Celebrated Documentary Photographer Talks Ethics
How can a photojournalist capture images of people marginalized by society without exploiting them or portraying them in a degrading way?
Widely acclaimed documentary photographer Robert Gumpert told a group of 25 San Francisco State University journalism students on Tuesday, March 13, how he tries to achieve this goal during a talk titled “The Paradox of Representation.”
Describing himself as “an old white man,” Gumpert, 70, pondered whether it’s ethical for him to photograph his chosen subjects. His body of work answers that question. He has made a successful career photographing, working around “communities that are viewed badly,” as he puts it, and trying to dispel preconceived notions about the people within those communities by portraying them as multi-faceted human beings.
“Can I photograph a homeless woman in a meaningful way that deals with the issues that she has specific to being a woman on the street?” he asked. “I don’t know the answer to that. I suspect the answer is, I can’t. But I can take a stab at it.”
As he spoke, a series of black and white images on a large screen showed homeless people who were pushed out of downtown San Francisco in late 2015, to keep them out of sight during the Super Bowl.
One image depicts a shaggy-haired, bearded man staring intently at the camera. A blanket is tucked up to his chest as he lay against a guardrail beside the Bay under a cloudy sky. Bags and tarps piled high around him.
Another image from underneath the Division Street overpass shows a man with short-cropped white hair and beard and a snake tattoo covering his entire arm packing his possessions into a shopping cart.
Another captured twin middle-aged men looking at the camera while lying among a pile of blankets and pillows and disassembled cardboard boxes propped up around them for shelter.
Gumpert said his subjects have very little control over their space or their image, which creates an unequal balance of power.
A big question arising among photographers, he said, is whether to show faces because it’ll identify homeless people in a situation they might be ashamed of. His conclusion is that it’s not his job to decide what a person will or will not be ashamed of.
What he can do, he said, is depict the living conditions accurately and portray the people “without doing a character assassination,” but rather, with dignity.
“If I can take a picture that both speaks to the condition you’re living in and that you would like to have as a portrait, then I’ve done my job correctly,” he said.
Gumpert started his photojournalism career with a lens on labor. In 1974, he travelled to Appalachia to photograph and speak with coal miners and ended up documenting the coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky for three months.
He walked away with an array of powerful images that depicted strikers walking the picket line, facing down police, and looking dejected during a union meeting. He also showed people going about their daily lives, sitting around a kitchen table, hugging their children, attending a memorial service or sitting around a coffee shop after work, still wearing miner’s hats.
Gumpert’s resulting book of photographs stood out as a true account of life in the region. He didn’t shy away from the poverty and struggle the people experienced, but he didn’t want to make it the center of his story, according to his interview with walkyourcamera.com.
He told the journalism students that he still has friends in Appalachia, and they are enraged by the persistent stereotyping of Appalachia as nothing but abject poverty and ignorance. Exceptionally hurtful was J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which told the story of his family’s struggles in Appalachia. The book is now being made into a movie directed by Ron Howard.
“Angry doesn’t even begin to describe their feelings of betrayal and exploitation about that book,” he said. “So this is something that you’re going to have to think about when you take a picture, or choose a picture, or frame a story.”
These days, Gumpert is excited about a project he began 13 years ago about prisoners. “Take a Picture, Tell a Story” includes photographs of men and women incarcerated in San Francisco’s county jails and audio recordings of vignettes about their lives. Gumpert told them to talk about anything they wanted to.
One man talked about his tattoos, how he got them while in prison, what they represent. A woman talked about the cookbook she wrote while incarcerated as a way of improving the terrible prison food. A 29-year-old man talked about losing five of his eight childhood friends, and the pervasiveness of PTSD in his Hunters Point neighborhood due to all the violence and killings.
Gumpert’s advice for gaining the trust needed to capture such personal stories is simple: listen.
“The more personable I am and the more interested I am, the better the story,” he said. “If I listen hard enough, I can ask follow-up questions, and hopefully I have gotten myself to the point where they are comfortable with those kinds of questions.”
“Take a Picture, Tell a Story” is one of the many projects Gumpert has undertaken throughout his career to try to make the invisible visible. And however futile that may feel for him at times, he doesn’t intend to give up anytime soon.
“Until we start treating people like they’re human beings, homelessness isn’t getting better, the jails aren’t going to get better,” he said. “The chances of that happening are zero, but I keep taking them.”
Photo Caption: Acclaimed photographer Robert Gumpert talks to San Francisco State University journalism students about his approach to depicting people who are homeless. Photo courtesy of Sylvie Sturm.