvette – she is strong and powerful. She is larger than life – not just playing pretend, but stepping into her future and claiming it.
Can photography bring about positive social change?
Yes and no. Photography is a powerful tool in bringing about changes in culture – shifting ideas, norms, and values, and creating new narratives that help people make sense of the world. Photography builds empathy across geographic divide and connects emotions with issues.
So photography can spur cultural change which is a step in bringing about action, positive social change, and political transformation. It makes the space ready – but it is not in it of itself a revolution or shift in policy. Ending inequality and ensuring people can realize their rights takes time, action, and activists. It takes strategy. It takes work.
Has charity photography changed since you started?
Conversations around charity photography are progressing. There are more and more dialogues on how to tell stories of conflict, poverty, and crises in creative ways that defy stereotypes, how to fundraise using images in a far less exploitative way, and what is the best consent process. Yet, there is a lack of political will within organizations, and I think only donor demand, universal guidelines and/or an systems of accountability would translate these conversations into actionable practices.
On the plus side, I see more and more opportunities for participatory or collaborative photography, and demand for local photographers who better understand context and have strong ties to the community.
What is your approach to the ethics of photography?
Photography is not intrinsically empowering and it can be easily exploitative – especially if you are working with vulnerable people. Consent and accountability are important – I talk indepth with people in front of the camera about how their representation and image may be used, where they may be seen, and the outcomes. Whenever possible, I follow up with them after the image has been published to share the impact their voice and face has had. Again, process is important and photography, especially in the humanitarian or development field, should be collaborative as possible. People should always be placed above products.
What is your greatest achievement as a photographer?
I’m not sure – I guess time will tell.
How important do you think equipment is?
Overall, equipment is secondary. A photographer with a great eye and technical knowledge can create remarkable images on a very basic camera. When I first started out and was saving to buy equipment, I was using a small, old Olympus. I love that camera and still use it from time to time – it allows me to take photos in an unobtrusive way. That being said, as you start to work in areas in the field where lighting is a real issue, your equipment does become more critical.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Learn how to become a really great listener – it is the best way to build trust. Learn about context. Learn what is important to people and why. Learn about topics that seem to be on the fringes of your focus. Practice curiosity and your skill. Don’t wait for an organization or potential employer to approach you with an idea of what they want captured. Come up with your own ideas, approaches, stories, and pitch them.
Feature image: © Meredith Hutchison, Fatima AGE 12, VISION: future teacher, “In this image, it is the early morning and I am waiting in my classroom for my students to arrive. I teach younger children to read and write Arabic. I am a very compassionate and kind person, and so a perfect teacher. I am strict, but I go out of my way to gently help those students who are having difficulties.”