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Thinking Images v.25: The politics of the individual against the white backdrop

How should complex economic and political issues be represented visually?

In telling the story of how Chinese labour produces so much of the world’s manufactured goods, Lucas Schifre opted for a well-known formula – individualise the issue by making portraits. They are all interesting and many are compelling, none less so than this photograph of Wang Jan who works at the Artissmo Designs factory in Zhejian province.

Schifre’s rationale was clear:

“Looking at a human face mobilizes more brain cells than looking at anything else,” said Mr. Schifres, 39. It was a simple idea, meant to present a new dimension to the story; to put a face to labor in China…

Putting a face on a story – or, in the words of the Lens blog – “looking directly into their eyes” is a staple of humanist photography. These images embody a specific way of being human that Hariman and Lucaites call the “individuated aggregate.”[1. Robert Hariman and John Lucaites, No Caption Needed (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 21, 88-89.] In this understanding, the individuated aggregate, although appearing in a photograph as a singular person or persons, instead depicts collective experience metonymically by reducing a general construct (such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic) to a specific embodiment (the patient, caregiver or health practitioner, for example). The individuated aggregate has to be personal enough to convey the details of a particular life, but equally impersonal so those details do not derail a larger generalization. The end result of this is that, as Hariman and Lucaties argue, “the figure of the individuated aggregate fuses individual and collective reference to create a symbol; the iconic representation becomes the event itself.”[2. Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, p. 90.]

The individuated aggregate also serves another double function, one related to the work photographs do as opposed to the things they represent. Photographs prompt structures of feeling historically present in audiences, using the face and body of the person pictured to not only display the subject’s emotions but to place viewers in an affective relationship with the subject. Such photographs activate a humanitarian structure of feeling, calling forth established humanitarian modes of response. As such, the individuated aggregate allows the figure of the individual to embody a larger social and political context “in a manner that fulfils both the need for collective action and the primacy of individual autonomy in a liberal-democratic society.”[3. Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, pp. 21, 35-36.] However, given the way it secures liberal individualism, the collective action inspired by the individuated aggregate will be a humanitarian kind and will not contest the fundaments of liberalism at home or abroad. So, as much as people might want portraits of this kind to prompt a political response, their aesthetic strategies undercut that possibility.

A second component of Schifres visual strategy reinforces the liberal approach – his use of the white backdrop to remove people from their immediate surroundings. As Colin Pantall wrote last year, this approach has a long history and many incarnations. We might even date it to August Sander’s famous work, though it is perhaps best know via Richard Avedon’s In the American West (1985), James Mollison’s Hunger (2002) and microcredit (2008) campaigns, Paul Close’s Snakebox Odyssey (2009), and Rankin’s Congo series for Oxfam (2010).

In Avedon’s work, the removal of people from their immediate background to be photographed against a white backdrop was a politically disruptive ploy, because it repopulated the landscape of the American West with people who had been obscured, in part by the dominance of landscape photography in representing that area.[4. This case is made in Michael J. Shapiro, The Politics of Representation (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 156-162.] Whether the continued use of this particular visual strategy remains politically disruptive is open to debate.

Photo: Copyright Lucas Schifres


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Thinking Images v.24: Lu Guang’s activist photography

What is the power of photography?

In the abstract, that is an impossible question to answer. There are many general claims about photography being able to ‘change the world’, but when it comes to evidence for such arguments, we know surprisingly little about how photographs actually work. There are clearly moments in which images can induce action. With Lu Guang’s photography, we can appreciate the impact some projects can have in some circumstances.

Lecturing in Beijing recently as part of the BFSU/Bolton MA in International Multimedia Journalism, Lu Guang discussed his long-term investigation of pollution in China, which he began in 2005. A self-funded freelancer, Lu Guang has won international recognition for his work in the form of World Press Photo awards, the 2009 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the 2010 National Geographic photography grant. As the Lens blog noted, Lu Guang’s affinity with Eugene Smith is apparent in his commitment to investigate and expose the consequences of rampant industrialisation.

Lu Guang’s 2003 portraits from the AIDS village in Henan are as graphic and unvarnished as any images you will ever see. They had a dramatic impact in China, forcing local and regional authorities to provide the care and treatment they had previously refused. In his lecture, Lu Guang described how his current work on pollution, which is equally direct and to the point, offering pictures as evidence, is also prompting remedial action at local and regional levels.

That photography can move authorities in a political system well known for its desire to control information is remarkable. That someone like Lu Guang, even when commissioned by a western NGO like Greenpeace, can work effectively in China challenges the external perception of a system constantly covering crises up. Lu Guang spoke candidly of the harassment he faces while working, so the risks he take should not be underestimated. But he made a fascinating observation – if he was revealing something specific and unknown to particular authorities, Lu Guang felt he could carry on and overcome the obstacles in his path. While his disclosures are uncomfortable to profiteers, the political authorities sometimes either tolerate or encourage that discomfort.

Having spent a fair amount of time in China over the last eighteen months and more, I have been constantly struck by the large number of indigenous journalists and photographers whose daily work manifests an unflinching commitment to critical investigation regardless of the consequences. I think we have a lot to learn from the likes of Lu Guang.

Workers at a lime kiln in the Heilonggui Industrial District in Inner Mongolia. The woman on the left is wearing two scarves, a red one to protect her eyes, a grey one to cover her mask. Photo: Courtesy of Lu Guang, 22 March 2007.

Top photo: The sewage plant of the Fluorine Industrial Park discharges its untreated waste into the riverbed of the Yangtze River through a 1,500-meter-long pipeline. Changshu City, Jiangsu province. Courtesy of Lu Guang, 11 June 2009.



‘Living in the Shadows’ wins ‘Best of the Best’ award at SABEW

Earlier this month I was delighted to announce that “Living in the Shadows,” the multimedia story on China’s internal migrants I produced for Sharron Lovell, was named among the winners in The Society of American Business Editors and Writers annual Best in Business Journalism competition. Now we have heard it has gone one better…

The Global Post’s ‘Living in the Shadows’ project was awarded “Best of the Best” in general excellence at the SABEW competition. It was the only online project among the thirteen stories recognised from the original list of 163 winners, beating competition from The New York Times, the Associated Press, amongst others.

Judges for the Best of the Best portion of the contest were Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post; David Callaway, editor-in-chief of MarketWatch; Kai Ryssdal, host of Marketplace on National Public Radio; and Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of The judges assessment of the project was that:

Living in the Shadows shines a vivid light on those living in the margins of China’s red-hot economic boom. The ambition is audacious: follow three of the 200 million migrant workers as they struggle to survive and adapt. The intimate portraits — captured through evocative photos and enticing and engaging multimedia — move storytelling into new dimensions.

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‘Living in the Shadows’ wins multimedia journalism award

I hope you will excuse this tiny bit of trumpet blowing, but I was excited to hear this morning that “Living in the Shadows,” the multimedia story on China’s internal migrants I produced for Sharron Lovell, has won an award in the United States.

It was named as one of the winners in The Society of American Business Editors and Writers 15th annual Best in Business Journalism competition. ‘Living in the Shadows,’ which we licensed to The Global Post, won for “Online excellence in projects for mid-sized web sites.”

Most credit goes to Sharron for her excellent photojournalism, in the truest sense of that word. Recognising the significance of internal labour migration in China, Sharron pursued a long-term project based around three families in Shanghai, shooting stills, recording audio and producing video. Thanks goes also to the multimedia team at The Global Post who structured our project into chapters.

I can’t say we ever thought of the project as business journalism, but we are very happy to be counted amongst those recognized for “the best business news reporting during 2009.”

Equally, we have been delighted to see the project deployed by Compassion for Migrant Children, who have used it to help raise awareness about migrant issues.

Most importantly, it demonstrates the power of multimedia – giving a voice to the subjects, providing context and developing a more detailed narrative – in the future of photojournalism.