TBI Interviews: David Maung on the Power of Images

Female inmates at the Baja California state prison in Tijuana pose for a photograph with high heel shoes they will wear during the prison's first beauty pageant. Photo - David Maung, 2013

Female inmates at the Baja California state prison in Tijuana pose for a photograph with high heel shoes they will wear during the prison’s first beauty pageant.
Photo – David Maung, 2013

Recently, TBI Program Officer Martha Garcia was able to catch up to Tijuana-based photographer David Maung to talk to him a bit about his work. Originally from the Bay area in Northern California, Maung is a veteran photojournalist with 29 years of experience largely working in the city of Tijuana.

Q: What are some of the ways you think the work has changed in the last 15 years?

MAUNG: Well the obvious is the internet, the immediacy. With that immediacy and also with the easy accessibility is the impermanence of things, which is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand you can say, well okay, now with the internet, so many people can be doing stuff and we have the democratization of journalism or the democratization of information. The downside of course is when you have people working as journalists, as professional journalists, and I use that word with a certain amount of hesitancy—but there is some truth to it, when you have people who have been trained as journalists and who have a certain code of ethics and when news and information goes through certain filters—you lose that. That’s changed radically.

Q: Speaking of the democratization of news, and how your work impacts the news: What do you think is the difference between the way news, a story or information, in general, comes through as text vs an image?

MAUNG: A lot of times it’s just something to embellish the story that is already there, there is a real personal identification when you can actually see something. If you have some sort of reportage where you have just images that is very different, because you are now relying on the photographer to express his/her feelings, if you will, because it is their interpretation of a situation. And so you are getting a lot of personal stuff coming from the photographer as well.

Q: It sounds like the photographer has a lot of power in terms of conveying message?

MAUNG: Yeah, well, like anything, as journalists there is always this effort to try to make things as objective as possible; I think we all understand that objectivity is almost impossible. To some great degree it just doesn’t exist, there is something subjective in everything….So, therein, there is a certain amount of power. And there is that fine balancing act between knowing that what I do is my interpretation, which is important of course and also I don’t want to be misinterpreting things so that I am giving viewers the wrong reality.

Two men look over the U.S.-Mexico border wall, left, for U.S. Border Patrol agents on a hilltop in Tijuana, Mexico 2013. Photo - David Maung, 2013

Two men look over the U.S.-Mexico border wall, left, for U.S. Border Patrol agents on a hilltop in Tijuana, Mexico
Photo – David Maung, 2013

Q: Thinking particularly about ‘conflicts’, or those global or world events, such as the earthquake in Haiti or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the Syrian civil war and aftermath, and similar events, how would you say that images shape the message of a particular conflict? How much does an image reflect the complexities of a particular event?

MAUNG: That is the importance of photography; you are able to let the viewer actually experience something. So, by experiencing you can somewhat identify with what is going on. It’s the feeling of empathy for a situation and I think that some people can be moved to make change. In that sense it is really important. And yet on the other hand, so much of photography—so, I go back and forth oftentimes—I think that sometimes photojournalism, should just have no interpretation, just show the facts the way they are.… And yet, I can’t because as in any communication it is an art. It is an art in communicating, it is an art in how you express things, it is an art in how you share something. And so, [with] photography, it’s the same thing: It is an art in how you express what you see. It is an art in how you experience what is around you. It is an art in how you put your own empathy, or don’t put your own empathy into it. These sorts of things, these big things that you are talking about, the earthquake, the civil war in Syria, it’s really important that photographers and writers and other people can express deeply what they feel about these issues, and that those feelings can come out in their photographs or their writing.

Q: Are there any limitations to photography in terms of that kind of work? Are there any ways in which an image can fail a story?

MAUNG: Yeah, totally, like we were saying earlier, the medium has changed so much in the last so many years, there are now so many ways to interpret things, and I don’t just mean technically, I mean emotionally too. So much stuff out there looks like journalism and doesn’t really have anything to do with traditional journalism.

Q: What do you think are the similarities or differences between these types of events and those chronic occurrences of poverty or violence at the border region in Mexico and Latin America? As a photographer how do you approach telling those stories?

­MAUNG: The chronic things are the social problems we find all over the world, they are underlying and it’s all the time, that’s why it’s chronic and when we have those flashpoints, it’s when those chronic things reach a melting point. Obviously, as far as the media is concerned, it’s the flashpoints that people are interested in because that’s what sells, it’s in the news, so it’s important to talk about those things, but I feel it’s important and more relevant to touch the deeper issues. To touch the issue that caused those flashpoints to happen, to cause those chronic issues to reach a flashpoint. Here at the border, the stuff I have been working on in Tijuana it has all been chronic, the thing that I think would be more ‘conflict’ stuff, would be immigration…of course, the drug war, as well. It’s important to show what they are talking about in the drug war, the shootings and all the problems you’d have related to conflict…but I think it is much more critical to show people what are the underlying causes of those things.

A couple kiss at a cafe and music venue in one of the cities newly renovated tarts and culture spaces on Revolution Avenue. Photo - David Maung, 2012 davidmaung@mac.com

A couple kiss at a cafe and music venue in one of the cities newly renovated tarts and culture spaces on Revolution Avenue.
Photo – David Maung, 2012

Q: It is very clear that there are two veins, there is the work that you are calling interpretive that sounds like it is your artistic approach to the issues. And then there is the work that is journalistic or more documentarian, that more than likely is often commissioned by someone. In which of these two approaches do you think there is more responsibility to think about the viewer?

MAUNG: I have a certain responsibility to not mislead people about how things are, even if it is about something that I disagree with. I actually flip a lot on this because I have my activist side as well, and so I find myself butting heads with people because I think we ought to use our work to make social change. And I agree with that, but if I am going to be using my work for social change, I want to show people something; I don’t want to tell them. I want other people to make that conclusion based on what I am showing them, not because I am telling them to think that.

I think it is [more] irresponsible to tell people to think something or to believe something or to see the world in a certain way than it is to show them because if you show them then you give them the power to interpret what you are showing and to come to their own conclusions. And if I can show them something that they are [going to] come out with some conclusion that is going to result in a positive social change then I think that is much more powerful or much more lasting than for them to just believe what I say or believe what I show.

Q: With the internet and especially social media, it appears there has been a turn towards images/video, after difficult events. Are images different in the digital environment? Are responsibilities different in a digital environment? Does the instantaneous element, does that add an aspect that we maybe weren’t prepared for socially?

MAUNG: Because of the internet things are much more fleeting and ephemeral and they don’t have the same sort of permanence as if you were to have something published—that is not to say that it can’t have its impact. And yet, also because we are bombarded by so much, in some ways, things lose their impact, because we have just been bombarded by something similar minutes earlier. Like much, we have become, as a society, desensitized in a certain way and yet on the other hand because we have so much access to so much different stuff, we are much more aware of things. It is just how we as a society choose to interpret what we are aware of, that’s the key. Like recently the photographs of the children that washed up in Turkey on the beach, that was incredibly powerful stuff and it prompted a change but then again that stuff just disappeared. Who is to say that is good or bad because maybe thirty years ago, we would have never seen that?

Q: You said that they are powerful, they certainly are more powerful because of the internet, but that they are less permanent.

MAUNG: Yeah, they are less permanent, they may flash upon our screen very quickly, we might happen across something and then it is mixed in with so much other information, I mean we are [in a] sensory overload.… it is really important to take time to reflect and digest on things. And to know that there are those deeper issues rather than just something that is thrown at us at the surface very quickly and sometimes disappear. I think it is really important to take time to reflect and to think about things and understand the chronic issues and what are the underlying issues and a lot of times we don’t have that because in the way that the internet is just presenting us stuff…it is also fascinating but we can get so much so easily. It certainly has made our lives more productive in some ways, but I think we are less introspective.

Q: What is your impression of this trend? Does this trend change the role of the documentarian or the viewer at all?

MAUNG: In many ways, unless we are really astute observers or really astute communicators, I think we don’t really have much control over it. I think we are both, the viewer and the producer, are so much part of the apparatus that we don’t really have much of a choice. If we did have a choice, how could I say we’d be more responsible about that?

Q: How does a journalist come to make choices about how to depict a difficult event?

MAUNG: I think this goes back again to the issue about maybe not looking at things so globally but maybe looking at things on a much more micro level. I mean personally I think we can’t think that what we do is going to make a difference on a big scale, it might, it might not. I think it’s going to obligate ourselves. And this is where I am going to take myself as more than just the role of the photographer or journalist but as the person that is trying to contribute something to society. Taking these things and looking at it and approaching it at a micro level and thinking how do I do what I do. And instead of thinking that it is going out on the internet and affect a million people, how can I do something that is going to have tangible results, hopefully positive, right here in my own community and affect the people around me. That is the role, my role as a journalist. It’s because we are so much out of touch with so many different things it’s really critical to do something that is tangible, that is palpable and that will have a direct effect. You know you can look at somebody in the face and feel and talk with them instead of having things, spread all over the place digitally. I think that that, at least for me, that’s my response, that is how I want to be approaching things.

Self portrait. David Maung, 2015 davidmaung@mac.com

Self portrait.
David Maung, 2015

Q: About the issue of immigration and speaking as a photographer, if you had to project say in the next four years, what kinds of things might happen in that issue. What things do you think might happen and are you planning to be a part of them, in terms of documenting?

MAUNG: I think what one would be looking for is the formation of communities on both sides of the border. Seeing how those communities form and become part of the, really, are the fabric [of] the United States. On the south side of the border, here in Mexico, I would say looking at how the changes in immigration really affect how Mexico is developing. In other words, how communities are developing right here on the border. Yeah, actually I think we could look at it even further in southern Mexico, because there is emigration issues going on as well. For example, as we are well aware of because of issues of NAFTA and other things, the countryside is changing. Now there are often people leaving to go to the United States, so there is a vacuum of people in certain areas. But you also have people moving from the countryside into the cities. How is that changing the way cities are developing? And how is that changing the way the countryside is surviving, if you will. That is not something new; I think it is something that has been going on for some years. But in five years I think it is going to be much more pronounced. It will be interesting to see how it is going to affect Mexico.

Q: What do you look forward to as a photographer, moving forward in your own career, what are some of the things that you look forward to taking on, or to being a part of, or in terms of how the field changes, what are some of the things you are hopeful for?

MAUNG: For photography, there is a movement of going back to analog photography, using non-digital photography. I believe that that is a response to so much digital stuff and that is so impermanent that things get lost and the history gets lost. And so people are starting to shoot things in negatives again, because it is a slower process, because it is a process that has something tangible and I look forward to seeing more of that in photography. It is rooting us back into something that is tangible and real rather than something that is ephemeral. There is also something that I am looking forward to seeing develop more is community-based photography, where people can take advantage of the fact, not to go back on what I just said, but precisely because you can do photography for so cheap, you can use a cell phone or a cheap digital camera just to be photographing things. And to know that you are not necessarily just producing a photograph but you are producing an experience. You are using a photograph to understand an experience, which in some way produces a more analog-like experience because it is more people doing things at a local level. Doing it for themselves, I look forward to that.

David, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for joining me.

MAUNG: Thank you for having me.


About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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