Power Relationships, Working with People and Misrepresentation.

When working collaboratively with people and in participation with them, there is always going to be a power relationship present between you as a facilitator/photographer and them as a participant/subject. When working in conjunction with others it is important to remember that the distribution of power is often unequal. This is due to representation and how we choose to portray subjects. There is often little control given to the subject and they are at the mercy of how the photographer chooses to represent them. The hierarchy for power usually starts with the subject having the least power, the photographer having some power, and the editor or media having the most power in how the representation is conveyed and presented.

This means often although the topic or image created has been about the subject, they often have the least amount of say on how they are represented. Ethically this can be challenging and wrong because it can give an unfair representation of how they are in reality and can be detrimental to their perceptions of themselves. It can also give others in a wider audience a certain view of them that may not necessarily be true.

When working with people on a participatory or collaborative project like the ones we are undertaking, it is important to remember that they matter as much as the final outcome does. Their insight and viewpoints are key in ensuring that the story told is their story, and it is told how they want it to be told. This is why it is so important to give some of the control and power back to the subjects and participants so that you can act more as a facilitator of the work rather than being totally in control of the portrayal and perception of the individual.

There are benefits to working in collaboration with participants, such as allowing them an increase in self-esteem, an increase in knowledge of photography and storytelling, a sense of wellbeing from being recognised and heard, the opportunity to campaign and influence others as well as knowing their stories may have an impact on audience members. These are all reasons why someone may choose to get involved with a project of this nature because there is the opportunity for them to be in control of the situation and monitor any output until they are happy with the results.

However there are situations where people can become misrepresented, and even if it is not intentional, it can still happen. In some cases this can come down to a lack of respect for the subject, or it can come down to an editorial decision which is whatever the editor wants to show, not what the person actually is. Misrepresentation happens a lot more than people think, and it can be detrimental to the person being shown in question because this is not how they would like to be seen or presented.

Misrepresentation can happen most often in the media, for example in advertising. There are many TV adverts that we see on a daily basis that are misrepresenting whole hosts of communities and stereotyping them to one particular message. More often than not, those of different ethnicities are misrepresented in the media and are often shown to be more violent for example, or in some cases, would not be represented at all in a bid to appeal to more westernised examples of representation. In some cases, whitewashing has also taken place, particularly in advertising photography which is incredibly detrimental to the individual because it is telling them they should look ‘more white’ for example to better appeal to a Western audience. It implies that there is something wrong with them for being who they are, when this should not be the case at all.

In photography examples of whitewashing have happened repeatedly in advertising as well as the introduction of styling black people into very westernised representations:

In these images in the case of the model Donyale Luna, she has been dressed, styled and posed in accordance with very western styles. The way she is represented is nothing to do with her heritage and she has been manipulated to be used in a certain way. Despite being black and pushing more black models into this line of work, the fact they have changed her in this way is almost seeming to say ‘be black, but be more white.’ which is completely contradictory and makes no sense. But it is an all to common standard, as is also seen in the vogue cover of Naomi Campbell where she has been massively whitewashed in comparison to how we normally see her. It goes to suggest that these people need to change something about who they are to be seen as more beautiful when this is entirely not the case. It shows the power the media, the photographer, and editors have over their subjects in regards to the final image because without this combined power of influence it is unlikely that the images would look anything like this.

These visual examples show how easy it for people to be misrepresented, as well how easy it is for an image to be manipulated and taken to an unacceptable level of editing to conform to a standard.  It does beg the question, is whitewashing in Hollywood ok? The below video discusses more about whitewashing in Hollywood as well as some of the issues and why it may be done and if it should be done. In many cases, I feel the answer is no, whitewashing shouldn’t be done. It is not respectful to the individual person, and it is also greatly misrepresenting them and taking the power away from them. For someone to see that image and see that it has been manipulated to fit a ‘beauty’ or otherwise stated standard, can be a very detrimental thing because it is basically saying to them ‘you are not good as you are because you could be better.’


Although this does not have very much to do with migration, I think that it is very important to cover because in a lot of cases it is representation and misrepresentation that are important in terms of understanding how and why we can be more respectful of the people we photograph and why we might choose to convey someone in a certain way.  Being as considerate to others as we would wish them to be to us is one of the key ways in which we can as photographers maintain a good sense of ethical responsibility as well as help to give power to those who are in more vulnerable positions.


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