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John Pilger Great Witness Photographers
Last month we finally got to watch Lee Daniels’ film ‘The Butler’. It was a thought provoking film with several powerful scenes and performances. Throughout the film I couldn’t stop thinking about a photo I’d seen years ago at an exhibition in the Barbican.

The exhibition was ‘Reporting the World: John Pilger’s Great Eyewitness Photographers’ . I have always had mixed feelings on photo journalism. As a genre, I have continued to find the ethics behind it quite problematic. The effects and implications that come when a western camera enters into a troubled environment where passions are running high, is something that particularly concerns me. I remember listening to a James Nachtwey interview where he too asked the question, about whether a particularly horrific event he had witnessed would have happened had he not been there with his camera?

Despite my reservations, there are events and stories occurring everyday that the world needs to hear about and journalists and photographers put themselves at risk to ensure that some of these stories are seen and heard. Just this week we heard of a second beheading of an American journalist by ISIS. It is a somber and very sad reminder of the danger and risks that are taken to bring us the stories and events from around the world, and for that they must be respected.

The book from the exhibition is pretty old now, I’m too scared to investigate exactly how old but I imagine it’s around ten years old. It presents a series of photographs dating from the seventies up until the early noughties (yes, the early noughties really was over ten years ago!). The collection includes an eclectic mix of photographs depicting troubled regions from around the globe, tackling subjects from the UK miners’ strikes to the occupation of East Timor.

There are a number of images that have stayed with me from this exhibition and book but the image evoked by the scenes from ‘The Butler’ has continually stuck with me. The photograph depicts a middle aged woman holding a banner saying “nigger don’t you wish you were white”, behind her stand two young girls, which I always interpreted as being her daughters, though there is no background information to support this assumption.

I still remember how this image struck me when I first saw it and it still does to this day. To me, seeing this determined and proud looking woman unashamedly holding her deeply offensive banner with such intent is as shocking as it is disturbing. The photo on the adjacent page shows an unemployed black man with two children in a Harlem “slum”. On another preceding page we see two photographs of a young black boy being man-handled by a Mississippi policeman as he wrestles an American flag off him.

It’s hard (for me), to imagine a time when people exhibited such seemingly ignorant, outrageous and plainly wrong behaviour in such a bold and proud manner. I can never look at this picture without questioning what the lady and even the girls in the background would and do think of this photo today. And then I can’t help but wonder what prejudices and discrimination we continue to boldly exhibit here and now, that the generations to come will look back on with equal disgust and embarrassment.