Jim O'Donnell

Issue #
March 24, 2019

Jim O'Donnell, Taos Photographer in Cuba: Street. Justice. Values. Photography

There is a very fine line between the creation of street photography art and poverty pornography. As a photographer, it is a difficult and delicate balance to strike. I am not always successful. Sometimes, I don’t even know if I’m successful at striking that balance or if I’ve crossed the line. But I’m always on the lookout for that line and I’m conscious of the balancing act.

There is something inherently exploitative about street photography. The photographer is taking something simply by capturing the image. Rarely do we give back. There’s no exchange. There’s nothing equitable about it.

And yet we are creating art. Creating art by, perhaps, taking.

This is a rather hot issue for many photographers and no doubt I’ll be criticized for my opinion. But you can see this tension in how we stumble to actually name what we do. Photographers will “take” a picture or “make” an image or “capture” an image or “create” an image. Which is it? Words matter. This lack of clarity about what we actually do speaks to this tension.

How I approach my photography speaks to my core values. For me, all art is political. Or it ought to be. Toni Morrison posited that any art that refuses to be political endorses the status quo – thus making its own political statement. It’s the old idea that, if you remain quiet then you are OK with the current situation.

I feel strongly that we all have a responsibly to make the world a better place with everything we do. “Giving back” is requisite. I seek to use my photography as a tool to have a positive impact on the world. It isn’t just about taking pictures or creating art for me. It’s vital for me personally that my photography mean something that it benefits people in ecosystems.

When it comes to street photography, however, the question of how to give back is not so simple. It’s not so clear. How do I use the images I “make” or “create” or “take” in Cuba going to benefit the people in those photos? I ask myself this continually while I’m on the streets of Havana or Trinidad or Santiago de Cuba… How is what I’m doing making the world a better place? In fact, I ask myself that wherever I go with my camera. In my opinion, it’s a question all photographers should be asking themselves. It should be fundamental...

The Cuban people are incredibly resilient. Tough. Hardy....Adaptable. Flexible. I hope my photography tells the story of their beauty, kindness, intelligence and strength. I hope it tells their story...

In this small way I aim to give back.

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