Alessio Mamo’s ‘Dreaming Food’ Was Definitely in Bad Taste
The Italian photographer’s ‘Dreaming Food’ series left many with a bad taste in their mouths. Here’s why.
Do you see any problem with the picture above? Does it make you angry? Or are you confused right now as to why anyone would be angry?
This is one of the pictures from a series that was featured on World Press Photo’s Instagram handle – Alessio Mamo’s ‘Dreaming Food’ series.
When I saw it, I was angry. Angry that an organisation as prestigious as World Press Photo could publish a work with such questionable ethics. Mamo’s photo series showed Indians from extremely economically weaker sections, standing with their faces covered by their hands in front of a table decorated with fancy (fake) food.
Still confused? Let me explain.
As a student, I have analysed and looked at more photos than I can remember. A lot of them involved a white photographer ‘appropriating’ someone else’s reality. Mostly people less privileged.
The first thing taught to us in photojournalism, is the eye level with which you look at your subjects which definitely is not in the right place if the photographer claims that he had no malice in heart.
All the pictures are looking down on the subjects. A white photographer, coming with a lot of privilege, with a fancy camera, coming to a ‘ third-world’ country, he already had a lot of power. But the pictures seem that he exploited it even more.
World Press Photo, an organisation people follow and draw inspiration from, carrying these photos by Italian Photographer, Alessio Mamo, ignited worldwide debate and drew a lot of flak as well with some saying he is peddling ‘poverty porn’.
Some critisised World Press Photo for not overlooking the content being shared on their feed while others pointed out the problematic concept.
But even more than Mamo’s initial misstep, what’s annoying is the justification he presented when the avalanche of criticism came down on him.
Mamo, in the statement he published on Medium.com, first talks about his beginnings, his achievements, including winning the World Press Photo Award for People. He then goes on to say that “Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day.”
I do not contest Mamo on his claims to India’s poverty. I am not delusional. I understand my country’s reality. Even though I am not sure about the exact statistics, I know a lot of people in my country do not get two square meals and malnutrition is a child-killer. But that’s not the point here.
The photographs showcased in the “Dreaming Food” series were taken in various parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and aimed to conceptually project the hunger problem that plagues much of India.
Concept photography does give the photographer the freedom to conceptualise a issue and visually represent it. But they should also realise the impact of the visual medium and the ethics of that representation.
In her book, ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag says that photography is the art of appropriation and the camera puts immense power in any individual’s hands.
Mamo’s photographs appropriate something that is not his and in the process seems like he is mocking the people less privileged than him by showing them what they can never have, since the food is not even real.
In his Medium post, he says that the idea of his project was born after reading the statistics on how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. So he brought with him a table and some fake food, and then told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.
The concept even in it’s conception sounds problematic. If he wanted to show the wastage of food in the west, he could have gone around and clicked that in the US. Yes, drawing a comparison is necessary at times, but unless someone sits down and reads the text attached, the images in no way convey the intended meaning.
The concept ‘Dreaming Food’ could have been done in a lot of different ways, without him mocking the lives of his subjects. Mamo later did accept that the concept could have been represented differently and it was an error in judgement.
Importance of an Editorial Policy
What makes the whole thing worse is that it was featured on World Press Photo, an organisation that has been part of robust classroom discussions and also a source of inspiration. Even though Mamo later went on to explain himself, the very fact that an experienced photographer did such a shoot and went on to display it in one of the most premier organisations, sets a very bad example.
Often enthusiastic or rather over-enthusiastic amateurs capture photos that are in bad taste, including child nudity.
But generally when a foreigner does it, they are easily let off. Sometimes because of this feeling of they know better and at other times because the work is confined to classrooms and photography circles. One such example was ‘Children of Bombay’ by Dario Mitideri. The photo series showed street children of erstwhile Bombay, in many vulnerable positions including nude and semi-nude pictures. While some may say that he was just depicting the reality of the place, others argued that it could be used by people who draw pleasure from child nudity.
Mamo needed to be more mindful, no doubt, but sometimes looking for faults in one’s own work is difficult. That’s where strong editorial decisions are needed and that’s what was missing here.
Here’s to hoping the collective outrage will inspire photojournalists to make better choices and for prominent organisations to pick up smarter and more empathetic projects.
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