Photographing Gaza: AP, Franklin and being political

Ten days on from learning that the Associated Press had forced Stuart Franklin to withdraw his essay about Gaza from part of the Noorderlicht exhibtion, questions and concerns remain about this affair.

The photographic press has failed to unpack the whole story, although the British Journal of Photography ran an updated account on 9 September. Neither PDN nor BJP have done more than produce what is a rather lazy form of “he said, she said” journalism. This is clearest in the fact that no one has (a) explored what the agencies other than AP who have photographers work in the show thought about the controversy, and (b) gone back and questioned AP further about the claims it made in their one and only statement on 1 September – claims that Franklin and Noorderlicht have subsequently questioned. I emailed the questions raised in my previous post to Olivier Laurent of BJP and Daryl Lang of PDN, but they did not reply.

While the photographic press has gone quiet on the issue, the big news this week was PhotoQ’s publication of the second version of Franklin’s text, which means we can read the words AP found unacceptable and ask – how political is the Franklin text, were AP’s objections founded, and what would a political photography of Gaza show?

Like any argument, Franklin’s essay can be interpreted in a number of ways. It does not discuss any photographers or their agencies by name, and shows balance by noting the “atrocious cruelty evident on both sides of this long running conflict.” It states that Hamas rocket attacks precipitated the 2008 conflict and Franklin included in the exhibition pictures of the Qassam brigades preparing to fire on the Israeli town of Sderot.

On the other hand, Franklin’s criticisms are predominantly aimed at Israel for the “excessive violence and disproportionate force that one of the world’s largest armies has brought to bear on lightly armed resistance fighters and unarmed civilians.” Moreover, Franklin aligns the Palestinians with others (including Jews) as victims of “systematic ethnic cleansing.” As an analyst of international politics I would say that describing as Hamas as “lightly armed resistance fighters” and the violence as ethnic cleansing is problematic.

However, as the Noorderlicht organizers declared at the outset, there is plenty of evidence from international organizations to support the claim that Israel used excessive and disproportionate during Operation Cast Lead (as my earlier posts on Gaza showed). Only this week the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released its report on the death toll from the Gaza war that contradicts IDF claims. As B’Tselem states:

The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society. B’Tselem recognizes the complexity of combat in a densely populated area against armed groups that do not hesitate to use illegal means and find refuge within the civilian population. However, illegal and immoral actions by these organizations cannot legitimize such extensive harm to civilians by a state committed to the rule of law.

Franklin’s text is certainly a political account with a particular view. But how could it be otherwise? Is there an apolitical or non-political ground from which to enter the debate about the Israel/Palestine conflict? I very much doubt it. We can have better or worse accounts, arguments more or less supported by evidence, but none of them, whatever they claim, could be considered without politics.

This is where AP’s objections founder, and why their claims that photojournalism can speak for itself in some apolitical way is so naïve. Of course AP has to prevent its photographers from engaging in bias or being used for propaganda. But we have to understand being “political” is something very different from being biased, ideological or partisan. Being political is about being engaged with the world, and that will always be difficult and sometimes controversial.

As soon as photojournalists start to picture the world’s conflicts and problems they are inevitably being political. Too many shy away from this reality by claiming they are just impartial witnesses, acting as humanitarians, recording the face of the victims, objectively documenting what they see in front of them, or any number of similar self-understandings. To witness, be humane and work compassionately and fairly are all important values in photographic practice. But they don’t magically remove one from politics. Photojournalists and their critics need to negotiate the difficulties of their political world (e.g. by providing context to their stories) rather than pretend there is some safe zone in which they are immune from politics.

This means that for AP to force the withdrawal of Franklin’s text by alleging it was partisan is itself a highly charged political act. AP should have accepted the compromise offer to run the text with a disclaimer that it was a personal statement and did not reflect anyone else’s opinions (which was always the case).

The final, and perhaps most important, point to note is that the situation in Gaza requires a more radical political critique than that offered by both Stuart Franklin’s text or any of the Palestinian photojournalism exhibited at Noorderlicht. As I have argued in an earlier post and a draft paper on the photographic coverage of the war, what has been missing is a visual story of the permanent catastrophe that Israel maintains in and over Gaza. We need to move beyond the images of individual victims. We need a photographic account of the governance of all facets of Palestinian life that keeps the residents of Gaza on the brink of disaster.

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