The Photographer and the Viewer by Robert Jansen

How people interpret an image can be very different from what the photographer, or indeed the subject in the image, intends to portray.

In a recent Guardian interview South-African photographer Pieter Hugo was asked if by setting up his photographs in a particular fashion, he might be exploiting his subjects for, as the interviewer put it, their ‘exotic’ otherness.

Pieter Hugo’s book “The Hyena & Other Man” shows images of the so-called Hyena Men of Nigeria, a group of men who travel from town to town to perform with their rock pythons, monkeys and hyenas. The images are well known and have been given a lot of media publicity, and helped Hugo win the Discovery Award at this year’s Arles Photography Festival.

Perhaps it was inevitable that with all this publicity some criticised him for exploiting his unusual subjects for personal gain and questions about animal cruelty were also raised. In response to the Guardian interviewer’s question Hugo replied: ‘I reject that view utterly. There’s always an element of condescension in it, the notion that the people I photograph are somehow not capable of making their minds up about being photographed. And, you know, it always comes from white, liberal, European people, which suggests to me that there is something essentially colonial about the question itself.’ He goes on to say he always had permission to take the photographs and that there was always an exchange between him and his subjects, whether it be financial or emotional. What did his subjects think of the images? ‘They were happy. They’re performers. They loved the camera.’ He admits the way the animals were treated got to him towards the end but he was frowned upon when questioning this. ‘It simply isn’t an issue there’, he says. Hugo’s response shows he considered how people might interpret the images but by putting them into context, even though they might not change their opinion, he forces his criticasters to a re-think at least.

Another example of people’s interpretation of photographs illustrates the increasing paranoia in today’s society. In the UK a photographer was convicted of four counts of making indecent images of children and one count of possession. What makes this case extraordinary was that the photographer in question was actually commissioned by the parents of the two girls (aged 10 and 12) he took photographs of and both parents were present at the shoot. Dr Marcus Philips creates images in which clients are made to look like fairies using digital manipulation. But it all became a lot less innocent when employees at the photolab alarmed the police when they became concerned by these photos as they were showing the girls topless.

Under UK law it is an offence to take any indecent photograph of a child. You might say this sounds pretty straightforward and fair. The problem lies in the word indecent though. What makes an image indecent or decent? Obviously, in most cases this is apparent but as the above example illustrates there is a grey area. Philips pleaded guilty and was convicted to 150 hours community service even though the judge made clear Philips had always acted properly and that there was no sexual motive. Philips’ lawyer commented: ‘The circumstances in which the photographs were taken and the intentions of the photographer are irrelevant, because the test of indecency is objective and a matter for the jury to decide.’ Clearly the people at the photolab and the jury in the court case considered the images indecent, regardless of what the parents of the girls, the photographer and, to a certain extent, the judge thought.

Both cases, one arguably more so than the other, illustrate that regardless of what you try to depict in your images others might interpret it in a different way. Should you hold back because you might offend people?  It depends. It would be great to say that you shouldn’t have to, and in the case of the Hyena men images it seems to make absolute sense not to hold back, but unfortunately the Philips case shows that not only images are open for interpretation; common sense is as well.

by Robert Jansen

To read the Pieter Hugo interview visit:
For more on the Dr Marcus Philips case visit:

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