Who controls the image of rural Kyrgyzstan?
Editor’s Note: A recent photo-report published on Facebook and Ferghana.ru has caused a furor in Kyrgyzstan about the conditions of the country’s rural poor. But according to guest blogger Damira Umetbaeva, it also raises difficult and important ethical questions about the nature of the photo-report itself.
[Update, 7 December: There was a problem with the links in this post, but they're fixed now. Sorry about that! Also: this post has sparked a really big discussion on the Facebook page of Ferghana.ru editor Daniil Kislov. If you're on Facebook, add your voice and opinion!]
Back in November, a Ferghana.ru reporter posted on her Facebook profile some photographs of everyday life for rural folks in Kyrgyzstan. Here are two remarks she made in the comments section:
“I saw for the first time what kind of pauperism people can live in.”
“…I never understood how these people can live in such dirty conditions?!… [They] eat, sleep, have children… after all it is your house!…”
Now, here’s the kicker: her photos were then published on Ferghana.ru with the full names of the subjects! The comments sections were filled with terribly humiliating remarks, and even outright racism, as some viewers saw in the photos proof of “Kyrgyzness” and “Asianness”.
This is what bothers me: the reporter was coming from the perspective of a social class that I strongly suspect was her own — urban, educated, relative rich (at least, compared to the people in her photographs), and “progressive”. Moreover, the photo-report probably never made it back to a Kyrgyzstani audience, as Ferghana.ru has been blocked in the country since February 2012. The audience the photo-report ended up applauding the reporter, and even re-posted her shots and added more commentary on social networks, calling them “wonderful”, “marvelous”, and so on.
There’s a pro and a con here, which overlap. Maybe through the social networks, the photos were able made their way back to the Kyrgyzstani government — the reporter’s stated goal — and so maybe that will embarrass them enough to do something to help our the rural poor. But why? Because these photos have embarrassed the country; they have hurt its reputation (what little it has), and by extension, the reputation of its leaders.
More problematic is that the subjects of her photo-report were rendered passive: interpreted by the journalist, and not allowed to interpret their own situation themselves. She stole their voice and made a (rather biased) point out their image! And this is just in principle wrong, even if it’s possible, or even probable, that the people in the photos may not entirely enjoy their situation. In the least, they certainly wouldn’t want to be portrayed as ignorant and helpless “paupers”!
We have to ask: did they know how they were being portrayed, much less that their images would be splashed across the Internet? Are they aware of the horror and disgust tagged to their image by the reporter and her readers? I somehow doubt they know it; my intuition tells me that the reporter has seriously violated her subjects’ dignity, if not their rights.
I would like to hear from my readers:
- Do you agree with me that the reporter’s subjects have been disempowered?
- How might we be able to explain the inoculation of the reporter from her subjects?
- What means, if any, should be used to regulate the media so as to protect the dignity and privacy of people?
- Are we in need of more systematic training for journalists, and if so, by which standards — Western, international, or local/national?