Categories
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.

Categories
photography

Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington on war and sexuality

Sleeping Soldiers_single screen (2009) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

I’m publishing here a short article written earlier this year by Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington that explores the themes of aggression, masculinity, sex and war, and the way they informed Tim’s work.

Entitled “The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’,” the article was a collaborative effort. As Stephen Mayes told me, “we’d talked about these subjects for years and he approached me to write the piece with him, and we managed to distil many of his ideas into it. He read it, liked it, and went to Libya.”

Originally written for a small American journal, it was never published in this complete form. Because it offers a fascinating insight into Tim’s thinking – with the themes present in his work form Liberia to Afghanistan (especially the ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ project) and then Libya – I am pleased that Stephen has agreed to it being made available.

World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch have just announced the establishment of the “Tim Hetherington Grant,” a €20,000 award for a photographer “to complete an existing project on a humanitarian or human rights theme.” Applications close on 15 October this year, and you have to have participated in the World Press Photo awards between 2008-2011.

Last year Tim had spoken of a post-photographic world, and the need for visual communicators to stop thinking of themselves as just a photographer. I hope that the judges of the Tim Hetherington Grant will look for creative approaches that embody this position. Above all else – and despite the mere 750 words provided to applicants for a proposal – let’s hope the judges reward someone who puts as much effort into thinking about the issues he visualized as Tim did.

Link to PDF, Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington, The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’

Categories
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
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

Categories
photography

Burke and Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan

Simon Norfolk’s new project on Afghanistan opens at the Tate Gallery in London on 6 May, and comprises new work exhibited alongside the nineteenth century Irish photographer, John Burke. There will be a book forthcoming from Dewi Lewis and – full disclosure – I was commissioned to write a short essay for this publication. As a result, I’ve seen some of the new work and think it will be an important show.

The Tate’s press release provides this summary:

John Burke was one of the first people to take photographs of Afghanistan, having travelled there during the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878 to 1880. His images of landscapes, cities and inhabitants provided a cue for Simon Norfolk to begin a new series of photographs in October 2010. Norfolk’s work responds to Burke’s Afghan war scenes in the context of the contemporary conflict. Seeking out the original locations of these images or finding modern parallels with their subject matter, Norfolk’s new body of work depicts bomb-damaged buildings, local communities, soldiers and embassy workers, as well as uniquely contemporary sites such as internet cafés and wedding halls. Within the exhibition, these images will be presented alongside prints of Burke’s corresponding photographs, bringing history into close proximity with the present and drawing comparisons across a century of British involvement in the region. Also on display will be two original hand-illuminated Burke portfolios.

Amongst the new photographs Simon Norfolk has produced are contemporary portraits that echo nineteenth century pictures. One of them shows the intersection of war and image:

Media Ops team including a Combat Camera Unit, Camp Bastion, Helmand. Copyright Simon Norfolk

Top photo: Afghan Police receiving shooting training from US Marines, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand. Copyright Simon Norfolk

 

Categories
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.

Categories
photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context

Jodi Bieber has won the overall 2011 World Press Photo award for her portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan women disfigured in an act of punishment (above left). Bieber outlines her thoughts on making the photograph in a brief interview here. Any image selected from over 100,000 entries produced by 5,847 photographers is going to draw its fair share of advocates and detractors. Rather than passing comment on the particular merits of the award, I am interested in what this photograph says about the context of pictures, how their meaning is produced, and how we judge them.

As many have observed, Bieber’s photograph recalls Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 (above right). In her brilliant essay on Gula’s picture, Holly Edwards notes the original function of McCurry’s picture was to “epitomize the plight of refugees displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Since that time “the image has been republished frequently in diverse contexts, its meaning altered and augmented with each incarnation.”

It is revealing that a portrait can be so mobile and fluid. It is also revealing that two photographs similar in style can point to such different political situations: refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in the case of Gula’s picture, and the barbarity of the Taliban in the context of the US-led invasion in the case of Aisha’s.

The individual portrait is the most common photographic style in the representation of context. But the portrait (as I argued in my 2005 World Press Photo Sem Presser Lecture) more often than not decontextualises and depoliticises the situation being depicted, leaving it to accompanying captions, headlines and texts to temporarily anchor meaning.

Jodi Bieber (whom I have never met) was interviewed after my lecture and remarked: “What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.” This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” its form was beyond her control (see below left). At the moment it entered the public domain the image was no longer Bieber’s.

 

Focusing on the headline, Jim Johnson calls the Time cover propaganda and the World Press Photo award a category mistake. He provides an effective demonstration of how meaning is changed by associated text with an imaginary cover using the same photo with the headline “What Still Happened Despite Ten Years of Occupying Afghanistan” (above right).

Johnson’s most insightful comment is that the World Press Photo award has performed another decontextualisation and depoliticisation of the Beiber photograph. The award process has extracted the image from the political issues it became associated with, reconstituted the picture as a discrete object, and reattached it to Jodi Bieber as author.

World Press Photo focuses exclusively on pictures alone, and the jury never sees anything other than the photographs themselves when making decisions (though in the case of well-known images such as the Aisha portrait they will surely know what they are looking at).

That is a curious process for the World Press Photo award. Most of us in the viewing public encounter photographs in one context or another. We rarely if ever see them in isolation, devoid of contextual elements. Shouldn’t WPP somehow consider the way images are published and circulated? I am not suggesting that the organisation take political issues and interpretations into account when making their decision. But can we really judge photographs in isolation as discrete objects any more?

Reference:

Holly Edwards, “Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 75-92.

UPDATE 23/02/11: The Sunday Times in Johannesburg has an interview with Jodi Bieber in which she offers some very brief reflections on the use of her of photo. In it she says:

When the story broke in Time magazine, it was berserk. The headline was misleading and it flew all over the world, all over, in front of Obama, everyone. But it was a good thing, regardless of the headline…

There were some women who said I objectified Aisha by showing her in that way, but I want to go and tell them: ‘F**k you, you’re sitting in an armchair at a university and she hasn’t got a nose. Must I show her crying and without ears, too?’

I learnt a lot, because there wasn’t just one response. It depended on whether you’re right- or left-wing American, or a feminist. In South Africa, it was more about the photograph, because we have no association with the politics between America and Afghanistan. In the end, you just put your picture out there and you can’t determine the response or push it in any direction.

While the observation that ‘you can’t determine the response’ is correct and reinforces her quote used in the post, given the significance and prominence of the image it would have been good to have heard more about its use. Whether she said more that didn’t make the final write-up is something we can’t know.

Categories
media economy photography

Learning from Larry, part two: what crowd funding looks like from the donor’s perspective

My postman brought an envelope from Larry Towell this week. Sent from Canada, it contained the 6×4 inch photograph (above) offered to those who pledged US$25 towards Larry’s “Crisis in Afghanistan” project. Personally captioned “International Committee of the Red Cross, Kabul, Afghanistan 2010” it was also personally signed.

In my original post reviewing Larry’s Kickstarter-funded project on Afghanistan I said I would periodically report, from the contributor’s perspective, on how the project seemed to be progressing. This is my first follow-up to the original post.

At the outset I want to be clear on two points. First, this is not about harassing Larry! Given that its early days for crowd funding I think it’s worthwhile for photographers contemplating the approach to appreciate what the process looks like from the other side of the fence. Although I’m drawing my points from Larry’s project, I don’t want to personalize this. Perhaps I should refer to “Larry,” putting him in quotation marks to emphasize that this project is an example from which we might draw some lessons.

The second point is that this is a review about a particular form of crowd funding, namely how it looks via Kickstarter. In the original post I discussed crowd funding in theory and then in practice, and Kickstarter as a crowd funding platform is just one example of the practice. Nonetheless, I think there are general pointers that emerge from what I have seen so far.

When you contribute to a Kickstarter project, what happens? Well, nearly all communication is via automatically generated emails.  The first arrives after you make your pledge:

You are now a backer of Crisis in Afghanistan by Larry Towell.

If funded, Larry Towell will send you a message to request any info needed to deliver your reward (mailing address, etc.)

Please help Larry Towell spread the word!

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/ahKZP/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

While a project is seeking funding, the person behind it can offer updates on Kickstarter, and distinguish between updates available to all and those that can be accessed by backers only. The latter also come to your email inbox if you have made a contribution, and I received “Project Update #6 on the final day of the pitch:

Dear Everyone

The time is almost up and I have made more than my goal, thanks to your generosity. I have been in communication with my contacts in Afghanistan recently and am beginning to plan, looking at a departure date in March. I’ll be sending things off asap. For those receiving prints, I’ll be in touch personally about your selection. Thank you again for making this happen.

Larry

There haven’t been any further project updates for contributors. Once the deadline for pledges passes, and assuming the project is funded, another email arrives:

Congrats! Amazon will now charge your credit card and transfer the money directly to Larry Towell.

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/DRFaj/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

Shortly on its heels, the Amazon Payments system issues an email confirming it has taken your money and completed payment, in this case to the Magnum Foundation who handled Larry’s finances.

With the money paid, it was then a matter of waiting for the promised personal communication about the print selection. Only the communication wasn’t personal, and there wasn’t any selection involved. The Kickstarter platform sends an email asking you to complete an online “survey,” which means entering your name and address on their site so the print can be sent.

Larry Towell has created a survey to request info needed to deliver your reward:

“A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6” print postcard.”

Respond to this survey on Kickstarter:

http://www.kickstarter.com/e/uPMqE/projects/561413962/crisis-in-afghanistan/surveys/174274?at=b6f04baa8f8ebd36

——————————————————————————————————————

Amount pledged: $25.00 to “Crisis in Afghanistan” by Larry Towell

Reward: A personal thank you sent on a 4″x6″ print postcard.

Once that is done, the contributor then waits for the reward. Was it a “personal thank you”? Not really – it’s a photo I’m happy to have and the pencilled caption and autograph is fine. But is there anything that marks it out as a “thank you” for a project that is ongoing? No. Was there anything about where the project is currently at or what the next stage is? No.

What one gets as a contributor – at least at my minor level – is automated, impersonal and far from engaging. I don’t mean to sound petty or whiny about this; I’m just trying to judge the process in terms of what the Kickstarter system said was forthcoming. The discussion here is also no criticism of Kickstarter – it’s a very efficient fundraising process. It’s just not a platform for community engagement around a project (nor does it claim to be).

As a contributor interested in the substance of the project I was hoping for more. I’d love to know more about where the project planning is at, what is going well and what problems are being faced, not to mention some idea of where and when we might see the end product. To that end I did post a comment on Larry’s Facebook page but that didn’t elicit any response.

At the moment it seems my role as a minor contributor came to an end once my credit card was charged. To my mind crowd funding, if it is to fulfill its potential, has to do much more than that. It has to really engage the contributors. But let’s wait and see if Larry’s backers get more updates in the weeks ahead. I will let you know.

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.

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More posts photography politics

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.

Categories
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…

The visual landscape of the war in Afghanistan is primarily, and necessarily, a product of embedded reporting. However, because it is easier to be embedded with NATO military forces than the Taliban, we have only ever received an unavoidably partial representation of the conflict, no matter how good those accounts are.

Gaith Abdul-Ahad has done many impressive reports from Iraq and Afghanistan for The Guardian in recent years, and this week his story from inside a Taliban unit has offered an important view of the conflict from the other side (see also this article and video in which Abdul-Ahad describes his experience). I think the eleven accompanying photographs are among the few available recording an operational Taliban unit, but I would be interested in hearing of other examples. In many ways the content and form of these pictures is unremarkable, in so far as they mostly show men with weapons moving through the countryside, but as documents of the rarely glimpsed “enemy combatants” they are exceptional.

Patrick Cockburn had a considered article on embedded reporting in The Independent this week, offering more nuance than is suggested by the title alone. Gaith Abul-Ahad shows how being embedded can produce essential journalism.

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photography

Embedded in Afghanistan

Embedding photojournalists with combat units was one of the military’s greatest victories in the Iraq war. Narrowing their focus in time and space to the unit they were with produced images putting brave soldiers front and center, with both context and victims out of range. Now, with the Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy being questioned, we are being offered similar visual cues from Afghanistan.

Three soldiers peering into a remote valley, rifles at the ready, the enemy seemingly elusive. High tech weaponry is readied against the elements. This is a war machine looking for a reason, certain a threat is out there, but unsure of its form. There’s even a moment of pathos, with the man on the left in his pink boxers and exposed legs lining up with his comrades. Then there is the second photo, shot from behind in the same place, but showing a strongman taking time out for a gym session. One shows a vulnerable body, the other a muscular physique, but in each case the American soldier is the subject of the photograph.

What unites these pictures is their location – the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. The embedding process is taking photographers and reporters to this location above all others, and photographers have been prominent in the coverage of US operations there. Balazs Gardi and Tim Hetherington travelled there in 2007, John Moore spent time there in November 2008, producing both stills and a multimedia piece, and Adam Dean and Tyler Hicks have filed stories from an April 2009 embed. (See background to the Hicks’ story here).

Although the visual skills of these practitioners are not in doubt, the stories they have produced are remarkably similar in both content and approach. US forces are the locus of the narrative and combat scenes are repeatedly pictured. The local community is largely unseen, except for when they encounter the Americans, and never heard. They are rendered as part of an inhospitable environment in which civilians are hard to distinguish from ‘the enemy’.

The effect of concentrating on one location and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan. The photographers might want to do otherwise but the embedding process is designed to produce this constraint. Its success can be judged by the way these stories effectively structure the visibility of the war in a way that foregrounds competing American military interests.

How we judge the photographers’ responsibility here is difficult. Logistically, being embedded is the only feasible way to cover some frontline locations. Without it we might not see anything. But the consequence of embedding is the production of a visual landscape that too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory.  This political effect was part of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s critique of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal. (Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance, which I have considered here).

Picturing the Af-Pak war comprehensively and in context is a major photographic challenge. It cannot be easily disentangled from the politics. We are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention, but there is no simple military solution in Afghanistan that will guarantee security. Yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues (see John D McHugh’s series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”), and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.

Photo credit: David Guttenfelder/Associated Press, from WSJ.com Photo Journal, 12-13 May 2009.

This is a cross-posting with No Caption Needed. It develops thoughts from an earlier post on Afghanistan. Updates after posting are in the comments below.

RELATED POSTS:

Thinking Images v.6: Gaith Abul-Ahad’s Taliban photographs, 26 November 2010

The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan, 17 December 2010

Categories
multimedia

War in multimedia

As I wrote in today’s photographic post on Afghanistan, John D. McHugh’s multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan offers some of the best visual insights into the military realities of that conflict.

McHugh, in a session chaired by Roger Tooth of The Guardian at London’s Fontline Club last week, also provides a series of good insights into both the benefits and problems of producing his multimedia stories. You can see a 79 min video of this discussion here. The discussion deals with these issues from the 30 min mark onwards, and reveals how uncertain the political economy of multimedia is for news organisations in the UK. How to manage, produce, publicise and value multimedia is still being worked out project by project. The visual revolution for journalism is still very much in its infancy here.

Categories
photography

Afghanistan: Limits of the Photographic Landscape

The visualization of the war against the Taliban has stuck closely to the conventional understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, photojournalism has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an ‘elusive’ enemy.

Starting with stories like Ron Haviv’s Road to Kabul, and evident in the contributions to the Battlespace project, the close-up portrayal of daily fighting necessarily overlooks the larger political issues. The constraints of being an embedded photographer are clear from the way different practitioners (including Balazs Gardi, Tim Hetherington and John Moore) have all travelled to hotspots like the Korengal Valley to cover American troops in action. Although their visual skills are not in doubt, the effect of photographers like this concentrating on one issue and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan.

We cannot turn the clock back to 2001, but if we could, pursuing the political and legal strategies then advocated in response to the 9/11 attacks would have been better. Now, though, we are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention in Afghanistan. Dealing with that requires reading the conflict more accurately, so that we can understand that the Taliban were never defeated, the fixation on Iraq distorted policy, and that there is no simple military solution in either Afghanistan or the Pakistan border region that will offer security.

Photojournalism is, of course, not solely responsible for this, even if the visual landscape it offers us too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory. (This political effect was part of Broomberg and Chanarin’s critique of Hetherington’s World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal – Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance; I considered this debate here). Sometimes, though, the stories that emerge from embedded photographers do reveal the futility of the fighting – John D McHugh’s powerful multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”, is visual evidence for this claim.

Recent videos of public floggings by the Taliban in Pakistan (see the Channel 4 News report from 24 March below, which begins with a beating the Taliban were happy to have filmed) confirm why anyone interested in human rights wants to see fundamentalists opposed (though see the good questions raised about them here).

Equally, the story of the 11-year old girls in the must-see New York Times multimedia report “Class Dismissed in the Swat Valley” is a visual indictment. What these demands can’t do is prescribe the best way forward to an inclusive and non-violent future. The Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy is an overdue recognition of the region’s problems, but its planned military tactics are likely to perpetuate the problem. Confronting the “neo-Taliban” – the new generation of Pakistani, Afghan, al-Qaeda and Kashmiri fighters who follow a jihadist ideology – with drone attacks that only add to the civilian death toll will be counterproductive. And, yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues, and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.