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A picture is worth a thousand words

posted on Monday, October 22, 2007 02:12 PM

Jo Matthews meets Colin Hastings

When you look at a photograph, do you ever stop to wonder who took it?

Many of us would have to answer that we often look at a picture without giving a second thought to the person behind the camera, and assume that what we are seeing is an objective record of a moment in time. But the truth is that most images we see of the ‘developing’ world are taken by western photographers, which not only introduces a biased perspective but also reinforces the western-centric nature of the global photography market.

An incident in 2003 set Colin Hastings off on a mission to rebalance the distortions of the global picture market. He had volunteered for a rural tourism project in Tanzania, and had a photography exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Afterwards, somebody approached him and commented ‘This is a fantastic set of photographs, but why didn’t the Tanzanian organisation that commissioned this employ a Tanzanian photographer?’ Colin didn’t have an answer and, since then, has dedicated his life to finding one. The outcome has been the creation of majorityworld.com (the commercial arm) and majorityworld.org (the advocacy and fund raising arm).

Majority World Photography is a new global initiative established to promote the cause of photographers from the developing - or ‘majority’ - world. Created in partnership with The Drik Picture Library of Bangladesh and kijijiVision in the UK, Majority World aims to provide a platform for these indigenous photographers to gain fair access to global image markets, and to make it easier for those buying and commissioning photographs worldwide to tap into the wealth of fresh imagery and talent emerging from the South. Colin talks to i-genius about how they plan to make this ambitious vision happen.

Ilish fishing, Padma River, Bangladesh
Photographer: Shahidul Alam/Majority World

JM: What is meant exactly by the term ‘Majority World’?
‘Majority World’ provides a neutral, or non-value laden term, instead of the ‘third world’, the ‘developing world’ or the ‘south’. Of course, it is in fact extremely value laden since the term ‘majority world’ makes a strong statement – but we like it as a descriptive phrase and it’s proving to be a very good brand name which will soon also be a trade mark.

JM: What are the major principles behind the organisation? CH: The number one principle behind Majority World is the feeling that the current photography market is unfair. The vast majority of the published images that we see of the developing world are taken by predominantly white, predominantly male photographers from the ‘north’ or the ‘west’ (whichever language you use) and we think a) that this is unfair and b) that it leads to a distorted view lacking balance. The distorted view is intrinsically dangerous as it perpetuates stereotypes.

It is also an unfair market because photographers in the developing world face all sorts of barriers - both visible and non-visible - to competing equally in the global market place. The whole point of globalisation is that it should benefit everybody, but what you’ve got in this instance is a very unlevel playing field. Photographers in the South are disadvantaged because by and large they don’t have the things that western photographers take for granted. For example, nowadays most photographers in the west, both professional and amateur, take for granted the fact that they have a digital camera, (and not only a digital camera but a relatively high-end camera capable of a certain number of megapixels). They take for granted the fact that they have some sort of computer, because you can’t do anything with digital photos unless you have a computer. They take it for granted that they have instant access to high speed broadband, because you can’t send photographs anywhere without high speed broadband. They take it for granted that they can put their photographs in a ‘stock library’ - a searchable photograph library using keywords. Now there is a real art to key wording because it requires not only an understanding of and fluency in the English language but also an understanding of how people search and how people think. Your average European or English photographer understands all this, but why should someone whose first language is Swahili be able to understand it?

Another critical disadvantage these indigenous photographers face is that they tend not to have spare money for travel. Yet travelling is what most photographers do – that’s one of the ways that they build up a wide collection of different kinds of photography which they then put on a stock library, giving them a better chance of selling their work. And one more thing particularly relevant to Africa at the moment is that large parts of photographers’ archives are still in the old transparency or film form. If you want to turn transparencies into digital images you need access to expensive high quality scanners, and scanning is a time consuming business. So African photographers have all these transparencies sitting there, but they can’t get them onto the web. That’s another barrier.

And we haven’t even mentioned the barriers at this end in terms of attitudes, of people saying ‘We’ve tried using them once before and they didn’t deliver’ or ‘We’re happy with the photographers we’ve got, so why should we change?’

Child portrait
Photographer: Shoeb Faruquee/Majority World

JM: What do you think is the role of photography in conveying the narrative of the South to the rest of the world?
CH: Most of the images we see of the developing world come either by the photojournalism route or from NGOs, particularly NGOs which are trying to raise money. And, of course, NGOs raise money by portraying broadly negative images - not always, but they certainly don’t tell a lot of cheering stories. Meanwhile the current role of journalism is predominantly to portray disaster, famine, poverty, and helplessness; the press in general feeds off the negative, and particularly in the case of the developing world. What journalists are failing to do is to provide a counter balance and to ask, ‘What are some of the good things that are happening in these countries? What are some of the positive changes that are underway?’ That for me is the big gap.

JM: What would be your vision for Majority World and for what happens in the future?
CH: My vision is that hundreds of photographers from the developing world would be selling their work on a regular basis in every country in the world, which would make a significant difference to their income and quality of life. Western organisations would be regularly commissioning southern photographers to do work for them instead of European photographers, and that would be regarded as quite normal. An idea I produce sometimes in presentations - just to see if I get a reaction – is that southern photographers would be flying to the West to do assignments in the West, just like European photographers fly to the South to do assignments in the South. The Times in London might be commissioning a Mozambiquan photographer to come and do a piece on London.

We would have attracted large amounts of money to invest in the capacity development of photographers, overcoming all those barriers so that they had the right equipment, and access to broadband, and money to travel.

Proud to be black
Photographer: Neo Ntsoma/Majority World

Another big part of the vision centres around our brand. We’ve got a thing called the ‘kite-mark’ – a similar principle to the Fair Trade mark. We would like to see this used in the future to authenticate photographs, like a copyright sign. The brand and the kite-mark would be widely recognised around the globe and would be used by all sorts of commercial organisations and NGOs as a kind of badge of CSR (will people know what this means…maybe spell out in full?); it would be one of the ways in which an organisation told the world that it was behaving in a socially responsible manner.
I would like every postcard sold in a tourist destination in the South to be taken by a local photographer, and I would like it to be regarded as politically correct when you go on holiday to buy only photographs taken by local photographers. My vision is to see a whole range of beautiful high quality photographic products - cards, calendars, diaries or digital products images - taken entirely by majority world photographers. If they are on paper, all the printing would be done in the developing world, so they would be truly southern products. And they would also all proudly carry the kite mark.

JM: What are the next immediate stages for Majority World Photography?
We have got to the stage now where we are significantly clear what needs doing and where there are sufficient positive vibes coming from the outside world, so we have got to scale up substantially. Paradoxically, we have got to scale up in the West first, because that is where the marketing and the advocacy and the product development will happen in the short term – so we are creating the markets.

Money is a big challenge. We probably can’t make it commercially viable for another three or four years, so the question is how we finance the scaling up over that period of time. The preferred route is to find a kind of venture philanthropist, one individual who not only puts in quite a lot of money but who’s also willing to get involved and can offer the expertise to help build it into a successful business. We want to get away from having to be constantly applying for small bits of money - which uses up lots of time and takes your eye off the ball – and concentrate on actually building the business.

The second really big challenge is what we call the supply side - the issue of finding talented photographers in lots of different countries. Knowing how best to do that logistically is quite difficult.

The issue of how we build trust and credibility is constantly in our minds. The more experience we develop, the more we become convinced that getting photographers to sign up will ultimately require personal contact, because if you rely on e-mails misunderstandings arise. Then, once you have got the photographers signed up, the issues of digitisation and key-wording arise. We have taken on extra staff in Bangladesh because they have got a big Asian digital archive, they have worked wonders and are scanning 1000 images a month – but we probably need to build up to digitising 10,000 or 20,000 a month. We met someone from Switzerland who has got seven and a half million images on her website. We don’t want to be big-big-big like that, but we have got to be talking in terms of a quarter of a million or one million images eventually.

It’s a mega challenge; we have some of the answers but not all and we certainly haven’t got the money for it. This is one big area where we feel that the right kind of sponsorship could really help. An organisation that had international outreach - offices all around the world, access to scanning technology, that sort of thing - would really help. But it will happen. The right financial partners will emerge.
Obviously the more images we have in the photo library, the more chance of sales: it’s a straight numbers game. The ultimate dream is to have photographers right across Latin America, Africa and Asia. Because of the roots of Majority World, it is relatively strong in Asian content, and we think that we are just about to find the right partner in Latin America, but Africa is a problem.

As a final question, I ask Colin if he has a favourite photograph. He does, and shows me a picture from the Majority World photo library of the water throwing festival in India – young potential brides throwing water at their future husbands. ‘I love the sheer exhilaration – it’s just fabulous’ he says. ‘And I could run a slide show for you that just has one jaw-dropping photograph after another.’

Chakma Women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts throw water at the men they wish to marry, at New Year (biju)
Photographer: Rashid Taludker/Majority World

Despite the challenges of money, human resources, logistics and technology that Colin and his team face, this is where the true wealth of Majority World photography is revealed – in these wonderfully exhilarating and incredibly beautiful pictures from the global south. They provide a counter balance to the often negative images captured by western cameras and give indigenous photographers the opportunity to build a livelihood from their profession. Majority World is creating different channels to market more positive, more balanced imagery, and to ‘prove to photographers out there that there is a market for non-disaster images’. Colin Hastings thinks that ‘abstract images that are beautiful’ will sell, and I have to say, when looking at the photographs in the Majority World picture library, that I wholeheartedly agree with him.

For more information:

Tommy Hutchinson
Thursday, October 25, 2007 08:31 AM

I love this interview; photography is such a powerful tool to bring views and issues to life. The photos here are amazing!

Alison Lowndes
Thursday, November 01, 2007 06:44 PM

Brilliant, absolutely fantastic Colin ! We (AVIF) run entirely online and no matter what I blog or email or shout out to people around the globe its our photos that tell the real story .. if we can allow others to make a living taking more photographs then the world will sit up and look. If we can offer anything to our Kenyan hosts, Colin, please let me know.

Vixie Labanda
Saturday, November 03, 2007 10:42 PM

‘What are some of the good things that are happening in these countries? What are some of the positive changes that are underway?’ --a lot of times I find myself asking the same questions when I see photos on newspapers, TV, which mostly focuses on the negative... and I´m glad to know of your vision to answer those questions through photos taken by the people who are part of those countries... Majority World is doing a great job of acting as a medium between photographers from developing countries and the world. You are not only giving photographers a bigger market but, you also give them a chance to boast their talents globally and to show to the world what are the good things that are happening in their respective countries. Amazing...

Michael Ward
Tuesday, November 06, 2007 11:49 AM

You know I'm a huge fan of what you're doing with Majority World Colin - I believe that your organisation in time is going to have a profound effect on the way that millions of people see things through photography and on the way that organisations and western media source images from what you describe as the majority world. I would like to contribute in any way I can to work with you. I remain inspired by your work and that of your great team. With best wishes, Mike

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