Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.



Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.










photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.7: Sudan’s politics in pictures

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

Sudan faces a momentous week beginning Sunday 9 January. A referendum in the south, mandated as part of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, could lead to the division of the country and the creation of a new state. Voting will take place over a week and the result should be known within a month of the polls’ closing.

Photo: Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images

For western eyes, Sudan has most often appeared as a site of famine or war, be it in the south or Darfur. Said to be “one of the hollow-bellied places of the world” or a landscape “seared by war,” the continent’s largest country has often been rendered via stereotypical images.

The politics of the situation facing Sudan is inevitably complex (the International Crisis Group has excellent analyses of the situation here and Alex de Waal has his usual profound insights here). So how can it be visualized? How can politics be represented in pictures?

This week we have seen two conventional strategies in response to that challenge. The first is to invoke images from the past, as in Lucian Perkin’s film for the United States Holocaust Historical Museum, which is running on The Guardian’s web site. Perkin’s film is interesting for the way it begins with Tom Stoddart’s black and white photographs of the 1998 Bar El Ghazal famine before moving onto personal testimony from civil war survivors.

The second is to record the appearance of the visible traces of politics, namely leaders engaged in ceremonies where the trappings of sovereignty are evident. Peter Martell’s pictures of President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to the south earlier this week are an example of this, showing Bashir’s welcome by the south’s leader Salva Kiir, with the requisite red carpet, military officials and marching band.

It is a lot to ask of a single photograph that it represent the complexities of politics, no matter how talented the photographer. No doubt in the week ahead we will see pictures of polling stations, queues of voters, and people raising inky fingers to signify the completion of their electoral act (hopefully images of conflict will be absent). Who, though, will produce something a little different?


I didn’t catch up with yesterday’s print edition of The Guardian until this morning and found that the up-coming referendum was marked on their double-page Eyewitness spread by Stefan De Luigi’s photo of a woman gathering rubbish on the Juba dump where she lives. It seems an extraordinarily problematic choice for this political story. For those who hoped the stereotypes of ‘Africa’ as a place of absence, lack and distress were diminishing, the prominent publication of this sort of image in relation to this sort of story demonstrates we have a long way to go. It is possible (though I can’t confirm this) that the photograph comes from De Luigi’s Getty-supported “TIA – This is Africa” project, which was so effectively analysed by John Edwin Mason in October last year.

Caption: A woman gathers rubbish on a landfill site, where she lives, in Juba city. Voters in southern Sudan are preparing to vote on Sunday, when a seven-day referendum on separation from Africa’s biggest country begins. Photo: Stefan De Luigi/VII

While the above picture is flawed for this political story, the mainstream media does not necessarily have a consistent approach to visual representation. So in today’s Guardian we find a strong image from Spencer Platt of prosperous women in a pro-independence parade through Juba this week. If nothing else, it demonstrates their are always options when it comes to both the production and publication of photographs.

Caption: Hope at last: Women drive in a pro-independence parade in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, this week. Most of the four million registered voters are expected to choose separation. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

photography politics

Has concerned photography a future? Photojournalism, humanitarianism, responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sem Presser Lecture 2005 – text


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


How photographs make Darfur mean something

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

The Guardian 5 March 2009, pp. 4-5

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

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

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

Lynsey Addario, New York Times, 22 March 2009

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

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

Photo credits: Frederic Noy, Lynsey Addario

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