A heated exchange ensued during the Q&A portion of the vernissage of a photo exhibit I attended no more than three hours ago. The discussion was all in German, but to give you a gist of what I understood, the issue tossed around was fairness.
Swiss photojournalist Andreas Seibert documented Chinese in-migration and labor. A globalization phenomenon, a couple hundred million of Chinese are uprooted from the country-side to industrial areas and big cities to find work. The theme of the exhibit didn’t focus on sweatshops, which is another sad emblem of globalization (only one photo depicted this).
Most questions focused on Seibert’s work, how he approached his subjects as he made the photos. One question led to another, and the next minute, the audience was discussing what the photos portrayed, the photographer’s intentions, and the message understood by the viewer. The photos depicted people in transit whoare uprooted from their hometowns. They settle nfor degrading living and working conditions, in bare housing projects, coal mines, construction sites. Some also showed how they are coping with life in the urban area and its complexities, that their children go to school because they are not registered and considered ‘illegal’ residents in the city. The raw and harsh realities of life of about a couple hundred million Chinese. Soon the audience discussed equality, fairness, and the concept of happiness were being discussed. An understandably affected Chinese lady raised whether the photographer actually capture reality. Is his intention, or the photo he envisages to capture reflect that of the subjects’? Does the muted face of the young boy carrying his sibling really feel sad, hopeless, and desperate?
Such is the nuance and power of photojournalism, or maybe journalism in general. I would feel satisfied with the discussion if I were in Andreas’s shoes. It is these effects on people that make photojournalists’ work socially relevant. To affect people and sway us away from our comfort zones. A documentary film of Villi Hermann (who himself was there tonight) on the same photo project was showed last night. At the back of my mind, I asked myself what’s the significance of sharing a film and a finely framed photos to a small German city like Freiburg that is half a world away from China. I think I already know the answer.
From Somewhere to Nowhere will run until 10 June 2009 at the Centre Culturel Français Freiburg, Münsterplatz 11, Kornhaus, 79098 Freiburg, Germany.