My Struggle as a Photographer

By Jeffery Purganan, photographer on projects Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador

20 years ago I went on my first international trip to work alongside a sister church in Tijuana, Mexico. Since then a lot has changed in the way that we do international church work, but a lot has change in the way that I participate in global church work. Among the most significant is the way in which I photograph. On my first trip, I took 10 rolls of film and brought back 240 pictures. The pictures were of me, my friends, and the exotic place that I was visiting. The photos were to tell my story.

As I have grown into professional creative, I am learning to tell the stories of others. This is not a matter of technique or skill, but of perspective and responsibility. What does it mean to responsibly share someone else’s struggle, needs, pain? What does it mean to share a story representing 14,800 people?

The struggle of speaking about brokenness:

Stories that recognize brokenness can also communicate the dignity, strength and beauty of every person. While my “job” is to get great photos, I must also think about privacy truthfulness, and the trust required to let someone see and share their financial poverty.

The camera is one of the most frightening of modern weapons, particularly to people who have been in [trauma]… In the back of ruined towns, and cities, and factories, there is aerial mapping, or spy mapping, usually with a camera. Therefore the camera is a feared instrument, and a man with a camera is suspected and watched wherever he goes.” John Steinbeck in A Russian Journal.

The struggle of complexity

As a photographer, I believe that a good picture could be worth 1,000 words, but a great picture might frame an experience in a way that words could never communicate. For example, I can say, “The children play in a river full of trash.” However, this simple photo communicates the reality of that much better.

Photographs can limit the ways in which we think about people. The danger of a powerful photograph is that a moment can come define the only picture we have. Photographs are discrete, limited and historical.

For storytellers, it is not necessary to find the resolution of these struggles or to find closure, but to acknowledge we are participating in the middle of the story. Similar to the proverb, “the wise plant trees they will never see the fruit of,” I am consciously aware that I am in the now, not in the future. We must not consume these stories and images as part of a set story in history to be unchanged, but an unfolding future. 

For storytellers, it is not necessary to find the resolution of these struggles or to find closure, but to acknowledge we are participating in the middle of the story. Similar to the proverb, “the wise plant trees they will never see the fruit of,” I am consciously aware that I am in the now, not in the future. We must not consume these stories and images as part of a set story in history to be unchanged, but an unfolding future.