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multimedia photography politics

Contemporary politics and the retreat from reality

Sandy Hook kids

The Bush administration bequeathed a toxic legacy for contemporary politics. Most obviously in their mobilisation of war with Iraq, Bush and Cheney decided policy first and then manipulated intelligence to fit their framework. They weren’t the first politicians to mould facts to ideology, but the deep-rooted cultural disdain for the “reality-based community” exuded by their conservative political apparatus is something we continue to suffer under. And we can see disturbing traces of it in different national contexts.

Prior to Christmas we were horrified by the slaughter of 20 children and six adult staff at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. For those of us not beholden to the power of American gun culture (so well pictured in Zed Nelson’s Gun Nation), the obvious first thought was that surely this massacre – on top of the Virgina Tech shootings or the Aurora cinema killings or any of the gun crimes that leave 12,000 Americans dead each and every year – would finally lead to substantive change. Obama has been praised for finally taking a bold stance in opposition to the NRA and others, but how radical is banning automatic assault rifles and limiting ammunition clips to a mere 10 bullets? When handguns, the number one weapon in US gun crime, are not even mentioned in these new proposals, reality seems to have gone missing once again.

BoM map

In Australia it is the devastatingly hot weather and resultant bush fires that show how up conservative contempt for reality-based policy. Australia’s climate has changed sufficiently that the Bureau of Meterology has had to extend its temperature scale to 54C and illustrate this extreme with an “incandescent purple” on its maps. After Sydney recently recorded its hottest day in history, few doubted that the international scientific consensus on climate change was being played out in the increasing probability of extreme weather events, even if climate change couldn’t be tied to singular happenings. Few that is, except the conservative opposition who are likely to win government in a landslide later this year. While whole towns burnt, the acting opposition leader Warren Tuss followed his absent boss Tony Abbott (ironically off volunteering for his local fire brigade) and declared no one should jump to conclusions about the role man-made climate change had in these catastrophic fires. Tuss was voicing the long-held belief among Australian conservatives that “climate science is crap.”

Tories

In the UK the conservative disdain for data is most evident in the coalition government’s ruthless economic austerity programme. While the Tories love to berate others for engaging in “class war” when they seek a minor redistribution of wealth from high earners to those who need a social welfare net, they have no hesitation in deploying their own class rhetoric – ‘shirkers, skivers and scroungers’ versus the ‘hard working’ – to divide the working poor from those who have lost their jobs or suffer disability. And yet any rational assessment of where money goes – the lost £70 billion through tax evasion versus the £1 billion of welfare waste – shows the cynical nature of the conservatives approach (aided and abetted by so-called liberal democrats of course).

All of this paints a bleak picture for 2013. How can the conservative ideologies of contemporary politics be contested? And how can they be contested visually? We live to a large extent in a political culture where denialism is a powerful force, and it is a force that too much journalism, still beholden to false notions of objectivity that require balance between competing viewpoints even when one of those viewpoints has at best a tenuous relationship to evidence, either furthers or allows to fester.

It would be good if this were the year that visual journalists redoubled efforts to take on the big issues with powerful pictures supported by clear evidence for the larger stories that need to be told. It would be great if visual journalists read and followed the critical ethos for a new journalism espoused by Jay Rosen:

The outlines of the new system are now coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty – traditional virtues for sure – join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance.

Of course, there is – especially for those of us with post-structuralist philosophical commitments – no easily discernible, singular, uncontested reality. There are no facts beyond dispute or arguments immune from contestation. No group has privileged access to the truth. Reality has to be narrated and narratives are inherently constructed. But some stories have more support than others, and the “concordance of evidence” favours some positions over others. When anyone flies in the face of such evidence it’s time to get angry and insist that we won’t stand for such BS.

Photo credits: 

Sandy Hook: Photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks), via Business Insider.

Australia: Bureau of Meteorology, via Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, The Guardian

UK: Conservative poster via @billybragg

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.

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.2: John Moore, and the iPad autograph

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

 

John Moore’s long term project Detained – covering prison sites run by US military and intelligence agencies as part of the global war on terror – was featured on the Lens blog this week. Moore’s work is an important act of documentation, both covering and connecting sites that otherwise remain relatively obscure. It was reviewed a day before WikiLeaks – again in partnership with an array of global media outlets – released another tranche of documents from the Iraq war. These revealed more accounts of torture and more civilian deaths resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq. The more we find out the grimmer the picture becomes. (Caption for photo above: ‘Oct. 27, 2005: A juvenile detainee in a solitary confinement cage at Abu Ghraib was punished for talking through a fence to other detainees’).

This week Barack Obama became the first president to autograph an iPad, during a campaign stop in Seattle (photo: Susan Walsh/AP). Earlier this year Obama expressed his disdain for such devices, when he remarked that “with iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” Obama’s critique chimed with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim earlier this month that “the revolution will not be tweeted” – shorthand for saying that the transformative power of social media was being over-hyped. A couple of things unite Obama and Gladwell. First, both have no experience of the technologies they criticise. Obama confesses he doesn’t know how to work any of the things he names, and Gladwell has never been a Twitter user (something that led Jay Rosen to call Gladwell’s article an instance of journalistic malpractice. Alexis Madrigal is far less critical, but nonetheless points out two of Gladwell’s false assumptions here). Second, both see the platform itself as a political agent rather than just a mode of distribution, which nonetheless – because of the ease and scope of political collaboration it makes possible – has potential political consequences. An interesting counterpoint to this techno-cynicism is that in China (from where I am currently writing) it is the social media and sharing sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc) that are blocked. That doesn’t prove that they are inherently transformative, but it shows some regimes fear that might just help those pursuing change.

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.1: Chile, Africa and British students

Thinking Imagesan occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

You would have to a cold-hearted person not to have been moved in some way at some time by the rescue of the Chilean miners. But there are always other dimensions to such stories. During the week Jay Rosen tweeted: “A big story and a great story, but does 1300 journalists covering the Chilean miners have anything to do with reality?” Later he added: “Wait: you’ve got 1300 reporters at the miners rescue AND you’re asking, “Who’s gonna pay for the Baghdad bureau, people…” You’re sure now?” Yes, when ‘the media’ gets mobilised it can cover international stories exhaustively. So when they say they can’t afford to do other stories, it’s a matter of choice rather than economics. (Photo: Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne (center) speaks during a press conference at the San Jose mine near the city of Copiapo on October 12, 2010. Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images).

Visuals include graphics, and this thoughtful map from Kai Krause has been doing the rounds, circulated by those who want a more complex view of ‘Africa’. It certainly makes a good point, and yet…in comparing a continent with countries, doesn’t it run the risk of perpetuating the homogenization of Africa’s 61 political territories into one entity?

The UK Con-Dem government’s announcement of an increase in tuition fees for university students saw many media outlets turn to the tried and true trope of graduating students in their gowns, as in this Christopher Furlong/Getty Images photo used by The Guardian. The failure of the media to find a way of visualizing higher education beyond these stereotypes is part of a larger representational problem for the university sector. In the absence of contemporary portrayals of mass education in an under-resourced environment, these images reproduce The Brideshead Revisited (or Educating Rita) view of university life, where staff are ‘dons’ who seem to occupy large offices, drink sherry in the afternoon and teach in leisurely one-on-one tutorials. An interesting documentary project awaits the photographer who wants to spend life on campus to see its increasing pressures.