James Morgan – stories of universality from the margins

I came across the work of James Morgan via the photographs he shot on child trafficking in Nepal and India. Going through his website I was further drawn to his work partly because of the focus on Asia, but also because of his emphasis on compassion and respect for those whose stories he told.

Suitably impressed I decided to track him down (at least by email – the guy travels a lot) in order to get an insight into his working methods. A big thanks to James for taking the time and effort to respond to my questions despite his busy schedule.

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REP: You emphasize in your approach to photography ‘compassion, respect and understanding’ for the people and issues you photograph. Practically, how do you implement such an approach and what do you feel the outcome is for those you picture?

JamesI think it all comes down to story telling, being conscious of whose story it is you’re telling and, just as importantly, who you’re telling it to. On the face of it, it’s simply a question of telling your subject’s story in as close to their own voice as possible – but, in reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that. I believe that story telling is as much about creating atmosphere as it is about progressing through a logical series of events. It’s a case of representation through translation. Counter intuitive as it may sound for documentary photography, I find my work hugely subjective and, for me, the space that arises out of that is what constitutes the artistic element. I use photography in the same way as I’d use a paintbrush and I’d like to think that this approach allows me to get closer to the ‘truth’ than a more linear narrative might.

zed for different reasons, I can begin to understand how best to translate people’s stories in a way that more and more people can understand. One aspect I really want to start working on now is creating feedback loops for the people I photograph. Just sending them a newspaper article with their picture and some text in a language they can’t understand isn’t enough, I’d like to come up with a way in which they can directly witness the impact their story is having – although of course it’s difficult, I couldn’t tell you where half the people I photographed this year are now. It’s definitely an area I’d like to see NGOs focusing on more – traditionally the audience of NGO funded photo essays are potential donors but I’d like to start being more creative and enabling the people I work with to be both participants and observers in the stories.

REP: How does your work with NGOs differ from other assignments? At what stage are you brought in, and how much input do your have in the way images are used in the NGOs communications?

JamesMy work with NGOs doesn’t differ dramatically from other assignments, my style fits well with the needs of NGOs so I can normally photograph and construct narratives in much the same way as I would for editorial assignments. Fortunately NGO budgets haven’t been slashed in the same way as editorial ones have recently, which allows me to spend more time and go deeper into a particular issue. Previously I haven’t had much input into the way NGOs use my images, but as technology evolves and new platforms emerge for disseminating these stories I’m hoping to be able to consult NGOs in distribution as well as production. I’ve been talking recently with a company based out of China who do cinematic projections inside inflatable domes. At the moment the technology is too expensive for most NGOs – but the potential is enormous. Not only can the domes be put anywhere with enough space, the skins of the domes are translucent and so the show can be watched from inside or outside, symbolically coherent with the aims of most NGOs. But there are endless things that could be done with multimedia that are only just starting to happen, it all depends on the NGO in question, all organizations have their own tone for outreach, some prefer more conservative approaches, some appreciate more guerilla style marketing. There are a number of grants springing up at the moment for photographer/NGO collaborations that provide funds to be spent directly on exploring new methods of disseminating social issue photography.

REP: You were involved in a project looking at child trafficking in Nepal. How did this come about, how did you approach representing the issue and children (ethical issues, giving ‘voice’, positives/negatives), and how were the photos used by the anti-trafficking organisation?

James: The Project in Nepal was with The Esther Benjamin Trust (ebtrust.org). I was actually on my way to Bhutan to photograph there but got stuck in Kathmandu for a few days. Whilst I was there I read an article by Soma Wadhwa about Nepalese girls living in Mumbai’s notorious red light district. After reading it the entire city [Kathmandu] looked different, I could feel it in the streets, it was really eerie, so I started making some inquiries and shot a few initial images before I left for Bhutan. When the founder of EBT saw the photos he commissioned a month long piece which gave me the freedom to follow the child trafficking trail right down across the border into India. A year later I am still receiving increasingly well-spelt emails from a few of the older children I worked with.

Stylistically I decided to concentrate primarily on portraiture, shooting very few images that alluded directly to trafficking. Contrary to everything you’re supposed to do as a photojournalist, I decided to show these images out of context hoping to create a series of images that represented a group of children rather than a group of trafficking victims.

EBT used the images in promotional material, in print and on the web. I think there was also a gallery exhibition in London and some newspaper articles. As always I feel as though a lot more could be done with the images but it would have to justify diverting time and money into media and away from more immediate concerns which is always a difficult call to make.

REP: Much of your work is presented as multi-media pieces/photo essays. Do you feel this has opened wider possibilities in story telling than just stills on their own? What in your experience are the lessons both young photographers and NGOs can learn in using multimedia to tell compelling stories?

James: Multimedia is the future of on-line story telling, without doubt. And NGOs are well ahead of editorials in realizing this (or at least budgeting for it!). For NGOs particularly it makes complete sense, the production costs needn’t be much more than traditional stills work. When I work for NGOs now I routinely produce audio, stills and moving images and, when it’s done right, I think it’s an incredibly powerful combination.

Having said that I think the best way to tell a story is to tell it in as many ways as possible. I am starting a project in a few days on the Bajau Laut, a group of semi-nomadic ocean dwellers living off the coast of Sulawesi. For this project I will certainly produce a multimedia piece for onl-ine use but I’ll also do a traditional photo essay with a written article for print as well as a gallery exhibition of a few select images. All these formats tell the story differently and invite you to engage with the material in different ways.

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