Do photographs speak? Do they have an intrinsic politics? Or do they rely on the text that accompanies them for political meaning? An unfolding controversy about the photojournalism of Palestinian photographers contracted to western picture agencies is broaching these questions.
As I’ve written here, although many claimed that Israel’s media controls meant few pictures of the IDF’s December 2008 invasion of the Strip saw the light of day, professional Palestinian photographers working for the likes of the Associated Press, Getty and Reuters were supplying images that got a good run in European newspapers.
The Noorderlicht Photofestival of 2009, which opens this week, is running work under the title Human Conditions, in order to “reveal the unseen, human stories behind conflicts.” One of the shows, curated by Magnum president Stuart Franklin, whose own recent work on “Gaza Today” can be seen here, contains the Palestinian photographs. As the Noorderlicht web site explains:
Franklin travelled to Gaza to speak with Palestinian photographers. The exhibition Point of No Return shows their work: raw photojournalism that was done under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The photographs by Mohammed Saber, Mahmoud Hams, Mohammed Baba, Abid Katib, Said Katib, Hatem Moussa, Ashraf Amra, Eyad Baba, Khalil Hamra, Fadi Adwan and Ali Ali rise above the level of detached reporting.
However, it is not the Palestinian photographs that have sparked the controversy, but Stuart Franklin’s introductory text. The Associated Press objected to the content of Franklin’s essay, and wanted it “substantially moderated.” We do not have access to Franklin’s text, but a press release from Noorderlicht makes clear that AP objected to the fact that:
the essay acknowledged that criminal acts were committed by both sides, but assigned the principle responsibility for the extent of the bloodshed to Israel. Both Noorderlicht and Franklin believe this conclusion is justified by the critical reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations…
It seems AP threatened to withdraw their Palestinian photographers’ work or pursue legal action against the exhibition organizers. Outraged by AP’s attitude, Franklin withdrew the essay and left the photographs without accompanying text, while Noorderlicht charged AP was acting contrary to any principle of free speech.
AP’s director of media relations has responded to the disclosure of its threats by saying:
Early this year, The Associated Press agreed to a request to display some of its images from Gaza at the Noorderlicht Photofestival, with the firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view.
The AP is an independent global news organization whose photojournalism stands on its own merits.
In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition.
When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition – namely, that the photos would not be presented in support of a political position… (Emphasis added)
Here we have a set of fascinating assumptions about the meaning of images. For AP, the photographs ‘should speak for themselves’, but they assume that ‘speech’ would not have been ‘political’, because it was only through Franklin’s text these pictures would ‘be presented in support of a political position.’ What, then, does AP think these photographs would be saying, in an apolitical way, when devoid of text?
Interestingly, Stuart Franklin says that the photographs are also going to speak, but presumably that they are going to say something different to what AP imagines it hears. As Franklin wrote in the Human Conditions catalogue after withdrawing his essay:
I will say nothing and let the pictures talk. The pictures must speak and one day, we must hope, their stories will be told.
I think both Franklin and AP are naïve in their view that photographs themselves speak, as though they could construct a larger meaning without text or other related media that put them in context.
However, in addition to their censorship of Franklin’s views, AP are especially naïve because the professional Palestinian photographs from within Gaza – such as the work of Getty photographer Abid Katib, which was among the first images of the war published in the UK (see one of his photos here) — have already been widely circulated and read with a variety of texts creating various meanings. To suggest that these photographs should now be stripped of prior associations and rendered ‘apolitical’ is itself the most political stance one can take.
(A hat-tip to Aric Mayer for a prompt on this issue).
(UPDATE 3 September 2009: I have revised the final paragraph to note Abid Katib is a Getty photographer, as was clear from my earlier post).