The exercise is to consider how marginalised or under-represented groups could be badly or unhelpful portrayed and how being an insider could help combat this.
People who are marginalised include people with mental health difficulties, people with learning difficulties, people of races that are not the prevalent one in the area/country/context that the information is read in, drug users, the poor, the whole LGBTQ+ population, the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Palestinians in Israel and the Mexicans in the USA – and this list could continue. It is well recognised that information about these groups could help decrease marginalisation and there have been many attempts in popular culture to say that these groups should be included. There is a song by Dory Previn (Previn, 1971) which contains the words:
Give me your poor
Your tired your pimps
You carhops your cowboys
Your midgets your chimps
Give me your freaks
Your whores your harlots
Your flunkies your junkies
Give me your starlets
Give me your poor
Your sick and your beat
And your sad and your busted
Give me your has-beens
Give me your twisted
Your loners your losers
Give me your black-listed
And, of course, there is the sonnet by Emma Lazarus – “The New Colossus” (Lazarus, 1883) that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty which contains the words:
‘With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’
Much of the time these groups of people are negatively shown simply by the poor choice of words that are used about them and therefore leading to assumptions being made by the majority of people that have no insight into the reality of the people involved or the life they live. A topic I know a reasonable amount about is autism. A quick internet search netted me an article about the myths of ASD such as autistic people can’t make friends, autistic people can’t show empathy, only boys are autistic and autistic children are naughty. Luckily this was an article saying that all these are wrong – but equally I have heard all of them expounded to me at length as incontrovertible truths usually along with the statement ‘but everybody knows that’.
Reasons for unhelpful portrayal include (in no particular order):
Oversimplification of the issues
Lack of understanding and research by the writer, speaker or photographer
Real bigotry, racism, homophobia and similar problems
Overuse of stereotypes in TV, film and novels – such as the psychotic person who kills someone or lies in storylines – this is particularly common in crime novels, which are widely read. This also occurs in sitcoms “She’s painted as ‘the other’ or ‘mad, bad and dangerous’” – although to a large extent this is being minimised by the involvement of organisations such as Mind (see https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/improving-representations-of-mental-health-on-tv/ – for more information on the work they do).
Over-glamourising of mental health problems such as a a focus on suicide or anorexia
Compassion fatigue – and overuse of violence -as described by Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’ (Sontag, 1978) although she later changed her mind about how much this is true.
Showing negative aspects makes for more exciting (and often simpler) reading about a topic and is not always (or often) balanced by the positive (bad news sells)
Much information is written (photographed) by an outsider, a ‘normal’ ‘average’ person (often a white male) and is read by people of the same group.
People often write information to ‘raise awareness’ for a cause and therefore may well use the extremes (worst and best).
Deliberate misinformation -possibly the scariest reason of all
Sound bites, snippets of information reduced down to what fits in a Twitter message
The risk of multiple negative images in the media is well recognised. It is even included in a popular song by The Black Eyed Peas – ‘Where is the Love?’ (Black Eyed Peas, 2003)
What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness and equality
Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading us away from unity
But the problem is wider than just the proliferation of negative images. Incorrect positive images can be equally harmful. A suggestion that all people of colour are be as suave, intelligent and successful as Barak Obama might lead to the lack of any additional resources needed to support the group that fall at the opposite end of the educational spectrum in the USA! There needs to be understanding that all groups that consist of more than one person are going to to have a range of problems, along with a range of positive aspects.
The most likely way to be able to spread accurate information is to know as much as possible about the situation and then to be able to describe it accurately and without bias. There are two ways of gaining that information. One is to research the situation as an outsider, being careful to take cognisance of all the viewpoints. An example of this would be if I decided to research the issues facing Jewish people in Fife. I am not a Jew and am therefore looking at it from the outside. I can never become a Jew. However, I could spend considerable time meeting with people, listening to their individual stories and trying to portray them accurately. The other way is to be an insider. In the above example, a Jewish person, even if they came from somewhere outside Fife, or even outside the United Kingdom would start from a place well ahead of me. They would understand the basic culture, know the religious rules and have a much greater chance of getting an accurate story.
However, there are ways of becoming an insider in a group. They involve time and patience and a willingness to listen and do careful research. Being an insider should combat most of the concerns listed above such as lack of understanding, overuse of stereotypes and over-glamorisation of the issues. Someone who is a member of the group, and therefore invested in their needs is less likely to give deliberate misinformation and more likely to show and accurate and balanced picture.
True Insiders (an invented term) are those that are living with the issues on a daily basis. They know and understand the situation from the ground up. These people can tell the story accurately and with emotion. They do, however, risk a bias of being over involved. The story is theirs. There is no neutrality. They story is told in depth and with heart-breaking detail.
Nan Goldin in the Ballad of Sexual Dependency tells about a group of people who are marginalised, a combination of drug users, people with AIDS and people who are involved with domestic violence. Goldin says, “Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life.” (Goldin, 1986). She is completely an insider.
Graham McIndoe in his exhibition Coming Clean and the associated book Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love talks about his drug addiction and its consequences to him and his family (Stellin and MacIndoe, 2016).
Sian Davey in Looking for Alice shows graphic (and endearing) images of what it is like to be the mother of a person with Down Syndrome, (Davey,2015) while Louis Quail in Big Brother describes the haunting life of someone with schizophrenia, the ups and downs, the disasters and the laughs (Quail, 2018).
Jim Mortram in Small Town Inertia shows people in his local community that struggle on a daily basis with debt, poor living situations and problems with mental health. He takes pictures of the people that are local to him while struggling himself as a Carer to his mother. The people are not quite as closely linked to him as the families of Davey and Quail – but he lives so closely within the community that he shows a real awareness of the difficulties involved (Mortram, 2017).
Timothy Archibald in Echolalia (Archibald and Levin, 2010) took a series of pictures of his autistic son to act as a a way of increasing his understanding and their joint communication. He says ‘Parents sent me snapshots of their kids that could have easily fit into the pages of my project: the notes, the body language, the in-door nudity, the hyper focus on an everyday object…parents around the world were snapping photographs of their autistic kid’s obsessions and behaviors. This was part of the process of trying to figure their kids out. It occurred to me then that I really had done nothing new with this project. I simply was doing what any parent would do, but I had an eye for good light and possibly a better camera’ (Smithson, 2013).
Involved observers are those who make a real personal investment of learning as much about the community as possible. They know the detail. They understand the issues. But they have a degree of neutrality. They are telling about others. They make an excellent case as there can be no assumption that they are biased. As they are more trusted by the community the story and images they obtain are more based in a real understanding, more truthful and more explanatory to others.
Polly Braden, who, as far as I am aware, has no personal connection with autism or learning disabilities (I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong) has produced two books on this difficult topic Great Interactions (Braden, 2016) where things are mainly going well and the people are supported appropriately and Out of the Shadows (Williams and Braden, 2018) where much is not right. In spite of not being personally involved she has become emotionally involved and tells the stories from an inside viewpoint.
Sara Davidmann in Crossing the Line (Davidmann, 2003) tells the story of a cross-dressing community in London. She says ‘As I continued to work in the studio my role shifted. As these sessions were usually one to one more was required of me. I soon understood I had as much to give as take from the sessions’ (my italics). This sentence sums up much of what I’d important in becoming an involved observer and is crucial to telling the story with integrity.
Information about marginalised people is often poorly portrayed because of lack of real understanding and personal/social bias leading to over-simplification, repeating of inaccuracies that are widely accepted and attempting to glamourise the situation to make for a good ‘sound bite’. An insider (or a involved observer) can combat this by giving accurate and nuanced information, that tells a story in a way that people will understand, therefore benefiting the community. Their involvement allows them access to information that a stranger would either not obtain or that they might misinterpret. An involved photographer is more likely to be able to put the people at ease and therefore obtain more meaningful photographs.
Archibald, T. and Levin, A. (2010). Echolilia: sometimes I wonder. San Francisco: Echo Press.