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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.

POSTS

ARTICLES

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.15: Syria, social media and photojournalism

Both the scale of the protests in Syria, and the violence of the regime’s response, is growing. Yet photojournalism is able to offer little about this vital story. While we have seen powerful coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen, there seem to be few if any photojournalists – either freelance or associated with the wires – at work in Syria. I have seen one Flickr stream from Syria, but given the nature of the regime, a larger photographic absence is perhaps unsurprising.

In the place of photojournalism, media outlets are using video footage and screen grabs taken from social media sites. For example, to illustrate its 25 April story “Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began,” Reuters has a gallery of ten images many of which come with this warning:

this still image [was] taken from amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on [date]. Editor’s note: Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of the video from which this still was taken.

Reuters Pictures is selling many of these images for clients in a package labelled “Arab States Conflict (Anti-Government Protests in Syria – 25 Apr 2011).” The Guardian used one of them at the top of its Syria live blog on 26 April, and has a related gallery of pictures from protests in Homs here. While the social media provenance of the images is explicit in the Reuters’ credits – they read “REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV” – it is interesting that a picture produced by others can by watermarked by Reuters to protect its value.

Some of the social media-derived pictures are dramatic, as in the case of the man throwing a rock at a tank in Deraa (above). Many of them show large crowds streaming through the streets of various towns, the military gathering around those protests, and the deadly consequences of live fire.

There is, I think, a curious effect of this reliance on amateur images. On the one hand, their lack of a professional aesthetic – especially their graininess, poor focus, and unsteady composition – signifies authenticity and immediacy. The image makers are more interested in the politics than the picture. And yet, on the other hand, their capacity to make us connect with the events portrayed is diminished by the way they render people as anonymous crowds in a middle distance. As a result we lack, I feel, an insight into the people, their passions and purpose.

In Egypt especially we saw photojournalism using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further enhance our connection.

The coverage of Syria to date offers a different lesson. It’s not an argument against ‘citizen journalism’, because in the absence of professional photojournalism the only alternative to getting pictures via social media would be total blindness. We need professionals and amateurs to combine in producing a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, when the professional are not present, something is lacking.

Top photo: A man prepares to throw a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Credit: REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.

Second photo: Syrian anti-regime protesters waving their national flag and holding a sign that reads in Arabic “Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Druze, I am Syrian” during a demonstration in the central town of Homs. Credit: YouTube/AFP/Getty Images.

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multimedia photography

Missing multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya?

World Press Photo announced the shortlist for its inaugural multimedia award this week, with three narrative stories and three interactive projects. Coming after six weeks of monumental global events, it got me thinking: where are the multimedia stories from the revolution in Egypt, the disaster in Japan and the conflict in Libya? Recalling Paul Conroy’s March 11 photograph (above) of his colleagues running from an air strike in Libya prompted this thought, so let me explain the connection.

In an interview accompanying the WPP announcement, the chair of the jury, Ed Kashi, outlined multimedia’s benefits. ‘Multimedia’ embraces a huge range of approaches and styles and their are few if any rules. It is a concept that has been applied to everything from the short-form news story to the long-form documentary, from something that adds a little audio to something that is predominantly video.

Everyone has their preferences, and mine are for stories that have still photographs at their heart, accompanied by audio of the subjects and their environment, supplemented by video if and when appropriate. These are the sort of projects well done by the likes of MediaStorm, the Bombay Flying Club and duckrabbit (who prefer to call them “photofilms”), and I have tried to follow their lead in the two I have produced to date.

I think of multimedia as fundamentally a photographic project that can address context through additional technologies. While I’ve seen some video pieces from Egypt made with DSLRs, these are either television reports or scenes with sound but no overall story. They are impressive demonstrations of what these cameras can do visually, but they are not the photo-based narratives I find most compelling. I think the absence of this type of multimedia project from these events is a missed opportunity for photojournalism. Please correct me If I’ve overlooked examples, but I can’t think of any. So how did Conroy’s photo trigger this post?

Large numbers of the world’s best-known photographers have made their way to cover recent events, and they have produced a considerable body of compelling work that has been published in print and on-line. Conroy’s photo shows (left to right) Lynsey Addario, John Moores, Holly Picket, Phillip Poupin, Tyler Hicks, and (as Photojournalism Links worked out) the legs of Yuri Kozorev between Poupin and Hicks. It makes great sense for photographers to band together in dangerous environments, and the last thing we should be asking of them in such moments is to whip out the audio recorder or start shooting video in addition to taking stills, let alone spend their nights struggling with Final Cut Pro to produce a film.

However, once an event has gone on for a few days, and once we have seen a range of similar images from photographers working together, wouldn’t it be possible for one or more photographer to find a new angle on the story and develop that angle with sound as well as stills?

Reflecting on his weeks in Egypt covering the revolution, Ed Ou remarked:

Having been photographing Tahrir for the last few weeks, it became very difficult to make images. You start to run out of ideas, because you photograph the same thing every single day. Until today, it was really hard to keep things fresh or give a new angle that wasn’t being repetitive.

Ed noted in another story that after doing his stills he was shooting video for Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, but what I imagined was this:

  • instead of another day shooting stills of people in Tahrir Square, a photographer found a protester they could spend a day with taking pictures and asking questions
  • during that day, with a simple audio recorder, they record their subject reflecting on what they did before the protests, what made them come to the square and what they wanted the protests to achieve
  • at the end of the day, in addition to filing pictures, the photographer FTPs their audio files to an editor/producer in their agency/news organisation
  • a day or so later, that agency has a 3-5 minute story with some focus and depth to go alongside the stills galleries, as well as another saleable commodity

Think of the possibilities in Libya – a story with an accountant from Benghazi who has taken up arms to fight Gaddafi’s forces, or the insights of a migrant worker caught in the camps on the Tunisian border. We have television reports with their obvious conventions, but we don’t have the combination of powerful still images and the subjects speaking for themselves.

Last year, after more than sixty well-known photojournalists went into Haiti to cover the earthquake, Michael David Murphy wrote about the problems of redundancy in visual coverage. While I don’t agree with his proposal for a pool system to deal with that, I do think the convergence of the corps of international photographers on Egypt, Japan and Libya again raises questions about both the dimensions of the story we could see, and the different forms in which we could see it.

If I am correct about this absence of stills-based multimedia, photojournalism – as both an industry and creative practice – is currently missing a great opportunity to offer more in a way that is manageable for photographers in the field. In the first instance this is not the responsibility of individual photojournalists. I think agencies should take a lead in setting up a workflow along the lines indicted above. It would benefit all of us, but none more than the subjects of the stories.

Featured photo: New York Times photographers Tyler Hicks (right, in glasses) and Lynsey Addario (far left), run for cover during a bombing run by Libyan government planes at a checkpoint near the oil refinery of Ras Lanuf on Friday, Mar. 11. Copyright Paul Conroy/Reuters, via MSNBC Photoblog.

Categories
media economy photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

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

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.