Categories
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:

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

Categories
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?

Categories
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.

Categories
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.  

Categories
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.”

 

 

Categories
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?

Categories
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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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.

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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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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.5: Picturing a protest and illustrating ‘Africa’

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

The vast majority of news photographs are illustrative – designed to provide a visual punctuation point for the story they accompany. They can arise from an event the day before, as in Thursday’s Guardian front page image of a person kicking in a window during the student protests in London.

Photo: Ray Tang/Jonathan Hordle/REX

A Reuters executive once described news as “a disruption of the norm,” and a violent moment in an otherwise peaceful political event fits the bill perfectly. It is for this reason that news fails so often to provide the context of the main issue, something that a number of journalism analysts are trying to address in their “future of context” project. Note also the way such happenings become photo opportunities, with the phalanx of photographers to the right of the protestor lapping up the action.

Thursday’s Guardian ran two images of ‘Africa’ that provided a non-stereotypical account of their subject, showing how in the absence of the most recent news images newspapers draw upon well-known and long-running projects to provide their visual resources. In the Guardian’s double-page Eyewitness spread was Joan Bardeletti’s prize-winning still from his important “Middle Class in Africa” project (although the image of the Mozambican family is bizarrely entitled “it’s a dogs life”). A couple of page’s later was one of Ed Kashi’s great Niger Delta photographs, anchoring the print version of the story on Shell’s PR campaign in the wake of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution fifteen years ago (the online version has a portrait of Saro-Wiwa).

It’s great to see something from ‘Africa’ that is a little different. One wonders, though, how much the photographers were paid for the publication of their images. I’ll guess it wasn’t much.

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photography politics

Has concerned photography a future? Photojournalism, humanitarianism, responsibility

For a long time I have argued that ‘photojournalism’ – that broad swathe of photographic practice that tells visual stories about the world, and which can include documentary, editorial, news or social photography – has a particular responsibility and a particular opportunity to both represent the world better and make better worlds imaginable. It is a sensibility that shares much with Cornell Capa’s desire, articulated in his 1968 anthology The Concerned Photographer,  for “images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism.”

In 2005 I gave the Sem Presser Lecture at the World Press Photo awards, with the same title as this post. It was a chance for me to pull together many of the theoretical, political and practical issues implicated in the production of “concerned” photographs. The purpose was to offer a diagnosis of our contemporary political condition and how a reflexive approach to the production of visual imagery representing that condition might offer a way of negotiating the limitations that bind us all. Five years on, while much could be added to the argument, I feel that the central concerns are still relevant.

World Press Photo once had plans to publish the Sem Presser lectures in a volume, but nothing ever came of those. As a result, I have been meaning for some time to make available the lecture I gave. In this post you will find a summary of the central argument, along with links to the full text, the accompanying slides as well as an audio recording of the event (introduced by Michiel Munneke, managing director of World Press Photo). The quality of that is not great – having been produced via a friend’s recorder in the audience – but it is better than nothing. Links to all these things can be found at the bottom of this post.

Photography’s distinction has always been – and should remain so, in my view – that it has a connection to the world outside imagination. The world is not an unproblematic reality and that connection is not that of an unmediated copy. As a technology of visualization photography constructs, and representation is unavoidable. But there is still some force to the notion of “indexicality” even as we problematise the notion of the index. The event and the world may not be a secure foundation for truth, but it still offers limits on lies.

Our current global context is one of permanent war, an on-going state of emergency and frequent humanitarian crises (Yemen is only the latest trace of this). Injustices abound, but a combination of military strategy and media corporatisation has meant the image of conflict available to us is being severely restricted – despite the proliferation of television channels through cable, digital and satellite.

One of the central issues we face is that large parts of the military, media and information industries have become interwoven and interdependent. This is no accident. Instead, it is a product of transformations in US (and British, and NATO) military strategy that go under the name of the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that has been underway since the 1990s.

The RMA is concerned with how networked information technology is integrated into and changes the battlefield for the military. This means that ‘the battlefield’ is not just a place where military units operate in distant locations. The battlefield is something that surrounds us at all times. We now find ourselves located within – not just the ‘military-industrial complex’ President Eisenhower warned Americans of in 1961 – but what James Der Derian has called the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET).”

Despite the pervasiveness of this new strategic environment and the scale of the challenge, puncturing the de-humanising logic of the RMA offers an opportunity for photojournalism. I think that photojournalism can be an instrument of humanitarian intervention in contemporary conflict even though the concept of humanitarianism has been appropriated by the leading military powers to justify their recent interventions.

Photojournalism is well suited to be an instrument of humanitarian intervention because documentary photography itself has humanitarian roots, and in the lecture I go through the well-known contributions of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and the FSA, amongst others. Nonetheless, significant though it was, the humanitarian ethos of photojournalism in the twentieth century should not be overly romanticised. It was the social conscience of a liberal sensibility that very much wanted to reform a system rather than fundamentally challenge or change a system. Sometimes it was also quite patronising and paternalistic.

So in the lecture I posed this as the central question:

If we were to revivify photojournalism’s humanitarian ethos in the era of global neo-liberalism, network centric warfare and the permanent emergency, what photographic form and style would enable a new progressive stance?

It was then, and is probably still, an impossible question to answer. But working through it helps unpack some of the issues. In the lecture I considered a series of photographs from Darfur. I read them in relation to the fact that Darfur is not a “tragedy”. Darfur is not “another disaster in Africa.” Darfur is a crime – indeed, a series of war crimes committed by people in Darfur and tolerated if not encouraged by people beyond Darfur. How can we picture that?

The most common approach involved foregrounding the ‘personal code’ – using individuals, often in close up, as the locus of the image. But in the absence of special measures to counter this, the personal code implicitly decontextualises and depoliticises the situation, and this is perhaps the most common theme and problem with much documentary photography and photojournalism.

The prominence of the personal code prompts a difficult question: how different are these images from pictures important to photography’s past? Photography emerged as a technology central to the development of anthropology and the power of colonialism – it helped fix and objectify the native in a way that secured racial hierarchies.  The intentions of most contemporary practitioners are of course radically different. But, have we come far enough from this sort of representation? Can we say that photography is now post-colonial? Or does it, even inadvertently, reinforce colonial relations of power? Again, there are no easy answers, but asking the question is an essential part of exercising responsiblity.

How did this lecture go down with the 2005 World Press Photo audience? As the subsequent World Press Photo report demonstrated, it was a mixed reception. This reflected in part the tension between the lecture and its setting. In previous years Vicki Goldberg, Fred Ritchin and then I offered Sem Presser lecture’s with perspectives from outside the industry, and this was not always an easy or comfortable fit with the celebratory air of the award days. It is interesting to see, therefore, that recent lecturer’s at the event have been distinguished photographer’s talking about their practice. While valuable, this means there is a need for World Press Photo to offer a public forum where the many issues facing photojournalism can be debated.

Sem Presser Lecture 2005 – text

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Featured post photo: Queue of containers next to a water source in Farchana UNHCR refugee camp, Chad, June 2004. Sven Torfinn/Panos.

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photography politics

Stereotypes that move: The iconography of famine

As appropriations of suffering, photographs of famine victims are affective rather than simply illustrative. They are designed to appeal emotionally to viewers and connect them with subjects in a particular way rather than just offer a description of some person or place. The message is that someone is suffering, and that we should be sympathetic to his or her plight and moved to do something. However, the lack of contextual support means that viewers are most likely to regard action to alleviate suffering as coming from outside. Indigenous social structures are absent and local actors are erased from these images. There is a void of agency and history with the victim arrayed passively before the lens so their suffering can be appropriated. This structuring of the isolated victim awaiting external assistance is what invests such imagery with colonial relations of power.

In a forthcoming essay on the iconography of famine (which prompted my earlier post on famine photographs and the need for careful critique) I have examined the portraits of atrocity that represented the 2002 Malawi famine and which later circulated in charity appeals and the 2005 Live 8 campaign, especially the photographs of a young boy called Luke Piri taken by The Daily Mirror‘s staff photographer Mike Moore. The easy conclusion of this analysis is that famine iconography should be roundly condemned as simplistic, reductionist, colonial and even racist. But before we are satisfied with this comprehensive rebuke we have to ask three difficult questions. First, would we be better off without these photographs altogether? Second, if we want to dispense with the negative, what is the alternative that should take its place if, as I’ve argued earlier, we don’t want to fall into the trap of prompting an equally simplistic ‘positive’ image? And third, what happens if the iconography of famine is politically necessary in certain contexts? It is the last I want to reflect on briefly here.

We can understand famine iconography as being produced by the complex political circumstances it generally fails to capture. This can be demonstrated by a return to the case of the Malawi famine of 2002. There was advance warning of food shortages in Malawi, but because of their strained relations with the government international donors ‘were not well disposed to reports of food shortages.’ The Malawian government was also resistant to stories of food crises from local NGOs. It was, in part, the production and circulation of famine iconography that broke this indifference. As one commentator observed, “only after the media started reporting starvation deaths in Malawi did the donors [international agencies and governments] reverse their hardline stance and offer food aid unconditionally.”

The same dynamic has been repeated in other crises, such as the 2005 Niger famine, where the World Food Program (WFP) began reporting a looming crisis in October 2004 and called for donor assistance, but international assistance was minimal until the media got involved in July 2005. Anthea Webb, WFP’s senior public affairs officer noted afterwards:

All information is available. The problem is to turn information into providing food to people in need. In Niger we had practically nothing until we got footage on video of people dying of malnutrition to the BBC. But it is much better to help people before it is too late. In Niger we had made a very clear plea. The problem is getting the message across.

Although a free press has been regarded by many as part of a famine early warning system, this record indicates the media 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.

This dynamic means that we should see the media as a late indicator of distress, not an early warning agency. While we can and should criticise the continuing reproduction of famine iconography, we have to appreciate how the recourse to stereotypes is often a function of the political context they seek to address but cannot represent. Importantly, this means ‘compassion fatigue’ is not the issue with respect to the relationship between pictures and policy. Individuals continue to respond to the humanitarian structure of feeling induced by victim portraits, as their continuing use in charity appeals confirms. The problem is official indifference and the media’s entrapment in that indifference until it is too late.

The ultimate challenge for photography as a technology of visualization is to find compelling ways of narrating the story so that the political context of famine can be portrayed in a timely manner, before malnourished bodies can be appropriated by the lens. Sometimes there are visual stories that achieve this, as in The New York Times photo report detailing how a later Malawian government rejected neo-liberal policies, reinstated fertilizer subsidies, and oversaw increased food production and reduced famine. Equally, the MSF/VII “Starved for Attention” project warrants a closer examination. Of course, photographers and journalists don’t bear the primary responsibility for preventing famine but they need a better understanding of global malnourishment – of which famine is just an acute and more visible part – in order to represent the issue before it is too late.

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

Featured Photo: Luke Piri, Malawi, 2002. Mike Moore/Mirrorpix

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Thinking Images v.1: Chile, Africa and British students

Thinking Imagesan occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

You would have to a cold-hearted person not to have been moved in some way at some time by the rescue of the Chilean miners. But there are always other dimensions to such stories. During the week Jay Rosen tweeted: “A big story and a great story, but does 1300 journalists covering the Chilean miners have anything to do with reality?” Later he added: “Wait: you’ve got 1300 reporters at the miners rescue AND you’re asking, “Who’s gonna pay for the Baghdad bureau, people…” You’re sure now?” Yes, when ‘the media’ gets mobilised it can cover international stories exhaustively. So when they say they can’t afford to do other stories, it’s a matter of choice rather than economics. (Photo: Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne (center) speaks during a press conference at the San Jose mine near the city of Copiapo on October 12, 2010. Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images).

Visuals include graphics, and this thoughtful map from Kai Krause has been doing the rounds, circulated by those who want a more complex view of ‘Africa’. It certainly makes a good point, and yet…in comparing a continent with countries, doesn’t it run the risk of perpetuating the homogenization of Africa’s 61 political territories into one entity?

The UK Con-Dem government’s announcement of an increase in tuition fees for university students saw many media outlets turn to the tried and true trope of graduating students in their gowns, as in this Christopher Furlong/Getty Images photo used by The Guardian. The failure of the media to find a way of visualizing higher education beyond these stereotypes is part of a larger representational problem for the university sector. In the absence of contemporary portrayals of mass education in an under-resourced environment, these images reproduce The Brideshead Revisited (or Educating Rita) view of university life, where staff are ‘dons’ who seem to occupy large offices, drink sherry in the afternoon and teach in leisurely one-on-one tutorials. An interesting documentary project awaits the photographer who wants to spend life on campus to see its increasing pressures.

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photography politics

The new visual stories of ‘Africa’

What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? Is there a pictorial strategy that can account for one billion people, living in 53 countries that occupy 12 million square miles, speaking two thousand languages, embodying multiple cultures and numerous ethnicities, with manifold intersections with our globalised world?

Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity. This process embodies colonial relations of power that distill a complex, hybrid place into visual stereotypes that cast people and their place as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped and so on.

These stereotypes construct both conventional wisdom and its possible alternatives. Others can be reviled for their barbarity or exalted for the closeness to nature, but these options are no more than two sides of the same coin, and each distances ‘us’ from ‘them’. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical account of how (not) to represent Africa captures this dual operation, and news coverage often sees ‘Africa’ as a place of either human misery or natural exoticism. ‘Africa’ is therefore a mythic space, the quotation marks signifying its production.

The visual story that needs to be told about ‘Africa’ is not a single story. It is a series of stories assembled to end the idea of a singular ‘Africa’. We need accounts of complexity, contrasts, and diversity that are drawn from the everyday as much as the exceptional. We need reports that are aware of their own construction and understand how they either affirm or challenge stereotypes.

There is plenty of photographic work that does that. It is too much to ask of each individual project that it ticks all the boxes, but what projects like African Lens can do is aggregate and curate the rich material being produced so that we can see how, in combination, these images enable stories that complicate the simplistic and deepen the superficial.

How this project is framed will go a long way to determining its success. If we do not go beyond the limits of either/or options we will be stuck replicating colonial dualisms. This means that:

  • we need to interpret photographs in terms of the work that they do in relation to stereotypes rather than via an outmoded commitment to ‘objectivity’ and its spouse, ‘subjectivity’. When it comes to reportage we should demand accuracy, but photographs are inescapably representations and never simply mirrors or windows;
  • we need to exceed the idea that optimism versus pessimism, and especially “Afro-romanticism” versus “Afro-pessimism,” defines the options for stories;
  • we need to support new developments in the multimedia practice of photography that can literally give subjects a voice for their own stories.

Government speaker at a political get together, Abidjan. Photo: Joan Bardeletti.

There are many recent photographic projects contributing to this re-visualization of ‘Africa’. Consider Joan Bardeletti’s work on the middle class in Africa alongside Finbarr O’Reilly’s story on white poverty in South Africa. Think of Andrew Esiebo’s portfolio of Lagos nightlife and Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project, Michael Tsegaye’s pictures of working girls in Addis Ababa, Andrew Tshabangu’s documentation of Johannesburg and Marcus Bleasdale’s presentation of the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa to name just a few.

The problem with stereotypes, as Chimamanda Adichie says, is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” Because of this, the new visual stories of ‘Africa’ cannot ignore the issues of famine, injustice, poverty and war. While we can sympathies with Paul Melcher’s cry for no more “dying Africans,” we must have visual accounts of atrocities when they occur. However, they have to go beyond the stereotypes, as with the Condition Critical project on the Congo war or the coverage of human rights issues in Burundi and Malawi.

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time,  achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The need to re-visualize ‘Africa’ is a major concern of mine, and with my colleagues DJ Clark and Kate Manzo, we established the Imaging Famine blog last month as a way of continuing our Imaging Famine project by aggregating and curating work that both confirms and challenges stereotypes.

Many people are contributing to the production and circulation of new photographic portrayals of ‘Africa’ , and to support the recent launch of African Lens I wrote an editorial that summarises what I see as the issues involved in this important effort. This post reproduces that editorial.

Featured photo: Media circus photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Somalia, 1991. Paul Lowe/Panos.

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photography

Famine photographs and the need for careful critique

The photographic reporting of famine, especially in ‘Africa’, continues to replicate stereotypes. Malnourished children, either pictured alone in passive poses or with their mothers at hand, continue to be the obvious subjects of our gaze. What should drive our concern about this persistent portrayal? This morning I came across an example that demonstrates how criticism needs to be careful before it can make its point effectively.

As it happens, this week I am writing an essay on the photography of famine for a new book. The essay draws on the collaborative Imaging Famine project that started in 2005, and incorporates the points I made in a presentation for the Photography and Atrocity conference in New York that same year. I’m taking some time away from that essay to do this post because of my concern with the basis for claims fuelling a controversy in the blogosphere about famine photographs.

On checking my Twitter stream today I followed @PhotoPhilan’s link to a short post by Andrew Sullivan on “Stereotype porn.”  Sullivan was noting William Easterly’s post at Aid Watch on a story out of Sudan last week, and juxtaposed it with Alex de Waal and Rakiya Omaar’s 1993 op-ed on “disaster pornography in Somalia” (which, in another serendipitous moment, I had been reading yesterday as part of my research on the problematic use of “pornography” to categorise famine photographs – but more on that another time).

Easterly’s post claimed that:

The UN takes the photographer to the “hungriest place on earth”, Akobo, South Sudan (HT Wronging Rights). Then

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children.

And surprise: you get the most horrific images possible of starving children, to be featured prominently on the Huffington Post, which reinforces the Western stereotype of “famine Africa.”

An equivalent procedure would represent New Yorkers by the most horrific images possible of the homeless. But we don’t do that because we don’t have the stereotype that typical New Yorkers are homeless…

Easterly is spot on with his criticism of how selective images produce stereotypes that represent an entire place in terms of a single dimension we would never accept if the shoe were on the other foot. But, I wondered, was this a conscious act of photographic manipulation, the crude pursuit of certain pictures regardless of context? So I followed the links to try and find out.

Easterly gives a ‘hat tip’ to Wronging Rights, which posted this last Friday as part of its “WTF Friday” roundup:

“Let’s not be sensational, guys. Let’s just go to the statistically hungriest place in the world and take pictures of emaciated babies. Because as Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal say, ‘Photogenic starving children are hard to find,’ but this has got to increase our odds.”

This certainly grabbed my attention because it seems to show crude intention on the part of a photographer or aid agency to deliberately find and construct certain pictures. There is no doubt that has happened in the past – a point made by their link to the de Waal and Omaar 1993 op-ed, which could have been the source for Sullivan’s citation of that same story – but was this Sudan story another case? Was this quote evidence of a new instance?

No, it wasn’t. The quote is the voice of the Wronging Rights blog reading an article on The Huffington Post. The quote is made up, and does not appear in any form, direct or indirect, in The Huffington Post article. That story is in fact an Associated Press report from Akobo in Sudan and makes no mention of the role of any photographer (see the version The Huffington Post used in full here, with a longer version here). The AP story reports on the food insecurity of a region where 46% of children are classified as malnourished with 15% being the threshold for classifying a situation as an emergency.

How was The Huffington Post/AP story read as evidence of photographic manipulation? With no direct reference to Jerome Delay, the photographer who seems to have accompanied reporter Jason Straziuso, the likely connection comes from the following paragraph:

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children. They found 253 that they have classified as severely malnourished, meaning that they will die without immediate intervention. The children are now enrolled in a feeding program that relies primarily on fortified peanut butter.

It seems that the transmission of this story from Wronging Rights to William Easterly and on to Andrew Sullivan – accompanied at each turn by de Waal and Omaar’s 1993 op-ed – has created a view that the aid groups’ “searching for the hungriest children” was something done primarily for photojournalistic rather than public health reasons. But as the first comment on Easterly’s post suggests:

When you have a project trying to cure children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM), of course you are going to canvas the community to find the SAM cases. That’s what case finding and public health is about. They didn’t canvas the community so that a photographer could come in and take a picture.

You can blame the photographer and the publication, but I don’t think you can blame the agencies for trying to find and cure malnourished children using a standard public health strategy.

I think William Easterly is technically right to say the UN took a photographer to Akobo. I’ve done research in southern Sudan in the past and know how the logistics work. I imagine that the AP reporter and photographer travelled with a UN agency and/or NGO, and that while those agencies were carrying out their humanitarian and public health tasks, they took the journalists to feeding centres at which it was possible to produce photographs of malnourished children. I have no doubt that the UN and the NGOs would have wanted the publicity the AP provided, but I do not think there is evidence from the stories cited to argue that this operation was a callous search for photogenic victims above all else. For the critique of famine photographs to be effective we have to be careful in what is claimed.

That said, there are questions to ask about the representation of this particular case. There is, as William Easterly argues, no let up in the production of famine stereotypes. For me what stands out is the way the AP report canvasses a range of possible causes for the food insecurity of Akobo – the continuing violence, failed rains, tribal clashes, and “a budget crunch on the government of southern Sudan because of the financial crisis means fewer available resources.” Yet the photography persists in reproducing the stereotype of largely isolated children, with eleven of the twelve images in the AP gallery showing these passive victims.

To be fair to the photographer, in these circumstances we have to accept that in large part he has accurately portrayed the people in the feeding centre. But is the feeding centre the real locus of famine? Can a photograph represent the many causes of this emergency? And what is the effect of these stereotypes once again marking Sudan as the “hungriest place on earth”?

One of my refrains for how we should understand photographs in these situations is that the problem lies with the absence of alternatives as much as it does with the presence of the stereotypes. Which means I should conclude with a double-page spread published by The Guardian this morning on the Sudanese elections. Clearly any place that is home to both food insecurity and a practicing democracy cannot be simply represented.

Election observers taking notes at a polling station. Voting in Sudan’s elections has been extended by two days to ensure technical problems do not prevent voter participation. Photographer: Pete Muller/AP

 

Featured picture: Odong Obong, barely 3 days old, is tended to by his mother, as he lays under a mosquito net with his twin brothers Opiew and Ochan, in a hospital ward in Akobo, Southern Sudan, Thursday April 8, 2010. AP Photo/Jerome Delay.
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photography

Visualising ‘Africa’: moving beyond ‘positive versus negative’ photographs

A disaster. A lone child. Barefoot. In a barren landscape. The apparent absence of social structures.

This photograph recycles all the main elements in the dominant representation of ‘Africa’. As James Ferguson writes in his important book Global Shadows, “for all that has changed, ‘Africa’ continues to be described through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes.”

Caption: Bududa, Eastern Uganda. A boy walks over the churned mud after heavy rains caused landslides on Mount Elgon on Tuesday. Three villages were engulfed, at least 80 people were killed and around 250 are missing. The Guardian, 6 March 2010, p. 23. Credit: James Akena/Reuters

The recent mudslides in Uganda that James Akena’s photo for Reuters symbolises are certainly worthy of reporting. The question is: regardless of the intentions of the individual photographer – a Ugandan who is an accomplished stringer – why did he choose this particular composition? And, equally important, given that he will have taken a number of images on site, how did this particular photo come to be selected by The Guardian to represent the story?

The choices that Akena made in taking the photograph, and The Guardian made in making it the largest picture in its ‘Eyewitnessed’ double page spread for the first week in March, are evident when compared to other pictures from the same event. On The New York Times Lens blog Stephen Wandera’s photograph for AP (see slide 2) shows a large crowd at the scene searching for survivors, while a Ugandan TV report also shows the community at large. These demonstrate that the photography of the lone boy is a specific choice with particular effects that tap into a long history of visual representation.

It is time for the photographic visualization of ‘Africa’ to offer something different. In this context, it is worth noting that only two days prior to the publication of the Bududa photograph, The Guardian ran a story in its business section headlined “Africa begins to make poverty history.” It opened with claim that:

For decades, it has been seen as the world’s lost continent. Now, a new study says that the view of Africa as a basket case is wrong.

As the continent prepares to welcome thousands of international football fans for the World Cup in June, it seems the image of an economically vibrant region the hosts are keen to project is closer to the truth than tired stereotypes suggest.

It’s an important — though contested — account of recent economic trends should give pause to those who simply recycle the old stereotypes, and some photographers are producing different perspectives that challenge those stereotypes.

One significant project doing this is Joan Bardeletti’s “Middle Classes in Africa,” a twenty-month project in six countries documenting the rise of this group and their potential role in the development of the continent. Three of the stories – from Mozambique, Kenya and the Ivory Coast – are on-line now. One of the pictures from the Mozambique story won a World Press Photo award this year for the “Daily Life/singles” category.

Caption: Un dimanche après midi en famille sur la plage près de Maputo. Joan Bardeletti/Picturetank

Bardeletti’s photographs show people, places, institutions and cultural events that are modern, well-resourced and more than a little familiar to the European eye. They reveal a complexity to ‘African’ life that belies the stereotypes. However, we have to refrain from seeing Akena’s photograph as ‘negative/wrong/false’ while Bardeletti’s are ‘positive/right/true’. These are tired forms of critique that overlook the fact that all photographers make aesthetic choices in the construction of imagery. In terms of what ‘we’ outside of ‘Africa’ see, the overriding concern needs to be less the presence of particular pictures than the absence of all the alternative possibilities.

This chimes with an interview Guy Tillim, the renowned South African photographer, gave to Daniel Cuthbert’s Verbal blog in July last year. Tillim observed:

The thing is, there are serious problems in Africa which did require our attention. One has to be careful with the positive/negative thing. Just because one takes images of dance halls in Lagos, and people being happy, it might end up being as much as a cliché as the suffering image.

Positives images are one that are self-aware or are interesting, penetrating and original no matter what they look at. Negatives images are ones that perpetuate the issue. Let’s face it, Stereotypes are currency in this industry and actively traded by western media.

The problem with images is that we are so visually driven, clichés are bound to be strong. There is a lack of context. If we see a crumbling wall, we think this is a metaphor for the human issue. It’s not, it’s often just a crumbling wall. What is positive and negative depends on your view.

Tillim’s recasting of what positive/negative mean is very important. Instead of it being a simple contrast of picture content — graphic images of famine versus smiling villagers, for example — he sees it as embodying an understanding of the purpose and function of photographs: “positives images are one that are self-aware or are interesting, penetrating and original no matter what they look at. Negatives images are ones that perpetuate the issue [the cliché].”

This is the position from which we should judge Bardeletti’s photographs. It will be interesting to see how many media outlets use Bardeletti’s photographs and stories once the project is completed in the summer of this year. Of course, there are many economic problems still facing the continent – such as the “land grab” of agricultural resources revealed recently by John Vidal – but a more comprehensive visual account of ‘Africa’ must include photographs like Joan Bardeletti’s.

 

UPDATE 18 March 2010:

Asim Rafiqui has an excellent post — How to Take Photos of Africa Or Where Intent and Ideas Collide — that was serendipitously published on the same day as this one. It shares concerns similar to mine, and has a range of additional examples. It is a ‘must read’.

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photography

How does the media persuade us to give to charities?

In “Please Give Generously” – an excellent documentary broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this weekend – Fergal Keane examined the relationship between charities and the media, in which charities want to raise their profile as well as money, the media needs stories, and both traffic in drama.

Britain is home to 166,000 charities that last year received £10 billion in donations. Those are statistics that challenge the belief that “compassion fatigue” is an incurable part of the modern condition (a claim I plan to examine in greater detail in the near future). To be sure, giving declined 11% last year, largely because of the recession. But the speed and scale of the public response to disasters like the Haiti earthquake (for which the Disasters Emergency Committee’s consolidated UK appeal has raised £80 million shows that compassion for what are understood to be immediate, natural disasters is as great as ever.

Keane’s documentary did not dwell on the particular problems of photographic appeals, but it was at its most interesting when it turns to Africa (around 25:15), a continent he describes as “fixed in the mind by charity appeals” that trade in the symbols of disaster and distress. Here the need to simplify and shock diminishes context, leading to compassion without understanding.

In his conclusion, Keane claims there is a new public mood with respect to charitable appeals. Comprising a heightened scepticism and weariness, he declares the template of misery out of date, and sees a more sophisticated approach moving us away from “the age of dependency.”

While a more sophisticated approach is surely needed, and something other than a template of misery long overdue, I am in turn sceptical about claims the public suffers from weariness. In many ways – as the success of recent appeals suggests – “the public” seems as happy as ever with charity as a response to the problems of development and disaster.

Rather than suffering compassion fatigue, there might even be an enjoyment of the “excess of compassion.” This is something, Keane argues, that deflects attention away from the important questions of who is responsible and how they are culpable.

This documentary is worth listening to, so click on the player below to hear a full recording. (If nothing else, enjoy this 56-minute programme for the patrician tone in the archival recordings of British charity appeals broadcast in the 1920s and 1930s!).

[powerpress]

Here are the programme notes from the BBC:

“Fergal Keane examines the history of charity appeals and the relationship between charity organisations and the media.

Be it a malnourished child in Africa, a neglected dog or a day centre desperately in need of new equipment, it seems that there is no end to the number of people, animals or organisations that could benefit from a charitable donation. And if charities can harness the power of the media with a hard-hitting advert, a celebrity endorsement or an emergency appeal, then it is likely that their cause will reap far greater financial rewards.

Fergal charts the history of the relationship between charity and the media, and considers the way the message is conveyed, the impact of celebrity endorsement, the quality of charity programmes and the responsibility and risks to the media in encouraging us to make a donation.

The history of charity and the media goes back to the earliest days of broadcasting. The BBC’s first charity appeal was in 1923, when it broadcast an appeal on radio for the Winter Distress League, a charity representing homeless veterans of the First World War. The appeal raised 26 pounds. In 1927 the BBC set up the Appeal Advisory Committee, whose role, to this day, is to decide on the BBC’s choice of charity partners and to oversee campaigns including The Radio 4 Appeal, Comic Relief and Emergency Appeals such as the Haiti Earthquake Appeal, which was broadcast recently.

Commercial broadcasters have also played their part in raising money for charity. In 1988 ITV launched its own all-night charity appeal, in the guise of the ITV Telethon. The 27-hour TV extravaganza saw all of its regional broadcasters come together to raise money for disability charities across the UK and the programme was repeated again in 1990 and 1992. In 2009, Sky Sports ran an interactive red button campaign during the Champions League final so that viewers could donate to a David Beckham-endorsed campaign to raise awareness of malaria.

Programme contributors:

Diane Reid, BBC Charity Appeals Advisor
Lucy Polson, UK Representative for the charity SOS Sahel
Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the Media Trust
Jenni Murray, broadcaster
John Grounds, director of Child Protection Consultancy.

Broadcast on:

BBC Radio 4, 8:00pm Saturday 20th February 2010.”

Categories
photography

How photographs make Darfur mean something

The relationship between photographs and text in the construction of political understanding is often complex and frequently unclear. Although news photographs regularly present themselves as windows illustrating the world, the articles, captions and headlines with which they are associated can bind them into meanings at odds with both their pictorial content and the accompanying textual themes.

The Guardian 5 March 2009, pp. 4-5

Odd conjunctions of this sort are common in the visualization of Darfur. Back in March 2009, when the liberal UK newspaper The Guardian wanted an image to accompany the print story of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar al-Bashir, a photograph by French photojournalist Frederic Noy was chosen (in contrast to the web version, which has a portrait of Bashir). Showing a distressed baby boy – identified in the caption as malnourished – being vaccinated by partially obscured adults, it was taken at Koubigou refugee camp in eastern Chad. Noy would have had no control over the use of his image by a British newspaper, but the newspaper’s choice of this picture says much about how ‘Darfur’ has been made visually available to us.

As my earlier research on this topic has demonstrated (see my “Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict [2007]) photojournalism visually enacts the field it claims merely to document. In the case of Darfur, that visual performance has drawn on the established iconography of disaster in ‘Africa’ in which the political is rendered in terms of the humanitarian, and the humanitarian is signified by the bodies and faces of refugees.

Indeed, the vast majority of Darfur photographs have come not from the province but the camps in Chad, a product of the way photojournalists rely on international aid organizations to provide access to the edges of the conflict zone. My review of all the pictures used by The Guardian and The Observer in their coverage of Darfur from 2003 to 2005 showed that 43 of the 48 published photographs foregrounded individuals as symbols of the conflict, with two-thirds of these pictures focusing on refugees. And as Lynsey Addario’s March 2009 visual essay of the Otash camp in southern Darfur demonstrates (these being the most recent set of photographs used by the New York Times) the emphasis on the face of the individual remains the most common pictorial form for a political story, even one about the Sudanese government’s expulsion of humanitarian organizations from Darfur.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times, 22 March 2009

In fixing meaning, either photographs or text can have the upper hand, depending on their particular context. As Alex de Waal demonstrated in his review of the Darfur essay in David Elliot Cohen’s What Matters, the ambiguities of Marcus Bleasdale’s photographs were expunged by the force of the accompanying text written by Samantha Power and John Prendergast, which ensured the reading of the conflict as genocidal prevailed. However, in the case of the news photographs of Darfur circulating in European and North America, I would argue that the pictures have trumped the words. By constantly reproducing the stereotypes of the refugee as passive victim, these images have made a humanitarian account of the conflict dominant over all others. In turn, these photographs have distilled identities to a fixed essence such that the conflict can be easily mapped in terms of a tribal war or genocide that pits “Arab” against “African”.

Regardless of whether photographs or text are triumphant in directing the political meaning of a conflict like Darfur, what is missing from both is an appreciation for the wider context, abundant complexities, and many contingencies through which the fate of millions is determined. Although no single media holds the answer, the challenge for visual journalists is to find new ways to tell the story of Darfur so that this lack of certainty can be cogently represented.

Photo credits: Frederic Noy, Lynsey Addario

This is a cross-posting with the SSRC ‘Making Sense of Darfur’ blog

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photography

Aid images, and the solution offered by local photographers

Some visual strategies are remarkably persistent, and few more persistent than those employed by humanitarian aid organizations when illustrating their appeals and campaign literature. We documented this in relation to food shortages in Africa as part of the Imaging Famine project.

You know the pictures without even seeing them – the photographs of mothers and their distressed children, or western aid workers ministering to victims who are passive, pathetic, poor and sick. Over on the duckrabbit blog – a regularly insightful source of photographic critique – there is an interesting breakdown of the Medecins Sans Frontieres photoblog that shows how these representations are alive and well even for one of the best activist organizations.

As they note, the photographs used by MSF show aid workers who are white and western even though the bulk of humanitarian assistance, even when provided in the name of European organizations, is delivered by local people. The images also suggest that dependency rather than empowerment is the best modus operandi.

Recently I have been trying to think about photography in ways that shifts our focus from representation to enactment, from the meaning of pictures to the work they do (see ‘War images at work’). From this perspective, even the most common visual representations can have important and unusual effects in certain circumstances.

This is not entirely the case with the MSF photoblog, and the problems raised by duckrabbit are significant. However, that MSF pursues these visual strategies is not all that surprising. Their purpose is to put MSF at the centre of aid work, show they are making something of a difference, and get viewers to open their pockets to fund that work. Whether we like it or not – and its part of what the social psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect” – when people like us are pictured aiding individuals who are helpless, those pockets open more frequently.

This is not to overlook the problems of the MSF photoblog as an example of the limitations of humanitarian photography. But it is not meant to offer a full pictorial account of aid, development and Africa. As such, I would put the problem this way: it less about the presence of these stereotypes and more about the absence of alternative visual stories in news from Africa, in particular. When it comes to the photographic production of ‘Africa’, it is largely disaster and humanitarian photography that we see. Sure, we get the exotic nature stories and the romantic travel accounts, but you won’t see many complexities of African culture, politics and society in those glossy narratives either.

The absence of these alternative stories is often put down to the alleged lack of local and indigenous photographers, and the duckrabbit post makes this point. But I am a bit sceptical about this as the source of the problem. 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. 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?

At about this point I’m going to be misunderstood as seemingly wanting to retain the status quo. Not so. 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 majorityworld.com 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 may be true in some instances, but, for example, having viewed the work of many talented Asian photographers at this years Chobi Mela festival in Bangladesh, I was struck by how familiar were both their subjects and their aesthetic style.

It is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international”. The Palestinian photojournalists who produced impressive pictures to cover the war in January were in many cases already employed by the big news agencies like AP and Reuters – that’s how they could get their work out so quickly. Are they local, or are they part of the global image economy? They are obviously local to the war zone, but in their professional practice they have to conform to the codes of their global media employer, and these norms condition the pictures that are taken and published.

We must get to see more work from local photographers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. But we also need better work from European photographers covering those areas. If both local and international photojournalists take the time to engage with the issues rather than just parachute in and out we will all be better off. In the end, though, we should judge them, not on their birthplace or nationality, but on their ability to employ visual strategies in the service of a complex and compelling story.