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The problem with the dramatic staging of photojournalism: what is the real issue?

Photojournalism Behind the Scenes [ITA-ENG subs] from Ruben Salvadori on Vimeo.

Ruben Salvadori’s video – “an auto-critical photo essay” – demonstrates clearly that when we see a conflict, what we see is the outcome of “conflict image production.” It’s like those still photographs which reveal photographers at work – Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and many other examples.

These all demonstrate that photographs are neither mirrors nor windows offering untrammelled access to events. Events come to be through technologies of visualisation, and that is a process in which all participants in the visual economy (subjects, image makers, news agencies, media networks, audiences, and others) have a role in the construction of people and places.

The difficult conclusion from this is that all photography is staged. But, as I’ve argued previously, staging is not the same as faking. Photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. However, events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre, and photographers emphasise the dramatic. And if you look at the examples offered by the Italian digital lab 10b Photography, we can appreciate that aesthetic dramatisation has long been, and continues to be, part of the most respected photojournalism.

When these stagings produce or reinforce stereotypes, they are a big problem (as duckrabbit rightly argued in their take on Salvadori’s video). But photography’s dramatic stagings are not the main problem. I believe that avoiding or challenging stereotypes necessitates changing the terms of the debate.

The problem is that too often controversies over the staging of images proceed as though there is a photography free from staging (meaning construction, enactment, interpretation, or production). Moments of staging are called out, seen as exceptions, and judged against supposedly universal norms. An example is the way the excellent PetaPixel blog introduced Salvadori’s video. Calling it “eye-opening,” they wrote:

Here’s a fascinating video in which Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori demonstrates how dishonest many conflict photographs are. Salvadori spent a significant amount of time in East Jerusalem, studying the role photojournalists play in what the world sees. By turning his camera on the photographers themselves, he shows how photojournalists often influence the events they’re supposed to document objectively, and how photographers are often pushed to seek and create drama even in situations that lack it (emphasis added).

Salvadori’s video is certainly revealing, but “eye-opening” suggests a level of surprise that few in photography should have. It reinforces the idea that what we see in this case are a few bad apples who are failing to be “objective”. There is much that needs to be said about the claim of objectivity with regard to photography, and I hope to write more later. But how could a photojournalist in the scene Salvadori films not influence events? The presence of a camera changes the dynamics of any situation regardless of the intentions of the photographer. Indeed, any scene is changed by the presence of any participants, so the idea that you can imagine a scene that is hermetically sealed from those in and around it is naive. If scenes are to be witnessed, then witnesses will inevitably ‘contaminate’ the scene. And what would an “objective” photo of this scene look like? I can imagine many different images from those moments, but can you conceive of any that aren’t constructed?

Surely it’s time to drop the pretence of shock when photography’s constructed-ness is exposed. If we constantly view the essential nature of photographic practice – that it inescapably and unavoidably constructs, enacts, and produces images – as always exceptional and sometimes perverse, we are missing the main problem. That is, how, within a practice that necessarily constructs the world, can we produce authoritative accounts of events and issues?

I suspect many might read this and misunderstand the point I am struggling to make. I am not defending the conflict photographers portrayed in Salvadori’s important video essay. Their images are dramatised, though in ways common to conflict photojournalism. Nor am I arguing the images they produce are the best of that scene. Finally, I am not minimising the problems caused by dramatic stagings that turn into one-dimensional stereotypes.

Above all else, I want to argue that its ultimately self-defeating for photographers to be outraged by the idea that photographs construct situations. Let’s judge how pictures produce narratives, and the effects of those narratives, instead of being hung up on the fact narratives are produced. If we are constantly bogged down in the unfounded belief that somehow there is a photography unencumbered by the problems of representation, we will never move the debate on visual enactment forward.

To underscore these points, I’ll enlist Errol Morris’s support. Morris recently condensed the argument of his book Believing is Seeing (well reviewed by David White) into ten tweets. Numbers 1, 9 and 10 are most relevant to this post:

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photography

Who believes photographs?

 

Should we accept the oft-repeated view that nobody believes photographs anymore?

Skepticism about the veracity of images is widespread. In a recent interview with Art Info, Nan Goldin recalled:

I gave a talk at the Tate a couple of years ago, and I asked an audience of 200 people how many of them believed that photography was still a true statement. Five people raised their hands.

In his excellent new book, Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris writes:

Today, possibly because of Photoshop and other photography-doctoring software, people have become suspicious of photographs [p.45].

In Picture Perfect, her account of our photo-op culture, Kiku Adatto declares:

Now we are alive as never before to the artifice of images. Today we pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, the pictures can be fabricated, packaged and manipulated [p.7].

And yet there are powerful counterpoints to these conventional claims of disbelief and suspicion.

One is anecdotal, but you might recognize something similar from your holidays. Driving around the Isle of Skye this summer, a regular hazard was the tourist, standing precariously on or near the road, holding a digital camera at arms length, capturing part of the stunning scenery, to presumably affirm their presence, make a record and invoke a memory and feeling. When I came across these tourists – and there were many each and every day – I contrasted it to the claims of distrust and wondered: why would so many of us make pictures if we believed all photography was a fraud?

Another counterpoint can be found in situations of upheaval. In a report on the capture of Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound one newly liberated citizen was quoted:

‘I’m taking photos to show to my brothers and family still in Tunisia,’ Salah Ermih explained, snapping the ransacked interior with his phone camera. Ermih, a surgeon, said that he had dashed from his overworked hospital to have a look at Gaddafi’s inner sanctum.

Ermih’s photography was pure documentary, recording scenes as evidence for others not present to see. He was not alone – the role of the phone camera (both still and video) in making the Arab Spring visible to those beyond the region has been widely noted.

What these counterpoints establish for me is the need for a more complex view, one that refuses a simple black or white rendering of the situation, and appreciates the co-existence of seemingly contradictory attitudes:

If one side of us appreciates, even celebrates, the image as an image, another side yearns for something more authentic. We still want the camera to fulfill its documentary promise, to provide us with insight, and to be a record of our lives and the world around us. But because we are so alive to the pose, we wrestle with the reality and artifice of image in a more self-conscious way than our forebears (Adatto, Picture Perfect, p.8).

We have to be alert to the artifice of the image and the inescapable place of aesthetics in photography. But we have to be careful in our analyses to avoid sweeping and fashionable claims. Recognising the capacity for manipulation does not mean abandoning the documentary promise. Everyday, amateur photographers with their vacation snaps understand this, and we should too.

Photo: Elgol, Isle of Skye, August 2011, from the Campbell family album.