Seeing Kathmandu

A Photojournalist’s Reflections on AI and Visual Literacy

Children looking at their phones by the mountains in Kathmandu on 8 September 2023.
Children looking at their phones by the mountains in Kathmandu on 8 September 2023.

As AI technology continues to advance exponentially, the question remains: how does AI contribute to personal biases in photojournalism?

People flocking to the Swoyambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, in Kathmandu on 9 September 2023.

Sunlight illuminates the fog, wrapping brick and stone temples lining the streets, accentuating chipped statues of various gods as ascetic holy men sit and pray underneath. The mist mixes with smoke rising from small bonfires scattered along cobblestone streets caked in dust. The pitter-patter of hoofed animals mixed with the steady putter of motorcycles seemingly provide the score for the scene, while mountains serve as a lush looming backdrop, clouds touching their peaks. 

A quick Google search of Kathmandu generates images such as this, which begs the question, is this how the city really looks like or do these portrayals only serve to reinforce pre-existing biases? Are the popular images of Nepal ‘genuine’ or do they merely validate pre-conceived notions?

Are the popular images of Nepal ‘genuine’ or do they merely validate pre-conceived notions?

Any photojournalist worth their salt knows that they would never be able to capture the ‘authenticity’ of a place in just a few days during their first visit. Thinking otherwise is bordering on hubris and can even be considered offensive to local visual journalists who arguably can do a much better job. A photographer’s gaze is moulded by their own biases and experiences, after all.

People touching prayer wheels at the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu. Mantras are inscribed on each wheel and a turn is equivalent to reciting the prayer.

And there lies the rub. Most people’s exposure to South Asian countries is limited to movies and popular culture, which is arguably mostly Westernised. Consciously or not, it would be easy to mimic these images which will in turn reinforce a certain point of view, something I feel I myself fell victim to. 

Given a full day to shoot, I felt the images I made of Kathmandu were subpar. Not in a technical aspect, but more from a visual literacy standpoint. 

As a photojournalist and someone who fancies himself an educator, this was disappointing. In a sense, I was just copying Hollywood and other photographers. 

Local and foreign tourists begin their descent from the top of the Monkey Temple.

Is that a bad thing? No, not per se. Everyone is entitled to how they see things. But as someone who is trying to find not only their personal vision, I found myself thinking, am I complicit in the current misrepresentations of South Asia? Am I doing Nepal a disservice by sharing these images? 

Having others photograph local cultures allows it to be shared and put into a larger context. The danger then is not having others take photos, but when visual journalists simply show what they think the audience wants to see.

I would argue that the answer is both yes and no. Yes, I am not really showing anything new except the fact that I am heavily influenced by how popular media depicts Kathmandu. Sure they could be called ‘pretty’ but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to call them ‘powerful.’ Add in Susan Sontag’s thoughts in her work ‘On Photography’ and well, you get the idea. Here she discusses how images impact our view of the world and shape our understanding of reality. She highlighted the need to consider the context in which images are created and consumed, emphasizing its cultural and ethical aspects. However, I would also argue that the images do not merely add to the ‘noise’ so to speak. I feel that in their own way, the photos add to the discussion, and at the very least could be used as teaching tools on visual literacy or lack thereof.

I feel that places should not be photographed exclusively by locals as it impedes growth. As experiences shape our disposition, having others photograph local cultures allows it to be shared and put into a larger context. The danger then is not having others take photos, but when visual journalists simply show what they think the audience wants to see.

True to its name, monkeys are a common sight at the temple.

This then can be connected to artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in visual literacy and photojournalism. AI has its uses in journalism, no doubt. From speech-to-text applications and machine learning, it can be an important tool in any newsroom. Used ethically and purposefully, AI can make a journalist more efficient and productive.

Photojournalism is the act of visually documenting the human experience. How can AI-rendered images claim to document an event if the creator was not there in the first place?

However, unlike text-based journalism, the same cannot be said for visual journalism. For one thing, photojournalism is the act of visually documenting the human experience. How can AI-rendered images claim to document an event if the creator was not there in the first place? Text-prompted image generators allow people to make illustrations, not photographs, of scenes that are meant to reflect the supposed reality. This however makes the whole process prone to the creator’s subconscious bias.

Another issue here is how AI uses existing images for learning. Without discussing copyright issues, which deserves its own discussion, AI only reinforces existing preconceived notions of a place or culture. It can be argued that AI will not present anything new, and as AI-generated images flood the web, the cycle of bias continues to be fed.

It can be argued that AI will not present anything new, and as AI-generated images flood the web, the cycle of bias continues to be fed.

People saying prayers in front of an image of a deity in Durbar Square.

Should people who take photographs be more aware of their contribution to the ecology of images? Should they always think of the effects their photographs may have on how the world views not only Nepal but other places as well?

As with most things visual, aesthetic appeal still has value. At the end of the day, photojournalism is still a visual endeavor and it should remain as such. Journalistic value should not be the only metric a photograph is measured against.  The argument here is that while text-prompted images may have their uses in other fields such as advertising, I humbly think that it has no place in photojournalism or anything that is documentary in nature.

People going about their business in one of the streets near Durbar Square.
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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Alec Corpuz

Alec is a seasoned photojournalist and photo editor at news.abs-cbn.com, boasting a decade-long career in the field. Additionally, he has served as a college lecturer for nearly ten years, sharing his expertise and passion with aspiring journalists. With academic credentials from the Asian Center for Journalism, where he earned a Diploma in Photojournalism, and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Ateneo de Manila, he has a strong foundation in his craft. Alec’s dedication to enhancing his visual literacy and his openness to diverse viewpoints underscores his commitment to the power of images in storytelling.

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