Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

June 15, 2011 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

Lock and Henner 2006 e1322810329850 Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

The US presidential election began this week. Although polling day is still 18 months away, yesterdays Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire marks the start of the race.

As ever, the economy, jobs, healthcare and education will be key issues, with more people worried about these than war. In Britain, along with immigration and multiculturalism, the picture is pretty much the same, which is not surprising given we face an ideological government savaging public services.

Which got me wondering – what does photojournalism contribute to these debates? Beyond the daily campaign picture and stock political portrait, what stories are we seeing from photojournalists and documentary photographers that engage these issues? My sense is not much, and certainly not enough.

Photojournalism has long been fixated on the foreign. Check out the web sites of major agencies like Magnum, VII, Panos and Noor and you will see that in the featured stories domestic concerns are a minority interest (though LUCEO is perhaps an exception to this). I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ‘Features and essays’ in Mikko Takkunen’s excellent Photojournalism Links, and over the last month foreign stories outnumber domestic ones by a ratio of 3:1. All this confirms Stephen Mayes 2009 statement that photojournalism is now more romantic – meaning “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” – than functional, and supports Asim Rafiqui’s claim that we face a “strange silence of the conscience” whereby the “hollowing out” of our societies is under-recorded.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous (even this one). What counts as ‘home’ is linked in part to personal identity, so, given the preponderance of American and European photographers in the industry, I’m thinking of the minority world as ‘home’ and the majority world as ‘foreign’.

It is also the case that in a globalized and interdependent world, the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ is far from clear-cut. Many stories cut across borders. Even war is not something that occurs only beyond the water’s edge. When Nina Berman, Edmund Clark and Ashley Gilbertson show the impact of conflict on the home front, it is not easy to locate their work on one side or other of the international boundary.

There are also a number photographers working in domestic space on social issues. Recent examples from the UK include Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’, Liz Lock and Mishka Henner’s Borderland and Hinterland, George Georgiou’s Curry and Chips, my multimedia partner Peter Fryer’s work in South Shields, and of course Amber/Side’s long history of documenting the north east of England. On emphas.is (although still a minority) the recent US-based projects of Matt Eich, Aaron Huey and Justin Maxton would count as domestic. The ongoing projects of Anthony Suau and Matt Black (highlighted by Asim Rafiqui) are impressive, and no doubt readers can (and should) add others.

And yet so much more is needed. It’s best illustrated by one of my all-time favourite multimedia pieces, Evan Vucci’s 2009 story “Faces of the Uninsured.” It tells the story of working Americans who cannot afford health care and must travel long distances to access the services of Remote Area Medical, an NGO that once focused on aid to “the Third World” but now concentrates on the US (17 of their 21 missions in 2011 are in America). Vucci’s story is an under-stated but shocking presentation of a domestic issue.

Given that the Republicans scorn Obama’s modest health care reforms as ‘socialism’ there is ample reason for a humanist tradition of photography to engage this issue alone. Initiatives like Facing Change: Documenting America and American Poverty.org show promising signs of movement on other related concerns. I’m not suggesting people walk away from the important international stories. But surely there are more than enough visual storytellers for many lenses to be turned towards home.

Photo credit: A discarded kitchen appliances sits in one of many fields surrounding the Hattersley Estate. Copyright Liz Lock & Mishka Henner, 2006.

19 Responses to “Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation”

  1. I don’t think this is exclusive to photography or photojournalism. In the 1970’s and 1980’s when Britain was staring at the last massive economic crisis and then in the process of being savaged by Thatcher there was a response in the music of The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, Gang of Four, The Specials, Elvis Costello and many others. Today there is (almost) nothing being written about the state of the nation when we need it the most. As James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers said last year “In Britain, we’ve been through two wars and a deep recession and no musicians write about it”.

    I think you can apply this to other art forms too, not just photography and music. To illustrate the point, have a read of this article written from an American perspective and called ‘Where are today’s Steinbecks?’

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13358745

    • Thanks James – interesting and important points.

    • James, I disagree that no-one’s writing music about social issues in the U.K. it’s just that no-one in the mainstream media is playing it, so most people don’t get to hear it. Though I’ve been living in the U.S. for the past five years and have lost touch with a lot of the music scene here, I photographed it a lot from the mid nineties up to my departure in 2006. When I left there was a lot of fantastic British Hip Hop artists talking about some very important issues in an intelligent way. A lot of these are still around, making music. Look for artists such as Braintax, Skinnyman, Rodney P, Ty, Farma G and Chester P, Jehst, Roots Manuva and Black Twang for starters. I photographed some of these guys playing to large crowds in venues such as the Jazz Cafe and Cargo (Not Wembley Stadium, granted, but not tiny places either). The problem is that it is mostly underground stuff. The PR antics of Malcolm MClaren and the self destructive behaviour of Sex Pistols on and off stage got them noticed and made them famous. No-one’s really pulling stunts like that anymore.. The music is there, the social criticism in art is there, but you have to push aside all the mainstream commercial crap to get at it.

  2. Hi David, Thank you for a great post. Many times I heard from social workers and carers that they felt their issues are “not sexy enough” for the media to cover. I think it’s quite safe to say that foreign coverage will always be attractive because of the tourism element and wonderful looking portfolio. While this is not wrong to pursue, imbalanced media coverage leads to an impression that it is all OK at home. Last year I spoke to photographer Nadia Bettega about her project ‘Changing The Face of Human Rights.’ It is about our society’s ‘invisibles’ – human right workers, carers and disabled people. Very inspiring. http://www.sojournposse.com/?p=1275

    @James: This year I can only think of musician PJ Harvey who launched and out-and-out political commentary UK war policy in her album ‘Let England Shake’. In May, UK ballet choreographer, Wayne McGregor, tried to discuss war issues in ‘Live Fire Exercise’ ballet – which received mixed reviews from dance critics. Royal Opera House’s audience are tough, but at least he tried to show them something different than the usual fairyrtales.

  3. When looking at images taken in foreign locations I try to dismiss the wonderful light and unique settings and reduce the photograph to its elements. Only that way can I truly judge the image on its merits. Lets face we have an inbuilt fascination for the unusual and that presents as a conflict. To make the familiar shine out and make people take note is a greater challenge. http://www.photohonesty.org

  4. Where is ‘home’? What is ‘home’? For sure America or Europe is not everybody’s ‘home’…
    If ‘home’ is where your family is (for example), then there are other ‘homes’. Or maybe home is where you vote… Or where you pay taxes… Or where you pay your electricity bill and fill your fridge. Or where your cow is grazing. Or maybe just where you take pictures?

  5. Interesting question. Is there an assumption that we ‘know’ what the social problems are at ‘home’, what they ‘look’ like, and so they do not need illustrating through photography? This would seem unlikely. Surely NGOs and journalists working on these issues would surely wish to illustrate individual stories to humanize and contextualize. Which begs the question – why do NGOs working on issues abroad (predominantly in the global South and East) spend millions trying to evoke our compassion by picturing poverty? Is this an empathy gap – easier to connect with your home culture/country – but the ‘other’ is harder to relate to so we need bring them closer? Is poverty at home ‘boring’ – to write about and photograph?

    • Good points Rob. Social problems are not self-evident, and they are constructed in relation to dominant political understandings. In the UK, for a variety of reasons, conservatives (and not just Tories) have been able to make ‘debt’ and ‘government waste’ central issues that license swinging cuts in public services. The conception of the undeserving poor – cast as ‘welfare cheats’ – is alive and well. Meanwhile, the largest welfare bill of them all – bailing out the banks – is accepted as a fiscal inevitability. In that context, its just as difficult to connect at home as it is abroad. So photography faces a challenge in both environments. Which is where the challenge of visualising abstract social issues comes in.

  6. @Zarina – Ballet’s not really my forte but I’ll check out that PJ Harvey album. The only other band I can think of talking directly about the problems faced at home are the Manics on their last album (“the liberal left destroyed every bit of my youth”).

  7. At NOOR, Nina Berman’s work is of course a good example of producing national stories and yes, these often have a broader echo and international imbrications.

    As for Jon Lowenstein, he spent a decade examining the impact of US political, economic and social policy on some of the most disadvantaged residents at home. Despite the fact he received grants from Nikon, Getty, the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the 2011 Guggenheim for essentially domestic projects, he also understands the need to expand horizons especially when it’s hard to get publications interested in these issues in the USA.

    More than a fear of photographing at home, I would rather talk of a certain difficulty of being original on these topics and the uneasiness of media to go deep into long lasting social issues that little by little become forgotten stories.

  8. INGOs working on the global South and East have successfully linked poverty in these regions to the international economic system via unfair trade and debt regimes. This has changed the debate from ‘undeserving poor’ to a people held back by wealthy countries and corrupt governments. Imagery changed from negative ‘begging bowl’ to positive ‘helping hand’. Stories that illustrate how the system holds back, for example farmers in developing countries, successfully present arguments for change. Stories that present the links between government cuts and social problems should be very do-able – though maybe these stories will be more evident as time goes on (I have been away from the UK too long to tell)?

  9. Great article, I’ve thought along the same lines for a few years now. I decided long ago that there are enough photographers out there in the world photographing away from home, reporting back. It’s why I stayed in Wales but I was studying my MA in London, I felt Welsh culture was that important. At the same time, those who run the MA Photojournalism course at Westminster were saying the same thing. Photograph here, there is plenty of material here for photographers.

    Guess what? The majority of them still went abroad, even the foreign students who came to the UK to study left again. I’m not being critical of them, just pointing this out.

    In addition, photography is just easier in a different country. There is too much negativity associated with being a photographer here. I encounter it everyday while I work and I find it very hard. I have to encounter the police and the public stopping me for whatever reason, photography’s innocence is lost.

    Then there are the double standards present in how we treat at pictures, pictures of children here are questioned, my motive as a photographer could be aligned with those of a sexual deviant while pictures of children abroad ‘the other’ are acceptable, even naked! Nobody could walk around today and snap away like Martin Parr did only 30 years ago and make the kinds of statements he did.

    Generally people or government don’t want a camera pointed at them because of the hysteria built up around photography (deviants, 9/11 and so forth). Ironically we can blame a attention seeking media for that. Thanks. Whereas abroad, people through the hardships they’re suffering want to be represented and their stories told; to make change happen. People here don’t, or care or want a ‘change’ as such (what kind of change anyway?). People are also very media savvy, they know how they could be misrepresented a 1000 ways as opposed to the genuine way a PJ is aiming for.

    If anybody wants to see some ‘homegrown’ work. Please kindly take a look here – http://www.jonathanjk.viewbook.com. Shameless plug I know, but how often will you see it?

  10. Oh thank for the links to the other work being shot in the UK. It’s great stuff, pouring over it now.

  11. when I’ve worked abroad in the past I’ve always been dissatisfied by the communication barrier I face. how can i possibly understand the nuances of someone’s situation when I can’t speak their language? as a self-funding freelance I have never been able to afford to pay fixers and translators for more than a day or so, and when I’ve worked with NGOs I’ve been uncomfortable with having to rely purely on their staff to interpret for me. gradually, it dawned on me that I will never be able to cover the issues I want to as well as a local journalist or photographer because of my language difficulties and other cultural barriers, so I made the decision to concentrate on stories at home. Mind you, these same issues can plague you in your own country, particularly when working with certain migrant communities…

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