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photography politics

Photojournalism, advocacy and change

Marcus_Bleasdale_The_Unravelling_Human_Rights_Watch

The purpose of photojournalism and documentary photography, and how that purpose is discussed, remains a contentious area. A large part of that contention flows directly from the way the purpose is framed and debated.

This was evident recently in the panel discussion on “The Photographer as Activist” at the World Press Photo Awards Days in Amsterdam. Billed as “a discussion about photographers moving beyond the tradition of unbiased reporting to create change,” it posed the question: “can advocacy journalism balance an agenda with accurate and fair reporting?”

The frame here is clear. It sets up “unbiased reporting” as the norm while anyone pursuing change has “an agenda.” An agenda is taken to be the antithesis of accuracy. The discussion that follows this frame then asks when is the line crossed, bias evident, and the image maker compromised.

This frame assumes good journalism embodies “the view from nowhere,” the idea that it is possible to transcend limits to human understanding, and occupy a position (an “unbaised position”) which is somehow also not a position.

This frame is flawed on a number of counts. It is flawed because much journalism which claims a god-like position above the fray of human complexity obscures particular commitments. This is evident in reporting norms which require the false equivalence of “he said/she said” narratives that compromise evidence-based accounts, with coverage of climate change the most obvious example. It is flawed because the best investigative journalism starts with an agenda (exposing corruption, injustice, wrongdoing) and ends with a view. Indeed, as Jay Rosen writes, “the serious work of journalism” requires the “digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat” that will lead to the development of a particular view. And when “you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

I thought of this on hearing that the Robert Capa Gold Medal had been deservedly awarded to Marcus Bleasdale for his long term reporting from the Central African Republic, presented online in “The Unravelling.” Bleasdale’s visual stories were done in partnership with Human Rights Watch, Foreign Policy, and National Geographic. This means “it’s the first time the Medal has been bestowed on a photographer for work produced, in part, for a non-governmental organization.” Unsurprisingly, Bleasdale was asked “If you’re getting paid by a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, can you be objective?” His response:

As a photographer and as a journalist, I work in exactly the same way, whether it is for Human Rights Watch, National Geographic or The New York Times. And frankly, many news organizations and their ethics can be questioned. We can certainly question the source of financing for many news outlets.

In a video interview for The Guardian on the production of “The Unravelling,” Bleasdale confronted the issue directly (at 06:14 – 06:34):

I’m asked regularly about this fine line between journalism and advocacy and am I objective. Straight answer: no, I’m not objective. I’m a photographer and I have an opinion. And when I go and I’m documenting killing to the extent that we saw in the CAR – whether that’s by the Seleka or by the anti-balaka – I want people to understand it, and the opinion is I am horrified and I want you guys to be horrified too.

We’ve reached a point where this should not be seen as a problematic viewpoint. The issue is not that journalists have positions and develop views. It is that they should – like Bleasdale – be transparent about those positions, open about those views, clear about their evidence and sources, and subject to critical review. The integrity of the image and the story comes not from its fidelity to a mythical standard of objectivity but from transparency about the process through which it is produced.

This concern about having an agenda and a view is especially surprising for photojournalism and documentary photography given they are regularly lauded as agents of change. Indeed, the oft-repeated claim that certain iconic images have changed the world (once again recently mentioned here) were introduced at the beginning of the session in Amsterdam inevitably via the projection of Nick Ut’s “napalm girl” photo. I’ve written previously on the ahistorical nature of the argument about that particular photo, and made clear through Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals how change can only be achieved through long-term collaborations and partnerships. And for all the talk about photography and change, there is remarkably little clarity in our discussions about the different actions that might constitute change, the various levels at which change can take place, and above all the years and decades that even rapid social change takes (for which these graphs on American social change are a good indicator). In contrast, in the video interview for The Guardian on the production of “The Unravelling,” Bleasdale and Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch detail how they thought about the audiences they needed to reach in order to achieve the specific changes (ranging from public awareness to French military action) they were after. Importantly, they also detail an instance in which they were unsuccessful, thereby making clear there is no magic formula that leads from image to story to change.

In those collaboration and partnerships for change, the visual does have a significant role. John Steinbeck wrote after Capa’s death in 1954:

It does seem to me that Capa has proved beyond all doubts that the camera need not be a cold mechanical device. Like the pen, it is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of mind and heart.[1. Quoted in Alex Kershaw, Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. London: Pan Books, 2001, p. 1.].

Awarding the Capa medal to the visual author of “The Unravelling” embodies that understanding and should disrupt the flawed frame through which we have approached the issue of photojournalism, advocacy and change.

NOTES:

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photography politics

How photojournalism contributes to change: Marcus Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals

The hope that photojournalism can “change the world” is often expressed but rarely realised. We have examples of individual photographs improving the lives of individual people (as in the recent case where an AFP picture led to a homeless son being reunited with his family), but precious few contemporary instances where we can show pictorial work has helped bring about collective improvement. But last week there was an important development to which photojournalism was linked. Understanding the precise nature of that link is vital if we are to appreciate what photojournalism can and cannot be expected to achieve.

Intel announced that all its new microprocessors were now “conflict free,” made from minerals sourced from clean mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thereby no longer directly financing part of the conflict in that region. Intel achieved this by developing a system of tracing, auditing and certifying suppliers in the commodity chain that stretched from the mines to smelters to its manufacturing plants.

Intel didn’t do this alone. The company has been a major player in industry groups on the issue, including the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program. In partnership with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other companies, it helped establish the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) in 2011.

Intel was alerted to the significance of conflict minerals four years ago when the current CEO of Intel was approached by The Enough Project offering to work with the company on the issue, as part of its on-going campaign that also featured the usual tool of celebrity activism (with actress Robin Wright). Intel partnered with The Enough Project after deciding that simply sourcing minerals from another country was not going to aid the DRC (see embedded video for this information).

Collaboration and partnership were thus the hallmarks of Intel’s journey to conflict free microprocessors. This is how and when photojournalism comes in.

Marcus Bleasdale has a decade’s experience working collaboratively on conflict stories in Africa, and yesterday I spoke with Marcus to confirm these details. Beginning with the Congo and Darfur in 2004 he shared images with NGOs looking for ways to present their issues. This led to an alliance with Human Rights Watch (HRW) that culminated in The Curse of Gold, which examined how trading this resource on the global market helped sustain the war. After an exhibition of his Congo photographs organised by HRW in Geneva, Metalor Technologies, a leading gold mining company, announced they would no longer do business in the DRC.

With each trip to the DRC, even when he wasn’t directly commissioned by them, Marcus worked with both HRW and The Enough Project, benefiting from their research and occasional logistical support, sharing images, and providing talks and testimony for their campaigns. Three VII Photo multimedia stories supported the Consuming the Congo campaign, and the group exhibition Congo/Women spurred government support for combating sexual violence after being shown during a US Senate hearing in 2009. Legislative action – such as the insertion of a conflict minerals provision into the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act – kept the campaign rolling.

The most recent publication of Marcus’s DRC work came last October via a National Geographic commission, with his photographs part of the Price of Precious story that made clear “the minerals in our electronic devices have bankrolled unspeakable violence in the Congo.” He also reflected on the role of photography in these campaigns, and there are profound lessons here for understanding the function of photojournalism:

Let me say that an individual photograph can have a powerful impact. But the real power is what you do with it and whom you partner with.

It is our responsibility as photographers to use the work we create to make it the most effective it can be. We cannot stop wars with pictures, but we can provide the tools for the dialogue, which eventually will stop wars (quote from here)

To get through to people you have to show individuals touched by the conflict. That’s how you engage people, how you shock them to maybe change their behaviour. I want to repeat, though: It’s difficult for photographs to do this work on their own. You need an advocacy group to partner with who can knock on the doors of Congress and corporations. This advocacy work is as satisfying to me as taking a photograph.

Marcus stressed the commitment advocacy and collaboration required. In the last few years, nearly one-third of his time has been taken up with this issue, and in the last eighteen months he has devoted perhaps 80% of his time to the conflict minerals campaign. This includes much more than photography alone, as when he addressed the Mashable Social Good Summit.

Individual photos can help individuals, usually through a charitable response. Marcus’s photograph of Innocence, a young child who died needless from diarrhoea, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the St Kizito orphanage from readers (obviously unaffected by “compassion fatigue”) who saw it featured in National Geographic’s The Moment. But to go beyond commendable acts of charity and contribute to larger and more substantive social change means appreciating how photojournalism gets its power through collaboration. Photojournalism is one actor amongst many on long-term campaigns, and we should not have the unrealistic expectation it can be the sole cause of change.

Conflict minerals pose a significant challenge for photography generally. Intel’s decision to make conflict free microprocessors is a big step worth celebrating. But more companies have to address this issue, and many of the companies whose products are central to photography have poor records. Canon and Nikon, in particular, need to step up to the challenge. The company rankings of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign (an initiative from The Enough Project) show those big names at the bottom of the pile. Those of us who use their equipment need to find ways to encourage them to follow Intel’s lead. We have to work towards a time when the technology that captures and circulates pictures of injustice does not itself fuel injustice.

Video: “At CES 2014, Intel’s CEO and activists, including actor Robin Wright, discuss the quest for conflict-free technology and call upon industry leaders to join.”

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photography politics

Staging Politics: Beyond White House Access, the Photo Op is the Larger Issue

Obama Soccer Tunnel Mandela Service

(South Africans cheers President Obama waits in a tunnel at the soccer stadium before taking the state to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Media representatives and White House officials have started a series of meetings to discuss photographers’ access to the President. But it is unlikely that the bigger issue was on the table – access to what? If media organizations want to give us open journalism that pulls back the curtain on the theatre of politics, they have to use this moment to question the centrality of the photo op in the presentation of politics.

President Obama’s recent trip to the Nelson Mandela memorial service gave us another glimpse into what is at stake in the access issue. These two photos from Pete Souza and Stephen Crowley show both that some independent access is still possible, but that access may not produce radically different images. Souza captures, in his familiar style, the President silhouetted from behind, while Crowley records the crowd looking down into the same tunnel, with the arrangement and colour of the umbrellas on the left suggesting he is positioned only a yard or two in front of Obama.

On the flight to South Africa, with the President accompanied by the Bushes and Hilary Clinton, the access dispute was more evident. CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted that:

“Press photographers in the Air Force One pool on flights to/from South Africa were given no oppty to photograph Presidents Obama & Bush.”


(Dec. 10, 2013. Attendees look down into a stadium entrance at the state memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in the Soweto township of Johannesburg. Stephen Crowley – New York Times/Redux)

Regardless of their thirst for access, media organizations lapped up the White House provide images of the two presidents together, questioning their ability to support their protest with sanctions.

The media’s grievances have been stated strongly, with AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon calling White House provided pictures “visual press releases” that amount to little more than “propaganda.” Given the transformations of the new media economy, no administration now or in the future is going to forgo the opportunity to be its own broadcaster and publisher. Politicians have always wanted to bypass the gatekeepers and get their message direct to the public. The televised address from the Oval Office, or the live radio show in preference to the written journalists interview, are ways in which politicians seek to maximise control of their image. Now the platforms and tools have proliferated, and leaders as dorkish as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or evil as Syria’s Assad use Instagram accounts to offer their own visual account.

There is obvious merit to the substance of the media’s protests to the Obama administration. That there should be an “independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government” is an unimpeachable principle. But the debate cannot end there.

Souza bill signing

Access is a necessary but not sufficient condition for that independent view. Access is not a value in itself. Access does not, and historically has not, guaranteed a critical, visual account of politics. Yes, a critical account requires some access to the events and people to be recorded, but the larger question is what will image makers and editors do with that access?

In the midst of this controversy the White House released a picture of photographers recording a bill signing in the Oval Office. Many, including BagNewsNotes, took the release as a provocation to show ongoing access. Moments like this were well described by former White House photo editor Mike Davis:

Six highly skilled, professional photographers dash into the Oval Office, a sense of practiced urgency in their assessment of how to make the most telling photo of the president, in about a minute, as he signs a document or chats with someone before continuing the real business of his job.

Then the photographers are quickly ushered out to wait for the next historic event. They are members of the White House Photo Pool doing what’s called “a spray” — arguably the least desirable type of presidential photo-op.

Maybe this image was a provocation, but I read it differently. I read it in terms of the event the media wants to access, the photo op of the President at work in the Oval Office (something emphasized by the AP). Of course these moments need to be recorded, and that takes some access, but is pressing for “the spray” to be made up of a large number of independent photographers (as David Hume Kennerly argued) where the real fight should be? Christopher Morris proposed that a “pool photographer should be given special access for the day, basically to shadow the White House chief photographer, for let’s say 50 percent of the day or as the President’s schedule allows.” Will such access alone be the sufficient condition for critical visual journalism?

The juxtaposition of two photos in the New York Times article, “Photographers Protest White House Restrictions,” raises further questions about what is at stake in this controversy.

Souza’s privileged position got him the intimate family holiday portrait of the President swimming with his daughter, while restrictions on Doug Mills meant he was reduced to a long shot of the Obama’s lunching on a balcony. As this MSNBC report comparing White House imagery and independent pictures makes clear, Souza’s position does give him consistently cleaner and more intimate portrayals.

But do these cleaner, more intimate pictures offer a radically different image from the independent ones? How much better off would we be if Mills had been able to take the Souza shot? Would an independently shot, intimate family portrait be qualitatively different to one provided by the White House? Or would it be a case of independent journalism becoming complicit in the propaganda it wants to rightly resist? Doug Mills is right in this respect: the White House images are “all about controlling the image and putting the president in the best light…There’s no chance for a gaffe, or a bad hair day, or a sour expression, or much spontaneity when photographs are subject to approval by the presidential gatekeepers.” However, the controversy surrounding Michelle Obama’s sour expression in the now infamous Presidential Mandela ‘selfie’ shows, capturing such moments might not lead to the truth either.

It is worth noting that the role of the White House photographer began in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and came about because LBJ desired the photogenic public image that independent photographers had given John F. Kennedy, including now famous photographs like George Tames “The Loneliest Job” or Alan Stanley Tretick’s “John F. Kennedy Jr. under the Resolute Desk.” Access may have been easier, independent photographers may have taken the shots, but the propaganda value was at least as great as that produced in today’s social media feeds.

All this makes clear that the larger and more important issue has to be the photo op and how to report it visually. Photo ops are themselves, even before being photographed, moments of sanitization, reducing politics to theatre, regardless of whether they are photographed by independent or partisans. So much of the photography of politics involves a reciprocal staging – the event is staged so that an image can then be made without which the event would not exist – that what we need is a visual means of pulling back the curtain to see the event’s construction.


(A photograph of goats on a lawn sign directs reporters to where goats will be released at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, on Aug. 7, 2013. More than 100 goats will be taking over Washington’s Historic Congressional Cemetery to help clean up brush in an area away from the graves. The goats will graze 24 hours a day for six days to eliminate vines, poison ivy and weeds, while also ‘fertilizing the ground’. Charles Dharapak/Associated Press).

One thing we need are images that address the construction of the image, including pictures showing photographers in the photo, the set-up of the photo-op, or using particular visual strategies such as different angles, depth of field, and framing. We see them from time to time – Kiku Adatto’s 2008 book Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op argues they have been published from the early 1990s onwards – but they need to be the norm rather than the exception if we want the value of access to be realised. To situate the photo-op photographers can call attention to the peripheral elements that help make the scripted show. Campaign photos that show candidates speaking to small crowds in large venues (here or here) is one good example. David Burnett’s “Larry King, Clinton & Gore, and the Hair”  is a great picture of the pre-show ritual, and Charles Dharapak’s Instagrams of Washington photo ops show the political rituals.

What is interesting about Dharapak’s images is that he makes them on the side with his iPhone while producing standard news imagery with his DSLR. We need that relationship changed so that the subject and style of his Instagram’s are more central to visual political coverage. This is where the professional can potentially give us so much more than amateur – using their experience and knowledge of the photo op they can craft unique images that reveal more than the standard news snap.

The current antagonism between photographers and the White House needs to be broadened beyond the simple question of access. Yes, we should argue for open government and the independent coverage of “newsworthy activities of public significance.” That should be backed by media organisations refusing to run official images provided by the White House when independent access would previously have been given. But access cannot be a solution in itself. Media organizations should always ask, what are we being given access to? It is time to look at the bigger picture, and make the photo-op as much the subject, so we have a visual record of how events and issues are managed and staged.

(This post was first published on BagNewsNotes 18 December 2013)

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photography politics

Photo book as political object: Edmund Clark’s Control Order House

Clark02

Edmund Clark’s Control House Order is a book that on the surface appears to be about banality. This banality stems from the form of control or detention without trial created as a consequence of the fear of terrorist attack. Control Order House maps, through photographs, diagrams and documents, an apparently unremarkable British suburban house in which a “controlled person” suspected of terrorism is detained, and it details how this space is created and maintained through detailed, bureaucratic practices of control. Far from the exoticised, foreign spaces of terror we see one of the mundane, domestic spaces in which the war on terror is materialised.

I first wrote about Clark’s work in November 2010 when his book Guantánamo: If the light goes out was excerpted in The Guardian. I was struck by the way Clark focused on the objects of violence as a conscious strategy to avoid the dehumanising effects of conventional photojournalism.

Here is a photographer employing a deliberate aesthetic strategy — the exclusion of detainees and guards from the photos — in order to humanise the issue. He does so because the normal photographic strategy for humanistation (giving the issue a ‘face’) plays into stereotypes that drive the war on terror. For Clark, rehumanisation involves not showing people. His understanding of the aesthetic and political issues at play in this subject are I think a model example of the reflexivity that is required to make the best documentary work.

I interviewed Clark (via Skype on 31 October 2013) to discuss Control House Order, and his reflexiveness is evident throughout the recording, which is available here:

 

Clark08

We discussed a number of important issues in his work, but four stand out for me:

First, Control Order House is at one level a photo book, but a very different photo book. Because the house is, in Clark’s words, “anondyne,” the photographs and the way they are printed in the book, appear as crime scene images that offer a visual recording of the space. Because of that, Clark focuses on the process of photography, the practices of control implicated in the making of the images, rather than what the photographs show. This is aided and abetted by the publication of relevant documents in the book.

Second, the indispensability of interpretation is at the heart of Clark’s photographs. While he photographs with a particular intention, he knows he does not control the meaning of his images, because meaning is produced by their context, location and encounter with other viewers, and indeed he welcomes this openness.

Third, Clark understands his work as an artist to be political in the sense that it is about political events, experiences and issues, and has a general political motivation in the form of engaging people. However, he notes in the book that, “I’m not writing to persuade you for against these measures,” and does not see it as activist or campaign work. That is because he regards that form of political work as closing off different interpretations inherent in images by insisting on one meaning.

Finally, Control Order House is deliberately made (in collaboration with a talented designer) as a beautiful, tangible object in order to enable the process of engagement. Because Clark is dealing with mundane issues, he is conscious of the need to present them in as attractive a form as possible. Every aspect of the book’s design and production has been thought through, with different paper stocks for particular sections just one example. And as an artist, Clark doesn’t resile from having made a relatively expensive, limited edition book as a general political work, instead seeing it as the condition for engagement. This means Clark understands his book as the beginning of a process of engagement rather than its finished product.

For anyone concerned with the how and why of contemporary documentary work, and how a photo book can function politically, I think Clark’s book and interview are indispensable resources.

Clark05

Photographs courtesy of Edmund Clark. Copyright Edmund Clark. 

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Featured photography politics

Syria and the power of images

AP Photo-Shaam News Network

What is the relationship between imagery and action in Syria?

Following the horrendous chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, two international actors have made statements that suggest some link.

In UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s 26 August “Remarks on Syria” he stated:

We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident. We owe it to the families of the victims to act.

Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, tweeted:

Images distributed via social media have been significant throughout the war in Syria, especially as photojournalists were barred from entry in the early days of the conflict. And it is interesting to note how Ban Ki Moon spoke of television and social media, and not newspapers and magazines.

Atrocities like the chemical weapons attack are made present through videos uploaded to social media sites – The Guardian reported that within hours 120 videos had been put online:

most depicting scenes of men women and children in respiratory distress, on watery floors, and doctors describing the victims’ symptoms. Other videos showed scores of bodies wrapped in white shrouds, or lying on grey concrete. White foam was bubbling from the mouth and nostrils of many victims. Some writhed in distress, apparently struggling to breathe.

The connection between imagery and action is not strictly causal. Streams of distressing images over the last two years have not forced international action despite the death toll in Syria exceeding 100,000. Yet now, when the “red line” of chemical weapon use is crossed, high-level officials invoke imagery in order to establish a reason for action. That suggests images do not automatically produce specific responses, but they can function as the impetus for a response when backed by political will.

Note: thanks to Mark Esplin for the Ban Ki Moon reference to social media.

Photo credit: ‘This image provided by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show mourners next to bodies of victims of an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network).’

 

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photography politics

Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War

VietnamInc

Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is a masterpiece, a classic work of photojournalism in the Vietnam War.

But it is often falsely claimed that the photographs in this book changed the course of world history. The latest iteration of this claim was a Magnum Photos tweet:

In response I wrote:

After some further tweets on why this claim is a myth, Magnum added quotation marks to their text and cited the book’s publisher Phaidon as the source. Indeed, Phaidon’s blurb declares:

Originally published in 1971, this groundbreaking book was essential in turning the tide of opinion in the US and ultimately helping to put an end to the Vietnam War

This myth is to be found in places other than a publisher’s blurb, with the Guardian obituary for Philip Jones Griffiths a prime example. And although there are some more considered reflections on the impact of Vietnam Inc., such as Val Williams obituary for Jones Griffiths, this myth about the power of pictures in relation to the Vietnam War (equally evident in claims about Nick Ut’s 1972 “napalm girl“), gets repeated airings.

Why are such claims false, and why is it important for contemporary photojournalism to call attention to this myth?

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible was the necessary step in ending it.

The problem is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s The Uncensored War – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the US government view.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of its historical role and potential power. Many of the visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the American media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

As much as many people want to believe that Philip Jones Griffiths’ images were puncturing the public consciousness from the front pages of newspapers, the reality of how his work was done and circulated is very different. As Jones Griffiths’ himself made clear in a 2002 video interview, he was not a press photographer who sought public change – he did the work for himself, was motivated by the idea of producing an historical document, and went to Vietnam with a contract for a book. A Photo Histories interview with Jones Griffiths also noted:

These images were too damning for Magnum to sell to a market dominated by the American media, but they came to fill the pages of a book that was to become one of the defining works of photojournalism.

Vietnam Inc. is therefore reportage after the event, and no less significant for that. Although Jones Griffiths first went to Vietnam in 1966, his book appeared in 1971. Even if we could show it made a dramatic impact at that particular time – something that has never been established – it is bad history to claim that pictures published then were major factors in either the peace movement or the end of the war.

I can’t give a full history of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement here, but a brief consideration of the conflict’s timeline shows obvious problems with the myth of picture power. If we make the Vietnam War synonymous with American and allied involvement, then here are the key milestones:

  • Late 1961: Kennedy sends US military advisors to South Vietnam
  • January 1962: the first US combat involvement when American helicopters ferry South Vietnamese troops into battle
  • February 1965: the Johnson administration begins the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing missions, and this brings the anti-war movement, which is associated with the civil rights movement, to prominence
  • March 1965: 3,500 Marines are sent to Vietnam, and this is the start of American involvement in the ground war, with polls showing US public in overwhelming support
  • April 1965: Johnson administration begins its escalation with US combat troop numbers increased to 60,000
  • December 1965: 200,000 Marines deployed
  • Late 1966: 385,000 US troops in Vietnam with another 60,000 off shore
  • January 1968: the Tet offensive is the turning point for US involvement, and public support shifts
  • March 1968: Johnson announces he will not seek re-election
  • May 1968: peace talks between the US and North Vietnam begin (and concluded in January 1973)
  • August 1968: riots at the Democratic National Convention
  • June 1969: Nixon administration starts troop withdrawal
  • October 1969: the “Vietnam Moratorium”, perhaps the height of the peace movement
  • 1970-71: two-thirds of US troops pulled out from Vietnam
  • January 1972: “Vietnamization” of the ground war means US no longer directly involved in troop combat
  • March 1973: last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam, meaning for the United States war is officially over, although Saigon does not fall to North Vietnam until August 1975

Why is all this important? Rendering Jones Griffith’s and others as responsible for altering the course of world history is bad history, because placing their work into the war’s timeline shows they were part of an already existing anti-war movement, and American involvement ended for political reasons. Above all else, though, it sets false and impossible expectations for contemporary photojournalism. Present day practitioners are going to feel somewhat inadequate if they think there work is not halting contemporary conflict like their predecessors supposedly did.

But if we see that one of the great works of photojournalism was always conceived as a book, intended as an historic document, did not appear in the mainstream media, and was funded indirectly by payment from “images of Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech visiting Ankor Wat in Cambodia,” then we can appreciate that crucial parts of the so-called golden age of photojournalism might not differ as much from the present as we think.

Timeline sources:

For basic online information on the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, see PBS, Battlefield: Vietnam; Wikipedia; and The Anti-War Movement in the United States. For one of the most comprehensive accounts, see Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, which was also an excellent 13-part PBS TV series.

 

Categories
multimedia photography politics

Contemporary politics and the retreat from reality

Sandy Hook kids

The Bush administration bequeathed a toxic legacy for contemporary politics. Most obviously in their mobilisation of war with Iraq, Bush and Cheney decided policy first and then manipulated intelligence to fit their framework. They weren’t the first politicians to mould facts to ideology, but the deep-rooted cultural disdain for the “reality-based community” exuded by their conservative political apparatus is something we continue to suffer under. And we can see disturbing traces of it in different national contexts.

Prior to Christmas we were horrified by the slaughter of 20 children and six adult staff at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. For those of us not beholden to the power of American gun culture (so well pictured in Zed Nelson’s Gun Nation), the obvious first thought was that surely this massacre – on top of the Virgina Tech shootings or the Aurora cinema killings or any of the gun crimes that leave 12,000 Americans dead each and every year – would finally lead to substantive change. Obama has been praised for finally taking a bold stance in opposition to the NRA and others, but how radical is banning automatic assault rifles and limiting ammunition clips to a mere 10 bullets? When handguns, the number one weapon in US gun crime, are not even mentioned in these new proposals, reality seems to have gone missing once again.

BoM map

In Australia it is the devastatingly hot weather and resultant bush fires that show how up conservative contempt for reality-based policy. Australia’s climate has changed sufficiently that the Bureau of Meterology has had to extend its temperature scale to 54C and illustrate this extreme with an “incandescent purple” on its maps. After Sydney recently recorded its hottest day in history, few doubted that the international scientific consensus on climate change was being played out in the increasing probability of extreme weather events, even if climate change couldn’t be tied to singular happenings. Few that is, except the conservative opposition who are likely to win government in a landslide later this year. While whole towns burnt, the acting opposition leader Warren Tuss followed his absent boss Tony Abbott (ironically off volunteering for his local fire brigade) and declared no one should jump to conclusions about the role man-made climate change had in these catastrophic fires. Tuss was voicing the long-held belief among Australian conservatives that “climate science is crap.”

Tories

In the UK the conservative disdain for data is most evident in the coalition government’s ruthless economic austerity programme. While the Tories love to berate others for engaging in “class war” when they seek a minor redistribution of wealth from high earners to those who need a social welfare net, they have no hesitation in deploying their own class rhetoric – ‘shirkers, skivers and scroungers’ versus the ‘hard working’ – to divide the working poor from those who have lost their jobs or suffer disability. And yet any rational assessment of where money goes – the lost £70 billion through tax evasion versus the £1 billion of welfare waste – shows the cynical nature of the conservatives approach (aided and abetted by so-called liberal democrats of course).

All of this paints a bleak picture for 2013. How can the conservative ideologies of contemporary politics be contested? And how can they be contested visually? We live to a large extent in a political culture where denialism is a powerful force, and it is a force that too much journalism, still beholden to false notions of objectivity that require balance between competing viewpoints even when one of those viewpoints has at best a tenuous relationship to evidence, either furthers or allows to fester.

It would be good if this were the year that visual journalists redoubled efforts to take on the big issues with powerful pictures supported by clear evidence for the larger stories that need to be told. It would be great if visual journalists read and followed the critical ethos for a new journalism espoused by Jay Rosen:

The outlines of the new system are now coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty – traditional virtues for sure – join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance.

Of course, there is – especially for those of us with post-structuralist philosophical commitments – no easily discernible, singular, uncontested reality. There are no facts beyond dispute or arguments immune from contestation. No group has privileged access to the truth. Reality has to be narrated and narratives are inherently constructed. But some stories have more support than others, and the “concordance of evidence” favours some positions over others. When anyone flies in the face of such evidence it’s time to get angry and insist that we won’t stand for such BS.

Photo credits: 

Sandy Hook: Photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks), via Business Insider.

Australia: Bureau of Meteorology, via Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, The Guardian

UK: Conservative poster via @billybragg

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.25: The politics of the individual against the white backdrop

How should complex economic and political issues be represented visually?

In telling the story of how Chinese labour produces so much of the world’s manufactured goods, Lucas Schifre opted for a well-known formula – individualise the issue by making portraits. They are all interesting and many are compelling, none less so than this photograph of Wang Jan who works at the Artissmo Designs factory in Zhejian province.

Schifre’s rationale was clear:

“Looking at a human face mobilizes more brain cells than looking at anything else,” said Mr. Schifres, 39. It was a simple idea, meant to present a new dimension to the story; to put a face to labor in China…

Putting a face on a story – or, in the words of the Lens blog – “looking directly into their eyes” is a staple of humanist photography. These images embody a specific way of being human that Hariman and Lucaites call the “individuated aggregate.”[1. Robert Hariman and John Lucaites, No Caption Needed (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 21, 88-89.] In this understanding, the individuated aggregate, although appearing in a photograph as a singular person or persons, instead depicts collective experience metonymically by reducing a general construct (such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic) to a specific embodiment (the patient, caregiver or health practitioner, for example). The individuated aggregate has to be personal enough to convey the details of a particular life, but equally impersonal so those details do not derail a larger generalization. The end result of this is that, as Hariman and Lucaties argue, “the figure of the individuated aggregate fuses individual and collective reference to create a symbol; the iconic representation becomes the event itself.”[2. Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, p. 90.]

The individuated aggregate also serves another double function, one related to the work photographs do as opposed to the things they represent. Photographs prompt structures of feeling historically present in audiences, using the face and body of the person pictured to not only display the subject’s emotions but to place viewers in an affective relationship with the subject. Such photographs activate a humanitarian structure of feeling, calling forth established humanitarian modes of response. As such, the individuated aggregate allows the figure of the individual to embody a larger social and political context “in a manner that fulfils both the need for collective action and the primacy of individual autonomy in a liberal-democratic society.”[3. Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, pp. 21, 35-36.] However, given the way it secures liberal individualism, the collective action inspired by the individuated aggregate will be a humanitarian kind and will not contest the fundaments of liberalism at home or abroad. So, as much as people might want portraits of this kind to prompt a political response, their aesthetic strategies undercut that possibility.

A second component of Schifres visual strategy reinforces the liberal approach – his use of the white backdrop to remove people from their immediate surroundings. As Colin Pantall wrote last year, this approach has a long history and many incarnations. We might even date it to August Sander’s famous work, though it is perhaps best know via Richard Avedon’s In the American West (1985), James Mollison’s Hunger (2002) and microcredit (2008) campaigns, Paul Close’s Snakebox Odyssey (2009), and Rankin’s Congo series for Oxfam (2010).

In Avedon’s work, the removal of people from their immediate background to be photographed against a white backdrop was a politically disruptive ploy, because it repopulated the landscape of the American West with people who had been obscured, in part by the dominance of landscape photography in representing that area.[4. This case is made in Michael J. Shapiro, The Politics of Representation (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 156-162.] Whether the continued use of this particular visual strategy remains politically disruptive is open to debate.

Photo: Copyright Lucas Schifres

NOTES

Categories
media economy photography politics

Photo agencies and ethics: the individual and the collective

The controversy surrounding Ron Haviv’s sale of an image for use in a Lockheed Martin advertisement raises a host of issues. A number have been covered in the original charge by duckrabbit, Haviv’s response, VII’s statement, and commentaries by BagNewsNotes, Stan Baros, Joerg Colberg, Stella Kramer and Jim Johnson. Wired’s Raw File blog summarised the debate in twenty tweets, which I collected on Storify.

Rather than revisit the specific issue or engage the details of those commentaries, I want to examine one of the larger points this controversy highlighted: what is the relationship between the individual and the collective in a photojournalism agency?

In Haviv’s statement he declared that his status as an individual practitioner was not synonymous with his being a VII photographer. He said none of the images in question were associated with VII, and that he draws “a strict line between my photojournalism and commercial campaigns.”

To see whether this split between the individual and the collective is normal or an aberration, and to explore how agencies committed to documentary photography and photojournalism deal with the ethics of the relationship between advertising and editorial, I interviewed the directors of NOOR, Panos Pictures and VII. I am grateful that Claudia Hinterseer of NOOR, Adrian Evans of Panos and Stephen Mayes of VII agreed to Skype interviews on June 1 (Hinterseer and Mayes) and June 7 (Evans). I also approached the director of advertising at Magnum, but unfortunately their web site contained out of date information, and the person named was  no longer able to speak for them.

What was immediately apparent is that those agencies are solely in the editorial business and have taken explicit decisions not to represent commercial work their member photographers might undertake. If photographers with those agencies undertake commercial work they often have separate commercial agents or distinct commercial arrangements that do not involve NOOR, Panos or VII. Both Evans and Mayes stated that they prefer to be informed of their photographers’ non-editorial work, but that happens less often than desired.

The amount of commercial work done by photographers associated with NOOR, Panos and VII varies greatly. Claudia Hinterseer said that few NOOR members are interested in commercial, while Stephen Mayes indicated that between one-half and three-quarters of VII photographers are pursuing or actively engaged in commercial work. Adrian Evans noted that some photographers do commercial work independently, and that Panos also works with some commercial clients, usually in the form of corporate social responsibility projects, if the agency thinks those projects are both substantive and consistent with its ethos.

What makes NOOR, Panos and VII distinctive in terms of documentary photography and photojournalism is that they each embody an ethos. NOOR has a strong statement on its web site declaring that “an abiding commitment to the fundamental power of photography to bear witness to the eternal struggle for human rights and social justice that form the foundational principles of NOOR.” The Panos site notes the agency specialises in “global social issues, driven by the vision and commitment of its photographers and staff. Panos is known internationally for its fresh and intelligent approach and respected for its integrity and willingness to pursue stories beyond the contemporary media agenda.” And during our interview, Stephen Mayes stressed that “honesty, integrity and humanitarianism” were the driving principles for VII.

These statements are testament to the fact, as Adrian Evans told me, that photojournalism often places itself on a moral high ground which makes it imperative for photojournalists to be very careful about the work they do and who they do it for. At the same time, given the split between editorial and commercial work, Evans said one of the problems from the agencies perspective is “how much control do you have over what your photographers do?”

So how do these agencies negotiate ethical problems when they don’t represent all of a photographer’s practice? Each of them has slightly different approaches that reflect, in part, their different organizational structures.

Owned by twelve members who are equal shareholders, NOOR has the clearest approach. In addition to having the strongest public statement of ethical and political concerns, it is the only one of these agencies to have a code of conduct. Hinterseer told me that NOOR members sign off on a statement that they subscribe to the National Press Photographers Association code of ethics, to which is added four additional requirements: that they conduct themselves at the highest professional level, that they understand they always represent the agency, that they must respect the people they photograph as well as their colleagues, and that they abide by the agreements between themselves and NOOR. Any violations are given a warning that is discussed at an AGM, and a severe violation would mean exclusion from NOOR.

Although it has a code, Claudia Hinterseer stressed that drawing the lines is not easy and that members have discussed these issues for hours at AGMs. The concerns can be quite practical. For example, when NOOR was being established and needed to open a bank account, they opted first for ABN-AMRO, until Kadir van Lohuizen argued that this bank was involved in the blood diamond issue he had been covering.

VII is a limited liability company with ten owners as shareholders, and thirteen non-owner members making up their list of photographers. While stressing they are motivated by humanitarian principles and have also had extensive discussions about how they can be implemented, Stephen Mayes said VII does not have a code of conduct with which to police their photographers. Mayes argued, “we swim in ethical challenges, they are part of the fabric of our environment” but that legislating for ethics was very difficult. Instead he observed that the “issue is one of awareness and being mindful.”

Panos is different again. Its ownership is via a shareholders agreement that gives the director 51% and the Panos Institute 49% control. That agreement includes a requirement that Panos Pictures not bring the Panos Institute into disrepute, though Adrian Evans stressed it was a general rather than prescriptive provision. At present Panos does not have contracts with its photographer members, but the agency is considering introducing them. And, in the wake of the Haviv controversy, he told me that they were now considering a general provision that would be akin to the agreement for NOOR members – that their photographers represent the agency and should not undertake work that would bring the agency into disrepute. Evans made the point that in many ways this would not be dissimilar to the common approach with agency clients, whereby they have to agree not to alter or misuse images.

Like both Hinterseer and Mayes, Evans stressed that, although Panos doesn’t have a formal code of ethics, and that even if they did it would necessarily have to be general rather than prescriptive, they are confronted with challenges and dilemmas daily. One example he gave was a request to use a photograph of a Hercules aircraft on an aid mission for a campaign declaring this was the main purpose of such aircraft. Knowing full well their large military role Panos declined to sell the image on the grounds the campaign would be misleading.

From my interviews with agency directors it is clear that the relationship between the individual and the agency is complex. We cannot assume one is synonymous with the other. These agencies represent only a portion of their members’ activities and work and do not have any control over work done outside the agencies ambit.

That makes the problem of negotiating ethical challenges even more difficult. None of the directors thought you could legislate for ethics, and I agree. For an agency to have prescriptive list of provisions about what you can and can’t do would be both prohibitively long and yet would ultimately fail to cover all the bases.

This issue is only going to become more important for photojournalism. As Adrian Evans argued, with the decline in editorial news outlets everyone is looking for new revenue streams, and in that search work with the corporate sector is increasingly attractive and lucrative. At the same time, work for governments of all stripes and NGOs of all kinds pose similar questions. If you are offered an assignment by the Sunday Times magazine, how do you feel being paid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, a corporation now infamous for illegal journalistic practices? And if  – as with this post – you produce things with Apple computers, what’s your stand on Chinese labour conditions and the mining of rare minerals in the Congo?

We are all implicated, especially in a global capitalist system where the structures of ownership and responsibility are increasingly hard to discern. To repeat Stephen Mayes observation, “we swim in ethical challenges, they are part of the fabric of our environment.” There are no pure moral grounds from which any of us can freely cast stones. At the same time, being unavoidably implicated does not mean we shrug our shoulders and give up on the need to make the difficult judgements about what should be done.

We cannot, and probably should not, draw up a twenty first century version of the Ten Commandments for the ethical practice of documentary photography and photojournalism. But, as Adrian Evans said, now is perhaps the time for photographers and others to start an active discussion on general principles that can underwrite the critical ethos photojournalism so often claims.

If I were an agency director, I would probably look at the NOOR model as the best way forward into that discussion. If I was a photojournalist, and wanted to manage possible tensions between my commercial and editorial work, I would consider the guidelines for ethical investment where certain industry sectors (e.g. defence, tobacco, nuclear power) are excluded as places to put your money. Translating those into limits for the sale and use of images could be a first step towards greater moral consistency.

Documentary and editorial agencies will never control nor police all of their members’ activities, and nor should they given they don’t represent all of their members practice. While we can appreciate the relationship between the collective and the individual is a complex one, it surely needs a clearer ethical grounding.

However, in the end it will be the critical and ongoing discussion about what work we should do, whom we should do it for, and how we should represent people and issues, that will be the ultimate manifestation of an ethical approach. And that is a discussion that cannot be limited to the formal institutions of photojournalism.

POSTSCRIPT

Santiago Lyon, Vice President and Director of Photography at Associated Press, emailed today with a substantive comment on AP policy. Posted with his permission, here are his thoughts:

David,

I just read your recent  posting on the moral dilemmas facing photo agencies [above] and would like to thank you for taking an even-handed and thoughtful approach to what is clearly a complicated issue.

While your piece focused on photographer-owned or cooperative agencies, I thought it worth noting that at The Associated Press, one of the world’s largest – if not the largest – photo agencies, we have a  well-defined code of ethics, viewable here – http://www.ap.org/company/news-values

In addition, staff photographers are expressly prohibited from undertaking nonjournalistic assignments for the AP, thus avoiding the sort of specific ethical challenges that prompted the initial debate (that said, as your piece notes, we live in a complicated world of ethical and moral dilemmas and review issues constantly on a case-by-case basis).

AP freelance photographers, as independent contractors, are free to undertake whatever non-AP work they deem fit, although we would take a dim view on a case-by-case basis if this extended to openly controversial work for organizations with deliberately violent or provocative agendas.

As the leader of the AP’s global photo department (and a former photographer), I am always interested in exploring and educating myself and others about these issues.

Bests

Santiago

 

Photo: theilr/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. The photo is accompanied by this epigram: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line some place. — Oscar Wilde.”

Categories
photography politics

The gun and the camera: an historical relationship

The link between the camera and gun is evident in a shared metaphor, but is historically closer than we might imagine.

During the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a marine shooting an insurgent in a mosque. Jon Kudelka’s cartoon (published in The Australian) references this event and points to the similarities between shooting images and people, something we recognise through that common language.

However, as Paul Landau has written, the connection exceeds language because “the technologies of the gun and camera…evolved in lockstep,” with George Eastman of Kodak the pivotal figure.

In the 1860s the development of breech loading guns, using chemicals enclosed in a cartridge with an interior firing pin, gave the hunter a mobile weapon with ammunition that did not explode in the users face. At the same time dry-plate photography replaced plates hand coated with collodion, thereby solving some of the chemical restraints on mobile photography.

However, making a photograph was still a cumbersome business. Although some dry plate cameras were explicitly modelled on Colt revolver mechanisms, and cinema cameras looked to machine guns for design elements, there was still a lot of camera equipment to be carried while travelling if one wanted to make images.

After cancelling a trip to Santo Domingo because of the bulk of photographic equipment, George Eastman – later to found Eastman Kodak – resolved to produce something simpler.

Eastman partnered with William Walker, the first camera maker to use manufacturing methods pioneered by gun makers to permit interchangeable parts. But it was their use of chemistry that provided both the greatest breakthrough and the clearest link with gun technology.

Eastman and Walker developed a paper negative that used guncotton. A French inventor extended that by creating a gelatinized guncotton that could be cut into strips, thereby also permitting the first modern smokeless gun powder. When the first Kodak was released in 1888 it took 100 exposures on sheets of dry, etherized, guncotton backed up paper.

The next development involved Eastman Kodak’s chief chemist adding amyl acetate to guncotton, creating a stable “celluloid”. A year later two English chemists made the explosive cordite by adding nitroglycerine and acetone to guncotton. As Landau concludes, “breech-loading guns and the Kodak camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges.”

Have we, in the digital era, freed ourselves from photography’s’ violent genealogy?

Reference: Part of this account draws on Paul S. Landau, “Empires of the Visual: Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa,” in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 146-49.

Cartoon credit: Jon Kudelka, The Australian, 2004. From a postcard representing ‘Behind the Lines’, a travelling exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia.

Categories
photography politics

Being social: photography and engagement today

What does it mean for photographers to be socially engaged?

That was the question posed at the North East Photography Network’s symposium on “Socially Engaged Practices” last Friday. In this region we are fortunate to have an active photographic community interested in these issues, and this symposium attracted about forty people for a day of great discussion.

Social engagement raises all sorts of issues about what counts as the social and what constitutes engagement. One of the problems with the question is that it can sometimes frame the problem in a way that seems unmanageable. If we think about having to engage ‘the public’ we find ourselves at a macro level where influence seems difficult to achieve.

The question can also give the impression that ‘social engagement’ is something to come, something in the future, yet to be achieved. But what was striking about the work presented by many of the symposium speakers is that social engagement is something already achieved daily by a number of talented photographers.

We heard, for example, from Michelle Sank about her work with teenage mothers and transgender patients. Anthony Luvera showed his practice of “assisted self portraits” in which he guides people in making their own images, and Craig Ames presented his work with veterans as part of an overall project offering an alternative representation of conflict.

In all these cases visual practice was welcomed and adopted by subjects who were collaborators in the image making process. Their participation was an essential moment of social engagement, but it also demonstrated how important visual enactment and representation is to communities.

This is more than just people using photography to be socially engaged. It is about the way the visual is a precondition of being social. If we reposition our understanding along those lines then social engagement is no longer something to come. It is something always already with us, and something embraced by photographers and subjects alike.

The symposium concluded with Bas Vroege of Paradox talking about the great work they do using multiple channels and platforms to get important stories out. Paradox was the publisher of Kadir van Lohuizen’s Via Pan Am app, which, requiring a budget of some €350,000, is beyond the realm of most. However, he made one very interesting observation about the economics of an app like Via Pan Am – it gave the project a credibility and presence that attracted attention from media companies and lead to sales in other ways.

Bas Vroege’s presentation was notable for its positive embrace of the new opportunities in publishing, both digital and analogue. He emphasised the way practitioners can now take control of their own message, and reminded us that social engagement is not possible without deploying as many channels of information as possible. With the work presented throughout the day, this was a symposium that moved beyond a lament for a lost past to an appreciation of what is actually happening now in photography that is unavoidably socially engaged.

Photo: Chris McCabe, preparing assisted self portrait, Glenmona, Andersontown. Copyright Anthony Luvera. From his book ‘Residency’, published by Belfast Exposed, 2011.

Categories
photography politics

The importance of criticism

It has been quiet in these parts while I’ve been teaching in the US, but now that I’m back in the UK and in freelance mode, I’m looking forward to again writing here more regularly, trying to articulate the contexts of photography, multimedia and politics.

Having been preoccupied with off-line responsibilities I’ve also had a chance to reflect on the important things that need to be said and done – and its quite a long list! As an opening thought, I wanted to restate why I believe criticism, like the writing here, is important.

I was prompted on this by Jim Johnson’s post (brought to my attention by @MartijnKleppe) on keeping a photography blog and the place of criticism. In turn, Jim was inspired by a great piece from David Levi Strauss on the value of criticism in the context of art. Levi Strauss concluded:

Why does art need criticism? Because it needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.

If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism. Absolutely, and as Jim Johnson said, replace ‘art’ in that sentence with ‘photography’ and ‘photojournalism’, and you have something important to grasp.

Of course, one of the issues central to criticism has to be how we make and understand the connection to the real, to the social. Which is why theory is inescapable for creative practice that wants to engage.

Thinking about what makes for good criticism – and there is plenty of bad, knee-jerk, thoughtless criticism – I’m always drawn back to Michel Foucault’s ethos of practicing criticism:

A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest…Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.

Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult. That’s what I attempt here. And, as outlined in relation to on-going issues like the representation of famine, it has very practical consequences. Because one of the facile gestures we have to make difficult is the idea that ‘theory’ is distinct from, and even opposed to, ‘practice’. Let’s see where that thought takes us.

Categories
photography politics

Photojournalism and change: voices of humility

How should we think about the contribution photojournalism might make to the task of social change?

Reflecting on the Kony2012 phenomenon I concluded with observations about the difficulty of specifying how political change comes about and our potential contribution to it.

Thinking more about this, I recalled videos in which two of the best photographers of our time reflected on the relationship of their work to activism. They warrant another view for the important insights they made.

In Sebastiao Salgado: The Photographer as Activist, a 2004 event at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ken Light and Fred Ritchin converse with Salgado about the relationship between his work and the injustices he has portrayed. This is a 90 minute film that is worth watching in its entirety, but I have extracted here a crucial 7 minute segment where they address the issue of activism directly:

[jwplayer config=”Custom Player” mediaid=”3134″]

This clip begins with Light asking Ritchin about the activism in Salgado’s work. Ritchin contrasts Salgado’s approach to the conventional desire of photographers to be witnesses who make things visible, and details the novelty (at least in 2004) of people working in alliance with NGOs. Then – contrary to the video’s title – Salgado in fact declares he is not an activist. Not because he doesn’t want his work to effect change, but because he has a complex understanding of the relationship between his work and activism. His description of photography as only a small slice in the overall dynamic of activism that might produce change is significant for its realistic modesty. It’s well worth watching and thinking about.

In a 2010 video produced by the Open Society Institute, Susan Meiselas talks about photography as something which has huge potential to expand the circle of understanding. This is another 7 minutes well worth your time, even if you’ve seen it before:

Meiselas’ thoughtful articulation of her approach chimes with Salgado’s humility. She understands photography as giving people an opportunity to respond, offering a bridge they can possibly cross, creating the possibility of connecting and engaging. “Can we really point to things that have changed because photographs were made?,” she asks. “This is the dilemma, the challenge and the hope.”

That Meiselas answers her question with a cautious desire rather than a definitive declaration is hugely significant. As she articulates so well, the power of the image is all about potential rather than certainty, and that potential depends upon associations, collaborations and relationships through which images might have additional lives.

I think we should follow the lead of Salgado and Meiselas and reset our expectations of what photography, especially photojournalism, can do in the face of global challenges. If we persist with the flawed idea that somehow there is a clear, linear, causal linkage between information, knowledge and action we are only going to be frustrated. And it is that frustration, in my view, which animates myths like compassion fatigue. When we believe (generally without evidence) that making things visible automatically changes the world, and the world doesn’t change instantly, we foster a resentment against either image makers or their audience. What we need is a more complex understanding of how change evolves and a more humble appreciation of how we might contribute, even as those contributions are ever more urgently needed.

Categories
media economy politics

Kony2012: networks, activism and community

In the short history of social media, Kony2012 is now the most viral video ever, having reached 100 million views inside six days. Its success has been quickly examined by media analysts and some of the early findings are fascinating for what they reveal about the spread of information in the new media economy.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project details (as I noted in my earlier post) how the spread of the video shows “that young adults and their elders at times have different news agendas and learn about news in different ways.”

SocialFlow undertook a data visualization (see above) of the first 5,000 Twitter users who posted the #Kony2012 hashtag. What the clustering of connections reveals is that the hashtag started trending on 1 March before the video was posted online, and the trend came from Birmingham, Alabama. SocialFlow reports:

This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios.

This fits with Elliot Ross’s assessment of Invisible Children as a missionary organisation coming out of the American Evangelical tradition.

This is the basis of SocialFlow’s analysis that a pre-existing network of activists was the driver for Kony2012’s success. Those activists were primed for the video’s release prior to its posting, and it was they who used their social media channels to bombard celebrities with mentions as a way of getting attention. This means that while celebrity retweets were important in fuelling the spread of Kony2012, the campaign did not begin with celebrity action.

The Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California has been studying Invisible Children’s campaign strategies for some time, revealing how they use transmedia storytelling to mobilise and train young activists. When the Kony video talks of an eight year campaign and shows young activists throughout, this is what it is referring to. All this leads Henry Jenkins of Civic Paths to write:

The Kony 2012 video did not “go viral”; rather, its circulation depended on the hundreds of thousands of young people who already felt connected to the organization and to this cause through their participation in school based clubs and grassroots campaigns over almost a decade. These young people were among the first to receive the video, pass it along through their social networks to their friends and classmates, and thus, start a process which ultimately got the attention of millions around the world.

The Kony video did not go viral in the sense of magically taking off just because it was placed on social media platforms or because it was championed by celebrities alone.

It went viral because there was a pre-existing network of activists, built up over years through Invisible Children’s media strategies, who used social media channels to spread it far and wide.

Above all else, it shows that in the many different contexts of the new media economy community is an essential concept for all. Far from simply being the poster child for a new generation of social media activism that overtakes and replaces more conventional campaign strategies, the Kony2012 campaign collapses boundary between new/old modes of activism.

Picture: [Data Viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention, 14 March 2012.

Categories
media economy photography politics

Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change

A week on from the “Kony 2012” video eruption, I want to take a step back and ask: what does this tells us about the media economy, what does it suggest about the state of activism, and how should we think about change in the face of global problems?

I’m not going to add much to the enormous volume of critical analysis on Invisible Children’s campaign. Whydev.org has a comprehensive readers digest of links, and posts from Unmuted, Michael Wilkerson and Alex de Waal detail what de Waal calls the “dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” I too see in the video. Ethan Zukerman has a great overview, Charlie Beckett offers a self-styled grumpy indictment, while the defence comes from Bridgette Bugay, Chris Blattmann and, of course, Invisible Children themselves. For me, the militarized vision of Invisible Children – both in terms of its red-shirted “army for peace” and its proposals for how to capture Joseph Kony – contains more than a whiff of the Machine Gun Preacher, and that’s not a recommendation.

That said, I want to move beyond the framework of ‘the video right or wrong’ and look at three important issues:

1. The media economy

The viral speed and spread of the Kony video has been incredible, and it underscores how “tastemakers, communities of participation and the unexpected” work together to promote a small number of videos on to the global cultural stage. Significantly, the length of any video is not a determinant of potential virality, meaning that the conventional wisdom about our allegedly shortened attention spans need to be seriously questioned.

The scale and quality of the critical response to the Kony video has also been momentous. If you spend time online you might take these things for granted, but the ease with which passionate and knowledgeable voices can now be heard is quite remarkable. In this case the access we now have to Ugandan journalists like Rosabell Kagumir is also a plus. While her video response has been viewed by ‘only’ 400,000 people, a fraction of tens of millions who have viewed the Kony video, that total nonetheless exceeds the daily circulation of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Our global media economy is now marked by networked relations of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media that make those categories meaningless, something manifested in the diverse range of sources curated by The Guardian’s Live Blog of the debate.

2: Contemporary activism

I’ve been irritated by how some critics dismiss the response of young people to the video:

In an otherwise powerful post, TMS Ruge let fly:

The click-activists, denied context and nuance, have spewed their ignorance all over the comments section in self-righteous indignation for all the world to see. They have whipped out their wallets and bought their very own Super Hero activist action kits. They have bombarded their friend’s Facebook wall with ignominious updates.

Ok, so the Borowitz tweet is a little bit funny. And of course it’s fine and correct to say that “Oprah and bracelets won’t solve the problem.” But let’s also think about what has happened and what these denunciations assume.

A personal account first. I was working at home last Monday. After I encountered the burst of attention about the Kony video in my social media stream, I went downstairs and found my teenage daughter, recently back from school, watching something on her smartphone. It was the Kony video, all 30 minutes of it. She found it because it was in her social media stream, it came to her via friends’ recommendations, and they were debating its content and meaning. In the end, scepticism meant they weren’t impressed by the action pack. It was a stunning moment where I observed at first hand the very phenomenon so many were beginning to comment on.

What those comments have too often missed is they way young viewers negotiated the meaning of what they were watching. They didn’t just swallow a party line. Their critical engagement was captured in this story of London teenagers’ reactions, as well as the comment from Jess on this post. The critics have complained the Kony video homogenizes and infantilizes the issue of the LRA. But some of those same critics have homogenized and infantilized viewers of the video. There is a sense the production is so slick there can be only one message received (except, of course, by urbane critics) and any response like passing it on is evidence of the victory of emotion over reason.

The viral success of the Kony video demonstrates you can get attention for distant stories, and that emotion and reason can work together. Getting attention is a complex business. Somebody has to be moved, and being moved means having compassion (so another nail in the coffin of ‘compassion fatigue’ as a collective socio-psychological syndrome). It involves making stories available in the social media stream (because in the new media economy that’s how many get their news), recipients accepting a recommendation, viewing some or all of the story, and making a decision to comment on it, or pass it on, or both.

We can obscure his complexity by repeating snide comments about “slacktivism,” but as Zeynap Tufekci writes this is

not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.

Isn’t that something that we want, people thinking and acting in ways they haven’t previously? Amazingly, some of the critical responses to the reception of the Kony video have derided the idea of “raising awareness” as “vapid” and “useless”. Of course I understand the limits of awareness when the video in question is flawed. But awareness is not simply the product of the video’s content; it is the end result of the video and the (unintended) debate it prompted. And even with a flawed video awareness can only be a problem in itself if you believe that people are just passive recipients rather than active viewers who contribute to and participate in the subsequent debate.

3. Change in the face of global problems

There is, without question, a big difference between the sort of activism generated by the Kony video and solving problems on the ground in distant locations. But I think this episode should prompt us to conduct a hard-headed analysis of a soul-searching question: what can we who are at a distance actually do in the face of global problems to change things?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to formulate a better understanding of what contribution, if any (dare I say it), photographers can make to global change. I’m a long way from knowing how to discuss this let alone having an answer, so I want to end with a few thoughts that demand more work. But we should begin by examining the conventional assumptions about how change is achieved.

The first observation is that if you have, like me, worked on campaigns and in practical politics, you quickly come to realise there is no place, no ground, where you can go to easily solve problems. There’s no magic room where some Wizard of Oz-like character is pulling the levers of power. If only it were that simple. Power exists in networks and relationships, and it’s not under anyone’s control. We are all, to differing degrees, at a distance from the problems, even if we suffer directly.

The second observation is that the standard approach to change assumes a set of linear, causal relations between information, knowledge and action. If someone provides information, you can know and action will result. That, of course, is the assumption at the heart of the Kony video, but significantly it’s also an assumption at the heart of critical responses to the Kony video. The critics think that if the information is wrong then poor action will result.

No one would argue against trying to seek the best information so as to make better understanding possible. But the linkage between that and desired outcomes is not clear. Social movements like those in the US promoting civil rights and women’s rights have seen decades of individual and collective action make imperfect progress, through a series of small, uneven steps that have culminated in unfinished advances. Nobody planned them at the beginning and at various points along the way few knew what the outcome would be. As they persevered there were competing strategies, violent and non-violent, people working within established social institutions as well as beyond them in cultural spaces, full time activists and (mostly) occasional participants. They deployed diverse tactics like writing, picturing, speaking, voting, protesting, and much more.

All this is to say when we think hard about pursuing change we should adopt a more humble approach to what we can do and how we can do it. We then have to insist upon the importance and urgency of doing something even when it seems limited and uncertain. In this context, symbolic action should not be underestimated. As Tufekci notes:

there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.

And the key word in that quote? May. There are no guarantees. Who knows what can come of something even if it seems insufficient?

So let’s understand that this episode shows the importance of social media in the structure of the news economy, as well as the supply of compassion that can drive attention amongst those who don’t use traditional media. And let’s not write off the actions or motives of those who made Kony2012 viral, even if we fervently wish it had been another video in another campaign.

Featured photo: Screenshot from Invisible Children page detailing their response to the critiques of Kony2012. The original photo is by Glenna Gordon, and she discusses the image and its use here and here

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More posts photography politics

The myth of compassion fatigue

The dream of photojournalism is that when a crisis is pictured the image will have an effect on its audience leading to action.

However, according to Jacques Rancière, the dominant mood of our time revolves around “a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image.” This suspicion is generated in part by “the disappointed belief in a straight line” – as visualised in the photography of Sarkozy at Rwanda’s genocide museum – “from perception, affection, comprehension and action”.[nbnote ] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot (London, 2009), p. 103.[/nbnote]

Before we can construct a meaningful account that traces possible links between visual representation, knowledge and action, we need to dispense with some conventional wisdoms that purport to explain how photographs work. With this post I am publishing the first draft of a new research paper that undertakes some of the excavation necessary to clear the way for that construction. I believe one of the largest obstacles to be removed is the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis.

One of the commonest claims relating to the alleged impact of photographs of atrocity, violence and war is that they induce ‘compassion fatigue’ in the public at large. This claim often starts with an assertion about our media saturated world, and is part of the general suspicion about the capacity of images Rancière noted. At its heart is the notion that, far from changing the world, photographs work repetitively, numbing our emotional capacity and thereby diminishing the possibility of an effective response to international crises.

Expressions of this belief can be found in a wide range of disparate contexts,[nbnote ]Here are examples from 2010-12 in which this belief manifests itself: in an interview following his World Press Photo award, photography Pietro Mastruzo noted “Shocking pictures do not really communicate anymore, because the audience is accustomed to looking at them”; the late Magnum photographer Eve Arnold was reported as once saying, “You know in the beginning we thought we were going to change the world. I think people live in so much visual material these days, billions of photographs annually, that they grow numb after too much exposure”; the new media artist Peggy Nelson told Nieman Storyboard that, “we can’t have all the news from everywhere and everyone all the time. There’s info overload and there’s compassion fatigue”; in an analysis of disaster coverage, University of London professor Pavrati Nair wrote, “The floods in Pakistan have given rise to a veritable deluge of photographs documenting devastation. On a daily basis, we have been seeing representations of untold suffering, as people struggle to survive, while filth and chaos reign around them. Nevertheless, despite efforts to mobilise relief, a certain degree of apathy often accompanies our responses to such images”; in his review of the Tate Modern’s Exposed, noted photography writer Gerry Badger made a direct endorsement of Sontag’s 1977 statement that “Images anaesthetise”; Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing, said of violent images on the web, “human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video….at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?”; and award-winning documentarian Danfung Dennis introduced his new video app by claiming “Society was numb to the images of conflict”. Even academic research projects exploring how images affect people start from bold assertions of compassion fatigue. See Charlie Beckett, “Four steps to success in a humanitarian appeal,” 15 November 2011, which begins: “People are exhausted by messages they receive from humanitarian NGOs. They’ve become desensitized to images of distant suffering and repeated appeals for help.”[/nbnote] and numerous writers and photographers attest to the ubiquity of this view.[nbnote ]John Taylor notes the popularity of the claim that photography is analgesic, Carolyn Dean remarks that the belief is commonplace in both Europe and the United States, and Susie Linfield describes the thesis as “a contemporary truism, indeed a contemporary cliche” such that “to dispute this idea is akin to repudiating evolution or joining the flat-earth society.” See John Taylor, “Problems in Photojournalism: Realism, the nature of news and the humanitarian narrative,” Journalism Studies 1 (2000), pp. 137-38; Carolyn Dean, The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (Ithaca, 2004), p. 2; and Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago, 2010), p. 45.[/nbnote] I argue in this paper that the compassion fatigue thesis, like the repeated invocation of “pornography,” is an allegory that serves as an alibi for other issues and prevents their investigation.

What is notable about compassion fatigue is that it means one thing in the context of health care and social work, and the reverse in relation to the media and politics.

From perhaps the 1980s and certainly the 1990s, compassion fatigue was understood as “Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and diagnosed in people either suffering directly from trauma or individuals working closely with people suffering trauma. In this context, although it concerned a set of negative impacts on those affected – such as reduced pleasure and increased feelings of hopelessness – it derived from the problem that “caring too much can hurt.” In other words, compassion fatigue was prompted by an excess of compassion rather than a lack of compassion. As the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project states, when caregivers, who have a strong identification with those suffering, fail to practice “self-care” they can be prone to destructive behaviours.[nbnote ]See http://www.compassionfatigue.org/. See also Eric Gentry, “Compassion Fatigue: A Crucible of Transformation,” Journal of Trauma Practice, 1 (2002), pp. 37-61; Bertrand Taithe, “Horror, Abjection and Compassion: From Dunant to Compassion Fatigue,” New Formations 62 (2007), p. 135; and Charles Figley, “Compassion Fatigue: An Introduction.”[/nbnote]

Susan Sontag is the writer who drove much of the popularity of this thesis in relation to photography, and the paper unpacks her arguments in On Photography, exploring their logic and supporting evidence (or lack thereof) before discussing how she retracted much of them in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag’s reversal has had little impact on the ubiquity of the compassion fatigue thesis, and that is in large part a result of arguments like those found in Susan Moeller’s book Compassion Fatigue. The third section of this paper dissects Moeller’s claims to reveal how in her hand ‘compassion fatigue’ is an empty signifier that becomes attached to a range of often contradictory explanations and factors.

The limits of Moeller’s text are exposed in the fourth section of the paper, which reviews all the available evidence of which I am aware relating to the relations between photographs, compassion and charitable responses. None of that evidence supports the compassion fatigue thesis.

While you will need to read the whole paper to consider all the arguments, one bit of data can be presented here.

The dictionary definition of compassion fatigue cites the “diminishing public response” to charity appeals as evidence. But is the public response diminishing?

In Britain there are 166,000 charities that received donations totalling £10 billion in 2009. In the United States, there are more than 800,000 charitable organisations, and Americans gave them more than $300 billion in 2007.

The British public’s response to disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake (for which the Disasters Emergency Committee raised £106 million) shows that the willingness to act on empathy for the victims of natural disasters is still considerable even when they are distant.

The DEC conducts consolidated appeals for the fourteen leading aid NGOs in the UK, and a look at their various appeals over the last few years shows that there is a constant willingness to donate, albeit at variable rates, from the 2009 Gaza appeals’s £8.3 million to the massive £392 million given for the 2004 Tsunami appeal.

There is, then, no absence of compassion as expressed in charitable giving. That, however, is not to say that all issues are responded to equally. There are clearly differential responses, but these do not add up to the generally diminished response named ‘compassion fatigue’.

It is time to remove this myth as an obstacle to understanding how photographs of extreme situations can and do work. I hope you will read the paper and engage the argument. It is a draft, and there is much scope for improvement.

Photo: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy visits the Memorial of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali on February 25, 2010. Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday paid homage to the victims of the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis during a highly symbolic visit aimed at mending strained relations. ‘In the name of the people of France, I pay my respects to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsis,’ he wrote in the visitors book of the main genocide memorial in the capital Kigali. Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images – used under license.

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politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.26: Ideology in America

Superbowl commercials are an American art form, inspiring blogs, analysis and audience interaction. Last Sunday, watching my first live Superbowl in some twenty years, one stood out – though for reasons somewhat different from the ensuing controversy.

“Half time in America” – these ads even have their own names – is an ad for Chrysler fronted by Clint Eastwood. Recalling the title of Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign commercial (“Morning again in America“), this Chrysler ad played off last year’s commercial featuring Eminem, recycling some clips and developing the theme of Detroit’s renaissance.

Moving from the dark shadows of a dimly lit road to the warm glow of sunlit scenes, Eastwood’s narration presents a story of adversity, struggle and redemption. Although it was presented in terms of the collective ‘we’, it relied on the ideology of individualism and hard work to identify how the people of “Motor City” forged a path for the rest of the country as it faces the future. “We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one,” Eastwood intones. (See here for a transcript).

The Chrysler ad certainly had the feel of a campaign commercial. But to me it was a commercial replete with the recurrent tropes of American exceptionalism that abound in any presidential campaign (and about which I have written a lot in my book Writing Security). It’s also an ad that plays on post-9/11 military metaphors. Accompanying the lines about rallying around to act as one after the tough trials, are still photos of families followed by two fireman, recalling the members of the FDNY who responded to the falling towers in Manhattan. It is then that Eastwood says: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.” Perhaps that roar comes from new (but still inefficient) cars.  Or perhaps, more menacingly, it comes from the military machine that has been in action in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now being readied for action against Iran.

Read as an homage to the individualism and militarisation of American political culture, the Chrysler ad swept under the carpet the largest factor in Detroit’s recovery – what Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne calls the “socialist” or “state capitalist” bailouts of Chrysler and GM that are one of the Obama administration’s policy successes for the way they saved an industry and preserved employment. You don’t hear Eastwood speaking of the government’s bold, multi billon dollar intervention – begun, incidentally, by George W. Bush in 2008 – in the commercial. Nor do you see any images of unions at work. Instead politics appears only as the site of discord and division.

The right wing, it turns out, sees the world rather differently and loves discord and division. For the likes of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, this Chrysler ad “offended” them because it was pro-Obama propaganda that overtly lauded the role of big government, and was nothing less than corporate payback. The Daily Mail, no less, has a good overview of how this ruckus is playing out.

The rabid response to the Chrysler ad tells us a lot about American political culture and this year’s presidential race. For a non-American, the representation of the Obama administration as left-wing is laughable. For the right to read a commercial that reeks of American exceptionalism as an ideological tool for a socialist paymaster is a remarkable inversion that demonstrates how fervent is the now permanent culture war in the United States.

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photography politics

Responding to crises: the problem of ‘donor fatigue’

The second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake has seen some excellent follow-up reporting on what the international aid effort has achieved (see The Global Post series, with photos by Ron Haviv, as well as this morning’s Guardian report and picture gallery amongst others). This focus on where the aid money has gone highlights one of the major problems with international responses to such crises – much of the money promised by governments fails to materialise.

In thinking about how outsiders react to coverage of crises, ‘compassion fatigue’ is commonly cited. I’m writing a research paper on why the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis is a myth, and will be making that available in the near future for debate. With regards to Haiti, the international community’s compassion was never in doubt. Coverage was extensive, often powerful, and the publics’ charitable response was great. Even if it is applicable in other contexts, it doesn’t stand up as an explanation here.

What the story of Haiti’s aid money helps demonstrate is that ‘donor fatigue’ is a more significant issue. Although ‘donor fatigue’ is sometimes related to ‘compassion fatigue’ (see here), it is something entirely different. It refers to the fact that international donors – meaning principally governments – fail to fulfil their initial commitments. Within days of a crisis, headlines are often made with officials basking in a humanitarian glow by pledging millions to a relief effort.

When accounts are later examined, those promises are regularly unfulfilled. Haiti is a case in point, with The Guardian reporting that countries “have delivered only about half of the billions of dollars promised for reconstruction, according to UN data.” The Guardian’s detailed data analysis (source of the above graph) shows that:

Venezuela and the US, which promised the lion’s share of reconstruction funds – more than $1.8bn together – have disbursed just 24% ($223m) and 30% ($278m) respectively. Japan and Finland are among the few donors to have fully met their pledges.

Calling this underfunding donor fatigue is misleading. ‘Fatigue’ suggests a reduction over time through repetition. The claim of donor fatigue implicitly assumes there was a time governments once fulfilled their pledges, but they now no longer do so. I suspect that is historically inaccurate. My sense is that government’s have always generally pledged more than they have paid out.

Some support for this comes from looking at how UN Consolidated Appeals operate. The Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) is the annual global agenda of humanitarian needs. In 2011 there were twenty-one appeals to governments for funds, and the UN’s Financial Tracking Service reports that only 61% of the total required was raised. In the last five years CAP fulfilment has been in the range of 60-70%, and in 2001 it was as low as 55%. The record of insufficient government aid to meet global appeals is both constant and long-standing. ‘Fatigue’ is therefore better understood as inaction or indifference. Most importantly, all this is hidden by the frequent invocation of ‘compassion fatigue’ as an explanation for any inadequate international response.

Can images play a role in overcoming government inaction in the face of humanitarian crises? Yes, pictures can provoke. In Malawi (2002) and Niger (2005), government donors responded to food insecurity only after the international media started carrying reports of famine.[nbnote ]See my paper “The Iconography of Famine” (2011), pp. 18-19 for quotes and references.[/nbnote] Far from being the cause of a mythical ‘compassion fatigue’, pictures have the potential to disturb the official incalcitrance we mistakenly call ‘donor fatigue’.

Featured photo: PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Aug. 28, 2011) An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 26 transports Rear Adm. Steven Ratti, U.S. Southern Command director of operations, from a temporary medical site at the Killick Coast Guard Base during Continuing Promise 2011. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)

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photography politics

Thinking Images v.25: Iran as perpetual enemy

Iran has a prominent place in America’s geopolitical imagination. The Shah assumed absolute power after a 1953 coup engineered by the UK and the USA removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, only to be overthrown twenty five years later in a revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mutual animosity was secured through the 1979 hostage crisis, during which US embassy staff were held captive in Tehran for 444 days. Add to that Iran’s lamentable human rights record, and concerns over its regional military posture, and Iran has long been a part of the ‘axis of evil’ around which the US structures its strategic outlook.

Against this backdrop are occasional attempts to offer a different view of Iran. The Atlantic’s In Focus 6 January gallery “A View Inside Iran” is one such effort, with 42 pictures from agency photographs capturing prosaic scenes over the last year. This is a good and worthwhile mining of the visual archive to make a general point. It is structured in terms of implicitly providing the inverse image to the stereotype. Other than two shots of crowds engaged in Islamic rituals (#6, #19), we see individuals, artists, sports people, and religious minorities (including Christians and Jews) going about their business peacefully. Against the vague notion of Iran being backward, we see common markers of modernity, including city scenes, internet cafes, people on mobile phones and market traders. To ensure balance, the captions are careful to note the contradictions of Iranian life. The July 2011 photo (above) by Reuters’ Caren Firouz shows mother and daughter Shahrzad and Noora Naraghi practicing on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran. After detailing their commitment to the sport, it states “women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran.” Likewise, the Raheb Homavandi photograph (#41) of the internet cafe makes clear how official censorship works.

Another challenging view of Iran emerged this week through Tyler Hicks’ extraordinary images of the US Navy’s capture of Somali pirates, and the release of thirteen Iranians the pirates had held for a month. Detailed in a series of revealing images, and supported by the vivid writing of C.J. Chivers (here and here), this event would have likely gone unrecorded had Hicks and Chivers not been on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. I was interested to see one reader’s comments on the Chivers/Hicks story, marked as a ‘NYT pick’:

This was a great saga, proving the greatness, compassion and the ability of our military and our values as the most blessed nation on this earth. We show kindness even to our enemies. What sacrifice our armed forces made and courage they displayed!

This rescue notwithstanding, and in contrast to the benevolent American exceptionalism imagined by this reader, US policy towards Iran remains hostile (as does Iranian policy towards the US, Israel and others). Indeed, there are worrying signs that Iran is being embedded in a bellicose narrative reminiscent of the run up to the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Before Christmas US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta conducted a network television interview on board the US nuclear command aircraft (the “Doomsday Plane”), to make the point that the US would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran and that all policy options for responding to a potentially nuclear armed Iran were on the table. He reiterated much of this message yesterday in another CBS interview. And in an unfortunate echo of the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times has been called out for misleading readers by overstating Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

More complex, nuanced photographic accounts of Iran – including those of the many fine Iranian photographers, such as Newsha Tavakolian – are not going to halt misleading journalism or militaristic policy in its tracks. But they might just make some of us pause and think about Iran’s automatic status as a perpetual enemy.

Featured photo: Noora (right) and Shahrzad Naraghi practice on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran, on July 3, 2011. Shahrzad Naraghi started riding motocross eight years ago to spend more time with her daughter Noora who became interested in the sport after watching her father compete in races, and began riding motorcycles at the age of four. The pair raced against each other at first and in women’s only motocross races in Iran in 2009. In 2010, Noora travelled to the United States, completed training courses and raced in competitions sponsored by the American Motorcyclist Association. Women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran. Copyright: Reuters/Caren Firouz.

Second photo: In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month. Sailors detained the Somali pirates in a small skiff. Copyright: Tyler Hicks/New York Times, 6 January 2012.

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politics Thought for the Week

TFTW #1: Foucault on criticism

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest…Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.

Michel Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman, translated by Alan Sheridan and others, New York, 1988, pp. 154-55.

Thumbnail photo: Biscarotte/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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photography politics

The elusive enemy: Looking back at the “war on terror’s” visual culture

Last week The Guardian published an extraordinary report on how Al Qaeda is using aid to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of displaced Somalis in East Africa’s zone of food insecurity. Jamal Osman’s investigation – including a compelling eleven minute video – reveals how aid workers and medical units, including American and British citizens, are making food and money available in a refugee camp in southern Somalia.

What is striking about the photographs and video that Osman’s team produced is the way the Al Qaeda unit is both present and absent. While their aid distribution was a carefully orchestrated media event, with their leader reading a prepared statement to a group of journalists, the Al Qaeda personnel remained shrouded in scarves obscuring their faces throughout.

Al Qaeda’s elusiveness is something that has marked the decade long ‘war on terror’. After ten years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US-led military interventions that made those countries the front line are slowly being wound up. What began with the October 2001 launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is now the United States’ longest war, and the American commitment is being scaled back as part of the transition to Afghan security control by December 2014. In Iraq the change is swifter, with President Obama announcing last month US combat forces will withdraw from the country by years’ end.

These changes provide useful markers against which to think about the visual culture of conflict, specifically the ‘war on terror, over the last decade. As this post will argue, focusing on news photography and photojournalism, the visual culture of the ‘war on terror’ over the last ten years can be understood as both beginning and ending with absence.

As a response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, the ‘war on terror’ was inaugurated in President Bush’s congressional address on 20 September 2001. Denoting the attacks as an “act of war,” Bush mapped a moral geography in which an axis of evil divided those who were with America from those in conflict with America. This moral geography was heavily indebted to notions of identity/difference that have historically driven US foreign policy. It also constructed a narrative of terror that obscured other potential points of origin for a war, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, or Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of a jihad against Jews and Crusaders that preceded those attacks (as detailed in Stuart Elden’s Terror and Territory).

Because the ‘war on terror’ was understood as a new type of conflict, fought against an “elusive enemy” in disparate and dispersed locations, visualizing the event was always going to be a challenge. Through its enactment as a response to something real yet virtual, the ‘war on terror’ was an event that both privileged representation yet made representation difficult. What overcame this aporia is the way the ‘war on terror’ has, for us, been largely framed by US-led military action, such that the overwhelming majority of photographs we associate with the ‘war on terror’ are both concerned with and part of US-led military action that began with the 7 October 2011 attack on Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.

It is common to identify the embedding of journalists and photographers with US and allied forces as the primary reason for the affinities between images and strategy (which is something I debated with Tim Hetherington). Embedding has played a significant role in the visualisation of Afghanistan, though not from the beginning, because when Operation Enduring Freedom began the Pentagon had not yet conceived the specific system. Moreover, given that the first military operations in Afghanistan were covert actions by Special Forces against a non-state actor, embedding was from the military’s viewpoint untenable. As a result, the US-led strikes in Afghanistan proceeded with minimal media access but there were few if any serious protests about this lack.

The early photographic coverage of Afghanistan was, therefore, part of the overall coverage of the ‘war on terror’ arising from the 11 September attacks. Photography is deployed to mark globally significant events, and some US newspapers underwent a “sea change” in their use of news pictures, doubling the number published after 9/11. Part of this proliferation of images was the use of pictures that, while showing something from the general area of operations, did not depict the specific events being reported. This symbolic function, where the repetition of icons associated with 9/11 provided cues and prompts for viewers, meant photographs became a means of moving the public through its trauma, enabling support for the military action in Afghanistan.

A severely wounded US Marine hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) is carried by his comrades to a medevac helicopter of U.S. Army’s Task Force Lift “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-171 Aviation Regiment to be airlifted in Helmand province, on October 31, 2011. The Marine was hit by an IED, lost both his legs and fights for his life. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

What we have come to see from Afghanistan is a steady stream of familiar pictures made up of allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families (the monthly galleries at The Atlantic offer examples). Of course there are exceptions, and very occasionally we get to see things from the other side. But generally photojournalism on the front line has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an elusive opponent, with allied soldiers and their weaponry front and centre. Much the same can be said of the visualisations of Iraq since 2003.

Coverage of the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the value to government of the embedding process (although Simon Norfolk has demonstrated being embedded does not preclude making photographic work that questions government policy). Michael Griffin’s survey of US news magazine photographs showed “a highly restricted pattern of depiction limited largely to a discourse of military technological power and response.” However, while the number of combat photographs from Iraq increased from those published in the 1991 Gulf War, they still only comprised ten percent of published pictures. This was less than expected from front-line reportage, and demonstrates that news pictures are less concerned with the first-hand recording of events and more with the repetition of familiar subjects and themes. While individual photographers felt they operated with freedom within the system of embedding, and sometimes even broke the rules, the way their pictures were used in publications did not challenge the official war narrative. That is because the news photographs the public ends up seeing are chosen less for their descriptive function or disruptive potential and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes the prosthetic hand of Medal of Honor award recipient U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Leroy Petry after he introduced Obama to speak at the American Latino Heritage Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 12, 2011. SFC Petry lost his right hand tossing away a grenade to save his fellow soldiers during combat in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

As a result, much of our media operates within the limits of official discourse, with journalists working on the field of perception through commitments to their national frames (something apparent in images of official ceremonies with their symbols of sovereignty, as in the Kevin Lamarque/Reuters photograph of a Medal of Honor recipient). Although we still harbour a belief that journalism is indebted to the ethos of the Pentagon Papers or Watergate, fearlessly investigating government failings, much contemporary war coverage directly or indirectly supports military strategies. For example, although British television broadcasters exhibit more faith in the idea of impartiality when compared to the overt patriotism of their American counterparts, a review of their Iraq invasion coverage found that “when it came to contentious issues such as WMDs or the mood of the Iraqi people…overall, all the main television broadcasters tended to favour the pro-war, government version over more sceptical accounts.”

Throughout the last decade, whatever the intentions of individual practitioners, news photography has re-presented the ‘war on terror’, in the form of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, in ways consistent with military strategy. Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’, obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective, rendering casualties and context as absent. Nowhere was this clearer than in the official White House photo of Osama Bin Laden’s killing. Instead of releasing an image of Bin Laden, what we saw was the Obama national security team in the Situation Room watching a monitor on which the event might have been unfolding. The centrality of absence to the visualisation of the war on terror could not have been more obvious.

Embedded journalism has contributed to this confined view, but this practice has also been constrained by the way the media generally offers a limited challenge to established positions. In this context, calling for an unsanitized view of the war is bound to be insufficient as a strategy for challenging the official photographic narratives. What we require is the exposure of all the frames involved in the production of the field of perceptible reality. To that end, enacting an alternative view requires an aesthetic strategy that draws history into view, pluralizes perspectives, and seeks to overcome the absences that have marked the pictorial coverage to date. Given that the struggle with Al Qaeda will outlast the American withdrawal from both Afghanistan and IRaq, this will be an on-going project.

This post is based on an editorial written for e-IR.info, and cross-posted here and at BagNewsNotes with permission. 

Featured top photo: Al-Qaida medical workers at Ala-Yasir camp in Somalia, also known as K50. Jamal Osman for the Guardian.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.23: Gaddafi’s death

The extensive pictorial coverage of Gaddafi’s death yesterday takes us back to the question I posed, also in relation to Libya, at the end of August – when should we see the dead?

There I wrote that generally the mainstream media operates in terms the idea of “taste and decency” thereby sanitising the coverage of conflict. In my view, graphic images that serve the story, helping to offer a more complete account, are important. Pictures that are displayed for their own sake, and without which there would be no story, should be avoided.

So how does the world wide publication of images showing Gaddafi’s final moments and aftermath sit with that argument? Clearly, there are moments like Gaddafi’s death when sanitised coverage gives way to an almost frenzied graphic-ness. But I don’t think that voids the earlier analysis of the media’s general tendency with regard to the coverage of death, or the value such coverage can have in reporting all the dimensions of a story.

Critical reflection doesn’t have to be a series of ‘black and white’, either/or propositions. We can also think in terms of both/and, with this being one of those moments. Which means I would argue the on-going coverage of conflict should not be afraid to represent its graphic moments, while also maintaining that if the graphic nature of that coverage becomes its own preoccupation then that is excessive. Today is one of those excessive moments, and I came to that conclusion via some online discussion and sources I have curated in a Storify post below.

While some images of Gadaffi’s death were required somewhere in each media outlet for there to be a comprehensive story, a photograph such as that used by Le Figaro on their front page today is just as effective in setting up that story.

Photo: Le Figaro, front page, 21 October 2011, from The Guardian.

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photography politics

The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context

 

Last week I asked Magnum Photos some questions about the Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures on their site. I had been thinking about these images after conversations with Olivier Laurent of the British Journal of Photography about general issues arising from the use of found photographs. I recalled a Guardian report from earlier in the year reporting on the Libyan archive, which included a 9 minute video providing more background.

The video has Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch recounting how he and Tim Hetherington were given still photos by a Benghazi resident (Idris) who had rescued them from a secret service building that was being ransacked, and video footage from a man called Ibrahim who had received tapes of his brother’s 1984 show trial and execution from other residents who felt free to pass them on after Benghazi’s liberation. What struck me was that although the Magnum-hosted images seemed to be the same as the ones discussed in The Guardian report and video, the text accompanying those Magnum images, and the attribution attached to them, did not reference the Bouckaert/Hetherington role or much about the wider context.

To find out more, I composed three questions about context, ethics and copyright to @magnumphotos, and an online debate ensued, the most important features of which I curated and annotated using Storify, given Twitter’s unavoidable constraints on conversation. Because I thought the questions pointed to important issues, I didn’t want the debate to be a 24 hour ‘flash in the pan’ that was soon to be forgotten. So I then wrote to Alex Majoli as President of Magnum, and Susan Meisalas, President of the Magnum Foundation (Susan being the only senior Magnum person I know personally and a photographer I have enormous respect for) making them aware of the questions, debate and concerns. Both were prompt and engaging in their replies, and I was soon told that Christopher Anderson, as Vice President in New York, would be checking the details over the weekend and making a statement. Yesterday, Christopher Anderson emailed me the official public statement, and provided it to the British Journal of Photography who published it.

This is the statement in full as provided, on which I will make some general comments at the end:

While covering the war in Libya, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch came into the possession of materials (video, photographs and other documents) that appeared to document evidence of torture carried out by the Libyan Secret Service. Bouckaert approached Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak and freelance photographer Tim Hetherington, who were also covering the conflict in Libya, to help him digitize the materials (Which, under the circumstances, meant photographing them.) The reason for this was because HRW did not wish to remove the documents from the country. The two photographers’ understanding was that they would be performing a favor of technical service to Human Rights Watch — they did not view the material as their “work”. Together, the three discussed how best to distribute and archive the material, and Bouckaert asked Dworzak if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW.

Dworzak did the initial copy work, using a small digital camera with pictures laid out on a bed — so the quality was not ideal. Bouckaert later asked Hetherington to photograph a second batch of materials, which may have included rephotographing some of the materials originally copied by Dworzak. No one was focused on this point, as both photographers were simply trying to create a digital archive for HRW under tight conditions.

Hetherinton handed his files over to Bouckaert and told him to put them with the rest of the material that Dworzak had copied. Bouckaert, Hetherington, and Dworzak understood that the files were all to be lumped together for HRW’s purposes and neither photographer ever considered being compensated for any distribution or claiming that he had authored the material. It was simply a favor to a colleague.

Shortly after Hetherington’s death, Bouckaert delivered a bunch of materials to the Magnum offices in London: The digital files that Tim had given him as well as additional, hard-copy materials. He asked Magnum to scan the new materials and include this with the files that Dworzak had created. He again asked if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW. Dworzak discussed with HRW and the Magnum London staff how best to label the material for cataloguing purposes. Some of the material (though it is not entirely clear which part of the material as it had all been lumped together at this point) had been copied by Hetherington, whom Magnum did not represent at the time. Furthermore, given the legal ambiguity of the copyright in the underlying materials, and of photographs of photographs, all parties decided that the credit would read “Collection Thomas Dworzak for Human Rights Watch.” Credit labels are necessary for the logistical reason of the searchability of the Magnum archive, but more importantly, the credit label serves an accountability and vetting purpose. The word “collection” was used to make clear that this was not a work originated by Dworzak as the author, but rather an archive of found materials, curated in some sense by him to the extent distributed by Magnum, and also for which he was responsible. The caption of each individual image provides further clarity as to the origins of the “works”. The red font credit note that appeared on magnumphotos.com, stating inartfully that credit must read “(c) T. Dworzak Collection,” was meant by Magnum staff as a reminder not to credit the work as authored work of Thomas Dworzak — but it seems to have been misinterpreted as some as the opposite, i.e., a claim of authorship. The language is being fixed.

Magnum staff was instructed to distribute the material with the “collection” credit on behalf of HRW, most notably a publication by the Guardian. Magnum acted only as the delivery and storage mechanism to distribute the material to the Guardian – including extensive scanning and retouching — but not to “sell” the material originally. To be clear, however, as a general matter Magnum does not think there is anything inappropriate about passing along to publishers scanning and other costs associated with producing high resolution images, when appropriate. It has come to my attention today that Magnum offices in London did “sell” in at least one case after distributing the materials free of charge to the Guardian and the CBC of Canada. As I understand it, some 550 British pounds were put into the account of the Tim Hetherington estate from that sale and 50 pounds were credited to Dworzak. I assume this amount to Dworzak is to recover the scanning and ingestion costs.

In good faith, Magnum, Thomas Dworzak and Tim Hetherington provided a professional courtesy to HRW and Peter Bouckaert. No parties involved sought financial gain from this material. It was the goal of Magnum, Dworzak, Hetherington and HRW to get this material before the public in an efficient and responsible way.

While this matter highlights questions about the legal ambiguity of copyright and authorship in the photographic industry (particularly when photographs, paintings, property, likenesses etc are visible in a photograph, or when working with found materials), Magnum has made every attempt to conduct this service on behalf of HRW as transparently and correctly as possible. Magnum regrets that this attempt to be of service to the public record has been misunderstood by some as an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain. Magnum has no intention to profit from this material nor to claim it as authored by one of our photographers. (And those who think there is big money on offer for such pictures deeply misunderstand the industry today.) Magnum continues to stand behind the decision to distribute this material and fully accepts responsibility for how that distribution is conducted.

Christopher Anderson

VP Magnum Photos New York

Together, The Guardian report/video and Magnum’s statement help provide the political and logistical context to these important photographs. As I noted during the debate, the fact that Magnum has worked with HRW to make these images available for public viewing is important and commendable. I have no doubt they acted in good faith, and have never claimed that their efforts were “an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain.” Nonetheless, I think that the distinction between “licensing” the images for distribution and “selling” them was lost by the pictures’ presentation with the green “HI-RES AVAILABLE” tag that appears on all Magnum photographers’ pages. Perhaps that is a function of inflexible web site structure rather than the outcome of a conscious decision, but given their content these are not images that should be sold like any other, and I hope that Magnum will clarify this ambiguity relating to how they can be obtained.

Copyright in relation to found images, as the statement observes, is a difficult issue. This morning @sourcephoto offered a link to an article by law lecturer Ronan Deazly discussing domestic “collect” photos that might have some relevant points for this larger question. I am not qualified to comment on the intricacies of copyright in this case, but I very much agree with the Magnum statement above that the “inartful” crediting of the images in terms of copyright contributed to confusion, so it’s good that this misuse of the language is being corrected.

For me, the big lesson to learn from this controversy is the importance of context. If the Magnum-hosted images had appeared at the outset with a narrative based on a combination of The Guardian report/video and the first four paragraphs of yesterday’s statement, everything would have been much clearer to everybody. Instead, the images were accompanied by this opaque text:

It reads:

Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures (ARCH155P). Many of these photos were part of a film that was labelled, in Arabic: “Celebration of distribution of farmland from …. Photographer, Mohammed Abdel Salam”. These files photos were part of a series of photos, films, video and documents that were reportedly rescued from a Secret police building in Benghazi, Libya, before the building was set on fire around Feb/Mar 2011.

That is just not adequate as the only description or explanation of these images. I think all agencies have a responsibility to provide as much context as possible for any photographs they make public online, and the helpful details in the Magnum statement and the stories in The Guardian/report video show what information was available. I know that Magnum are now considering revising that text, and I very much hope they do so.

There are lessons beyond this case. Agencies might argue that they don’t have the resources to write detailed stories to go with their archives, but especially when handling what are obviously controversial and sensitive issues, that’s not a defence. At the very least, much can be achieved by linking to other sources.

Moreover, I think agencies miss an opportunity when they don’t make an effort to provide the fullest context at the outset. The challenges of the media economy mean that its going to be increasingly difficult for agencies to be just content providers and distributors for others in the media. They need to be thinking in terms of also being publishers and broadcasters, actually creating new and substantive content on the issues their photographers are covering.

With the story of the Libyan secret service archive, Magnum had a great opportunity to compile an incredible story. With yesterday’s statement they offered some of that. It’s just a shame that story was not there when the pictures first went up.

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More posts photography politics

The problem with the dramatic staging of photojournalism: what is the real issue?

Photojournalism Behind the Scenes [ITA-ENG subs] from Ruben Salvadori on Vimeo.

Ruben Salvadori’s video – “an auto-critical photo essay” – demonstrates clearly that when we see a conflict, what we see is the outcome of “conflict image production.” It’s like those still photographs which reveal photographers at work – Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and many other examples.

These all demonstrate that photographs are neither mirrors nor windows offering untrammelled access to events. Events come to be through technologies of visualisation, and that is a process in which all participants in the visual economy (subjects, image makers, news agencies, media networks, audiences, and others) have a role in the construction of people and places.

The difficult conclusion from this is that all photography is staged. But, as I’ve argued previously, staging is not the same as faking. Photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. However, events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre, and photographers emphasise the dramatic. And if you look at the examples offered by the Italian digital lab 10b Photography, we can appreciate that aesthetic dramatisation has long been, and continues to be, part of the most respected photojournalism.

When these stagings produce or reinforce stereotypes, they are a big problem (as duckrabbit rightly argued in their take on Salvadori’s video). But photography’s dramatic stagings are not the main problem. I believe that avoiding or challenging stereotypes necessitates changing the terms of the debate.

The problem is that too often controversies over the staging of images proceed as though there is a photography free from staging (meaning construction, enactment, interpretation, or production). Moments of staging are called out, seen as exceptions, and judged against supposedly universal norms. An example is the way the excellent PetaPixel blog introduced Salvadori’s video. Calling it “eye-opening,” they wrote:

Here’s a fascinating video in which Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori demonstrates how dishonest many conflict photographs are. Salvadori spent a significant amount of time in East Jerusalem, studying the role photojournalists play in what the world sees. By turning his camera on the photographers themselves, he shows how photojournalists often influence the events they’re supposed to document objectively, and how photographers are often pushed to seek and create drama even in situations that lack it (emphasis added).

Salvadori’s video is certainly revealing, but “eye-opening” suggests a level of surprise that few in photography should have. It reinforces the idea that what we see in this case are a few bad apples who are failing to be “objective”. There is much that needs to be said about the claim of objectivity with regard to photography, and I hope to write more later. But how could a photojournalist in the scene Salvadori films not influence events? The presence of a camera changes the dynamics of any situation regardless of the intentions of the photographer. Indeed, any scene is changed by the presence of any participants, so the idea that you can imagine a scene that is hermetically sealed from those in and around it is naive. If scenes are to be witnessed, then witnesses will inevitably ‘contaminate’ the scene. And what would an “objective” photo of this scene look like? I can imagine many different images from those moments, but can you conceive of any that aren’t constructed?

Surely it’s time to drop the pretence of shock when photography’s constructed-ness is exposed. If we constantly view the essential nature of photographic practice – that it inescapably and unavoidably constructs, enacts, and produces images – as always exceptional and sometimes perverse, we are missing the main problem. That is, how, within a practice that necessarily constructs the world, can we produce authoritative accounts of events and issues?

I suspect many might read this and misunderstand the point I am struggling to make. I am not defending the conflict photographers portrayed in Salvadori’s important video essay. Their images are dramatised, though in ways common to conflict photojournalism. Nor am I arguing the images they produce are the best of that scene. Finally, I am not minimising the problems caused by dramatic stagings that turn into one-dimensional stereotypes.

Above all else, I want to argue that its ultimately self-defeating for photographers to be outraged by the idea that photographs construct situations. Let’s judge how pictures produce narratives, and the effects of those narratives, instead of being hung up on the fact narratives are produced. If we are constantly bogged down in the unfounded belief that somehow there is a photography unencumbered by the problems of representation, we will never move the debate on visual enactment forward.

To underscore these points, I’ll enlist Errol Morris’s support. Morris recently condensed the argument of his book Believing is Seeing (well reviewed by David White) into ten tweets. Numbers 1, 9 and 10 are most relevant to this post:

[blackbirdpie id=”120329863180726273″]

[blackbirdpie id=”120567296392564736″]

[blackbirdpie id=”120570913224790016″]

 

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.22: Sport, war and a fantasy

Iran marked it’s defense week last Thursday with a vast display of units and hardware. Among the photographs of the parade was this rather odd image. I saw it in print in the South China Morning Post, Reuters carried it in their spot news slideshow, and it was also captured in this
UPI gallery of the military parade

None of the captions cast any light on the reason for this units’ striking outfits. Resembling the British television game show “Gladiators,” where participants battled each other with padded implements, these soldiers were very different from their conventionally attired comrades. The picture is testament to the photographer’s eye for the exotic, the distinctive, the unexpected.

One detail that stands out is the Addidas logo on each blue or red vest. Is part of the Iranian army sponsored by the European sports wear company? More than unlikely, but it points nonetheless to the close relationship of sport and war. Think of the military metaphors that permeate sport (such as ‘battles’ over ‘territory)’, and the sport analogies present in the reporting of war (famously including General Schwarzkopf’s ‘hail Mary’ pass in the 1991 Gulf War).

The photograph also prompts a fantasy. What if international conflict was resolved through game shows? Any prospective regional clash with Iran might see ‘the Addidas unit’ take on their opponents over three rounds. It would certainly beat another war.

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photography politics

September 11, 2001: Imaging the real, struggling for meaning

 

As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches images of the event are being recycled and recirculated. Many of them are familiar, and the meaning of the event now seems fixed. But anniversaries are part of the process of fixing memory, and as they are repeated they can obscure the uncertainty that prevailed at the moment they now memorialise. They also render a general date as a singular moment, obscuring other historical events of great significance that occurred in previous years on September 11

A couple of weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, I wrote an essay for The Information Technology, War and Peace Project at Brown University on how we struggled to comprehend ‘9/11’ and the role photography played in that process. I am re-posting it here, ten years on, as both an act of commemoration, and a reminder about the interpretative work required to render something as a world historical event.

“The images were just reality, in every bit of its full-color unmediated ugliness.” At first glance, who could disagree? A tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Frightened workers hanging from the windows. An aircraft flashing across the sky and slamming into the second tower. A fireball. The collapse. The screams of the on-lookers, the dust, the rubble, the darkness, and then the silence. As ugly a reality as anyone would never wish to see again.

But we did see it again. And again, and again. Over and over. Television went to live coverage, and as word spread through homes and offices connected to global news networks, hundreds of millions of people distant from the epicenter of disaster became eyewitnesses to the previously unimaginable. We sat with mouths open and heads in hands, aghast at the events unfolding before our own eyes. Real events, in real time, offered up to us through the reality of television. Which then looped the video of those extraordinary one hundred minutes in which some 6,000 people were killed [a number later reduced to 2,977 civilians], and repeated it, and reused it, and recycled it endlessly, searing those images into the public mind.

And yet those images stubbornly defy comprehension. For all that we were there even when we lived elsewhere, for all that we could re-witness them on subsequent news bulletins, and for all that we can still access them on various web sites, the video footage of September 11, 2001 does not seem real. That is why the fictional realm of the disaster movie became for so many the referent of the domain of fact we observed that day.

The morning after brought the newspapers. Across the world, there was a remarkable unanimity of image and headline, with the exploding towers as a sign of attack, war, apocalypse, and terror. My own daily paper in England was no different. On the front page of The Guardian was the fireball produced at the moment the second aircraft flew into the north tower. Inside, however, was something quite different. Text and advertisements were evacuated from pages two and three, and replaced with a single black and white photograph stretching all the way across the double spread. It was southern Manhattan, enveloped in the dust and smoke of the now destroyed World Trade Center. One of the paper’s staff explained that the newsroom’s initial reaction to the catastrophe was stunned silence, and that the use of the opening photographs the following day was designed to make the paper begin “speechlessly.” It worked, and you lingered over the image, reflecting on the events that had produced it, still struggling to come to terms with the event. Television later employed a similar strategy. On the Friday after the attack two news programs in England concluded their broadcasts with a series of still images, each static on the screen for much longer than usual, to the accompaniment of somber music.

The capacity of a photograph to prompt reflection, particularly after a day of non-stop video, recalls Susan Sontag’s argument that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Indeed, one consequence for the media of September 11 has been something of a reinvigoration of photojournalism. Many newspapers have published remarkable images captured by photographers who were at or near the World Trade Center as soon as they learnt of the disaster. With Manhattan being one of the world’s most media rich environments, some of the world’s best-known photojournalists have found the biggest story of recent time taking place in their backyard. And with the web sites of well known media outlets offering a cost effective capacity for publishing the work of these photojournalists, we have been able to see the powerful images of James Nachtway, Anthony Suau (Photoessays @ Time), Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress (Portfolio @ The New Yorker) faster than was previously possible.

The use of photojournalism simultaneously in both print and electronic form highlights an important feature of photography. In and of themselves, photographs do not convey a particular narrative that gives meaning to an event. Photographs rely on headings, captions, and accompanying articles for the creation of meaning. Nachtwey’s photo essay “Shattered” [now updated with some outtakes] comprises fourteen images, [originally] displayed without captions. The lack of framing that results from the absence of text allows the viewer to read them in a number of ways. But when five of those photographs are taken from the series and, along with the work of others, resituated in the special print issue of Time in a section entitled “Day of Infamy,” they function differently. The cumulative effect of associating the pictures with text in a particular way is that they act as an affidavit supporting “the case for rage and retribution” angrily proclaimed by Lance Morrow in the magazine’s final essay. However, the creation of photographic meaning through intertextual location is not restricted to the presence of immediate referents. It also includes the way in which contemporary images are situated through visual citations to established historical narratives. For example, Thomas Franklin’s shot of three fireman raising the Stars and Stripes on a pole amid the ruins invokes the (staged) image of five marines raising the flag at Mt Surabachi, Iwo Jima, in early 1945, thereby further connecting September 11 to World War II.

It is ironic that in an age where real time video has proliferated, the very ubiquity of the stream of images has revivified the power of photojournalism. All the more so given that the attacks on the World Trade Center were said to herald the end of the age of irony. Writing in Time [in one of those proclamations that looks grossly overstated ten years on], Roger Rosenblatt saw the carnage as a chance to chastise the chattering classes who he says claim nothing is real, while other commentators have seized the opportunity to deride those intellectuals they cast as propagators of postmodern and/or postcolonial themes about representation and power. Such polemics minimize the interpretive work a catastrophe demands. One photograph from a picture essay concerned with the aftermath of September 11 [above] reveals the extent to which the reality of a disaster is neither instantly nor easily apprehended. Focusing on “the media blitz,” Anthony Suau’s image centers on a reporter going live to air with an interview for a television station, “Ground Zero” a long way off in the background, while the street is lined with the banks of electronic equipment necessary for the broadcast. As the caption to the image observes, “on nearly every street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” We are all looking for angles, all trying for comprehension, all struggling to understand.

Far from sidelining issues of representation and power, September 11 has foregrounded them. While the hijackings, the crashing of the aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the collapse of the buildings, and the massive loss of life are all too real and all too shocking as events, what they mean is anything but clear. Allan Feldman once observed, “the event is not that which happens. The event is that which can be narrated.” The hours, days, and weeks since the attacks have seen a deluge of different narratives. The outpouring of words, from the personal reflections of those involved to the political recommendations of those at a distance (most of which Susan Sontag has condemned for “reality-concealing rhetoric” designed to “infantilize the public”), all accompanied by a multitude of images, represents the impossibility of an instant and agreed narrativization of an event, even when we have all witnessed its occurrence live.

The act of witnessing made possible by real time video and twenty-four hour news channels has, despite the impression of being beyond mediation, some real limitations. Indeed, what we saw on television on September 11 wasn’t what the event was like. The event was much more horrific than the impression conveyed by the television pictures. Remarkably for an event that saw more people die on US soil than any other single day in American history, the television coverage was marked by the absence of death. Viewing the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing through footage shot from helicopters and the higher reaches of Manhattan (and pooled by the various networks, thereby creating a uniform image across the various outlets) were an oddly dehumanizing experience. Both geographic distance and compressed temporality strangely sanitized even the rarely used footage of people plunging from the World Trade Center to their deaths. We saw these tragic victims, small specks against the vast towers, leap from their offices, and then disappear into the realm of imagination. People spoke of appalling sights, but we did not see them. Witnesses revealed the presence of many body parts in the rubble, but television did not show them. Reports referred to “streets slick with blood,” but the video did not disclose it. Photographers followed suit – John Albanese, a volunteer fireman and amateur photographer who spent twelve hours working and photographing amid the devastation, wrote in one of his captions that “we were looking for bodies, we were finding body parts, we were waiting for a body bag to take away a leg,” but he did not record this pictorially. In all of Time’s photo essays (whether in print or on the web) we see only one body, carried on a stretcher by rescuers, a limp arm protruding from under the blue sheet. In this absence, the vast sea of personal photographs – family snaps, holiday shots, wedding images – circulating on notices for the missing victims, are what brings us face to face with the human loss.

For both television producers and picture editors, the cleansing of the disaster coverage so as to remove graphic images of death was a conscious decision not to reveal the full extent of reality. Moreover, this decision to exclude occurred at more than one level. The picture agencies and pool sources removed many of the most disturbing (and most realistic) images from those they distributed to their media customers. In turn, the editors at those media outlets made further choices to weed out graphic portrayals of the slaughter. In London, The Guardian’s picture desk received more than 1,200 images on the Tuesday of the attack, choosing but a fraction for publication in the paper or on the web site. Criteria for such selection, which is unavoidable given the extent of choice, is far from clear. One picture editor recently described to me how his standards involved imagining what the victim’s family would say if shown the picture and being guided by their reaction. This is testament to the fact that, despite the conventional perception of a media pack with a bloodlust for the unvarnished portrayal of death and destruction, journalistic practice is governed by a social economy of taste and system of self-censorship which severely restricts what we see, especially when the disaster is close to home and anything but foreign. This may or may not be a good thing. We can readily understand that a voyeurism of violence should be avoided. But one conclusion cannot be ignored: the resultant coverage is anything but wholly realistic.

One striking feature of September 11 is the way in which photography has served a personal desire to find an alibi for the real in a moment of great uncertainty. John Albanese produced his photo essay because his time searching the debris for survivors seemed unreal: “It was so quiet – I had the strangest feeling looking out at the devastation – but I couldn’t cry. Because it didn’t seem real. I thought, I’m going to reach out, and it’s going to be a picture. It can’t be real.” Individuals have sought an image that can be their own “certificate of presence” (in Roland Barthes’ terms) for the unimaginable. Thus the writer A. M. Homes described how reaching for the camera was the first response to witnessing from an apartment window the planes’ flying into the twin towers. Likewise, the title image in Anthony Suau’s photo essay “Aftershock” [no longer online] shows a crowd of onlookers gazing at the event, with three of them raising cameras to the site/sight. It’s as if our own eyes, even when viewing the event directly and personally, even when we see it repeatedly on television, requires the silent confirmation that a still image provides. But not even that confirmation confers meaning upon the event. Far from it. The search for this event’s meaning is something with which we will continue to struggle for some time yet.

Photo: “The media blitz was constant from the moment of the first crash. Viewers could watch the situation develop minute by minute and rarely leave “”ground zero”” no matter where in the country they were. On nearly every other street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” Copyright Anthony Suau/Time, September 2001.

September 11, 2001 is regarded by many as ‘the day the world changed’. But different historical periods don’t end one day and begin the next. In my assessment the initial political and military response to the attacks were in fact a ‘return of the past’, in which cold war logic was revived. I make this case in a 2002 article “Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past In the Response to September 11.” 

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.21: Seeing the dead

When should we see the dead?

In this photograph of a Libyan rebel surveying a possible massacre site we are confronted with an unusually graphic portrayal of war dead. (This picture ran in The Guardian print edition on 29 August (pp. 14-15), appeared online, along with a similar image from the same photographer that can be seen in a New York Times gallery here). The charred remains of people whose identities are unknown embody the violence of a regime entering its last days and seemingly bent on revenge.

Coverage of the Libyan conflict by the mainstream press has, like the coverage of most recent wars, been relatively sanitised when we consider the number of graphic pictures in relation to the scale and intensity of the fighting that has left thousands dead. If you scroll through any of the recent photographic galleries from the conflict (see the New York Times presentation of “The Battle for Libya” for example), pictures of the dead are a minority of those on display. And when the subject is broached, its often done at a safe distance (as here), via partial or camouflaged disclosure (as here) or through traces like the blood-stained uniform (as here).

The reasons for this relative sanitisation of war are many and varied. In cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is connected to the formal restraints of embedding. Allied forces put considerable effort into avoiding the production and publication of photos showing both military casualties and civilian deaths. In the case of Libya, where the nature of the conflict is different, we might expect to see more given that “foreign bodies” are sometimes easily shown.

The fact that we still don’t see much demonstrates how the mainstream media operates within an economy of “taste and decency” that regulates the pictorial representation of death and atrocity. Although conventional wisdom often portrays the media as ‘blood thirsty’, in his book Body Horror, John Taylor offers an assessment that is still valid:

Displays of the horror and hurt of bodies are a measure of the industry’s mix of prurience and rectitude. The press errs on the side of caution in depicting death and destruction. It is careful to write more detail than it dares to show and often uses the metonymic power of photographs to remove harm from flesh to objects. When the press decides to picture bodies, the imagery tends (with notable exceptions) to be restrained. Newspapers do not revolt audiences for the sake of it. On the contrary, disgust forms a small part of the stock-in-trade and papers use it sparingly (1998, 193).

Should we see more of the consequences of war? Overall, I think so. Obviously the amount and presentation has to be carefully handled in order to avoid gratuitous displays. Anything that could attract the mis-used descriptor of ‘porn’ has to be avoided. But images that serve the story, helping to offer a more complete account, are important. Pictures that are displayed for their own sake, and without which there would be no story, should be avoided.

An example of the latter was the Daily Mail’s recent focus on the death of an aerial stuntman. Without both still images and video (which I refuse to watch) that story would not have been globally reported. Contrast that focus on a falling man to the US media’s avoidance of the Twin Towers jumpers on 11 September 2001. Richard Drew’s now famous photograph appeared only once in the New York Times despite the fact some 200 individuals decided to leap from the World Trade Centre rather than face death in the buildings. Their painful choice was part of that horrendous day and Drew’s photo, calling attention to an important dimension of the event, deserved to be seen more.

Equally, Sergey Ponomarev’s powerful picture from Libya demands more attention. Without it the numerous words detailing unwarranted killings can wash over us, while the television images rush by us. Making us pause and think is an important part of photography’s function, even if the event it points to is hard to stomach.

Featured photo: A rebel inspects at least 50 burned bodies, said to be civilians killed by pro-Gaddafi soldiers, inside a warehouse in Tripoli. Copyright Sergey Ponomarev/AP

For a more detailed analysis of this issue, see my article “Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research, 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

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photography politics

Imaging famine: How critique can help

What is the point of critique, and how can it help produce better visual stories?

According to Jonathan Jones (writing in the Guardian on 22 July) all the sophisticated critiques of photojournalism are pointless when it comes to picturing famine:

It seems shocking that commentators…wasted their breath on the ethics of a photograph instead of urging action to deal with the suffering it showed. The fact that people far away can see with visceral immediacy the facts of a crisis like the one now hitting the Horn of Africa is one of the most optimistic aspects of the modern world. Consciences are awakened by the camera.

Jones’s own critique is simplistic – either you see or you don’t, visibility is better than blindness, and images provoke conscience. The last point demands more consideration, but in casting the issue in terms of a simple either/or proposition of seeing or not seeing, Jones misses the big picture. The issue is HOW we see, what effect does a particular way of seeing have on our understanding of the issue, and how might we see more effectively?

I’ve been debating related issues with Jon Levy, and yesterday we participated in a productive OPEN-i forum that revealed both much common ground and some continuing differences. As a result I wanted to set out a series of propositions that encapsulate my thinking on how we can contribute to a better visual account of famine.

1. Critique is not negative, and does not involve blaming photographers.

A critique is an intervention in established modes of action and thought. Such interventions try and disturb those practices which are settled, untie what appears to be sown up, and render as produced that which claims to be natural. There is an ethical imperative behind such interventions, a desire to open up possibilities being foreclosed or suppressed by that which exists. Intervening involves a questioning of what is established, that questioning follows from a concern or dissatisfaction with what is settled and appears inevitable, and creates the possibility for the formulation of alternatives. We can’t know where we are going unless we understand where we are now and how we got here. And although discussion necessarily proceeds through examples of particular images by individual photographers, it is not about accusing practitioners of bad faith.

2. There is no distinction between an event and its representation.

The reason we begin photographic critique with images, the individuals who make them and the institutions that distribute them is because they offer a way into thinking about the visual economy through which a disaster like famine is made real for the majority of people. Few if any of us have direct experience of disasters, so we necessarily rely on mediated knowledge. That means our reality comes through representation. NGO officials understand this. As Don Redding once observed, “the construction of the event (the humanitarian emergency) becomes the event – for the purposes of public opinion and policy flow.” To engage the event, and how we should respond to the event, demands an analysis of the event’s representation (some of which is discussed in posts reflecting on recent photographic and broadcast coverage.)

3. Famine is made real through a particular visual tradition, and we continue to see it.

The 2003 cover of the New York Times magazine above, with 36 portraits of malnourished children from dozens of different countries over a 50-year period, illustrates the dominant way of representing this sort of disaster. It has been common from the nineteenth century, as we showed in the 2005 Imaging Famine exhibition.

In the current picture galleries from East Africa, we see much of the same (see herehere and here). There has been little if any evolution in the way famine is represented. The problem is that these images individualise an economic and political issue, and focus our attention on passive victims awaiting external assistance.

In the OPEN-i debate Jon argued that these photographs “show you what’s going on.” I think that the stereotypes are politically necessary in certain contexts, and it’s possible to make a case for their use, as Tyler Hicks and Bill Keller of the New York Times have done. But the major problem is that the stereotypes do not show us what is going on. They show us only the end of a process. They show only the final, fatal stages of food insecurity. Most of the issue remains obscured by their continual reproduction.

4. Famine is not a natural disaster, and photography needs to get to grips with this.

While the fact East Africa is suffering the worst drought in 60 years provided the hook for most recent coverage, the disaster is not natural. Indeed, few if any disasters these days are natural. When an earthquake of the same magnitude kills hundreds of thousands in Haiti, but less than a hundred in San Francisco, the differing death toll is not simply a result of the earth moving.

According to the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, “this crisis is manmade…Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”

Famines, paradoxically, are also not simply the result of food shortages. As Cambridge lecturer David Nally observes, during the Irish famine food exports continued while people starved, and Bengal in 1943 (memorably recorded by Werner Bischof) saw hundreds of thousands perish even though that part of India had its biggest rice harvest ever:

The historical study of famine shows that the people of countries that are nominally resource-rich can starve because those resources are extracted to meet the needs of a global economy rather than the nutritional needs of local populations. The recent use of African land to grow crops for biofuels is particularly instructive: filling the tank of a sport utility vehicle, for instance, uses 450 lbs of corn – enough food to feed one person for an entire year. Thus policies designed to enhance the ‘food and energy security’ of relatively affluent places, such as Europe, can compromise the security of peoples in Africa. Today, as in the nineteenth century, life and death decisions of a terrifying scale are woven in the fabric of international economic relations.

These issues cannot be encapsulated within a single photographic frame, and representing them in their complexity is not simply photography’s responsibility. But I don’t see any examples from the current crisis in East Africa that even gestures towards these larger issues. Of course, correct me if I am wrong.

5. What now?

With more than 12 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and some areas of Somali having more than 40% of children under five suffering from acute malnutrition, their situation has to be pictured.

But, as with the coverage of Japan, Egypt and Libya this year, East Africa is being covered by a relatively large number of excellent photographers that surely means there is scope for someone to do something different. Do all of them have to go to Banadir hospital in Mogadishu to photograph fly blown, emaciated children? Could not some of them record audio as well as shoot photos so we can hear from the people affected? Can’t their editors push for alternatives and offer greater support to achieve them? Is it beyond our collective capacity to follow the leads from critical questioning and see what’s really going on with famine?

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photography politics

Imaging famine: A debate

Last week’s post on ‘Famine iconography as a sign of failure‘ drew a very critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I’ve again used Storify to collect the comments and offer a response to address the issues. Be sure to click on ‘Read More’ to see the whole stream. Further comments on this debate are welcome.

Jon and I pursed this discussion in an OPEN-it debate on 18 August 2011, and I wrote a subsequent post summarising points from that debate while underlining my belief in the necessity of critique.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.20: Famine iconography as a sign of failure

The homogenisation of ‘Africa’ – the rendering of the continent into one form. The anthropomorphisation of ‘Africa’ – the representation of the continent as one person. The infantilisation of ‘Africa’ – the image of the continent as a child. The impoverishment of ‘Africa’ – the construction of the continent as a desperate, poor, passive victim.

Peter Brookes’ 5 July 2011 cartoon from The Times condenses all these attributes into one visual form. Like most editorial cartoons, it derives its symbolic force from the dominant images of the day, in this case the extensive media coverage of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. The all too familiar images of displaced people and starving children amidst a desert landscape have been common in recent days as both NGOs and the media mobilise in response to what is unquestionably a crisis of food security that demands action. From television coverage to photo galleries, we are seeing the sort of pictures we have seen many times before, be they Tyler Hicks colour photos in the New York Times, Robin Hammond’s series for the Guardian, the Save the Children Fund pictures from East Africa (also in the Guardian), or Oxfam’s Flickr gallery. While it is interesting to think about the virtues of colour versus black and white, or ask whether we can spot a difference between photos taken by professionals and NGO staff (and I can’t see much of one), I want to call attention to the larger dynamic which drives this recourse to familiar visuals.

In an excellent post on the coverage of the Horn, Peter Gill argues that “sophisticated early warning systems that foresee the onset of famine have been in place for years, but still the world waits until it is very nearly too late before taking real action – and then paying for it.” With regard to East Africa, both international agencies and NGOs have been warning for some months that a combination of factors – drought, conflict, high food and fuel prices, and funding shortfalls – were likely to produce a humanitarian crisis. But nobody found a way to picture the problem, so the story went unrecorded. When, finally, in late June, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs simplified the story into ‘the worst drought in sixty years’, Gills says “the media mountain moved, and the NGO fund-raisers marched on behind.”

We can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context.

Is it because photographers lack imagination? I don’t think so. As I’ve written before on this topic, it is more a product of the fact that the media generally is caught in a tragic conundrum:

Governments and international institutions are not moved by information alone, and without official activity the media lacks a hook for a story. A story becomes possible when there is visual evidence of disaster, but in the case of famine that evidence cannot be easily visualized (at least in terms familiar to the media) until people start showing an embodied trace of the food crisis (with distended stomachs and prominent ribs) or start dying. By that time, however, because of the indifference of governments, the final stages of a food crisis have begun, the possibility for preventative action has long passed, and the only course of action is humanitarian and remedial.

We have, then, a systemic problem. While there are famine early warning systems that function quite well, the media is generally a late indicator of distress. The urgent task – in advance of the next humanitarian crisis – is to find a way to tell the story of the many and varied reasons that produce food insecurity without waiting for the visual traces that signify it’s too late.

UPDATE 27 August 2011: This post drew a critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I have curated Jon Levy’s points, additional comments, and my response in another post, Imaging Famine: A Debate. After our OPEN-i debate, I wrote another post summarising some points from the discussion to underscore my belief in the necessity of critique.  

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.19: Do local photographers have a distinctive eye?

Do local photographers offer a distinctive perspective on their worlds?

That question was prompted by reading Patrick Witty’s interesting account of a photography workshop held in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq earlier this month. The workshop was organized by Metrography, the first Iraqi photo agency, and sponsored by Washington-based IREX International. Witty writes that the workshop was “the brainchild of Stephanie SinclairSebastian Meyer and Kamaran Najm,” and that he was one of four instructors, along with Kael AlfordNewsha Tavakolian, and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Interestingly, the venue was the Amna Suraka, the national genocide museum, which offers an account of the ‘Anfal’ campaign waged by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurds in the late 1980s. (The museum is the subject of an interesting project by British photographer Ben Hodson). With regards to the Anfal campaign – which included the infamous gassing of the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 – it is vital to recall that Saddam Hussein was then a US ally and the US was well aware of Iraqi chemical weapons capabilities. None of that stopped the US later – in the run-up to the 2003 invasion – hypocritically citing the Halabja gas attack as proof of Saddam Hussein’s barbarity.

Back to the workshop – Witty’s account and the enthusiastic comments of the participants testify to the value of the event. As the headline suggests, we benefit from seeing “Iraq through Iraqi eyes.” The gallery of images from the workshop showcase some interesting images, with Gona Aziz’s photo feature here one of the ones that stood out for me. But I’m sceptical about the idea that a person’s national identity offers a naturally distinctive eye.

Can we say categorically that local people would be better storytellers? To me that assumption has as many problems as the reliance on the international photographic elite it seeks to replace or supplement. Are “local people” a single, homogenous entity with only one voice? Surely they are as diverse, plural and conflicted as our own societies, so which local voices are going to get to tell their stories, and which local voices are we going to pay attention to?

The issue of greater attention to and work for indigenous photographers is an important issue of labour justice and political economy. There are many talented non-European photographers in this world whose work deserves greater play, and initiatives like Majority World are important in redressing the economic imbalances. And nobody could object to more assistance and training for locals to tell their own stories.

But the idea that their work, simply because they are non-European, offers a fundamentally different and automatically better visual account of the issues and places they cover is as sweeping a generalization as that offered by the stereotypical images that dominate our media.

It is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international,” and this Iraq workshop is an example of that. Some of the participants already work for international wire agencies, and the instructors are global, both personally and professionally, and the skills they are passing on come from the global image economy.

None of this is to criticize the organizers or instructors. All of them deserve credit for creating an important opportunity for Iraqi photographers. They are not necessarily making the general claims I am highlighting. Being ‘local’ means potentially easier access to ‘home‘ and can thus be the starting point for original stories. But being ‘local’ is not in itself the basis for a unique perspective. Originality and context come from sources other than national identity.

Photo: Copyright Gona Aziz – A portrait of Ashti Abdulrahman, from the series, “Women,” from TIME Lightbox 23 June 2011.

 

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photography politics

Debating ‘Who’s afraid of home?’, and the importance of narrative

Last week’s post on photojournalism’s ‘foreign fixation’ and the relative neglect of the big domestic stories prompted a debate in both the post comments and on Twitter, especially from Marcus Bleasdale.

Feedback is one of the great virtue’s of social media, and I always get a lot from people’s responses. Because I think this is a really important issues, I’ve put the Twitter debate together using Storify so you can read it below (be sure to click on ‘Load More’ to see the whole stream). At the end, I’ll summarise what I think are the main points that I take away from this conversation.

Here are my conclusions:

  1. There are numerous great photographers working on the ‘home’ front, we need to find ways to see more of their stories, but that is not something that is going to be achieved solely by commissions from mainstream media
  2. This is definitely not a call for less attention abroad; its a call for more attention to ‘home’. I certainly don’t want people to ignore or walk away from the big global stories, and there is much to do to make them better too
  3. The use of ‘home’ as a category has its problems. Its relative to the photographer’s identity or location and can change over time, and the dividing line between home and abroad is increasingly blurred
  4. The major issue, then, is less the geographic location of the story and more the fact we don’t see enough work on ‘the big domestic issues’ – the economy, healthcare, education, unemployment etc – that are always cited as the major electoral concerns. It is, therefore, more about social issues than domestic space per se
  5. One of the biggest challenges is how to portray those big social issues, and that means dealing with the essential question of narrative

For someone developing a visual story on social issues, the most important thing to ask is ‘what is the story you really want to tell?’ Answering that can mean working through these questions:

  • what is the issue?
  • what will be the events/moments?
  • if needed, who are the characters?
  • what is the context?

I think Nathalie Parès of NOOR made a good comment on the original post when she observed that “more than a fear of photographing at home, I would rather talk of a certain difficulty of being original on these topics…” That is something best addressed by articulating the relationship between story, event and issue. This requires knowledge of the context above all else, and that demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.

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photography politics

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.

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Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

POSTS

ARTICLES

Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.18: Ratko Mladic and the limits of visibility

 

 

This photograph of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic after his arrest was (as Tom Keenan observed on Facebook) too long in coming but nevertheless still satisfying.

In many ways its hard to equate the pathetic visage on display here with the barbaric deeds Mladic’s forces committed in the Bosnian War between 1992-95, with the genocide at Srebrenica the most appalling. For anyone who doubts the enormity of the crimes committed under the leadership of Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the prosecutor’s indictment in Case No. IT-95-5/18-I should make salutary reading (thanks to @martincoward for the link). Mladic deserves a fair trial, and whatever the limitations of the ICTY in the Hague, the trial he will receive there will be infinitely fairer than the vengeance he wrought on thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in the former Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian War was something that preoccupied me for much of the 1990s, and I researched the issues it raised for years before publishing a book, National Deconstruction, on the subject in 1998. I subsequently conducted a detailed investigation of the controversy surrounding the media coverage of the Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps in the Prijedor region, which was published in 2002. It is the case that all sides in the conflict committed war crimes, but I have no doubt that the nationalist programme of Karadzic and Mladic – backed by Milosevic in Belgrade – resulted in the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. (To those who might want to redirect responsibility for the atrocities in comments, don’t bother, they won’t be posted. I’ve done my time trying to debate revisionists who want to diminish the suffering inflicted by those who partitioned Bosnia, and I’m no longer willing to engage people who are impervious to evidence).

The Bosnian War was a seminal event in the photographic visualization of atrocity, and one that exposed the limits of visibility. Because it took place on Europe’s border, was shown nightly on television, and widely pictured in the press, you might think that the abundant images of innocent victims would have provoked a major response from either Europe or America. The war was certainly a major media story. And there was much diplomatic activity and many grand statements by concerned leaders. But the fact is that no amount of visual evidence form the siege of Sarajevo, and the destruction of other cities, moved countries to offer more than under-equipped UN forces distributing inadequate care packages. When NATO did eventually act with limited air power towards the end of the war, it only secured the partition of Bosnia along lines that rewarded ethnic cleansing.

The idea that photographers, broadcasters and journalists could produce a just political response through the power of their imagery came up short in Bosnia. We still have much to learn about how pictures work and the nature of their relationship to change. In the meantime, I will take some belated satisfaction that we get to see the portrait of a man whose violent past has caught up with him.

Photo credit: Politika, via Reuters, from the MSNBC.com PhotoBlog

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.17: The starving child as symbolic marker

Contemporary news photographs are chosen less for their descriptive function and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives. Although news images can illustrate the story they accompany, it is often the case that the photograph published with a story does not depict the specifics of that story.

This photograph – a stereotypical famine picture from Ethiopia – that appeared in the print version of Monday’s Guardian is a case in point (the online version of the story is here, but it is illustrated with a political portrait of Berlusconi and Sarkozy). The photo’s relationship to the critique of France, Germany and Italy’s aid performance by the charity One is tangential at best. It seems that that a chain of association – aid, Bono and Geldorf, the 2005 G8 pledge and sub-Saharan Africa – justifies the use of “a malnourished child in Ethiopia.” While Ethiopia is subject to ongoing food insecurity, the World Food Program reports that after two troublesome years the situation is currently improving.

What is even more remarkable about this photograph, and what demonstrates further the symbolic function of news imagery, is that it was used previously by the Guardian in September 2009. On that occasion it accompanied a story headlined “By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry as climate change leads to food crisis.” In that instance the caption read “A malnourished boy at a feeding centre in Ethiopia. Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia will be most vulnerable to food shortages, the IFPRI report found.”

The original photograph was taken in June 2008 by Jose Cendon of AFP, and the Getty Images caption for editorial photo number 94984780 reads: “A malnourished boy is portrayed at a feeding center 10 June 2008 in Damota Pulassa village, southern Ethiopia. Ethiopia said the number of people in need of food aid had risen to 4.5 million from 2.2 million due to failed rains, as it issued a plea for international help. IFRC/AFP PHOTO/JOSE CENDON.” The key words are: “Fly, Center, Village, Horizontal, Africa, Famine, Ethiopia, Underweight, Feeding, Drought, Poverty, Child, Weather, Boys, Malnutrition, Crisis.”

 

 

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photography politics

Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

What would a critical photographic response to the war in Afghanistan involve?

The is no single answer to that question, but having both contributed to and learnt from a workshop on the Burke + Norfolk show at the Tate Gallery in London this past week, it is one we have to pursue.

To begin to answer that question requires that the frames – the cultural, political and aesthetic frames that produce what Judith Butler calls “perceptible reality” – be exposed. First up is the fact that a set of myths about the Vietnam war and the role of the media in that conflict continue to shape how both the US military and its critics approach the imaging of war.

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible is a necessary step in ending it.

For the military the lesson learnt was that they need a better way of regulating the media, which resulted in a series of schemes culminating in the system of embedding implemented for the invasion of Iraq. For the critics, the conclusion was that showing an unsanitised view of war is the basis for any critical response. As a result, much of the debate around the imaging of Afghanistan has been locked into a stand off about the pros and cons of embedding.

The problem with this framing of the options is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s ‘The Uncensored War’ – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the national frame.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of it’s historical role and potential power. The visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones-Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’ obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective. Embedding is one such frame, but it is located within frames too, especially the frame of historical memory that has mythologized aspects of Vietnam. There is also the general journalistic frame that means, in the absence of any radical divisions amongst the governing political elite, the mainstream media presents what Hallin calls a “sphere of legitimate consensus” through which debate is prescribed and critical alternatives are marginalised.

Burke + Norfolk embodies one critical response to Afghanistan – bringing the historical frame into view by putting contemporary images about the allied war machine (some of them produced while embedded) into a relationship with nineteenth century imperial portrayals (reviewed here by Russell Watson). At the Tate symposium, Mishka Henner offered another strategy.

Although a documentary photographer, Henner is now working with “photography from the world” (images produced by others) as much as “photography of the world” (his own practice). He has produced a series of creative works from Google Earth and Google Street View databases. Using the latter, No Man’s Land is an insightful project that both reveals the marginal existence of sex workers and comments on the aesthetics of landscape photography. It is, he says, part of an effort to critique visual discourses through editing and curation that re-purposes their meaning.

 

Henner is now mining the US Department of Defense photographic collection looking for categories of images produced by particular stylistic frames. In a form of ‘coding’ that is categorising pictures throughout the identification of repeated styles, he is exposing what I think could be called the “sphere of legitimate aesthetics” through which Afghanistan is being made perceptible. Henner has uncovered hundreds of images that show, for example, men and machines silhouetted against golden sunsets (what he calls “Empire Sunset” and what Beierle and Keijser called “Sunset Soldiers“), soldiers extending hands to children (“The Friend”), and military doctors treating sick civilians (“The Healer”).

Simon Norfolk’s exposure of the historical frame, and Mishka Henner’s and Beierle and Keijser’s delineation of the stylistic frame, are new critical responses, though of course they are not the only ones. They won’t end the war, because no picture has the power to do so. The cliche that certain photographs can by themselves change the world is another of the myths that needs to be dispensed with. But photographs do force us to think hard about what is happening and why. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida “ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

First photo: Life, April 16, 1965

Second photo: Sunset soldiers, February 24, 2011

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics

The killing of Osama Bin-Laden is another of those issues in which politics is located in or around the image. However, the debate about the rights or wrongs of releasing the post-mortem photograph obscures the fact that any such image will inevitably have been staged.

I’ve read the many arguments calling for the release of a picture of the dead Bin-Laden (see Pete Brook’s post of many links, as well as Joerg Colberg’s and Michael Shaw’s considered statements). In principle I would opt for openness and transparency, but in this instance I have a difficult-to-articulate unease about the calls for the Obama administration to disclose what they have got.

My unease stems from the fact that the killing was not an act of justice. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway, just to be clear) this is not to suggest Bin-Laden should be mourned. The issue is how we think about our actions in the world. Watching crowds in the US come out on the streets to celebrate a killing is to see an ironic reversal. It’s easy to imagine many of those individuals scorning mourners at, say, Arab funerals for their ‘barbarism’ in the exultation of death. I imagine the release of the post-mortem photograph in this context, where it might function as the bounty hunter’s evidence that the outlaw is no more. I’m not sorry Bin-Laden is gone. I just don’t feel the need to see an image that will close the circle that began with George W Bush’s call to get him ‘dead or alive’ and effectively render the operation as just.

The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame.

The White House’s release of a series of photographs on its Flickr stream showing the President and his national security advisers in and around the Situation Room (see above) was a fascinating but carefully managed insight into the conduct of Bin-Laden’s killing. If the post-mortem photo were to be released, it would also be part of this managed stream. But it was a small detail around another picture in the Flickr stream, of President Obama addressing the media, that showed how central the photo-op is to politics.

In a fascinating account, Donald Winslow reveals how some of the photographs of the President delivering his television statement were “from a re-enactment of his 11:45 p.m. EDT speech, performed minutes later strictly for the benefit of still cameras.” The image shown here is from one of the official White House photographers in the room during the speech. Excluded from the live event were photographers shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times and a freelancer who was filling the ISP (Independent Still Photographer) pool photographer’s slot. As one of the four photographers present recounted:

President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Many newspapers overlooked that detail in the photos caption and ran it as record made live. When they discovered it had been staged there were some angry responses, but as Winslow reported “the ‘photo op’or re-staging of a Presidential speech for the benefit of still cameras has been a long-standing practice for various administrations.”

The concern about the production of this picture deflects attention from a wider issue. If we take a step back we can see that most of the formal moments that feed news photography are theatrical and thus effectively staged. Things like a politician’s press conference, campaign speech, factory tour, walkabout, and voter meet-and-greet take place in order to produce images. (As someone who used to work as a Senator’s press secretary in Australia, I’ve participated in the organisation of these various devices). If the lens is only trained on what is in front of it that construction is missed. Those that are railing at this moment from Obama’s speech generally fail to expose the endemic conceit of daily politics and its visual coverage.

Some photographers do pull back, take in the wider scene, and show how our pictures are often of staged events framed in particular ways. From extreme situations we have Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and other examples of what some in photography inelegantly call a “goat fuck.”

From domestic politics, I recall (but cannot at the moment find) some great David Burnett photographs showing US presidential campaign stops where a vast auditorium hosts a tiny crowd of party faithful who, when pictured, look as though they fill the place. From the UK we have this great image (above) by Simon Roberts from his 2010 Election Project (which he discusses in a podcast here, starting at 51:30). This reproduction cannot do justice to the details of the large print version, but it nonetheless shows Brown in the center being interviewed by a television crew in the ‘press pen’ while other journalists and staff mill around the edges, greatly outnumbering voters. This image shows the context of a campaign stop, and happened to record one citizen, Gillian Duffy (centre, on the footpath in a blue skirt), starting to shout at the Prime Minister, precipitating an encounter that escalated into a major political crisis for Labour.

Images that address the construction of images, pictures that reveal the pervasive nature of the photo-op in our political culture, are essential to photography’s critical purpose. Calling for more of them, as opposed to a post-mortem document, might be the best response to a week in which the political and the visual have once again been enmeshed.

UPDATE 7 MAY 2011: I have revised paragraph 7 above in line with the Jeremy Nicholl’s final point in his first comment below. It now makes clear the official photo used above is from the live speech, and that it was the five news photographers who had to capture the reenactment. Jason Reed of Reuters wrote about these events on the Reuters blog and included a photo he made showing the others news photographers capturing the reenactment. After initial publication he also added a final paragraph clarifying the reasons he was asked to work this way.

 

 

First photo: P050111PS-0210. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo: P050111PS-0918. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Third photo: Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency). 122x102cm. Copyright Simon Roberts.

Fourth photo: Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama Bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Copyright Reuters/Jason Reed.

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media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.15: Syria, social media and photojournalism

Both the scale of the protests in Syria, and the violence of the regime’s response, is growing. Yet photojournalism is able to offer little about this vital story. While we have seen powerful coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen, there seem to be few if any photojournalists – either freelance or associated with the wires – at work in Syria. I have seen one Flickr stream from Syria, but given the nature of the regime, a larger photographic absence is perhaps unsurprising.

In the place of photojournalism, media outlets are using video footage and screen grabs taken from social media sites. For example, to illustrate its 25 April story “Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began,” Reuters has a gallery of ten images many of which come with this warning:

this still image [was] taken from amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on [date]. Editor’s note: Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of the video from which this still was taken.

Reuters Pictures is selling many of these images for clients in a package labelled “Arab States Conflict (Anti-Government Protests in Syria – 25 Apr 2011).” The Guardian used one of them at the top of its Syria live blog on 26 April, and has a related gallery of pictures from protests in Homs here. While the social media provenance of the images is explicit in the Reuters’ credits – they read “REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV” – it is interesting that a picture produced by others can by watermarked by Reuters to protect its value.

Some of the social media-derived pictures are dramatic, as in the case of the man throwing a rock at a tank in Deraa (above). Many of them show large crowds streaming through the streets of various towns, the military gathering around those protests, and the deadly consequences of live fire.

There is, I think, a curious effect of this reliance on amateur images. On the one hand, their lack of a professional aesthetic – especially their graininess, poor focus, and unsteady composition – signifies authenticity and immediacy. The image makers are more interested in the politics than the picture. And yet, on the other hand, their capacity to make us connect with the events portrayed is diminished by the way they render people as anonymous crowds in a middle distance. As a result we lack, I feel, an insight into the people, their passions and purpose.

In Egypt especially we saw photojournalism using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further enhance our connection.

The coverage of Syria to date offers a different lesson. It’s not an argument against ‘citizen journalism’, because in the absence of professional photojournalism the only alternative to getting pictures via social media would be total blindness. We need professionals and amateurs to combine in producing a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, when the professional are not present, something is lacking.

Top photo: A man prepares to throw a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Credit: REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.

Second photo: Syrian anti-regime protesters waving their national flag and holding a sign that reads in Arabic “Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Druze, I am Syrian” during a demonstration in the central town of Homs. Credit: YouTube/AFP/Getty Images.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.14: Looking for agents not victims in Congo

 

Paula Allen’s photograph of the women who helped build a centre for rape survivors in Bukavu, eastern Congo, is a bold depiction that combines celebration and power. As the double-page lead to Katherine Viner’s story on the City of Joy project in Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine, Allen’s photograph departs from much of the conventional reportage of the endemic violence against women in this conflict.

From the outset Viner’s story gives the women concerned a voice through the powerful speech of ‘Jeanne’, and Allen’s photos do the same, manifesting the importance of looking for agents not victims. As a Congolese project meeting the needs of Congolese women, the City of Joy project demonstrates that there are strong indigenous responses to the use of rape as a weapon of war. This theme and Allen’s images reminded me of the cliche-challenging work of Aubrey Graham (go to Images/Beyond the Victim (DRC) on her website).

Numerous photographers have documented the war in the Congo, and many of these projects have incorporated the stories of rape victims. (For multimedia examples, see the Sydney Morning Herald project “Sexual Warfare in the DRC“, Jean Chung’s “Tears in the Congo” or Robin Hammond’s  “Rape of a Nation“). In many ways its remarkable that women who have suffered so much are so willing to speak.

Last summer Aric Mayer wrote an incisive analysis of the problems associated with the photography of sexual violence. He summarised his concerns:

The issues brought up in photographing rape survivors are complex and potentially harmful to the subjects. The ways that photography, video and film function as representative media, and the economies and markets within which they are funded, produced, distributed, achieve recognition and ultimately widespread public exposure can mirror in some ways the trauma of sexual violence.

The possibilities for increasing the trauma are significant. There is the imposition of another person’s vision upon one’s personage, the loss of control over one’s likeness, the potential for permanent and public association with one’s trauma, the problem of consent when one is asked for it by someone in a position of power, and the commodification of one’s own suffering.

The dilemma here is that the normal photographic strategies for “giving an issue a face” can lead to a perpetuation of the original trauma. As Aric concludes:

Publishing names, faces and stories increases the overall reader/viewer engagement with the story. Therefore media pressure will frequently be in the direction of increased disclosure. It also permanently associates a survivor with their trauma in a world where the internet is increasingly available.

Despite the many stories of rape victims already produced, new work is planned. One example is the “Besieged” project that is pitching for crowd-funded support on Emphas.is. A collaboration between Sarah Elliott, Benedicte Kurzen, Ying Ang, and Agnes Dherbeys, they “have come together for this project to remind the world about the horrors of systematic rape in Eastern Congo.” I am not arguing for or against support for their project, though I have reservations about the assumptions linking visibility to political action that are behind the pitch. In a comment on the Emphas.is blog back in January, I suggested they take heed of Aric Mayer’s analysis, and Benedicte replied positively to this suggestion. However, that doesn’t seem to have had an impact on their public call, which details how they intend to construct “a large-scale PORTRAIT INSTALLATION of as many of the women, men and children raped over a 4-day period in Walikale of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as possible.”

While I can’t fault either the commitment or the desire of the “Besieged” partners to do something productive, are more portraits of rape victims – including children – the best way to go? They do outline other dimensions to the project, but pictures of victims are at its core. What if  the “representation of the humanity of these people” paradoxically mirrors the trauma of sexual violence? Might not an emphasis on the agency of victims, as in the photographs of Paula Allen and Aubrey Graham, be a more accurate and engaging visual strategy?

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media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.13: Target Libya

More than 100 newspaper front pages are running Goran Tomasevic’s photographs of the airstrikes on Libya. These scans have been made and circulated today by Thomson Reuters, and demonstrate how particular images attract the eye of picture editors around the world. His most featured photograph shows “a bomb from an allied aircraft explod[ing] among vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Col Muammar el-Qaddafi during an airstrike Sunday.”

Pictures like these are what a British cabinet minister called “emotional optics” – visuals that prompt affective responses to international events. The impact of these “emotional optics” on public support for this military campaign remains to be seen, but the echoes of Iraq are concerning those responsible for the strikes.

 

 

 

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Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (1): Representing ‘Africa’

Welcome to “The Back Catalogue,” the first in an occasional series of themed posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The second post in the series deals with photojournalism in the new media economy, while the third covers representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

Here, starting with the oldest, here are items dealing in various ways with the visual representation of ‘Africa’.

POSTS:

ARTICLES:

Salgado and the Sahel: Documentary Photography and the Imaging of Famine,” in Rituals of Mediation: International Politics and Social Meaning, edited by Francois Debrix and Cindy Weber (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 69-96

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

The Visual Economy of HIV/AIDS as a Security Issue, 135 pages, research report for the AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative, May 2008.

“‘Black Skin and Blood’: Documentary Photography and Santu Mofokeng’s Critique of the Visualization of Apartheid South Africa,History and Theory 48 (4) 2009, 52-58.

(with Marcus Power) “The Scopic Regime of ‘Africa’,” in Observant States: Geopolitics and Visual Culture, edited by Fraser Macdonald, Klaus Dodds and Rachel Hughes (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

The Iconography of Famine,” in Picturing Atrocity: Reading Photographs in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books, in press, forthcoming 2011).

PROJECTS:

Imaging Famine (2005)

 

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo: globevisions michele molinari, Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.11: Kevin Frayer’s aerial view of Afghanistan

Different perspectives on the landscape of war in Afghanistan do exist. Two weeks ago The Frame (the photo blog of Californian newspaper The Sacramento Bee) published “Helmand Province from above,” nineteen black and white images from Kevin Frayer.

Kevin Frayer is a Canadian photojournalist currently working as the Associated Press Chief Photographer for South Asia. His work on the coal scavengers in Bokapahari, India was featured last week in The Guardian’s series “From the Agencies,” and demonstrates the skills of contemporary news agency photographers.

Frayer made the Helmand images this January while flying in a US Army medevac helicopter. The aerial view has historically been associated with a military perspective, particularly in the form of surveillance, but Frayer’s photographs show a range of scenes as the aircraft flies overhead, some of them featuring daily life, others recording moments of military activity.

Aside from their evident quality, Frayer’s photographs demonstrate that being on a military embed does not require the photographer to record only military subjects. In contrast to the three famous photographers who produced (among other images) very similar pictures of US casualties inside the medevac helicopters, Frayer has trained his lens outside the helicopter in order to take in a wider context by showing ordinary moments of daily life in Helmand.

(For a photographer’s discussion of the ‘medevac story’ phenomena see Daniel Etter’s post at dvafoto. There was an angry response from Louie Palu, one of the three photographers named in the BagNews post on the three similar images, reported in PDN, although his reaction doesn’t diminish Michael Shaw’s original argument about the overall effect of three major publications producing very similar and near simultaneous stories.)

Being black and white, Frayer’s photographs are also interesting in relation to the recent debate over the merits of Damon Winter’s iPhone pictures (which I discussed here, along with the similar imagery of David Guttenfelder). Because of the historical and professional legitimacy of black and white imagery in photojournalism, Frayer’s photographs are unlikely to attract any of the opprobrium directed at Winter, even though they are as unavoidably aesthetic as any photographic image of Afghanistan.

Main photo: In this aerial photo taken 20 January 2011 Afghans play soccer as seen from a medevac helicopter of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Shadow “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-214 Aviation Regiment near Marjah in the volatile Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan. Kevin Frayer/Associated Press.

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media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.

Categories
media economy photography politics

Learning from Larry: what crowd funding photojournalism means and how to do it better

Larry Towell is one of the most accomplished contemporary photojournalists. Two weeks ago I became a backer of his “Crisis in Afghanistan” project, pledging $25 through Kickstarter. Today was the deadline for Larry to attract backers, and with 143 supporters contributing $14,007, the project exceeded its target and is up and running.

I became a backer because I want to see alternative visions of Afghanistan produced and Larry should be able to use his talents to produce something different. But I also pledged a small amount because I want to see how crowd funding via Kickstarter works from the perspective of a contributor. I’m going to follow Larry’s project through the various stages from now until completion and will periodically report on what, as a minor backer, I can see happening.

The proposal for “Crisis in Afghanistan” has been the subject of some controversy in the last month, with a series of posts on duckrabbit beginning here and here, some heated debate spilling over into the Kickstarter comments, some observations from A Photo Editor here and a critique of the concept of crowd funding from Daniel Cuthbert that involved an interesting exchange with Tomas van Houtryve, who offered his own take here. I’ll touch one some of the points raised in between the heat of these exchanges, but I want to stick to the big picture – what can we learn about crowd funding photojournalism from Larry’s pitch?

Understanding crowd funding in theory

Crowd funding is one manifestation of the new possibilities opened up by the disruptive power of the Internet. Because the barriers between producers and consumers have been breached, and because our capacity to create communities has been greatly enhanced, creators can now look in new places for supporters.

Of course, the need to look for new ways to fund projects has been necessitated by the same disruptive power of the Internet. While it is not the sole cause of the revolutions in the media economy, the Internet has hastened the decline of traditional modes of distribution. Instead of bemoaning the loss of long-past certainties, the challenge is how to leverage these new forces to finance new work. In an earlier post on making documentary possible, I outlined the various ways this was happening, and Kickstarter and Emphas.is were two of the examples discussed (see also Phil Coomes’ post on BBC Viewfinder).

Looking at the overall context, what drives the potential of these new approaches to funding is the way the web opens up possibilities to create communities around practices and projects, such that those communities then become sources of support including money. At the heart of this logic is the recognition that ‘free’ is now an essential part of getting paid (as I explain here, ‘free’ remains one of the most wilfully misunderstood concepts of the web 2.0 world, especially in photography circles).

Creating communities is an essential part of the concept of crowd funding. Communities come from engaging potential members, making them participants in the production and circulation of one’s project, rather than just viewing them as donors to call on from time to time. It can be understood as the search for “a thousand true fans” out of the many people who might like your work, and examples of how it works can be studied by reference to the music industry, as I’ve noted in my previous posts.

In this sense, I disagree with the way Daniel Cuthbert cast crowd funding per se as “a virtual begging bowl,” a fancy name for “handing out a cap to the world and begging for them to help you.” And I disagree with the anonymous ‘iamnotasuperstarphotographer’ – author of the duckrabbit posts that took aim at Larry Towell’s project – who repeats the related claim that crowd funding is in essence just “charity.”

Part of the debate around crowd funding comes from judging it as though crowd funding was a singular business model that could offer a sustainable means for financing the global practice of photojournalism. If anyone is claiming that they need to think again. The days of “a business model” that is universally applicable are long gone. Photographers wanting to work in the difficult area of story telling are going to have to – as so often in the past – put together a number of often in-direct revenue streams.

Crowd funding, even in its early Kickstarter forms, can be one of those revenue streams. It will never be the financial answer to a photographer’s every needs. But it is undeniably a source of money to enable new work. For it to be the most effective source, for both the creator and their backers, it needs to be founded on communities created through engagement with the project in question.

What about recent examples of crowd funding photojournalism?

Do the early examples of crowd funding follow the concept in theory? Not really. So although it is wrong to see crowd funding per se as nothing more than begging like a charity, Tomas van Houtryve is correct to say, after reviewing some recent proposals, that “photographers need to drop the ‘donate’ or ‘help save me’ vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee.” Refocusing on the issue of creating communities is the way to do that.

So what about Larry Towell’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project? Was it more about charity than creating a community?

Much of the projects success came from Larry’s status as a Magnum photographer making a bid backed by Magnum. Previous visits to Afghanistan have been funded by the Magnum Emergency Fund, money pledged from Kickstarter goes through the Magnum Foundation, and Magnum in Motion produced the supporting video appeal. Among the contributors are many famous photographic and media names, so ‘the community’ that rallied behind this project was one already in place and prepared to give. This was, then, more a case of donation than engagement.

Had the pitch for the “Crisis in Afghanistan” come from an unknown photographer I very much doubt if it would have succeeded. I know I certainly wouldn’t have contributed. Here’s why:

  • Support is requested for a fifth trip to Afghanistan since 2008, but there is little detail about the work done on the four previous trips. When were the trips undertaken? With whom and how? What topics were covered? How many images were produced? What is the size of the best edit from this work?
  • There is little detail about what remains to be done. According to the project statement “your support will enable me to finish shooting, and to interview landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.” Isn’t that a lot to do in “four to five weeks”? Are contacts in place or yet to be made? What is the narrative that these characters are part of?
  • There is no budget. All the statement says is “Afghanistan is a very expensive country in which to work, due to the need to hire professional fixers, interpreters, and drivers, and your support will help to cover these costs.” Why $12,000 then? How does that break down? What is the contingency if costs exceed this budget? What happens to the money raised over and above the original target?
  • There is little detail on the outcomes. Funding “will result in a book of photographs and text,” and the video flicks through a book dummy that looks pretty substantial. What is the text going to say? Who is the publisher? When will it be out? How will it be promoted so it’s part of the political debate?

If Larry didn’t have a great track record already would a proposal with these unanswered questions have garnered the funding? If a student came to me with a project proposal like Larry’s I would have sent them away to do much more work on both context and logistics. If you aren’t a famous photographer seeking support you need to prepare a much more professional pitch, and must, as David White argued, be more open and transparent about all the elements of their project. Daniel Cuthbert has outlined some of the elements of a professional pitch here.

The problem of narrative and politics in “Crisis in Afghanistan”

Above all else, the biggest problem with Larry’s project as presented is we don’t know what the story is, and what details there are about the political context are as unspecified or problematic as the logistics. I think that narrative is one of the key features of good photography, and its something lacking in Larry’s project proposal.

In the video Larry says he wants to offer an “alternative view of Afghanistan,” something “a little different.” Great. Different to what though? The specified list of Afghan victims has been much photographed so what is he going to offer that others haven’t? Being concerned with victims is a starting point, but is the project going to do more than put them on display? How is it going to avoid the romantic clichés that Stephen Mayes spoke about in his 2009 World Press Photo lecture (where he wryly observed that “I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House”). What is the narrative that takes us from the Soviets, to landmines, to heroin, to Obama’s dilemma – all points highlighted in the project video?

And then we come to the political framing of the project. The Kickstarter statement begins with the claim that “for 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.” As Asim Rafiqui pointed out, that is nonsense. “Civil war” presumes no outside intervention, which is obviously not true. In the project video Larry says “Afghan culture is about 5,000 years old and they have been fighting foreign interventions for most of that time.” While that recognises the interventions, the generalisation about thousands of years is equally nonsense, the sort of claim ‘we’ often make about foreign societies, flattening their history onto one miserable dimension. An alternative account of Afghanistan must go beyond that.

It is no longer acceptable for photojournalists to peddle unsupported observations about world issues they want to picture. If you want to produce a book that is part of the contemporary debate over Afghanistan, you have to have some political nouse. That depends on the hard graft of research and analysis, yet, as Ciara Leeming recently observed, too many photographers have forgotten the ‘journalism’ part of their story telling brief. I don’t know what research Larry has done or plans to do, and I can’t tell what his sources are, because the pitch didn’t specify these vital elements. Any professional bid for a reportage project must be based on good research and name the sources of its evidence.

The need to engage

Transparency, openness and engagement are among the essential ways of operating in the web 2.0 world. One controversy over Larry’s Afghanistan project kicked off when Larry’s brusque handling of a potential contributor’s important questions – similar to the ones I have asked above about narrative and politics – were highlighted for “for transparency lovers everywhere.” (I have to note the irony of someone who posts under an anonymous tag, and refuses to make any details about themselves public, calling out a publicly known figure for being opaque. I also have to disclose that I have disagreed regularly with this anonymous poster when he/she has submitted comments to my site).

Although the debate then went off the rails, Larry’s response was poor. David Allen Harvey defended Larry’s “awkwardness” with questions by claiming he “is totally averse to interviews, blogs, all of these things.” If that is the case, then he was a poor candidate for crowd funding, because using social media tools to communicate with supporters so they can participate in the project is essential to making this approach work. Sadly, as Tomas van Houtryve’s assessment of recent projects shows other photographers also fail to make engagement on on-going priority.

Crowd funding offers great potential as one amongst many sources of revenue for photojournalists, but it is not designed to be the solution for a sustainable income. It will be interesting to watch Emphas.is – which has a different structure – when it joins Kickstarter as a platform, along with others like the UK-based WeFund.

To succeed crowd funding needs to be meaningfully connected to communities around a photographer’s practice, and that means a new way of working for many. I will be putting a link to this post on Larry’s Facebook page in the hope of engaging him on some of these issues. I genuinely hope he can produce an effective new project with an alternative vision. In the meantime, I am looking forward to my post card from Larry thanking me for my financial contribution.

 

Want to know more? Webinar on Emphas.is and crowd funding:

UPDATE 13 APRIL 2010: Tomas van Hotryve participated in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa (the CEO of Emphas.is) and Paul Lowe (Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication), on Tuesday February 1, 2011. A recording of this OPEN-i session can be found on Vimeo.

Categories
photography politics

The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’

‘Development pornography’. ‘Poverty porn’. ‘Disaster porn’. ‘Ruin porn’. ‘War porn’. ‘Famine porn’. ‘Stereotype porn’. When it comes to the representation of atrocity and suffering, the charge of pornography abounds (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

What does it mean to use this term so frequently in relation to so many different situations? What are the conditions supposedly signified by ‘pornography’? Might this singular term obscure more than it reveals?

With last week’s the anniversary of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake I recalled a BBC Radio 4 segment that asked if the news photographs of the disaster were too graphic. John Humphrey’s introduced the segment as follows:

Disaster pornography. It’s a powerful and disturbing phrase, coined by Brendan Gormley, the man who runs the Disasters and Emergencies Committee, to describe what so often emerges after a terrible tragedy like Haiti. You know exactly what he means – the pictures of victims that show in shocking detail what’s happened to them, stripped of life and often stripped of dignity.

Humphrey’s was wrong on the origin of the term because it predates Gormley’s usage by a long way. In NGO circles it has been common for some time (see this example from Somalia 1993), and, as I shall argue below, it has a very long conceptual history.

But Humphrey’s statement – “You know exactly what he means” – is revealing. ‘Pornography’, he suggests, is a term that invokes a conventional wisdom, something we know without having to be told, something we can identify without even looking.

Like all concepts that seem natural it needs unpicking. To consider what the frequent use of ‘pornography’ to describe the representation of suffering involves I want to draw on the historian Carolyn Dean’s research to suggest its time we stopped speaking of ‘porn’ in relation to photographic portrayals.

Let me be clear on two points, though. The first is that there are representations or objects that can be analysed as pornographic, so dispensing with the concept in relation to picturing atrocity is not to argue it is inapplicable in all other circumstances. The second is that the problems and limitations in photography sometimes identified via the label of ‘pornography’ are serious and in need of remedy. The reliance on stereotypes, among many other problems, has to be addressed (see my earlier posts on famine icons here and here for how this argument can proceed). It’s just that labelling these concerns ‘pornography’ doesn’t get us far.

So why has ‘porn’ because a common term of critique, and what are its limitations?

SOME HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

From the eighteenth century onwards, during the Enlightenment, sympathy for others was deemed to be one of the characteristics of a modern, feeling individual. This was part of a general cultural change that gave rise to humanitarianism – compassion and a reluctance to inflict pain were marked as civilized values with cruelty deemed barbaric and savage.

With development reducing the daily experience of suffering, people were motivated to help others through representations that offered symbolic proximity to the victim. From the beginning, long before the technology of photography, there were cultural worries about perceived impediments to empathy, such as images and narratives that produced insufficient compassion or disingenuous sympathy.

The recent history of ‘pornography’ as a term for cultural anxiety demonstrates how it names many things but explains few. The modern concept of ‘pornographic’ emerged in the 1880s when, Dean argues, authorities in America and Europe sought to control literature that “provoked antisocial sexual sensations and acts in those deemed morally weak or unformed – women, children and working-class men.” They feared that the goal of a “normal,” healthy population would be undermined by the expression of inappropriate desires.

After World War One, in addition to sexually explicit material, the idea of ‘pornography’ migrated to representations of suffering that allegedly dehumanized and objectified their subjects, usually veterans. World War Two saw this usage intensify with, for example, James Agee (the writer who worked with Walker Evans on Let us Now Praise Famous Men) declaring that the newsreel footage from the battle at Iwo Jima was degrading to anyone who looked at it because it created an “incurable distance” between the subject and viewer.

From 1960 onwards this sense of ‘porn’ as a barrier to identification with victims was accelerated by discussions around the representation of the Holocaust, and Dean spends much of The Fragility of Empathy dealing with the numerous examples where the charge of ‘pornography’ dominates debate about which visual representations of the Nazi genocide were permissible.

THREATS TO EMPATHY

In the evaluation of ourselves as human and civilised, ‘we’ have often expressed anxieties about our collective ability to feel compassion. What Dean calls “threats to empathic identification” have been repeatedly identified since the eighteenth century, and today ‘bad images’ are high on the suspect list. In this context our cultural anxieties are expressed via another of those oft-repeated slogans that pretend to offer an explanation – “compassion fatigue.” As Dean writes:

Assertions that we are numb and indifferent to suffering, that exposure to narratives and images of suffering has generated new and dramatic forms of emotional distance, however they are transmitted, are by now commonplace in both the United States and western Europe.

In photographic circles, this view is another conventional wisdom. For example, in his review of the 2010 Exposed exhibition at the Tate, Gerry Badger wrote that he found the show, despite its sections dealing with sexual voyeurism and violence, a little “tame”:

I don’t think this sense of tameness was simply a result of critic’s déja vu, but something more fundamental. I think it may also reflect Susan Sontag’s point, made in her book On Photography (1977) – an extremely prescient point in pre-internet days. Writing about the effect of increased exposure to pornographic or violent photographs, she remarked: “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetise.”

This brings us to a crucial issue. Sontag’s “road” has become a 12-lane superhighway. It’s the issue – perhaps largely unseen, but certainly not unspoken – that hangs over Exposed, just outside the galleries, like the seven-eighths of an iceberg that lies underwater – the ubiquity, and incredible proliferation of photographic images in our society thanks (if that is the right word) to the internet. Not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of the almost total lack of control regarding their content.

Badger’s statement expresses the anxieties perfectly – the proliferation of images, the lack of control over their content, and the inevitable dulling of our moral senses. No matter how neat the associations between images and action (or lack thereof), and no matter how often it is repeated, we can’t get away from the fact that this is just a claim unsupported by evidence. Indeed, I argue that that compassion fatigue is a myth.

Third Frame Conference: Professor David Campbell from OPEN-i (Open Photojournalism Edu on Vimeo.

There is, of course, much more work to be done detailing the evidence to support my position, but I made some preliminary remarks to this effect at the LCC’s “Third Image” symposium in December 2009, available in the recording above. However,  there is one indisputable counterpoint to Badger we can easily note: his de rigeur reference to the early Sontag overlooks the fact the argument was reversed in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), where she stated such claims about the failure of atrocity images had become a cliché. Sontag’s road, even as a superhighway, doesn’t go in the direction Badger and so many others describe.

ALL THAT ‘PORN’ SIGNIFIES

I’ve noted above the complex history of ‘pornography’ and its varied use in different contexts. Dean calls ‘porn’ a promiscuous term, and when we consider the wide range of conditions it attaches itself to, this pun is more than justified. As a signifier of responses to bodily suffering, ‘pornography’ has come to mean the violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion, and a fair number more.

Furthermore, this litany of possible conditions named by ‘pornography’ is replete with contradictory relations between the elements. Excesses mark some of the conditions while others involve shortages. Critics, Dean argues, are also confused about whether ‘pornography’ is the cause or effect of these conditions.

The upshot is that a term with a complex history, a licentious character and an uncertain mode of operation fails to offer an argument or a framework for understanding the work images do. It is at one and the same time too broad and too empty, applied to so much yet explaining so little. As a result, Dean concludes that ‘pornography’

functions primarily as an aesthetic or moral judgement that precludes an investigation of traumatic response and arguably diverts us from the more explicitly posed question: how to forge a critical use of empathy? (emphasis added)

I think this is correct. The repeated and indiscriminate use of ‘porn’ is a substitute for evidence in arguments about the alleged exhaustion of empathy. ‘Porn’ has become part of a fable that asserts we fail to recognise our ethical obligations towards others, and have become habituated to suffering because so many pictures have become threats to empathic identification.

THE ISSUES THAT REMAIN

Long on assertion and short on evidence, ‘pornography’ should be dispensed with as a term related to visual representations of suffering. However, that is not the same as arguing that all is right with conventional photographs of atrocity and disaster. Many of the problems ‘porn’ attached itself to must be dealt with in relation to specific images in specific contexts, and many of the previous posts here have attempted to do that. It is just that aggregating those concerns under one banner prevents us from engaging the problems properly.

We also need to ask some hard questions about what and where are the main threats to empathy. In the wake of two world wars and a century of genocide, our inability to stop the suffering of others has been painfully demonstrated. Our collective failure produces cultural anxieties, and they have been exacerbated by our post-WWII condition. Simultaneously we have developed a greater awareness of distant atrocities because of media technologies, and a human rights culture that details responsibilities with regard to people beyond our immediate borders. ‘Pornography’ and ‘compassion fatigue’ are alibis, slogans that substitute for answers to this gap between heightened awareness and limited response, which is limited at least in relation to the scale of the challenges.

Has there been a failure of empathy in recent times? I’m not sure. The size and vitality of the charity sector (see here), whatever the problems with NGOs (see here), might be evidence of on-going ethical commitments. Are photographs of suffering a threat to empathy? Some are, and some are not, but we need to know a lot more about how people actually respond to images before we can offer definitive conclusions. What if, rather than being emotionally exhausted, any lack of empathy comes from people deciding they just don’t want to know about atrocity regardless of the nature of the available pictures? There is much more thought to be undertaken around these issues, but one thing is clear – labelling everything ‘porn’ is not helping.

References:

Carolyn J. Dean, “Empathy, Pornography, and Suffering,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14 (1) 2003, pp. 88-124

Carolyn J. Dean, The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004)

Karen Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” The American Historical Review 100 (2) 1995, pp. 303-334

Photo credit: Incognita Nom de Plume

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Caption: Orich Florestal (left), 24 and Rosemond Altidon, 22, stand on the edge of their partially destroyed apartment of Port-au-Prince January 9, 2011. Photo: Allison Shelley/Reuters.

One year ago this week a massive earthquake struck Haiti killing 230,000 people. Media coverage of the disaster was both extensive and intensive. One year on, the international media has been running stories marking the anniversary. This week we have seen (amongst many others) visual compilations from media outlets like The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, Time, and from INGOs like UNICEF, not to mention Christian Aid’s sponsorship of Wolfgang Tillman’s unremarkable snaps.

Thinking about these journalistic memorials, and looking back at the original coverage, what are some of the on-going issues relevant to the photographic coverage of disasters? This post will be far from either a comprehensive account of all the concerns or a comprehensive review of all the relevant pictures, but will raise what I think is the most important question – how can visual storytellers report context?

In addition to the legions of print and broadcast journalists who flew into Port-au-Prince in January 2010, more than 80 photographers arrived to cover the aftermath. As the Reuters photographer Jorge Silva observed, the situation they found was overwhelming and overpowering. By and large the images they produced were individually powerful records of destruction and suffering.

The photographer Daniel Morel – a resident of Port au Prince who contributes to Corbis – produced what became the iconic image of a dust-covered survivor being pulled from the wreckage. Morel (later embroiled in a legal fight over the misuse of his image by AFP and others) was critical of the motives of many who came to cover the crisis:

Since the earthquake, I’m documenting what happened for the next generation. I’m not taking photos for a contest or for a prize. I’m taking pictures for history. I want the next generation to see more. I want the next generation to feel it — what happened.

CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was one of those Morel derided for being outside the story and playing with the people, and BagNewsNotes provided a compelling shot-by-shot critique of a Cooper report. But Cooper was just one of the reporters characterising post-earthquake Haiti as a ‘lawless jungle‘ populated either by pathetic individuals who could do nothing but wait for external assistance or by ‘savages’ taking advantage of anarchy. Inevitably, there were media critiques about the prevalence of “pornographic” pictures, the misleading use of captions to direct meaning (as in the description of survival tactics as “looting“), and predictable public lamentations from newspaper editors about the difficulties of using graphic images (see the New York Times public editor, the Washington Post public editor, and this overview of the issue. For my take on the presentation of death in the media, see the essay “Horrific Blindness” here).

However, the major problem of this early coverage was that it proceeded from a false premise. The earthquake in Haiti was not a “natural disaster.” Of course it was triggered by an event in nature, but the consequences of that event were a result of economic, social and political factors. When an earthquake of the same magnitude struck California in 1989, the death toll was 63 not a quarter of a million. It was social infrastructure and economic well-being that produced such radically different outcomes. Seismologists say buildings not earthquakes kill people. But how does one picture that when a population has been decimated?

To be sure, in situations like the Haiti earthquake we need photographers recording the immediate aftermath. In terms of the immediate response, I wouldn’t’ disagree with the thrust of Jorge Silva’s reflection:

Many people ask if journalists help in disasters. I don’t think we help directly. Our job is to trigger the response from institutions that do. This is what motivates us to come to these places, to point the eyes of the world toward people who are suffering and clamoring for help. We have to sensitize people to the situation through our pictures.

But does it take 80 international photographers producing noticeably similar images to do this? Michael David Murphy identified numerous redundant images coming out of Haiti, and suggested that one way to avoid this in future would be to create a pool system:

Why don’t media outlets join forces to divide and conquer the enormity of a situation like Haiti’s? Media outlets could assign individual photographers to follow one aspect of the Haiti story, and the story could be published by all participating outlets.

The multiple images of Fabienne Cherisma, a young woman shot by police, were a poignant conjunction of the issues of redundancy and death. In what was an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, Pete Brook spoke to many of the 15 photographers who made pictures of Fabienne and analysed the issue in a series of important posts. (See also the open-i discussion of this, and for the photographers’ response to the issue of how many covered the disaster, see “Too many angles on suffering?“).

Image redundancy can be a problem, but not one that should lead to a structured pool system. We need multiple perspectives of the same event so that we can establish a “concordance of evidence” and avoid an individual photographer being falsely subjected to charges of manipulation. However, in a situation like Haiti, given the numbers of photographers there, surely we can have multiple perspectives and different stories that probe the context?

The piece that still stands out from the original coverage of the earthquake is Peter van Agtmael’s “Convoy to Nowhere” which reported on the frustrating passage of an aid shipment. Its effectiveness comes from having identified a larger issue beyond immediate suffering, produced a series of pictures, and provided captions that helped establish a narrative into which those pictures are embedded.

Photo: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos for The Wall Street Journal

The bulk of daily photo/journalism exists in – and produces – an “eternal present” where things that are immediate, here and now, drive the images and stories. Once the initial moment has passed, what we need are stories that move beyond frozen time to investigate the history, context, and implications of what we have witnessed.

One year on from the earthquake, how to the reviews stack up in this regard? There have been some excellent features that tackle the issue of time and context head on. NPR’s David Gilkey revisited some key locations and produced some ‘before and after’ dyptichs, The New York Times has an interactive using satellite images of Port au Prince to show the environs before the quake, immediately after and now, and BagNewsNotes marked the anniversary with two Mario Tama photos from the same location a year apart.

Most of the retrospectives paint a picture of a country still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake. In large part that is because Haiti is still struggling. Only 5% of the rubble has been removed. Only 15% of houses have been rebuilt. Countries that promised large sums of aid are yet to deliver. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) has been criticized for failures in governance, and the thousands of NGOs have been slated for lack of coordination. All this means 810,000 Haitians currently remain in temporary camps, and three quarters of them are likely to be still there at year’s end.

If there is one visual form that should be able to address this challenge of detailing context and contesting the ‘eternal present’ it should be multimedia (by which I mean photographers using audio and video in addition to their still images to tell stories).  However, I have not found many examples to review (if you have links do pass them on). Khalid Mohtaseb’s short film started a vigorous debate about “cinematic journalism”. Although Mohtaseb said he wanted to tell a different story it was in effect a technical exercise rather than a journalistic account. Benjamin Lowy has just released a short film with images from early 2010, but it lacks any sense of a narrative. The best collection I have seen is AlertNet’s 12 portraits of people affected by the disaster.

The international community managed the initial emergency response to Haiti with sufficient effectiveness to get aid to millions. Likewise, photojournalism managed to offer its form of the emergency response, ample documentation of the suffering and devastation. What the international community has not done is carry through on its promises of reconstruction and redevelopment. And what photojournalism has for the most part not done is turn its attention directly to that failure and the wider context. Both are relatively good at responding to crises, and less good at producing long-term commitments and perspectives.

After the earthquake Magnum Photos established an internal fund to support in-depth coverage of Haiti for the next twelve months. It is not clear if this resulted in any new work (though I will be asking them). Has anyone else produced a visual story that dismantles the sense of Haiti’s eternal present and addresses the context of its current situation?

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.7: Sudan’s politics in pictures

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Sudan faces a momentous week beginning Sunday 9 January. A referendum in the south, mandated as part of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, could lead to the division of the country and the creation of a new state. Voting will take place over a week and the result should be known within a month of the polls’ closing.

Photo: Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images

For western eyes, Sudan has most often appeared as a site of famine or war, be it in the south or Darfur. Said to be “one of the hollow-bellied places of the world” or a landscape “seared by war,” the continent’s largest country has often been rendered via stereotypical images.

The politics of the situation facing Sudan is inevitably complex (the International Crisis Group has excellent analyses of the situation here and Alex de Waal has his usual profound insights here). So how can it be visualized? How can politics be represented in pictures?

This week we have seen two conventional strategies in response to that challenge. The first is to invoke images from the past, as in Lucian Perkin’s film for the United States Holocaust Historical Museum, which is running on The Guardian’s web site. Perkin’s film is interesting for the way it begins with Tom Stoddart’s black and white photographs of the 1998 Bar El Ghazal famine before moving onto personal testimony from civil war survivors.

The second is to record the appearance of the visible traces of politics, namely leaders engaged in ceremonies where the trappings of sovereignty are evident. Peter Martell’s pictures of President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to the south earlier this week are an example of this, showing Bashir’s welcome by the south’s leader Salva Kiir, with the requisite red carpet, military officials and marching band.

It is a lot to ask of a single photograph that it represent the complexities of politics, no matter how talented the photographer. No doubt in the week ahead we will see pictures of polling stations, queues of voters, and people raising inky fingers to signify the completion of their electoral act (hopefully images of conflict will be absent). Who, though, will produce something a little different?

UPDATE 8 JANUARY 2011

I didn’t catch up with yesterday’s print edition of The Guardian until this morning and found that the up-coming referendum was marked on their double-page Eyewitness spread by Stefan De Luigi’s photo of a woman gathering rubbish on the Juba dump where she lives. It seems an extraordinarily problematic choice for this political story. For those who hoped the stereotypes of ‘Africa’ as a place of absence, lack and distress were diminishing, the prominent publication of this sort of image in relation to this sort of story demonstrates we have a long way to go. It is possible (though I can’t confirm this) that the photograph comes from De Luigi’s Getty-supported “TIA – This is Africa” project, which was so effectively analysed by John Edwin Mason in October last year.

Caption: A woman gathers rubbish on a landfill site, where she lives, in Juba city. Voters in southern Sudan are preparing to vote on Sunday, when a seven-day referendum on separation from Africa’s biggest country begins. Photo: Stefan De Luigi/VII

While the above picture is flawed for this political story, the mainstream media does not necessarily have a consistent approach to visual representation. So in today’s Guardian we find a strong image from Spencer Platt of prosperous women in a pro-independence parade through Juba this week. If nothing else, it demonstrates their are always options when it comes to both the production and publication of photographs.

Caption: Hope at last: Women drive in a pro-independence parade in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, this week. Most of the four million registered voters are expected to choose separation. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan

 

The US-led war in Afghanistan is one of the longest running conflicts in America’s history. After more than nine years, the US and its allies have been fighting in Afghanistan longer than Soviet Union was by the time of its 1989 withdrawal. The war in Afghanistan has also surpassed the formal duration of the Vietnam War, although that claim can be contested.

Photographing this war has only been possible through the system of embedded journalism the US and its allies established for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading to an understandable concentration on certain locales like the Korengal Valley (as I discussed here, in a good debate with Tim Hetherington). Only on rare occasions have we seen the conflict from a perspective beyond allied forces, as in the Taliban photographs recently made by Gaith Abdul-Ahad.

Covering such a long-running conflict, the dynamics of which have not altered greatly in its nine years, necessarily produces a certain uniformity to the subjects conveyed. In Boston.com’s Big Picture gallery for November 2010 we see 43 high quality images that detail allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families. There is also an inevitable regularity to the look of these images. As Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has noted,

most photojournalists working today, including me, are using similar equipment (very high end 35mm digital SLR cameras) so what we do sometimes looks very uniform.

The aesthetics of the conflict is a vital dimension of assessing how the war in Afghanistan as been pictured. But to raise the issue of “aesthetics” is to travel into troubled terrain. A lot of photojournalism is still predicated on the idea that it conveys “things as they are.” This phrase stems from a Sir Fancis Bacon quotation that Dorothea Lange regarded as her working motto:

The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error and confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention

It also provides the title for the World Press Photo book on the history of photojournalism (Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955), it crops up in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment, and I heard David Hurn invoke those same words during a foto8 seminar in October this year.

The commitment to photojournalism’s descriptive ethos in opposition to “a whole harvest of invention” runs deep. It is a commitment that suggests description is distinct from aesthetics, which is taken to be solely about art and beauty, such that any attempt to “aestheticize” a reality like war is morally suspect.

Photo: Private Santiago taking a cigarette break after a firefight. Damon Winter/NYT

We have seen this in recent months through the mixed reactions to the Afghan war images made with iPhones and photography apps. In March this year David Guttenfelder produced a portfolio of Polaroid-like pictures (using ShakeIt Photo) detailing daily military life in Afghanistan. Then last month Damon Winter also made an iPhone series with the Hipstamatic app, one of which was used in the New York Times.

For both Guttenfelder and Winter these pictures, made in addition to their “straight”, DLSR produced, photographs were designed to represent both the daily grind of the war and the vernacular images that soldiers themselves take. According to Winter, “composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate…And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.” Guttenfelder made this interesting observation:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that Marines and soldiers are now shooting more photos and video themselves. They email them home or post them on their Facebook pages. I’ve even seen them set up a little point-and-shoot video camera next to themselves in the middle of a firefight. But usually they photograph the little moments during their down time to show how they live. The photos are little bits of memory, keepsakes from their long deployments, and a way of communicating with people back home. So, in a way, I was trying to create those kinds of real-life, non-newsy snapshots that Marines might shoot for themselves.

One of the things that is interesting about the Guttenfelder and Winter pictures I have chosen here is their stylistic similarity to Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo winner of an exhausted US solider in the Korengal Valley. It seems that whatever the chosen tools, some looks are common.

That said, the need to produce something new after nine years of war is part of what is driving photographers to deploy new approaches and tools. It is evident in different subject matter like Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen, and in novel forms like Damon Winter’s rotating panoramas of US military locations. However, the attention garnered by iPhone pictures and the panoramas led two of the best analysts of contemporary photography to a shared critical commentary on Twitter (14 December 2010):

(Michael Shaw, @BagNewsNotes) Hate to sound like luddite, but iPhone pics and now buzz re: 360º views feels like war coverage has forgotten the war. http://nyti.ms/fiPX4O

@BagNewsNotes couldnt agree more: 1st mobile hipstamatics and now 360ºs enuf with the tech over substance war photos http://nyti.ms/fiPX4O

@foto8 Thing is, it’s not about hi-tech, lo-tech, old-tech or no-tech so much as plain fundamental boredom with the war.

I think we should ask hard questions about how to represent a war that has gone on for so long. I don’t think, though, that those questions are best pursued by a concern over the technologies of representation or the anxiety about aesthetics.

That is because the critique of photography in terms of aestheticization gets to the very nature of photography itself. As Mark Reinhardt asks in Beautiful Suffering, “do indictments of aestheticization in the narrowest sense shade into a challenge to photographs’ sensory engagement itself? Is it the work of giving photographs aesthetic form, as such – is it the very nature of the photographic image – that provokes anxiety?” He thinks so, and I agree.

As the introduction to Things As They Are notes, “in the end, the business of representing reality is all about invention.” In this context, aesthetics is about how we see, perceive and represent the world generally. Photography as a technology of visualization is therefore inevitably and inextricably bound up with aesthetics. Nobody taking or making pictures can escape that.

Photo: An injured Corporal Manuel Jiminez, struck by an IED, is shielded by his fellow marines as a medvac helicopter lands in the clearing. Victor Blue.

As an example, consider the photographs of freelancer Victor Blue. According to PDN, ‘Blue is shooting the project primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II, and converting his images to black and white. “I envisioned Afghanistan in gray tones. I saw color as a distraction,” he explains.’ Blue’s photographs, excellent in many regards, invoke the traditional aesthetic of Vietnam era photojournalism. And, as always, they demonstrate that the desaturation of shots is permissible while oversaturation or specialist apps are deemed to be dubious. And what about David Guttenfelder’s “regular” DLSR photographs. Are they not the product of a conventional news/reportage aesthetic?

Perhaps we have reached an impasse in photographing the war in Afghanistan, with both the standard and different approaches no longer carrying the emotional weight of a nine-year conflict. Perhaps, then, the path forwards is not a matter of expressing anxiety about aesthetics per se, or choosing one aesthetic approach over another, but of using the full range of aesthetic options to tell a different story? Which begs the question – what is that different story that needs to be told about the war in Afghanistan after all this time?

Featured photo: A US marine wakes up in the morning after sleeping with his platoon in a mud walled compound in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helamnd province. David Guttenfelder/AP

References:

  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (World Press Photo/Chris Boot Ltd, 2005)
  • Mark Reinhardt, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain, edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
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photography politics

Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

The global controversy surrounding Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables is a moment in which media, politics, visual culture and war intersect in complex ways. There has been no shortage of good commentary on the story, as evidenced in the range of views curated by Alex Madrigal’s post “how to think about Wikileaks”. What I want to do is contrast the visualization of the story with some the main elements, some of them somewhat buried, in the current coverage.

Coverage of the Wikileaks this week has been a classic case where a political story is personalized to the detriment of its context and complexity. As Michael Shaw noted, Julian Assange has been demonized as ‘public enemy #1’ via an oft-repeated screen shot from Interpol’s most wanted web page, and then criminalized through ‘perp walk’ photos from his court appearance in London. One Reuters photographer was open about how his portraits of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson were designed to capture the supposedly covert nature of the organisation.

I have no view one way or the other on the sex crimes Swedish prosecutors allege, other than to make the obvious point that we should regard someone as innocent until proven guilty after due process. What is telling, though, is the way Assange’s private issues have become the focal point over and above the larger public questions of diplomacy and war. In part that is because of the way his London court appearance intersected with the extraordinary and escalating rhetoric from America that he be charged with espionage or treason, dealt with as an enemy combatant or terrorist, or even assassinated. The effect has been to make the story a media event driven by a personality rather than an account of the larger issues at stake.

Although it too centres on the person of Assange, Peter Macdiarmid’s July 2010 photo of the Wikileaks founder at the Frontline Club in London (featured above) places him in a relationship with three elements that direct us to the context of the overall issue. Assange is holding up a copy of The Guardian displaying a front-page story on the earlier release of the Afghan war logs. He is standing with his laptop. In the background is Don McCullin’s famous 1968 photograph of a shell-shocked marine from Hue in Vietnam. Signifying, first, the relationship between Wikileaks and its media partners, second, the role of the Internet, and third, the historical memory of the Vietnam War that hangs over current American military operations, this picture provides the basis for reflecting on some crucial elements in the Wikileaks story. I would emphasis six points:

  • The leak of the war logs and diplomatic cables came from within the US military, with an army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, the suspect. Manning was one of 3 million people cleared to access the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors to distribute classified material. In July this year The Washington Post published a remarkable investigation, “Top Secret America,” on the rise of the clandestine arm of the security state in the wake of 9/11. It revealed that more than 850,000 Americans have “Top Secret” security clearance, which is a level above the diplomatic traffic Manning could allegedly access. Given the number of people involved, the only question is why there has not been a leak like the war logs or diplomatic cables earlier.
  • Wikileaks is a web publisher and not an espionage or hacking organisation, making calls for Assange’s prosecution for spying or treason ludicrous. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court held that while it was a crime to leak classified material it was not a crime to publish that material once leaked. In the current story, Wikileaks occupies the position held by The New York Times in 1972, so that all journalists should be chilled by the threat to free speech that US politicians are now making. Shutting down Wikileaks is on a par with shutting down a major media company. The next time the same politicians demand that countries like China cease Internet censorship and back a free press, what do we think the response from those countries is going to be? Journalists involved in “shameful attacks” on Assange should think very hard about this.
  • For both the war logs and diplomatic cables story, Wikileaks has partnered with major news organisations like Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. If Assange is in the sights of the US politicians riled by the most recent leaks, what about these organisations? Senator Joe Lieberman has already called the New York Times publication of some of the leaked material “an act of bad citizenship.” What does that say about the state of the free press in his eyes? Where does that leave American moral capital the next time they want to press for international press freedom?
  • While many have claimed Wikileaks is ‘indiscriminately dumping’ all 250,000 cables on the internet without review, one of the least recognised parts of this story is that Wikileaks is publishing the cables only after its media partners have reviewed them and written about them. Moreover, when Wikileaks does publish the cables it does so with the redactions made by those media partners. (The Guardian explains how it does this here). So at the time of writing, Wikileaks (as the picture above from its site makes clear) has released only 1,203 of the 251,287 cables contained in the leak. This makes the coverage of the cables a prime example of networked journalism from which all partners, including the public, win. (Though note how even this positive commentary perpetuates the myth of the document dump).
  • Efforts to shut Wikileaks down – apart from failing to understand its role as publisher rather than spy – are failing because of the willingness of many to establish mirror sites on the Internet where the material can be accessed. At last count, there were 1,368 mirrors. Here, then, is a good lesson in the open structure of the Internet. You can close a domain, but you cannot remove material from the system if others a willing to host it. The more domains you close the more mirrors will appear. There are also many other organisations and sites similar to Wikileaks, such as cryptome.org, that don’t have the same public profile but can host leaked documents.
  • The structural impossibility of running someone off the Internet means that state authorities will try and find new ways of exercising power. This is where the pressure on companies to end commercial relationships with Wikileakes comes from. US authorities and politicians have pressured Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa, among others, to cease trading with Wikileaks and these companies have all to readily complied. This is a form of indirect power in which private actors become “points of control” for state policy. This also means that so long as “cloud computing” is a commercial operation there are going to be potential limits to openness in this system.

In 2009, Wikileaks and Julian Assange won the prestigious Amnesty International New Media Award for exposing hundreds of alleged murders by the Kenyan police, an act which led to a United Nations investigation.

Other releases have included a list of websites banned by the Australian government, copies of the Scientology “bible”, and emails from inside the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. When Wikileaks focused on foreign regimes it was a beacon of freedom. After its releases this year, it has become an entity ‘at war’ with the United States and its allies. In moments like these we need to understand the context, retain a critical perspective, and avoid the personification of the issue.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.6: Gaith Abdul-Ahad’s Taliban photographs

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…