Categories
photography politics

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

Obama Soccer Tunnel Mandela Service

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Souza bill signing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
photography

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.
Categories
photography

Photographing Gaza: AP, Franklin and being political

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
photography

Photographing Gaza: more questions in the case of AP vs. Stuart Franklin

The controversy surrounding the forced withdrawal of Stuart Franklin’s essay in the Noorderlicht Photofestival exhibition of Palestinian photojournalism has received some coverage in both Photo District News and the British Journal of Photography.

Those reports don’t delve very deep into this issue. As such, there remain a number of outstanding questions that, given the importance of the principles at stake, demand further investigation.

Because we haven’t been able to read Franklin’s proposed essay, it is difficult for anyone to offer unequivocal conclusions. This, however, is how PDN summarized the text:

Franklin wrote a 700-word essay about the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Festival director Broekhuis provided a copy of the final draft of Franklin’s unpublished essay, but asked PDN not to publish or quote directly from it. The AP confirmed it was the same text they reviewed.)

The text describes Palestinians as victims of disproportionate force by Israel.

The essay depicts Palestinians as resilient victims of Israeli violence and disempowerment. Franklin acknowledges cruelty on both sides of the conflict, and cites specific instances of violence against both Israelis and Palestinians.

The essay does not mention the Associated Press or any other media organizations, nor does it name any photographers. Franklin refers to the photographers generally, noting that they are mostly married men who worried about their safety as they covered the conflict.

In his final paragraph, Franklin likens the Palestinians to other groups of people who have historically been oppressed—including Jews—and says the exhibit is not politically biased, but biased on the side of justice, human rights, and international law.

    This summary would suggest the Franklin essay is in many ways unremarkable, offering opinions that many have voiced. Of course, there are many who will also object forcefully to such views, but one would hardly call Franklin’s essay radical.

    1. AP claims it had a:

    firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view…In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition…When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition.

    In contrast, Ton Broekhuis, director of the Noorderlicht Photography Foundation, has stated:

    First of all, it is vital to understand that there have never been official and unofficial preliminary agreements between AP and Noorderlicht or Stuart Franklin, but the verbal indication that Stuart Franklin’s approach – I quote – ‘would highlight the photojournalism and be balanced’. [According to Franklin]: ‘I have honoured this…No discussion was held with AP about text or their apparent right to censor my curatorial essay until a few weeks ago.’

    Which account is correct?

    2. According to PDN, Franklin selected images from 11 photographers who shoot for four wire services: the AP, Agence France Presse, european pressphoto agency and Getty Images. Did AFP, EPA and Getty ask for assurances on the accompanying text? Were they given any assurances? Did those agencies make any other stipulations about the use of their images? What is their view now?

    3. What do the photographers themselves think?

    4. According to the Noorderlicht press release, AP rejected two compromise options: either a statement accompanying Franklin’s essay making clear it was a “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the photographers’ agencies, or some text from AP itself to counter Franklin’s essay. If this is the case, why did AP reject both these options and instead allegedly threaten legal action against the organisers?

    AP spokesperson Paul Colford told PDN his organization did not want their photos “to bolster a highly charged political point of view.” Given this, why did AP agree – regardless of the nature of any accompanying text – to have its photographs included in the exhibition in the first place?

    The Israel-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not highly charged in all respects, and as an organization AP knows this better than anyone. Their photographers are regularly abused – just read some of the scandalous comments posted on the PDN web site in the wake of this issue that speak of these professionals as “Muslim cowards” and “Arab propagandists.” Or consider the conservative bloggers who revel in calling any images from the Middle East they don’t like “fauxtography.” Or recall the vitriol heaped on AP during the campaign to free their photographer Bilal Hussein from two years detention without trial in Iraq, which saw the AP logo disfigured to read “Associated (with terrorists) Press”.

    Was AP simply afraid of further attacks from the right if Franklin was permitted to exercise his freedom of speech? If so, how is that a non-partisan stance?

    Categories
    photography

    Photographing Gaza: do pictures speak of politics?

    Do photographs speak? Do they have an intrinsic politics? Or do they rely on the text that accompanies them for political meaning? An unfolding controversy about the photojournalism of Palestinian photographers contracted to western picture agencies is broaching these questions.

    As I’ve written here, although many claimed that Israel’s media controls meant few pictures of the IDF’s December 2008 invasion of the Strip saw the light of day, professional Palestinian photographers working for the likes of the Associated Press, Getty and Reuters were supplying images that got a good run in European newspapers.

    The Noorderlicht Photofestival of 2009, which opens this week, is running work under the title Human Conditions, in order to “reveal the unseen, human stories behind conflicts.” One of the shows, curated by Magnum president Stuart Franklin, whose own recent work on “Gaza Today” can be seen here, contains the Palestinian photographs. As the Noorderlicht web site explains:

    Franklin travelled to Gaza to speak with Palestinian photographers. The exhibition Point of No Return shows their work: raw photojournalism that was done under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The photographs by Mohammed Saber, Mahmoud Hams, Mohammed Baba, Abid Katib, Said Katib, Hatem Moussa, Ashraf Amra, Eyad Baba, Khalil Hamra, Fadi Adwan and Ali Ali rise above the level of detached reporting.

    However, it is not the Palestinian photographs that have sparked the controversy, but Stuart Franklin’s introductory text. The Associated Press objected to the content of Franklin’s essay, and wanted it “substantially moderated.” We do not have access to Franklin’s text, but a press release from Noorderlicht makes clear that AP objected to the fact that:

    the essay acknowledged that criminal acts were committed by both sides, but assigned the principle responsibility for the extent of the bloodshed to Israel. Both Noorderlicht and Franklin believe this conclusion is justified by the critical reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations…

    It seems AP threatened to withdraw their Palestinian photographers’ work or pursue legal action against the exhibition organizers. Outraged by AP’s attitude, Franklin withdrew the essay and left the photographs without accompanying text, while Noorderlicht charged AP was acting contrary to any principle of free speech.

    AP’s director of media relations has responded to the disclosure of its threats by saying:

    Early this year, The Associated Press agreed to a request to display some of its images from Gaza at the Noorderlicht Photofestival, with the firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view.

    The AP is an independent global news organization whose photojournalism stands on its own merits.

    In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition.

    When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition – namely, that the photos would not be presented in support of a political position… (Emphasis added)

    Here we have a set of fascinating assumptions about the meaning of images. For AP, the photographs ‘should speak for themselves’, but they assume that ‘speech’ would not have been ‘political’, because it was only through Franklin’s text these pictures would ‘be presented in support of a political position.’ What, then, does AP think these photographs would be saying, in an apolitical way, when devoid of text?

    Interestingly, Stuart Franklin says that the photographs are also going to speak, but presumably that they are going to say something different to what AP imagines it hears. As Franklin wrote in the Human Conditions catalogue after withdrawing his essay:

    I will say nothing and let the pictures talk. The pictures must speak and one day, we must hope, their stories will be told.

    I think both Franklin and AP are naïve in their view that photographs themselves speak, as though they could construct a larger meaning without text or other related media that put them in context.

    However, in addition to their censorship of Franklin’s views, AP are especially naïve because the professional Palestinian photographs from within Gaza – such as the work of Getty photographer Abid Katib, which was among the first images of the war published in the UK (see one of his photos here) — have already been widely circulated and read with a variety of texts creating various meanings. To suggest that these photographs should now be stripped of prior associations and rendered ‘apolitical’ is itself the most political stance one can take.

    (A hat-tip to Aric Mayer for a prompt on this issue).

    (UPDATE 3 September 2009: I have revised the final paragraph to note Abid Katib is a Getty photographer, as was clear from my earlier post).