A photographer’s fair trade

By S. Parker Yesko

I spent close to two months traveling in India this summer. A friend and I followed the Ganges River from its terminus near the Bay of Bengal to its glacial source in the Himalayan foothills. Along the way, we conducted several dozen audio interviews of people who interact with the river spiritually, economically, agriculturally, or politically (and often in more of those ways than one) on a daily basis. We wanted to get a sense for how the modern day Ganges is a source of vitality for nearly one billion people living in the plains surrounding it.

The trip presented a number of logistical challenges since it was our first visit to Northern India and neither of us spoke Hindi or any of the seven or eight other local languages we encountered along the way. We had the help of several different interpreters over the course of our journey. The best ones seemed to intuitively understand the types of stories we were trying to capture and would encourage us to interview artisans or tradesmen we’d never have thought to approach. In Kolkata, for instance, we spoke with a fourth generation idol-maker on potter’s alley, where Hindus buy statues of their favorite gods each year before the annual Durga Puja festival. The idols are often made from Ganges River clay and are thrown back into the river (Mother Ganga, as Hindus call it) when the festival is over.

We rarely asked our subjects questions of a personal nature and yet, the interview process itself felt highly personal. Almost without exception, the people we spoke with had never before interacted with reporters. We went out of our way at each meeting to identify ourselves clearly as student journalists working on a project for graduate school. We explained that the interviews might one day be played on American radio, or they might not. We said that we were interested in hearing their stories, but that they were of course under no obligation to speak to us if they didn’t want to.

Very often I had the feeling that in spite of our careful attempts to exert no pressure, people felt compelled to speak to us because we looked important or, perhaps, even slightly intimidating. This impression was especially strong when we approached women. We had a good deal of expensive gear with us and were often traveling with an entourage of four or five people. It’s quite possible I was misreading the situation, but it tended to leave me with an uncomfortable feeling after the encounter was over. I knew I had plans to use the tape accurately and responsibly in the end, but it was important to me that it was fairly collected in the first place. A sense lingered that the journalist-subject interaction is inherently lopsided when the subject is not media savvy.

When I returned home to San Francisco, I asked documentary photographer Bob Gumpert if he’d experienced any of the same issues in his decades of shooting marginalized populations. He didn’t hesitate to confirm that he struggled with the same anxieties and invited me to trail him for an afternoon to see how he was dealing with it in his latest project on San Francisco’s homeless encampments. What I found was one man’s novel approach to dealing with an age-old dilemma. It was a delightful reminder that just because things have always been a certain way, that doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. In this audio short, Bob explains.

14 March 2015: San Francisco, CA. USA. L-R) Allen and Danny Arnett.  Twins, age 62 from Chicago.  Homeless in SF for 10 months.  Danny Arnett just out of hospital with terminal issues.  They find SF hard and will return to Chicago.

Twins Allen and Danny Avett make a home for themselves under a freeway in downtown San Francisco. (Photo by Robert Gumpert)


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Editor’s Note—S. Parker Yesko on her choice of subject for her feature article: “We had many discussions during FASPE about how to approach interview subjects with sensitivity, particularly when those subjects are victims. Over the summer I had repeated interactions with people who had struggled, not so much with atrocity or with crime, but with poverty. I couldn’t help but realize the parallels.”

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