More posts photography politics

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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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.