Photographing Power: Exploring the Structures that Perpetuate Injustice

Hierarchies breed inequalities. Hence, photographers such as Tony Fouhse, Glenna Gordon, Janet Jarman, Yvonne Venegas, Paolo Woods and Luca Zanier amongst others, have focused their attention on the people and places of privilege in a bid to render those systems more visible and intelligible. "If we don’t know our enemy, we can’t fight them," says Gordon. Here they discuss the impetus behind their projects, aesthetic and logistical challenges and the responsibilities of storytellers to cover issues from multiple angles.

Tony Fouhse, Janet Jarman, Glenna Gordon, Yvonne Venegas, Luca Zanier, Paolo Woods

Laurence Butet-Roch

April 29, 2019

cover photo: UN Security Council I, New York (2008) by Luca Zanier

LBR. What strategies have you used in your work to render systems of power visible and comprehensible? 

TF. Official Ottawa came about because I needed something that would be more quiet and contemplative. I had just spent five years photographing drug addicts for User. I thought I’d go to the opposite end of the spectrum and look at power and photograph how the federal presence manifests itself in the Canadian capital with a 4×5 camera on boring cloudy days.

GG. I’ve always shied away from the idea of advocacy journalism. My goal has never been to take the saddest picture of the people with the worst story since it seldom improves that person’s life or changes how we think about an issue.

While much of my work up until now has been focused in West Africa, when Trump was elected, I felt, like many Americans, the need to contribute to the conversation in a very different way. I started thinking about women who hold positions of power in far-right groups. I never believed that acts of white supremacy were committed by lone men, but rather that they were the results of an ecosystem. So, I wanted to explore how it came about through the roles of women. I decided to use portraiture and extended interviews to do that.

“It’s not that I want to forget [slavery],” Tara Bradley told me. “It’s not that I try to pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t. It happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Bradley said that only 5 percent of Southerners owned slaves. In fact, in Mississippi in 1860, nearly half of families did. She's a member of the group The Order of the Confederate Rose. They insist that they are a civil society group and emphasize the volunteer work they do. The vice president of this chapter teaches at a public school, where she has previously been disciplined for her involvement.

JJ. Many of the topics I’ve covered, such as immigration, the environment and access to public health, are clear power struggles. In order to understand the causes of the injustices that I was witnessing, I needed to understand the dynamics, the hierarchies of power, the systems that create them. I’m currently finishing a documentary film and book project that I’ve decided to title Birth Wars because of the dramatic power struggle between doctor-driven and patient-driven approaches to healthcare, a struggle we see not just in Mexico, but in many places. It’s being told through midwives who feel that they’re overlooked by the powerful medical elite, as well as through the doctors who represent this elite. No matter where we choose to live or work, it’s important to photograph all the different elements of society to paint a complete picture. It’s our responsibility as journalists.

In order to understand the causes of the injustices that I was witnessing, I needed to understand the dynamics, the hierarchies of power, the systems that create them.

YV. My relationship with photography came through my father’s work. He had a photo studio in Tijuana in the 70s, a time when the social structures of the city as we know it were being built. So I developed an interest for it. I use the approach a portrait photographer to get in touch with the people I want to photograph and establish a relationship. It takes time. I just published the book San Pedro Garza Garcia, the municipality with the highest per capita income in Latin America made up of 150 000 people. It took four years and it was a very intense process since those featured are very aware of their image.

I would like to add that also from the experience of growing up in my father’s studio I developed another tool: to look in between moments. My strategy is always to look not for the perfect moment and not for the mistake, I like to think I look something else that is happening between those two moments.

Nirvana. Photo by Yvonne Venegas from the series "Maria Elvia de Hank (2006-2010)"

Ivette. Photo by Yvonne Venegas from the series "San Pedro Garza Garcia (2013-2016)"

Pool with Arch. Photo by Yvonne Venegas from the series "San Pedro Garza Garcia (2013-2016)"

LZ: Like Yvonne, my interest in politics started when I was young because it was a recurrent topic of conversation at home. Later, when I visited Paris, I saw the headquarters of the Communist Party, which struck me as incredibly beautiful and gave me the idea to visit spaces of power where important decisions are made worldwide. I didn’t include people, because those who hold positions of power only do so for a few years, they are replaced, but the places remain.

PW. I started as a photojournalist. I worked in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, and quickly became very frustrated with the way photojournalism chooses its subject and then treats it. Instead, I became obsessed with photographing people who didn’t want to be photographed except in a glamorizing a way. I lived for four years in Haiti, who is always shown through the lens of poverty. The first story I did when I moved there was about who are the rich Haitians and how they acquired their wealth. Once published, it prompted some aggressive reactions, to the point that I had to leave the country for a while. Still it didn’t dissuade me from exploring power. After that, I worked on a global project about tax havens, The Heavens. As Yvonne mentioned, these people spend a lot of time crafting their image and the role of the photographer, in that context, as largely been to execute it. To access these people on your own terms is incredibly difficult, but that’s when the work becomes relevant and revealing.

Clockwise from top: FIFA I, Executive Committee, Zurich (2013); EU Parliament I, Plenary Chamber, Strasbourg (2015); Aula Bunker I, Palermo (2014); and FIFA II, Prayer Room, Zurich (2013). Photos by Luca Zanier from the series "Corridors of Power"

LBR. Why is it important to turn the lens away from those who suffer from oppression to photograph the elites, the powerful, and the infrastructures of the governing regime?

LZ.We rarely see the places where the decisions are made. In France, for instance, when there’s a strike, we’ll see the protest in the streets. But not where the unions are devising the strategies, or where the government is discussing how to respond to it. In my project Corridors of Power, I shift the power balance in the spaces, by putting us, the viewer, in the seat of power. It’s important for people to see what these spaces are like, and to see what the powerful see.

JJ. There are two sides to every story. We can’t limit ourselves to only talking about the problems. We also have to present the solutions. Just like we can’t only do stories on the oppressed. We also need to examine the structures that are causing these inequities. It’s our obligation to photograph different segments of society to paint a complete picture and to avoid perpetuating stereotypes.

TF. I agree with what everyone said, especially what Paolo said about how difficult it is to get access to the powerful because they managed their images so well and yet how necessary it is. When I was working on Official Ottawa, I wanted to photograph the door that led to the headquarters of the conservative party of Canada. It’s an office within a Brutalist seventies building. I spent probably a year and a half trying to get access. They never let me in. One day, I was walking by and I looked up and thought: “well this building is just so horrible in and of itself, all I have to do is point my camera and take a picture of it”. That’s probably better than the picture of a door. It says much more. The way power manifest itself is so omniscient that we don’t recognize it anymore. We’re inured to it. What good photography does is opening our eyes to aspects of our environments, our lives, our world that we don’t think twice about.

Clockwise from top: Parliament Hill with Leopard Tank, Prime Minister Limousine with Security Detail, and Memorial. Photos by Tony Fouhse from the series "Official Ottawa"

It’s clear the way that politicians hold power; what is less clear is how each generation is indoctrinated in a new version of the same old racist ideology. We need to understand those dynamics if we want to try to change our world.

GG. Similarly, I’m much more interested in pictures that don’t show the world as how we think it is, but how it is different than what we think it is. When I was living in West Africa, I didn’t want to take pictures in slums because that would only confirm what people consuming western media thought of the region. Instead, I focused on weddings and romance novelists. Likewise, when I started looking at America, I didn’t want to take pictures of what people already knew. We know there’s a public housing crisis. We know the prisons are bad. We know that schools are inequitable. But why? Who is causing that? Who are people that perpetuate supremacist ideas? I wanted to find answers to these questions. Not only that, but I wanted to look at people who contribute to power structures in ways that are not immediately obvious. It’s clear the way that politicians hold power; what is less clear is how each generation is indoctrinated in a new version of the same old racist ideology. We need to understand those dynamics if we want to try to change our world. If we don’t know our enemy, we can’t fight them.  

LBR. Do you approach photographing the powerful differently?

GG. Every situation requires its own approach. Because the powerful are able to build walls around themselves, they’re much harder to photograph but that doesn’t mean we don’t do it. We just have to be imaginative. That challenge, I hope, is built in the images. Photographing an intimate situation like a midwife assisting a woman giving birth is inherently different than photographing the chairman of an international bank. Hopefully, the approach used reflects how the people photographed and the images that result operate in the world in different ways.

TF. I look for photos where my bias is somehow included in what the image looks like. Building in subtle indications of your biases and how the pictures have been produced is an honest way to approach what you are studying.

"A Wife With a Purpose," the online super star Ayla Stewart, poses for a portrait at a public park in Southeastern USA on August 23, 2017 along with her six children. She's known for promoting #tradlife (traditionalist homemaking and white culture). She's been kicked off twitter for hate speech, though has started accounts on Gab and other platforms, and continues to have a huge youtube following. Though she believes there are three definitions of the word Nazi, she says there is only one definition of the word racist and she claims she is not racist. Photo by Glenna Gordon from the series "American Women of the Far Right"

LBR. In covering power, as in any storytelling endeavour, we have to be mindful not to essentialize narratives. How do you avoid strictly glamorizing wealth and power, or inversely, ridiculing it?

GG. I don’t have a good answer for that. There are pictures that I took that people on the Left love and others that they hate because not everyone in my images looks like a horrible monster, which for some on the left is the only way to conceptualize extremists on the other side of the divide. Ultimately, if I’m trying to tackle white supremacy and the power of the women who raise racist children, I’m not going to be able to do so effectively if I antagonize them, nor is it an accurate representation of how power works to make everyone look awful. For many groups, beautiful women at the forefront are part of a deliberate PR strategy. It’s a difficult line to walk. The best thing any of us can do is ask questions and re-evaluate our work and our intentions. I think it’s important to consider our own assumptions of what a racist looks like, what a corporate president looks like, or, like Janet was saying, what power looks like, what power is.

TF. When people react strongly, I consider that success.

In the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, traditional midwife María López González (known as “Doña Mari”), examines her patient Rosita Gonzalez López, 22, to see if her baby is in the right position. For generations, the indigenous women of Chiapas have delivered their babies at home by midwives. If Doña Mari feels that something is seriously wrong during a woman’s pregnancy, she takes her to a nearby government health clinic. Rosita González has never been to a hospital in her life, and for this birth (her third child), she asked Doña Mari to be her midwife. Photo by Janet Jarman from the series "Born in Chiapas"

Doctors present a woman with her newborn, seconds after it was born naturally in Mexico’s Guerrero state, located in Acapulco. A professional midwife and graduate of Guerrero’s professional midwifery school, received the child, while doctors observed. Inserting midwives into hospital delivery areas where they can attend low-risk births appears ideal, in theory. However, many midwives say they would prefer to have their own space inside hospitals, in order not to feel pressured to perform medical interventions that compromise their professional philosophies. Photo by Janet Jarman from the series "Birth Wars"

Professional midwife Rafaela Juárez makes a home visit as part of her post-graduation social service for which she worked at a one-room health clinic in Zoyatlán, Guerrero. Juárez admitted that she was frightened at first by Zoyatlán’s reputation of being a violent place. After six months, she was able to penetrate the hearts of Zoyatlán’s residents, who petitioned the Health Secretary to allow her to stay. Photo by Janet Jarman from the series "Birth Wars"

We also need to broaden our thinking about how we define power, as those with financial and political prestige. I’ve been most inspired by people who possess a different kind of power, one that could be defined as a quiet dignity, creativity, and those who possess outright courage.

JJ. We all struggle with how to avoid making the same photos that perpetuate the status quo. Working in Mexico, a lot of my assignments have had to do with violence. Eventually, I sought to approach the issue differently and had the opportunity to consider the role of bodyguards, for example, and how this speaks about how a segment of Mexican society can afford to protect themselves.

On another note, we also need to broaden our thinking about how we define power, as those with financial and political prestige. I’ve been most inspired by people who possess a different kind of power, one that could be defined as a quiet dignity, creativity, and those who possess outright courage. I hope photography can help define power in a different way.

Wearing his signature black sombrero, Dr. José Manuel Mireles gives a motivational speech to residents in Tancitaro, days after the town, located in the mountains of Mexico's Michoacan state, liberated itself from the oppressive drug cartel that calls itself the Knights Templars. Mireles achieved folk hero status during his movement to unify and assist self defense vigilantes to protect themselves against the cartel and drive all criminals out of their communities. Each day, he visited liberated towns like Tancitaro and motivated others to stand up to the cartel. Photo by Janet Jarman from the series "Mexico's Dark War"

Members of a private Mexican family's professional security team travel behind their boss's car, poised for potential action. As a result of Mexico's persistent violence, many of the country's elites choose to take protection into their own hands, by hiring private security teams and bodyguards. Photo by Janet Jarman from the series "Bodyguards: Guarding Mexico’s Elite"

LBR. A lot of the structures you are photographing are intangible or invisible, so what does engaging with such topics tell us about the limitations of photography, if any?

JJ. The limitations can be overcome. While it is difficult to photograph abstract concepts, we can break it down into comprehensible blocks, micro-stories about individuals or groups whose experiences help illustrate the macro-themes.

GG. I did feel very limited by photography while making American Women of the Far Right. It was the first time that I felt like I absolutely needed to find other ways to include information not contained in the picture. Even if a photo of a woman shows her being sort of smug, it’s doesn’t speak to how she goes as far as saying that slavery happened and we can’t do anything about it so we just need to get over it.It’s necessary for all of us to think about what our photographs are and are not communicating and how they can be misinterpreted for that very reason

YV. The same thing happened to me with Maria Elvia de Hank. At the beginning, I looked away from certain things, because I was afraid I’d be exposing something. It was a sort of self-censorship that I’ve since had to examine and revisit.

In the run-up to the violence last year around the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a woman named Erika, who is active in the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, was busy posting on Discord, an app originally used by gamers but used at that time by some on the far right. She helped organize transportation and housing for the rally. And after Airbnb cancelled the bookings of known white supremacists, she scrambled and found them, via a different rental site, a spacious house outside the city center.

LBR. Knowing that as media makers we have a certain amount of power to determine what gets seen and what doesn’t, who gets to tell stories and who doesn’t, how do we avoid reproducing structures of power?

JJ. In our industry, it’s important to allow many voices to speak in order to create a realistic and inclusive portrait of society. We also have to be careful not to let contests narrowly define what photojournalism is or perpetuate a single worldview. Editors also have the power to assign stories that show different and undercovered aspects of society. I’ve seen that evolve in relation to Mexico. Constant self-evaluation as an industry and as individuals working within that realm is very important.

GG. The first step is to recognize how photography has been used as a tool to classify others – from mug shots to eugenics, and as a tool of oppression. Hopefully through continual questioning, seeking and being open to changing our ways, we’ll be able to reclaim photography as a tool that can be used to fight back.

Tony Fouhse, an editorial and commercial photographer, has been nominated 3 times for the National Magazine Awards (and won once). His personal projects have been published around the world and acquired by institutional collections including The National Photo Collection of Belgium, the Art Collection of Global Affairs, Canada and the Ottawa Art Gallery Collection. In 2010 he received The Karsh Award for Photography.

Janet Jarman is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker based in Mexico, where she focuses on the country’s ongoing security issues, immigration, access to healthcare, and water resource challenges. She is currently directing and filming a feature-length documentary about starkly competing visions of childbirth in Mexico, for which she has received a three-year grant from The MacArthur Foundation. She is also producing a book about the same topic.

Glenna Gordon is a documentary photographer and photojournalist. She has won a World Press Award in 2015, was a finalist for the Eugene Smith Award in 2017, and others. She is also a lecturer at The New School in New York, where she received the 2017-2018 Faculty Research Fund, and a partner at the publishing collective Red Hook Editions.

Yvonne Venegas is known for gaining access to the rarely seen upper reaches of Mexican society and portraying them in a complex visual language. She completed the certificate program at the International Center of Photography and later obtained her M.F.A. from UC San Diego (2009) and has since  been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Magnum Expression Award and a Sistema Nacional de Creadores grant.

Luca Zanier founded his own studio in Zurich and is particularly interested in architecture and urban space and opens up unusual perspectives on seemingly familiar settings and situations. His first book, «Power Book» was published by Benteli in June 2012. His second Book «Corridors of Power» appeared 2015 with the generous support of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation Switzerland.

Paolo Woods is devoted to long-term projects that blend photography with text. He is the author of six books, including “Chinafrica” (with Serge Michel),  “STATE” (with Arnaud Robert) and “The Heavens” (with Gabriele Galimberti) that for the first time investigates tax havens photographically. He is one of the founders of RIVERBOOM and deeply believes in collaborative projects. He has received a number of prizes, including two World Press Photo Awards. Currently he is working on his first film.

Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch, a member of the Boreal Collective and Muse Projects, is a freelance writer, photo editor, photographer and educator based in Toronto, Canada committed to encouraging critical visual thinking. Her words have appeared in the British Journal of Photography, The New York Times Lens Blog, TIME Lightbox, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Polka Magazine, PhotoLife, BlackFlash and Point of View. She is the editor of Flash Forward Flash Back.

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