Developing Native Eyes

National Geographic fights image discrimination by supporting non-Western photographers.

Emaciated African babies with flies in their eyes. Indian women picking through earthquake rubble. Israelis and Palestinians throwing rocks. These are the images that Westerners are used to seeing from these countries -- and in many ways they have lost the ability to see anything else.

Although these are only tiny slivers of these countries' stories, they are often the only images available on wire services and in newspapers. The reasons for this are complicated, but one important contributor is the fact that those photos are almost always taken by Westerners, not only for Westerners.

The National Geographic Society is attempting to highlight and correct this disconnect with its All Roads Photography program, which held its fourth annual meeting last weekend at the society's Washington, D.C., headquarters, in conjunction with its All Roads Film Festival.

"We're creating an opportunity for people from all over the world to tell their own stories," explained Chris Rainier, a National Geographic Fellow, renowned photographer, and head of the program.

Each year the All Roads board of directors chooses four photographers who are members of an indigenous or minority culture and are working to document their own country. The photographers are given a cash prize as well as cartloads of equipment and software from sponsors, which include Adobe, LiveBooks, Epson, Kingston, Lowepro, Manfrotto, and Olympus. But more importantly, they are brought to the United States and introduced to top editors, publishers, curators, and media sources around the country.

Although All Roads strives to introduce a Western audience to native eyes that would normally be overlooked, at least two of this year's honorees are already known outside their own countries. Associated Press photographer Oded Balilty won a World Press Photo Award and a Pulitzer Prize this year for his iconic image of a woman resisting a phalanx of Israeli soldiers sent to remove her from her West Bank settlement.

Akintunde Akinleye became the first Nigerian to win a World Press Photo Award this year when he took first place in the Spot News Single category for his portrayal of a town in Nigeria where a gasoline fire killed nearly 300 in the hours it took emergency services to arrive. As Akinleye pointed out during the presentation of his photographs at a seminar on Saturday, Nigeria shares many problems with the rest of Africa, but they're thrown into special relief by the incredible wealth a few Nigerians have acquired through the country's rich oil supplies. "I just want to raise questions and discussion about why this should be so," explained Akinleye, who shoots for Reuters.

All Roads photographer A Yin, on the other hand, is mostly a hit at home in China, where his images of Inner Mongolian nomadic tribes have been exhibited several times at Beijing's Pingyao photo festival. Yin, who is Mongolian but was raised in a city far from the nomadic way of life, has been traveling with a traditional nomadic tribe for more than a decade, creating more than 200,000 images, which he develops and prints himself in a portable tent. Through a translator he spoke of the importance of documenting the nomads' way of life before it is lost to urbanization and ecological decimation.

Altaf Qadri, who shoots for the European Pressphoto Agency, was "very upset" to learn that not only had his images from his ravaged home of Kashmir not made it to Western news outlets, but neither had any other images from the area. He was stunned that people from the United States were incredulous of his harrowing photos of the chaos that reigns in the long-suffering divided state between India and Pakistan. People had accused him of creating one-sided images that made the situation look worse than it was -- rather than face the more obvious conclusion that they had been shielded from the true state of affairs by entrenched media blind spots.

In fact, exposing these young photographers to Western art buyers is only one half of the All Roads mission. It also encourages Western news sources to seek out and utilize native photographers like them.

Shahidul Alam, in his opening remarks at Saturday's seminar and slideshow, spoke with frustration of an exhibition he saw recently in honor of the UN's "Millennium Development Goals" and consisting of photos of "developing" countries taken entirely by Western photographers. When he asked the curator if he had considered including work by native photographers, he responded that he had, but that "they don't have the eye."

The work that followed by each of the All Roads photographers, and the passion with which they described their art, stood as a sharp contradiction to that outdated mentality.

Alam, who is an All Roads board member and head of the Drik Agency, even challenges the terms "developing" and "third world." "I personally don't intend to be third at anything," he quipped, uncovering how pervasive and insidious Westerner's misconceptions of that part of the world still are. Instead he has coined the term "majority world," to describe the populations of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And to help develop "the eye" in these places, he has been instrumental in establishing an agency, film festival, photo school, and lobbying arm, based in his home country of Bangladesh and online at the umbrella site majorityworld.com.

Saturday's photography slideshow and seminar was the culmination of a busy week of travel for the four All Roads photographers, who stopped first in Los Angeles to meet with Andy Patrick, CEO and president of LiveBooks, which gives each photographer a deluxe website package and instructs him on setting it up. Patrick, who is a founding All Roads board member, also supports documentary photography through his own FiftyCrows NGO, from which several earlier All Roads photographers were drawn.

As a businessman, Patrick tries to convince the All Roads photographers about the importance of a few simple but often overlooked rules of business: a firm handshake, a concise pitch, and a business card to leave behind. Of course, as a website designer and provider, he also helps them understand that a good online portal is imperative to their continued success in a Western market.

But don't think Patrick isn't getting something back from these meetings. "When I'm around photographers of this ilk, I am in reverence, I'm humbled," he said. "These are people who are connecting at a heart level with humanity; they are really trying to hold that mirror up to the rest of us so we can see ourselves and each other."

While on the west coast, the All Roads troupe also attended the All Roads Film Festival in Los Angeles, presented at the LA Arts Center, toured FiftyCrows Gallery, and presented at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University. In D.C. on Friday morning they participated in an informal session in National Geographic's grandiose board room to meet with National Geographic and German Geo photo editors, Reid Callahan, director of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, representatives from the sponsor companies, and members of the media.

During the weekend, the photographers also got to know many of the filmmakers attending the All Roads Film Festival, which similarly supports films by and about indigenous and minority cultures. At Friday night's awards ceremony, the four photographers and two audience-favorite filmmakers were presented with awards of ash baskets contracted from New England's disappearing Abenaki tribe, the subject of one of the film festival's documentaries.

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