Photographing Gaza: do pictures speak of politics?

September 1, 2009 · by David Campbell · photography

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).

12 Responses to “Photographing Gaza: do pictures speak of politics?”

  1. Interesting take on this. I agree with you that the photographs themselves don’t actively ‘speak’, it is the viewer that supplies the voice.

    But not all contexts are equal. While these photographs may have appeared in print already surrounded by political commentary it is a different thing to hang a show under the auspices of Magnum and AP and present a political text. Magnum may well wear it’s bias on it’s sleeve, but the AP represents thousands of photographers including the many who were selected here, and who are required to work around the world in many dangerous contexts. The AP has to avoid any charge of polictical bias otherwise their photographers are in danger of being viewed as political weapons of a particular viewpoint. And much of the coverage that AP supplies is core reporting, essentially what things look like, whereas Magnum is extending the scope into analysis and opinion.

    I think this is the difference. AP and Magnum do not have the same mandate.

  2. PDN has a story on this controversy here — they have seen original Franklin’s 700 word essay, but are not able to quote from it or link to it.

  3. I think it is important to realize that it is not about what the pictures say and do not say, but what they say, what kind of context they are in when AP endorses it. AP has to think about their brand, their photographer’s security and about staying as neutral as possible.

  4. Thanks to Robert and Ulrike for their comments. Of course not all contexts are the same, and the Noorderlicht exhibition is another context to consider.

    (A clarification in response to part of Robert’s comment — the show in the Netherlands exhibiting the work of Palestinian photojournalists is not a Magnum show, but one part of the larger ‘Human Conditions’ exhibition put on by the Noorderlicht Photo Festival, a regular event in Holland. That strand, ‘Point of No Return’, has been curated by Stuart Franklin, who is also Magnum’s current president).

    There are also many questions prompted by this issue which have so far not been considered, including:

    1. What do the photographers themselves think?

    2. Not all the photographs in the strand Franklin curated come from photographers working for AP, so what do those agencies (such as Getty) think?

    In relation to AP’s position there are further questions to ask, including:

    1. AP has sold these photographs from Gaza to the world’s media without total control over the articles, columns, headlines, blogs or quotes they have appeared next to. Those various pieces of text could have enunciated any number of political positions, including one’s potentially much more hostile than Franklin’s essay. Why, then, did AP take particular exception to Franklin’s essay?

    2. According to the Noorderlicht press release (above), AP rejected two compromise options: either a statement accompanying Franklin’s essay making clear it was a “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the photographers’ agencies, or some text from AP itself to counter Franklin’s essay. Why did AP reject both those options and instead allegedly threaten withdrawal of the pictures or legal action against the organisers?

  5. Well, the way I see it, it is quite a leap from “this is what we in AP do, we well images to papers and publications” to “we take part in an exhibition”. It is far easier to wash your hands with “we supply image to papers ranging from the sun to time magazine” than with “well… we thought it would be nice to be part of the exhibition”.

    When it comes to having a statement following the exhibition, that could of course be a solution, but I imagine that they would still feel “tainted”. “yeah, I take part of this republican congress, but really, I am not political”-kind of tainted? I would not know the reasons for their choice though.

  6. Maybe we should be flattered. AP clearly feels an art exhibit is far more influential and potentially inflammatory than a newspaper article!

    well…

    You might see this as the power of the curator to create a political message.

    Since we don’t know how the all the photographers feel it might be presumptuous for Franklin to write a text backgrounding all the photographs. In that case AP would be protecting its members primarily. If it was the work of a single photographer it would be different, unless that photog did not agree with the text.

    I think it might be less of a censorship issue than it appears at first blush.

  7. There is a significant amount of speculation in this thread and in previous threads on this matter. In all due respect, quoting AP’s position from the Noorderlicht press release is hearsay. At present we do not know AP’s reasons for doing what they did. Should we not know them first, before drawing conclusions?

  8. Diederik – this post deals with the way both AP and Franklin assume pictures ‘speak’ for themselves, and it quotes from statements made directly by AP and Franklin, as the links above show.

    There are many questions about the AP position, and I have posed these in my subsequent post.

    The responsibility for detailing AP’s position lies with that organisation. They have made only one brief statement at the beginning of the week, and they need to be more forthcoming. Media companies need to be transparent. If they aren’t forthcoming, then the photography press should be asking more questions of all the participants in the controversy, as I argue in my subsequent post.

  9. Hi David,
    I don’t want to beat this to death, but I think that neither of the parties in conflict were actually consciously making an argument for whether or not photographs can speak for themselves. Essentially, both used this wording to describe an acceptable outcome alternative to what they did not want or could not establish. So we can talk philosophy to our heart’s content and it may be triggered by the AP/Noorderlicht issue, but it is not something either of them were really thinking about, it is not what their conflict is about. For this reason, I think, we should be careful with assuming either one of them meant them to be a statement like that.
    I don’t agree with your position that it’s up to AP to detail their position. Instead, in my opinion, it’s up to responsible journalism to contact both sides and talk to them first hand. Much of what I have been reading on this issue around the web traces back to the Noorderlicht press release and an AP response in a comment posted on Photoq.nl and Mrs Deane.
    Lastly, I do agree with your position that photographs can not meaningfully speak for themselves. Aesthetics are immediate, but I think that all meaning requires words. Language is how we experience, interpret and understand the world around us, although we may not be aware of that..
    diederik

  10. Dear Diederik,

    I had to have a little chuckle at your latest comment! We have a number of points of agreement.But isn’t it a little funny that after wanting to say (wrongly I think) that the original discussion about this issue was too speculative, you now want to overlook what AP and Franklin actually said about pictures ‘speaking’, and offer some contrary opinions about what you think they really thought or might have meant, without any evidence for those claims?

    Of course the conceptual point I originally raised was not at the heart of the conflict between AP and Franklin. I am interested in how two opponents in an argument can share the same view that pictures speak for themselves. That they expressed that common view in quoted statements, despite wanting to argue contrary political positions, shows how flawed that understanding of photographic meaning is.

    Yes, this controversy badly needs the photographic press to ask some more hard questions of all the protaganists, as I stated in my second post. AP has made just one brief statement at the outset (see the link to the AP site in my second post), and that was in response to the Noorderlicht statement. Even if they aren’t pressed further, I think as a global media organisation trading on its credibility AP should be both more forthcoming and transparent on this issue.

  11. Hi David,
    Yes, obviously, point taken. It’s funny indeed. I was concentrating so much on arguing against you that I wasn’t aware I was somehow doing the opposite.. But you’re right. I should not send any more replies late at night ;-)
    Best regards,
    diederik

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