photography politics

Photojournalism and change: voices of humility

How should we think about the contribution photojournalism might make to the task of social change?

Reflecting on the Kony2012 phenomenon I concluded with observations about the difficulty of specifying how political change comes about and our potential contribution to it.

Thinking more about this, I recalled videos in which two of the best photographers of our time reflected on the relationship of their work to activism. They warrant another view for the important insights they made.

In Sebastiao Salgado: The Photographer as Activist, a 2004 event at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ken Light and Fred Ritchin converse with Salgado about the relationship between his work and the injustices he has portrayed. This is a 90 minute film that is worth watching in its entirety, but I have extracted here a crucial 7 minute segment where they address the issue of activism directly:

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This clip begins with Light asking Ritchin about the activism in Salgado’s work. Ritchin contrasts Salgado’s approach to the conventional desire of photographers to be witnesses who make things visible, and details the novelty (at least in 2004) of people working in alliance with NGOs. Then – contrary to the video’s title – Salgado in fact declares he is not an activist. Not because he doesn’t want his work to effect change, but because he has a complex understanding of the relationship between his work and activism. His description of photography as only a small slice in the overall dynamic of activism that might produce change is significant for its realistic modesty. It’s well worth watching and thinking about.

In a 2010 video produced by the Open Society Institute, Susan Meiselas talks about photography as something which has huge potential to expand the circle of understanding. This is another 7 minutes well worth your time, even if you’ve seen it before:

Meiselas’ thoughtful articulation of her approach chimes with Salgado’s humility. She understands photography as giving people an opportunity to respond, offering a bridge they can possibly cross, creating the possibility of connecting and engaging. “Can we really point to things that have changed because photographs were made?,” she asks. “This is the dilemma, the challenge and the hope.”

That Meiselas answers her question with a cautious desire rather than a definitive declaration is hugely significant. As she articulates so well, the power of the image is all about potential rather than certainty, and that potential depends upon associations, collaborations and relationships through which images might have additional lives.

I think we should follow the lead of Salgado and Meiselas and reset our expectations of what photography, especially photojournalism, can do in the face of global challenges. If we persist with the flawed idea that somehow there is a clear, linear, causal linkage between information, knowledge and action we are only going to be frustrated. And it is that frustration, in my view, which animates myths like compassion fatigue. When we believe (generally without evidence) that making things visible automatically changes the world, and the world doesn’t change instantly, we foster a resentment against either image makers or their audience. What we need is a more complex understanding of how change evolves and a more humble appreciation of how we might contribute, even as those contributions are ever more urgently needed.

photography politics

Responding to crises: the problem of ‘donor fatigue’

The second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake has seen some excellent follow-up reporting on what the international aid effort has achieved (see The Global Post series, with photos by Ron Haviv, as well as this morning’s Guardian report and picture gallery amongst others). This focus on where the aid money has gone highlights one of the major problems with international responses to such crises – much of the money promised by governments fails to materialise.

In thinking about how outsiders react to coverage of crises, ‘compassion fatigue’ is commonly cited. I’m writing a research paper on why the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis is a myth, and will be making that available in the near future for debate. With regards to Haiti, the international community’s compassion was never in doubt. Coverage was extensive, often powerful, and the publics’ charitable response was great. Even if it is applicable in other contexts, it doesn’t stand up as an explanation here.

What the story of Haiti’s aid money helps demonstrate is that ‘donor fatigue’ is a more significant issue. Although ‘donor fatigue’ is sometimes related to ‘compassion fatigue’ (see here), it is something entirely different. It refers to the fact that international donors – meaning principally governments – fail to fulfil their initial commitments. Within days of a crisis, headlines are often made with officials basking in a humanitarian glow by pledging millions to a relief effort.

When accounts are later examined, those promises are regularly unfulfilled. Haiti is a case in point, with The Guardian reporting that countries “have delivered only about half of the billions of dollars promised for reconstruction, according to UN data.” The Guardian’s detailed data analysis (source of the above graph) shows that:

Venezuela and the US, which promised the lion’s share of reconstruction funds – more than $1.8bn together – have disbursed just 24% ($223m) and 30% ($278m) respectively. Japan and Finland are among the few donors to have fully met their pledges.

Calling this underfunding donor fatigue is misleading. ‘Fatigue’ suggests a reduction over time through repetition. The claim of donor fatigue implicitly assumes there was a time governments once fulfilled their pledges, but they now no longer do so. I suspect that is historically inaccurate. My sense is that government’s have always generally pledged more than they have paid out.

Some support for this comes from looking at how UN Consolidated Appeals operate. The Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) is the annual global agenda of humanitarian needs. In 2011 there were twenty-one appeals to governments for funds, and the UN’s Financial Tracking Service reports that only 61% of the total required was raised. In the last five years CAP fulfilment has been in the range of 60-70%, and in 2001 it was as low as 55%. The record of insufficient government aid to meet global appeals is both constant and long-standing. ‘Fatigue’ is therefore better understood as inaction or indifference. Most importantly, all this is hidden by the frequent invocation of ‘compassion fatigue’ as an explanation for any inadequate international response.

Can images play a role in overcoming government inaction in the face of humanitarian crises? Yes, pictures can provoke. In Malawi (2002) and Niger (2005), government donors responded to food insecurity only after the international media started carrying reports of famine.[nbnote ]See my paper “The Iconography of Famine” (2011), pp. 18-19 for quotes and references.[/nbnote] Far from being the cause of a mythical ‘compassion fatigue’, pictures have the potential to disturb the official incalcitrance we mistakenly call ‘donor fatigue’.

Featured photo: PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Aug. 28, 2011) An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 26 transports Rear Adm. Steven Ratti, U.S. Southern Command director of operations, from a temporary medical site at the Killick Coast Guard Base during Continuing Promise 2011. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)

photography politics

Imaging famine: A debate

Last week’s post on ‘Famine iconography as a sign of failure‘ drew a very critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I’ve again used Storify to collect the comments and offer a response to address the issues. Be sure to click on ‘Read More’ to see the whole stream. Further comments on this debate are welcome.

Jon and I pursed this discussion in an OPEN-it debate on 18 August 2011, and I wrote a subsequent post summarising points from that debate while underlining my belief in the necessity of critique.

photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.20: Famine iconography as a sign of failure

The homogenisation of ‘Africa’ – the rendering of the continent into one form. The anthropomorphisation of ‘Africa’ – the representation of the continent as one person. The infantilisation of ‘Africa’ – the image of the continent as a child. The impoverishment of ‘Africa’ – the construction of the continent as a desperate, poor, passive victim.

Peter Brookes’ 5 July 2011 cartoon from The Times condenses all these attributes into one visual form. Like most editorial cartoons, it derives its symbolic force from the dominant images of the day, in this case the extensive media coverage of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. The all too familiar images of displaced people and starving children amidst a desert landscape have been common in recent days as both NGOs and the media mobilise in response to what is unquestionably a crisis of food security that demands action. From television coverage to photo galleries, we are seeing the sort of pictures we have seen many times before, be they Tyler Hicks colour photos in the New York Times, Robin Hammond’s series for the Guardian, the Save the Children Fund pictures from East Africa (also in the Guardian), or Oxfam’s Flickr gallery. While it is interesting to think about the virtues of colour versus black and white, or ask whether we can spot a difference between photos taken by professionals and NGO staff (and I can’t see much of one), I want to call attention to the larger dynamic which drives this recourse to familiar visuals.

In an excellent post on the coverage of the Horn, Peter Gill argues that “sophisticated early warning systems that foresee the onset of famine have been in place for years, but still the world waits until it is very nearly too late before taking real action – and then paying for it.” With regard to East Africa, both international agencies and NGOs have been warning for some months that a combination of factors – drought, conflict, high food and fuel prices, and funding shortfalls – were likely to produce a humanitarian crisis. But nobody found a way to picture the problem, so the story went unrecorded. When, finally, in late June, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs simplified the story into ‘the worst drought in sixty years’, Gills says “the media mountain moved, and the NGO fund-raisers marched on behind.”

We can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context.

Is it because photographers lack imagination? I don’t think so. As I’ve written before on this topic, it is more a product of the fact that the media generally is caught in a tragic conundrum:

Governments and international institutions are not moved by information alone, and without official activity the media lacks a hook for a story. A story becomes possible when there is visual evidence of disaster, but in the case of famine that evidence cannot be easily visualized (at least in terms familiar to the media) until people start showing an embodied trace of the food crisis (with distended stomachs and prominent ribs) or start dying. By that time, however, because of the indifference of governments, the final stages of a food crisis have begun, the possibility for preventative action has long passed, and the only course of action is humanitarian and remedial.

We have, then, a systemic problem. While there are famine early warning systems that function quite well, the media is generally a late indicator of distress. The urgent task – in advance of the next humanitarian crisis – is to find a way to tell the story of the many and varied reasons that produce food insecurity without waiting for the visual traces that signify it’s too late.

UPDATE 27 August 2011: This post drew a critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I have curated Jon Levy’s points, additional comments, and my response in another post, Imaging Famine: A Debate. After our OPEN-i debate, I wrote another post summarising some points from the discussion to underscore my belief in the necessity of critique.  

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.