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.











Photographing Gaza: AP, Franklin and being political

Ten days on from learning that the Associated Press had forced Stuart Franklin to withdraw his essay about Gaza from part of the Noorderlicht exhibtion, questions and concerns remain about this affair.

The photographic press has failed to unpack the whole story, although the British Journal of Photography ran an updated account on 9 September. Neither PDN nor BJP have done more than produce what is a rather lazy form of “he said, she said” journalism. This is clearest in the fact that no one has (a) explored what the agencies other than AP who have photographers work in the show thought about the controversy, and (b) gone back and questioned AP further about the claims it made in their one and only statement on 1 September – claims that Franklin and Noorderlicht have subsequently questioned. I emailed the questions raised in my previous post to Olivier Laurent of BJP and Daryl Lang of PDN, but they did not reply.

While the photographic press has gone quiet on the issue, the big news this week was PhotoQ’s publication of the second version of Franklin’s text, which means we can read the words AP found unacceptable and ask – how political is the Franklin text, were AP’s objections founded, and what would a political photography of Gaza show?

Like any argument, Franklin’s essay can be interpreted in a number of ways. It does not discuss any photographers or their agencies by name, and shows balance by noting the “atrocious cruelty evident on both sides of this long running conflict.” It states that Hamas rocket attacks precipitated the 2008 conflict and Franklin included in the exhibition pictures of the Qassam brigades preparing to fire on the Israeli town of Sderot.

On the other hand, Franklin’s criticisms are predominantly aimed at Israel for the “excessive violence and disproportionate force that one of the world’s largest armies has brought to bear on lightly armed resistance fighters and unarmed civilians.” Moreover, Franklin aligns the Palestinians with others (including Jews) as victims of “systematic ethnic cleansing.” As an analyst of international politics I would say that describing as Hamas as “lightly armed resistance fighters” and the violence as ethnic cleansing is problematic.

However, as the Noorderlicht organizers declared at the outset, there is plenty of evidence from international organizations to support the claim that Israel used excessive and disproportionate during Operation Cast Lead (as my earlier posts on Gaza showed). Only this week the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released its report on the death toll from the Gaza war that contradicts IDF claims. As B’Tselem states:

The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society. B’Tselem recognizes the complexity of combat in a densely populated area against armed groups that do not hesitate to use illegal means and find refuge within the civilian population. However, illegal and immoral actions by these organizations cannot legitimize such extensive harm to civilians by a state committed to the rule of law.

Franklin’s text is certainly a political account with a particular view. But how could it be otherwise? Is there an apolitical or non-political ground from which to enter the debate about the Israel/Palestine conflict? I very much doubt it. We can have better or worse accounts, arguments more or less supported by evidence, but none of them, whatever they claim, could be considered without politics.

This is where AP’s objections founder, and why their claims that photojournalism can speak for itself in some apolitical way is so naïve. Of course AP has to prevent its photographers from engaging in bias or being used for propaganda. But we have to understand being “political” is something very different from being biased, ideological or partisan. Being political is about being engaged with the world, and that will always be difficult and sometimes controversial.

As soon as photojournalists start to picture the world’s conflicts and problems they are inevitably being political. Too many shy away from this reality by claiming they are just impartial witnesses, acting as humanitarians, recording the face of the victims, objectively documenting what they see in front of them, or any number of similar self-understandings. To witness, be humane and work compassionately and fairly are all important values in photographic practice. But they don’t magically remove one from politics. Photojournalists and their critics need to negotiate the difficulties of their political world (e.g. by providing context to their stories) rather than pretend there is some safe zone in which they are immune from politics.

This means that for AP to force the withdrawal of Franklin’s text by alleging it was partisan is itself a highly charged political act. AP should have accepted the compromise offer to run the text with a disclaimer that it was a personal statement and did not reflect anyone else’s opinions (which was always the case).

The final, and perhaps most important, point to note is that the situation in Gaza requires a more radical political critique than that offered by both Stuart Franklin’s text or any of the Palestinian photojournalism exhibited at Noorderlicht. As I have argued in an earlier post and a draft paper on the photographic coverage of the war, what has been missing is a visual story of the permanent catastrophe that Israel maintains in and over Gaza. We need to move beyond the images of individual victims. We need a photographic account of the governance of all facets of Palestinian life that keeps the residents of Gaza on the brink of disaster.


Photographing Gaza: more questions in the case of AP vs. Stuart Franklin

The controversy surrounding the forced withdrawal of Stuart Franklin’s essay in the Noorderlicht Photofestival exhibition of Palestinian photojournalism has received some coverage in both Photo District News and the British Journal of Photography.

Those reports don’t delve very deep into this issue. As such, there remain a number of outstanding questions that, given the importance of the principles at stake, demand further investigation.

Because we haven’t been able to read Franklin’s proposed essay, it is difficult for anyone to offer unequivocal conclusions. This, however, is how PDN summarized the text:

Franklin wrote a 700-word essay about the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Festival director Broekhuis provided a copy of the final draft of Franklin’s unpublished essay, but asked PDN not to publish or quote directly from it. The AP confirmed it was the same text they reviewed.)

The text describes Palestinians as victims of disproportionate force by Israel.

The essay depicts Palestinians as resilient victims of Israeli violence and disempowerment. Franklin acknowledges cruelty on both sides of the conflict, and cites specific instances of violence against both Israelis and Palestinians.

The essay does not mention the Associated Press or any other media organizations, nor does it name any photographers. Franklin refers to the photographers generally, noting that they are mostly married men who worried about their safety as they covered the conflict.

In his final paragraph, Franklin likens the Palestinians to other groups of people who have historically been oppressed—including Jews—and says the exhibit is not politically biased, but biased on the side of justice, human rights, and international law.

    This summary would suggest the Franklin essay is in many ways unremarkable, offering opinions that many have voiced. Of course, there are many who will also object forcefully to such views, but one would hardly call Franklin’s essay radical.

    1. AP claims it had a:

    firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view…In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition…When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition.

    In contrast, Ton Broekhuis, director of the Noorderlicht Photography Foundation, has stated:

    First of all, it is vital to understand that there have never been official and unofficial preliminary agreements between AP and Noorderlicht or Stuart Franklin, but the verbal indication that Stuart Franklin’s approach – I quote – ‘would highlight the photojournalism and be balanced’. [According to Franklin]: ‘I have honoured this…No discussion was held with AP about text or their apparent right to censor my curatorial essay until a few weeks ago.’

    Which account is correct?

    2. According to PDN, Franklin selected images from 11 photographers who shoot for four wire services: the AP, Agence France Presse, european pressphoto agency and Getty Images. Did AFP, EPA and Getty ask for assurances on the accompanying text? Were they given any assurances? Did those agencies make any other stipulations about the use of their images? What is their view now?

    3. What do the photographers themselves think?

    4. According to the Noorderlicht press release, AP rejected two compromise options: either a statement accompanying Franklin’s essay making clear it was a “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the photographers’ agencies, or some text from AP itself to counter Franklin’s essay. If this is the case, why did AP reject both these options and instead allegedly threaten legal action against the organisers?

    AP spokesperson Paul Colford told PDN his organization did not want their photos “to bolster a highly charged political point of view.” Given this, why did AP agree – regardless of the nature of any accompanying text – to have its photographs included in the exhibition in the first place?

    The Israel-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not highly charged in all respects, and as an organization AP knows this better than anyone. Their photographers are regularly abused – just read some of the scandalous comments posted on the PDN web site in the wake of this issue that speak of these professionals as “Muslim cowards” and “Arab propagandists.” Or consider the conservative bloggers who revel in calling any images from the Middle East they don’t like “fauxtography.” Or recall the vitriol heaped on AP during the campaign to free their photographer Bilal Hussein from two years detention without trial in Iraq, which saw the AP logo disfigured to read “Associated (with terrorists) Press”.

    Was AP simply afraid of further attacks from the right if Franklin was permitted to exercise his freedom of speech? If so, how is that a non-partisan stance?


    Photographing Gaza: do pictures speak of politics?

    Do photographs speak? Do they have an intrinsic politics? Or do they rely on the text that accompanies them for political meaning? An unfolding controversy about the photojournalism of Palestinian photographers contracted to western picture agencies is broaching these questions.

    As I’ve written here, although many claimed that Israel’s media controls meant few pictures of the IDF’s December 2008 invasion of the Strip saw the light of day, professional Palestinian photographers working for the likes of the Associated Press, Getty and Reuters were supplying images that got a good run in European newspapers.

    The Noorderlicht Photofestival of 2009, which opens this week, is running work under the title Human Conditions, in order to “reveal the unseen, human stories behind conflicts.” One of the shows, curated by Magnum president Stuart Franklin, whose own recent work on “Gaza Today” can be seen here, contains the Palestinian photographs. As the Noorderlicht web site explains:

    Franklin travelled to Gaza to speak with Palestinian photographers. The exhibition Point of No Return shows their work: raw photojournalism that was done under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The photographs by Mohammed Saber, Mahmoud Hams, Mohammed Baba, Abid Katib, Said Katib, Hatem Moussa, Ashraf Amra, Eyad Baba, Khalil Hamra, Fadi Adwan and Ali Ali rise above the level of detached reporting.

    However, it is not the Palestinian photographs that have sparked the controversy, but Stuart Franklin’s introductory text. The Associated Press objected to the content of Franklin’s essay, and wanted it “substantially moderated.” We do not have access to Franklin’s text, but a press release from Noorderlicht makes clear that AP objected to the fact that:

    the essay acknowledged that criminal acts were committed by both sides, but assigned the principle responsibility for the extent of the bloodshed to Israel. Both Noorderlicht and Franklin believe this conclusion is justified by the critical reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations…

    It seems AP threatened to withdraw their Palestinian photographers’ work or pursue legal action against the exhibition organizers. Outraged by AP’s attitude, Franklin withdrew the essay and left the photographs without accompanying text, while Noorderlicht charged AP was acting contrary to any principle of free speech.

    AP’s director of media relations has responded to the disclosure of its threats by saying:

    Early this year, The Associated Press agreed to a request to display some of its images from Gaza at the Noorderlicht Photofestival, with the firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view.

    The AP is an independent global news organization whose photojournalism stands on its own merits.

    In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition.

    When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition – namely, that the photos would not be presented in support of a political position… (Emphasis added)

    Here we have a set of fascinating assumptions about the meaning of images. For AP, the photographs ‘should speak for themselves’, but they assume that ‘speech’ would not have been ‘political’, because it was only through Franklin’s text these pictures would ‘be presented in support of a political position.’ What, then, does AP think these photographs would be saying, in an apolitical way, when devoid of text?

    Interestingly, Stuart Franklin says that the photographs are also going to speak, but presumably that they are going to say something different to what AP imagines it hears. As Franklin wrote in the Human Conditions catalogue after withdrawing his essay:

    I will say nothing and let the pictures talk. The pictures must speak and one day, we must hope, their stories will be told.

    I think both Franklin and AP are naïve in their view that photographs themselves speak, as though they could construct a larger meaning without text or other related media that put them in context.

    However, in addition to their censorship of Franklin’s views, AP are especially naïve because the professional Palestinian photographs from within Gaza – such as the work of Getty photographer Abid Katib, which was among the first images of the war published in the UK (see one of his photos here) — have already been widely circulated and read with a variety of texts creating various meanings. To suggest that these photographs should now be stripped of prior associations and rendered ‘apolitical’ is itself the most political stance one can take.

    (A hat-tip to Aric Mayer for a prompt on this issue).

    (UPDATE 3 September 2009: I have revised the final paragraph to note Abid Katib is a Getty photographer, as was clear from my earlier post).


    Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza, part 2

    The Observer Magazine has a cover story today (“A Life in Ruins“) about the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. It details the on-going suffering, and is illustrated with Antonio Olmos’s portraits of Gazans living in their destroyed houses. His photograph of Shifa Salman (below) is a double page spread on the inside, with a similar picture of her adorning the cover. More photographs and short interviews related to the story are available in an audio slideshow narrated by the journalist Peter Beaumont.

    Shifa Silman in the ruins of her house

    Two things strike me about the photographs in this story. The first is their focus on individuals, especially women and children, as signs of the conflict and its aftermath. In this they continue a long tradition of imaging conflict by locating the story in the bodies of those most affected. While that is obviously important, it does mean — as I’ve argued in my recent paper reviewing the photojournalism of the war in Gaza — that the larger context of the political infrastructures through which the lives of these individuals are produced goes mostly un-pictured. This context is referenced in both the magazine article and the audio slideshow:

    And without concrete and steel, aluminium and glass, without tiles for roofs and cladding for stairs and bathrooms – all prevented from entering Gaza by Israel’s continuing economic blockade – no rebuilding has begun. For those who suffered most, the war continues.

    However, the blockade of Gaza that is central to the catastrophization of this Palestinian territory — a blockade which preceded the war and now shapes its aftermath — remains visually unrecorded. To be sure, picturing this political infrastructure would be no easy task, but it is time for someone to try.

    The second thing that strikes me about some of the photographs in this story is the way individualizing the issue intersects with a portrait aesthetic that is widely produced. This is demonstrated in the newspaper’s promotion of the magazine’s content (below), where the pose of Shifa Salman shares much in common with the portrait of the South African botanist or the models showing off “the top 5 summer shorts”. With the background cropped, Shifa could be modelling her garb as much as signifying a political issue. Given this, the task of picturing the political infrastructure that governs life in Gaza is even more urgent.

    The Observer, 5 July 2009, page 2

    photography politics

    Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza

    Israel’s three-week war against Gaza was a devastating assault. Retaliating to Hamas rocket attacks, Israel’s military campaign caused the death of some 1,300 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of buildings.

    The story of this operation dominated the world’s media in January 2009, yet many felt that the reality of the conflict had been hidden from a global audience because of Israel’s exclusion of the international media from Gaza. However, European newspapers published the work of many photographers from inside Gaza working for international news agencies.

    To consider how this photojournalism visualized the conflict, I have been researching the coverage offered in the UK by The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper The Observer. I am presenting a paper on this research – “Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza” – at the “Aesthetics of Catastrophe” symposium today at Northwestern University in Chicago.


    Much of the pictorial coverage offered a familiar – and often literal – face of war, as the first photo from the conflict, the injured girl on the front page of The Observer of 28 December 2008, demonstrates. While the victims deserve coverage, and it is necessary to see the consequences of war, does the rendering of the Palestinians as suffering subjects above all else provide a comprehensive visual understanding of the conflict?

    Given the paper is intended for eventual publication in an academic journal, and thus 45 pages and 8,000 words long, I won’t summarise the full argument. But the paper covers the following:

    • The assumptions behind the demand to see;
    • How IDF media controls did not so much blind the world as structure a particular visuality of the conflict;
    • What we did see via the photojournalism of two British papers (with the photographs discussed printed in the paper);
    • Whether what we did see was what we should have seen (i.e., the strategy of catastrophization in Gaza I have posted on previously here, here and here);
    • The implications of this for our understanding of the photography of catastrophe.

    The draft paper is available here. This is the first time I have put such an early version of work out into the public realm. The arguments are not finalised and would benefit from constructive engagement, so I welcome responses as I develop the analysis. Please read and comment.

    Photo credit: Hatem Omar/AP; Abid Katib/Getty

    Updates in the Comments below


    Gaza: Israel’s mythical withdrawal

    The Israel Defense Forces have completed five investigations into claims of war crimes during the war on Gaza and concluded, unsurprisingly, that those claims are unfounded.

    As an IDF spokesperson said: “The bottom line is that the IDF conducted itself in an appropriate manner within the limits of international law.”

    Given the points raised in my earlier post, that may be right, though it demonstrates more about international law than the nature of the violence.

    One striking feature of the IDF presentation of its findings is a video containing a 3D animation of the urban landscape in Gaza designed to reinforce the idea that any alleged crimes were the product of the battlefield’s complex geography rather than IDF desire. In a simulation that resembles commercial war-games, the IDF video claims to detail the war-fighting strategies of Hamas forces that endangered civilians and their infrastructure.

    The video opens with a narration designed to set the scene for the war in December 2008 that contains this claim:


    Few statements could be more untrue. As I noted in my first post on Gaza, quoting Adi Ophir, Israel has maintained a stranglehold on the territory for the last decade or more. While the settlers and associated soliders were withdrawn, nothing for the civilian population moves in or out of Gaza without Israeli consent. What moves, when, and how much, is tightly controlled. The destiny of Gaza’s local population is therefore very much in the combined hands of Israel’s government, the elected Hamas administration and the Palestinian Authority. Until Israel accepts its part in creating the conditions of insecurity it faces, long-term solutions are going to elude all parties to the on-going conflict.


    Gaza: terror without mercy, in the shadow of the law

    “The underlying meaning of the attack on the Gaza Strip, or at least its final consequence, appears to be one of creating terror without mercy to anyone.” That is the conclusion of an independent study jointly commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Palestinian Medical Relief Society.

    It chimes with The Guardian’s investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israeli forces (this being a good example of investigative, multimedia journalism), as well the testimony of Israeli soldiers gathered by the veteran’s organization Breaking the Silence. Medical personnel, hospitals and civilians were all targeted, despite the Israeli Defence Force’s surveillance technology giving them the capacity to see individuals and targets clearly from some distance. Not only was the death toll high, but the destruction wreaked on Palestinian infrastructure – some 15% of all buildings in the Gaza Strip were destroyed, and half of all hospitals attacked – made this a clear case of urbicide, meaning the destruction was a goal of the offensive rather than a by-product of the fighting.

    Israeli authorities have defended their actions claiming that their forces act within the rules of war. And they may be right about that. International humanitarian law does not prevent war; it tells combatants how to conduct war. In the attack on Gaza the IDF employed international legal experts in great numbers to work out how to prosecute the offensive by establishing when, where and how they were “entitled” to attack civilians and their infrastructure. This means the assault on Gaza was a case of “lawfare.”

    Hamas, through its indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians, is also guilty of acting illegally, and deserves prosecution along with those Israeli forces that targeted medics, civilians and urban infrastructure. But there are limits to what a discourse of legality can achieve in this context. As Eyal Weizman has concluded, “rather than moderation or restraint, the violence and destruction of Gaza might be the true face of international law.”

    As such opposing the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and the perpetual blockade of Palestinian society – note the on-going control of PA funds by the Israeli government as evidence of the continuing strangulation that makes a mockery of the idea Israel has “withdrawn” from Gaza – might be better opposed in terms of colonial power rather than legal rights.


    Gaza, from the beginning

    How one thinks about Israel’s war on Gaza depends on where one begins the story.

    For conservatives like Alan Dershowitz, Hamas declared war against Israel with its rocket attacks in late 2008, meaning that Israel had the right under the UN charter (despite its long history of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions) to take whatever military action was necessary to stop the attacks.

    For critics like Avi Shlaim, it’s a matter of setting it all in an historical context that goes back to the establishment of Israel in 1948. One then sees in Gaza “a uniquely cruel case of de-development” the stripped the occupied territory of a reasonable future. In 2005, after Israel’s settlers were withdrawn, continued Israeli colonial control meant “Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison.”

    For Adi Ophir, the noose around Gaza that has made it a “laboratory of catastrophization” can also be dated from that time. The post-2005 military siege, building on the closure begun during the 1991 Gulf War, strangled the flow of people, goods and resources and created a zone of permanent emergency that functions like a “human pen.”

    Taking the broader historical view is the only way forward. Looking back even a few years paints a different picture. An analysis of ceasefires in Israel/Palestine has shown that the vast majority have been broken first by Israeli military actions. The unwritten, six-month ceasefire of 2008 was effective in almost eliminating Hamas rocket attacks. But between an Israeli attack on November 4 and the ceasefires’ conclusion on 19 December, Israel charged Palestinian groups with firing more than 300 rockets into Israel and Hamas claimed more than 70 military incursions by Israeli forces (see the International Crisis Group report of 5/1/09 for a good analysis).

    Imaging a more permanent end of hostilities and inequalities in Gaza and the West Bank requires a rethinking of their causes. It is not about blame; it is about inescapable responsibilities. And it requires that all parties recognize and engage each other without preconditions. Looking at only the most recent actions will not get us very far in that direction.