From both sides of the lens

Survivors of the 1971 cyclone in Orissa. photo by Jim Hubbard

From both sides of the lens

Sanjay austa converses with Jim Hubbard, the photographer who pioneered the ‘Shooting Back’ project, a form of participation photography, which later galvanised citizen journalism...

“Don’t you see this?” he asks somewhat bewildered. I have come to interview celebrated photographer Jim Hubbard, 71, but get a feeling of being put under the spotlight instead. He is visiting India after four decades, (his last visit was in 1971 to photograph a devastating cyclone), and he is clearly overwhelmed with the poverty he sees and seeks some urgent answers. “I always ask people –– Don’t you see this?” he says, flailing his arms about.

We are not exactly in the right setting for this anguish, ensconced as we are in the plush corner of a five-star hotel in South Delhi, barricaded completely from the grinding poverty just outside the high gates. But Jim ignores the irony and is relentless. “Yes, I want to know how you deal with it,” he says, leaning forward on the high lobby chair.

I am unprepared but find refuge in an explanation given on the subject by the much reviled V S Naipaul, in one of his India books, “It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad.”
“Please, can you write down his books you think I should read?” Jim says, offering his tiny note pad.

It would easily seem like white man’s colonial gazing, were it not for the fact that Jim spent a lifetime highlighting the issues of the homeless, right there in Washington DC where he lived. He embarked on this mission in the 1980’s to challenge President Regan’s press statement that there were no homeless in America.

“All the journalists wrote that, even though we had just walked through many homeless just to get to the White House. They lied and that got me going,” he says.

Jim called his project ‘Shooting Back’, where he gave cameras to the homeless children in Washington and told them to document their lives. Jim thereby pioneered ‘participation photography’, which later became a catalyst for what we today know as citizen journalism.

Birth of citizen journalism

“This was a first of its kind effort at dealing with social issues through the eyes of children — by giving them cameras,” he says. And Jim was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the narrow focus of professionals who tended to highlight only the suffering, the images shot by the homeless kids covered a wide gamut of emotions, including joy. “My intent was to publicise the issue and to put it there in people’s faces and show what struggle looks like through the eyes of the sufferers,” he says.

In a distinguished career spanning almost five decades, Jim won a ton of photography awards and has been nominated thrice for the Pulitzer for his ‘Shooting Back’ series. He has covered some of the world’s major stories, including the massacre at Munich Olympics in 1972, Cambodian genocide in 1979, and the Wounded Knee Siege in 1973.

However, despite making the world sit up and take notice of the marginalised, Jim feels that photojournalism is superficial and limited in terms of understanding anything. “It (photojournalism) is nothing but superficial. You don’t get to know anybody. Not their struggles or their pain. Someone has been shot or killed and you come in and photograph those who are mourning the loss. You don’t get to know them or anything. You are just looking for a pictures of them crying. I wanted to understand people,” he says.

‘Shooting Back’ accorded Jim that intimate glimpse into the lives of people. Jim sowed the seeds for ‘free- photography’ with the project. The project became so popular that the media worldwide gradually invited the general public to share their photos for free, sidestepping the professionals.

“Citizen Journalism took off just a year after I started the ‘Shooting Back’ project. It put the idea in the media that everyone can take pictures, so why hire the professionals?” Needless to say many photographers around the world hate him for that. “I get a lot of support, but there are a lot of people who are unhappy and probably blame me for giving this idea. They are not impressed with the idea of giving people cameras,” he says.

Digital cameras

With the advent of digital cameras, where everyone is taking pictures, it certainly does not augur well for professional photojournalists today. And unlike other photographers, Jim offers no consolation. He says it is the end of photojournalism as we know it.

“Today, the mindset is that everybody can take pictures, so why do we need to pay you? There are no jobs. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers have lost jobs and find it hard to find work. You can ignore this reality, like you can ignore poverty, but this is the bitter truth,” he says.

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