Who controls the image of rural Kyrgyzstan?

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.

Photograph by Fergana.ru's Ekaterina Ivashenko. Used without permission.

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?

9 comments Show discussion Hide discussion
  • the links in this article don’t work. if we can’t see what you’re talking about how can we comment?

  • I think you make a great point, one that goes for all photo-journalism in poor countries.

    I once saw a great art documentary called Enjoy Poverty. The filmmaker goes with photojournalists from press agencies who are shooting a famine, refugees and civil war in Congo. It’s difficult to watch how these men come inside houses without explanation and ‘shoot’ these poor people.

    They tell him they earn 50$ for a shot. He asks if they shouldn’t give their subjects part of the money, since without them, there is no shot. They say “no, I am making the shot, I should get the money.”

    He then meets some Congolese wedding photographers, and asks them how much they earn. 1$ for a roll of pictures, they say. He tells them to shoot poverty and despair instead of happiness, it is far more profitable, and they set out to do so. Enjoy poverty!

    To answer your question, I don’t think there is a solution to this problem. I prefer to have these pictures shown. Some journalists will frame it correctly, others not, but in the end, it’s always up to the viewer to make up her own mind. I am sure not everyone who saw these pictures in Russia had exactly the same idea as the writer.

    • @Steven, I also agree that it’s difficult. Poverty should neither be valorized nor villainized; the challenge for journalists is to find the truth in-between. My impression (that is, Damira’s criticisms notwithstanding) is that the Ferghana.ru report was actually well-intentioned, if mishandled. But how many times has NewEurasia itself mishandled something? Many, many times. So I’m fundamentally sympathetic.

  • Definitely, I agree that these people have been disempowered, and furthermore, that their basic right to have their human dignity upheld has been violated. How could this violation of ethics happen? Many countries in the world have a standard code of ethics for journalists, another but similar code for publishers, another but similar code for psychologists, etc. These codes of ethics are formulated by the professionals within the country or region and thus take into consideration the cultural sensibilities of the country.
    Why don’t journalists of Kyrgyzstan have a code of ethics which ensures that their work will always uphold the dignity of their subjects. Why don’t publishers of Kyrgyzstan have a code of ethics that they will not publish what robs people of their voice and of their dignity.

    • @Dr. Mary Schweitzer, Thanks for the comment. Actually, my understanding is that Ferghana.ru and several other agencies *do* have codes of ethics. The problem is always the understanding and implementation of those codes. Damira’s point here is that class and status clouded ethical judgement, not that there was no ethical judgement at all.

      • Dr. Mary Schweitzer

        December 8, 2012 at 3:07 am

        @Schwartz, I certainly agree with Damira’s analysis and with you that class and status perspectives have taken the upper hand over ethics. If these news agencies and journalists do have a code of ethics but they are not effective (no sanctions?), then of what use are they? It seems to me that in the face of this ineffictiveness, Damira has appealed to the sensibilities and ethics of the common people to voice their concerns about how these poor people have been “used”.

  • I read the original article by Ekaterina Ivashenko that was published by Fergana news and then read her personal Facebook album publication and comments on the Narin Chronicles. The original publication in Russian was rather descriptive with several questions at the end of the report where she also states that people should not live in circumstances like they are in Narin villagers with no cash, no proper food, no work and very harsh living conditions.
    In Ekaterina’s original photo-report in Fergana news I did not notice any racist comments that disrespect the people or belittle their dignity.

    I think the whole argument/discontentment arose from Ekaterina’s personal Facebook account where she also placed her photo-report and exchanged comments, where she expressed more of her feelings and thoughts about the trip and its whole experience.
    But even there I did not find any racist or degrading comments. Rather, her personal comment “мне всегда было непонятно, почему эти люди живут в такой грязище?!….едят\спят\заводят детей….какое бы оно не было, это же твое жилище!… (“I never understood how these people can live in such dirty conditions?!… [They] eat, sleep, have children… after all it is your house!…”) leaves space for interpretation. Does the author mean that it was always hard for her to understand UNTIL she saw that there is actually no other way for them given the condition? Or does she pass on a judgement on the people that even in such a poverty they still have to maintain their homes? She DID NOT explain more in her comment. And so different interpretations are given and assumptions are taken place.

    The whole issue also raises few other points: professional and personal ethics. Should personal ethics also be guarded when we have such professions as anthropologists, journalists and other similar professions where we involve other people and their stories? How different can our professional opinion be from our personal opinion?

  • This argument – class and hierarchy of moral code – definitely brings out neo-orientalist perspectives of post-Soviet Russian media and scholarship. Poor Kyrgyz people’s lives are robbed from their own contexts and contribute to the reproduction of cultural superiority. Ferghana ru is blocked in Kyrgyzstan, and partly I am glad about it, especially in the light of such representation of the Kyrgyz people. I guess, the journalists have to be ‘educated’ about their own social positions, and especially about consequences of their biased and one-sided reporting. Ferghana ru should then be more critical about their own reporting as freedom of speech and press should be combined with responsible and just reporting. The Kyrgyz society is struggling with new economic, political and social transformations partly because of global capitalist forces that fundamentally impose the ideal society images on individuals, communities and the nation. I feel like sending these reporters to lead the lives of these mountain people for a month and will see whether they can survive their harsh geographic conditions. Such reporting does not just demonstrate a lack of critical mind of the reporter, but also how the Russian media creates the image of its post-colonial societies. In the body of this reporter then lies a superior Russian cultural power and domination that sorts people (subjects) into immoral (dirty, poor) and moral.

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