Flagstaff Photographers on What it Means to ‘Take’ a Photograph

Apr 4, 2018

My Brothers, Our Sisters, is a new photography exhibit at the Flagstaff Medical Center. It centers on the work of the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps in Haiti, a country hit hard over the last decade by natural disasters. The photos depict the lives of Haitian hospital workers, patients and children. They were taken by Flagstaff-based photographers, Jake Bacon and Michael Collier, who is also a doctor.  This morning/today, they talk about the responsibility that comes with taking photos of tragedy. 


MC: I’m Michael Collier and I’m a photographer and a physician.

JB: I’m Jake Bacon. I’m a photographer at the Arizona Daily Sun.

MC: I’m a family physician and I’ve been interested in combining the photography and medicine. Jake and I went to Haiti in December. I thought I was going to be functioning primarily as a physician, but Jake said, “Well, at least bring a camera.”

JB: Haitians are very sophisticated about the use of their images, and with the earthquake and then the hurricane, they’re very aware that people come to Haiti, that a lot of people travel to Haiti and take photos of the Haitians in dire circumstances and then go home and use those images to raise funds ostensibly to support Haiti, but the people who are having their photo taken have no direct connection to seeing those funds. And so, there’s a level of sophistication where the average person on the street in Haiti knows that and has some level of dissatisfaction or resentment about that fact. That’s a filter that you’re operating through whenever you’re meeting a new person and you’ve got a big camera in your hand.

MC: I spent a lot of time with Haitian physicians. And I did that, but while I was going on rounds with them while I was looking at patients with them, I was photographing them, but mostly photographing patients. And so the photography started to take command of my time. In medicine, it’s amazing to sit next to somebody and listen to them. You never stand up and look down on them. If you’re listening to their lungs, one hand is on the stethoscope, one hand is holding their other shoulder. That way of just being there for a patient, being there for a human being transcends into medicine. That way of holding somebody’s shoulder, looking into their eyes becomes part of photography.

JB: Going along with that theme, what I had learned the first year that I was in Haiti was the concept of “taking.” Taking photos. Quite literally going and recording an image and taking that away and seeing how conscious the Haitians were about that and having a real visceral experience of “You are taking something from me that has value to me, and you are taking it across the ocean and taking it away and when you’re gone I have nothing already and I will have even less because you’ll have taken one more thing from me.” So it was very important to me when I went back this time to try and give photos. So this time, I went down and thought, ok I’m going to buy the smallest printer I can, and when I take people’s photos I can run back up to the crew quarters—which is in the center of the hospital—print pictures out and then give them to the patients. And, you know, that was huge. To see the reaction of being able to do that, being able to say, “Yes, I’ve made a photograph of you, but now I’d like to give you that photo,” then all of a sudden you’re not taking photos, you’re giving photos, literally and metaphorically, too.