Categories
photography

The difficulty of talking about photography

What is photography?

One of my favourite books is Mishka Henner’s Photography Is. Not a single image and 3,000 disparate statements torn from writing that attempt to define the field.

Of course, definitions are difficult things. Nietzsche had it right when he said, “all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated defy definition; only something which has no history can be defined.” As photography has a complex and varied history, definition seems unattainable.

I’m coming to doubt the usefulness of both the question ‘what is photography’, and writing that presumes the unity of a field as it investigates its problems. Indeed, in recent times – especially after speaking at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, an academic conference in Toronto, and running the first World Press Photo multimedia seminar in Amsterdam – I’ve been personally struck by the difficulty of even talking about photography generally. To use the term as an all-encompassing concept seems pretty much impossible.

After all, what, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a lot of good writing about this thing variously called photography. As I catch up with material filed away while travelling, I’ve benefited greatly from Michael Shaw’s three part analysis of the state of the news photo, and John Edwin Mason’s critique of claims about the “tsunami of vernacular photographs.”

What connects such analysis is that they don’t focus on the alleged essence of photography, what it is. They deal with its function and its effects.

To do that we will all have to make clear our own assumptions about the particular functions or effects we want to investigate. As Mason observes, “photography is one of the most complex phenomena of the modern world.” That may be the only simple, singular statement we can make about it.

So rather than ask what photography is, perhaps we should probe what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.

References: 

1. Friedrich Nietzsce, On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53. Thanks to Ian Douglas and others for reminding me of the source.

2. Shaw’s analysis might be seen as an important extension and update of Stuart Hall’s important essay “The determinations of news photographs,” in The Manufacture of News, edited by Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (Sage Publications, revised edition, 1981).

Categories
media economy photography politics

Photo agencies and ethics: the individual and the collective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

David,

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

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

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

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

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

Bests

Santiago

 

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

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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