Categories
More posts photography

Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.

Categories
photography politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
media economy photography

Crowd funding photojournalism: how is it going?

Crowd funding is growing as a means to support creative projects. Back in January I discussed the theory and practice of crowd funding through a critique of Larry Towell’s ‘Crisis in Afghanistan’ project, followed by an update on my experience as a contributor. Here I want to provide a review of how crowd funding is currently working for photography and photojournalism, with an analysis of Kickstarter and a look at emphas.is.

There are a number of new crowd funding sites, such as WeFund in the UK, and Norwegian-based New Jelly, though they have few if any photography projects. In contrast, IndieGoGo, which was established in 2008, and says it has raised millions of dollars for over 20,000 campaigns, across 173 countries,” has more than 100 photography pitches. However, only four have been successful (see here, here, here and here), raising a total of US$15,000 between them.

Kickstarter by numbers

In photography circles it is Kickstarter that is best known. Founded in April 2009, contributors have stumped up more than $35 million in the last two years, and the money is coming in at the rate of $1 million/week. In a review this February, GigaOm detailed the figures:

  • more than 600,000 supporters come to the site
  • 5,000 projects have been funded and 2,500 are currently pitching
  • 250-300 proposals are submitted daily, though Kickstarter rejects 45% of these because they do not meet the requirements

I’ve done my own analysis of successful photography projects on Kickstarter between 17 June 2009 and 17 April 2011. These include much more than photojournalism. Here are the numbers:

  • 284 projects
  • $1,295,803 raised in total
  • Average of $4,563/project

The amounts funded range from $25 to $50,000, with the latter for a non-photographic part of Zana Briski’s “Reverence” project. Briski’s large total is very much an outlier, as the average/project above suggests. Of the 284 projects, there were only 19 that bid for and raised between $10–20,000, only three in the $20–30,000 bracket, another three in the $30–40,000 range, with Briski’s the single one beyond that.

Significantly, many of the best known photojournalism projects – by Ashley Gilbertson, Bruce Gilden, Krisanne Johnson, Gerd Ludwig (who raised twice what he asked for), and Larry Towell – are in the $10,000+ category of success.

This has encouraged the Magnum Emergency Fund to set up its own Kickstarter page. The MEF states that “funds raised will be used to cover actual costs and a per diem.” The latter is a controversial point. Are these platforms a way to make a living, or do they provide project expenses only? I’m firmly of the view that it should be expenses only. If by per diem the MEF means a personal fee from crowd funding, that would be unacceptable in my view. If by per diem they mean travel and subsistence costs, that would be legitimate. The doubt around this arises from the fact that most if not all of these pitches remain opaque as to their detailed budget. More transparent accounting is still needed to clarify issues like this.

The promise of emphas.is

Emphas.is is the crowd funding platform focused on visual journalism, and after launching in early March with a few understandable teething problems, it has just seen more than $40,000 raised to fully fund four of its nine opening projects. Of the remaining five, one should succeed, one has failed, and three are precariously placed. That’s not a bad start – though the platform will need to react faster once projects are funded. As I write, Matt Eich’s project has been fully funded for a few days yet remains in pole position as the site’s ‘featured project’.

Aside from its focus, Emphas.is differs from Kickstarter in two important respects. First, it has a board of reviewers that determine which pitches are accepted for the site. With a likely 55:45 funding success rate on the first batch, the review process is no guarantee of success (not that it was intended to be).

The second difference is that as a platform emphas.is both enables and encourages community engagement through its “Making of Zone” where backers get project updates. While this rewards contributors, it also helps the projects. As Tomas Van Houtryve, whose project was fully funded, notes:

Backers have started to pose relevant questions. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence.

What can we conclude so far?

I think the performance of Kickstarter and the promise of emphas.is give us some pointers to crowd funding photojournalism:

  • Successful bids require careful preparation, and the likes of Frank Chimero have good advice on how to make an effective pitch.
  • While the macro-level figures are impressive, the most likely level of project funding is in the US$5,000 – $15,000 range
  • Achieving above $10,000 requires a previously established professional reputation and an active community of support to call on
  • Even with that community of potential support, generating support requires considerable planning and effort, pursuing connections, publicity and pledges. As Rene Clement told PDN recently, “Don’t think money will pour in. You have to work really hard for it.”

Above all else, turning crowd funding into a sustainable source of project revenue for photojournalism requires those how have recently been funded to deliver on their promises. If backers are engaged and see their support enable projects that would otherwise not have happened, then continuing assistance could be forthcoming.

Update 23 April/5 May

The British Journal of Photography (4 May 2011) has a good report on crowd funding with some UK examples.

They discuss three UK-based crowd funding sites I had not previously heard of: CrowdfunderSponsume and WeDidThis. Sponsume is interesting because it has a ’50 per cent’ rule – if pitches get backing for half the total they ask for they can keep the money pledged. Most other sites require the target to be reached in full before funding is made available.

The report also discusses two ‘DIY’ crowd funded projects – the well-known Sochi Project, and the less known appeal by Andy Sewell, in which he has raised over £6,000 for a book by pre-selling a limited edition version.

The most important observation in this BJP report comes towards the end:

With crowdfunding there is a notable correlation between the size of the project leader’s online social network and the amount of money raised – the bigger the network, the greater the chance of reaching the target.

Photo credit: Genista/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
More posts photography politics

The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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