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photography politics

Photojournalism, advocacy and change

Marcus_Bleasdale_The_Unravelling_Human_Rights_Watch

The purpose of photojournalism and documentary photography, and how that purpose is discussed, remains a contentious area. A large part of that contention flows directly from the way the purpose is framed and debated.

This was evident recently in the panel discussion on “The Photographer as Activist” at the World Press Photo Awards Days in Amsterdam. Billed as “a discussion about photographers moving beyond the tradition of unbiased reporting to create change,” it posed the question: “can advocacy journalism balance an agenda with accurate and fair reporting?”

The frame here is clear. It sets up “unbiased reporting” as the norm while anyone pursuing change has “an agenda.” An agenda is taken to be the antithesis of accuracy. The discussion that follows this frame then asks when is the line crossed, bias evident, and the image maker compromised.

This frame assumes good journalism embodies “the view from nowhere,” the idea that it is possible to transcend limits to human understanding, and occupy a position (an “unbaised position”) which is somehow also not a position.

This frame is flawed on a number of counts. It is flawed because much journalism which claims a god-like position above the fray of human complexity obscures particular commitments. This is evident in reporting norms which require the false equivalence of “he said/she said” narratives that compromise evidence-based accounts, with coverage of climate change the most obvious example. It is flawed because the best investigative journalism starts with an agenda (exposing corruption, injustice, wrongdoing) and ends with a view. Indeed, as Jay Rosen writes, “the serious work of journalism” requires the “digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat” that will lead to the development of a particular view. And when “you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

I thought of this on hearing that the Robert Capa Gold Medal had been deservedly awarded to Marcus Bleasdale for his long term reporting from the Central African Republic, presented online in “The Unravelling.” Bleasdale’s visual stories were done in partnership with Human Rights Watch, Foreign Policy, and National Geographic. This means “it’s the first time the Medal has been bestowed on a photographer for work produced, in part, for a non-governmental organization.” Unsurprisingly, Bleasdale was asked “If you’re getting paid by a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, can you be objective?” His response:

As a photographer and as a journalist, I work in exactly the same way, whether it is for Human Rights Watch, National Geographic or The New York Times. And frankly, many news organizations and their ethics can be questioned. We can certainly question the source of financing for many news outlets.

In a video interview for The Guardian on the production of “The Unravelling,” Bleasdale confronted the issue directly (at 06:14 – 06:34):

I’m asked regularly about this fine line between journalism and advocacy and am I objective. Straight answer: no, I’m not objective. I’m a photographer and I have an opinion. And when I go and I’m documenting killing to the extent that we saw in the CAR – whether that’s by the Seleka or by the anti-balaka – I want people to understand it, and the opinion is I am horrified and I want you guys to be horrified too.

We’ve reached a point where this should not be seen as a problematic viewpoint. The issue is not that journalists have positions and develop views. It is that they should – like Bleasdale – be transparent about those positions, open about those views, clear about their evidence and sources, and subject to critical review. The integrity of the image and the story comes not from its fidelity to a mythical standard of objectivity but from transparency about the process through which it is produced.

This concern about having an agenda and a view is especially surprising for photojournalism and documentary photography given they are regularly lauded as agents of change. Indeed, the oft-repeated claim that certain iconic images have changed the world (once again recently mentioned here) were introduced at the beginning of the session in Amsterdam inevitably via the projection of Nick Ut’s “napalm girl” photo. I’ve written previously on the ahistorical nature of the argument about that particular photo, and made clear through Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals how change can only be achieved through long-term collaborations and partnerships. And for all the talk about photography and change, there is remarkably little clarity in our discussions about the different actions that might constitute change, the various levels at which change can take place, and above all the years and decades that even rapid social change takes (for which these graphs on American social change are a good indicator). In contrast, in the video interview for The Guardian on the production of “The Unravelling,” Bleasdale and Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch detail how they thought about the audiences they needed to reach in order to achieve the specific changes (ranging from public awareness to French military action) they were after. Importantly, they also detail an instance in which they were unsuccessful, thereby making clear there is no magic formula that leads from image to story to change.

In those collaboration and partnerships for change, the visual does have a significant role. John Steinbeck wrote after Capa’s death in 1954:

It does seem to me that Capa has proved beyond all doubts that the camera need not be a cold mechanical device. Like the pen, it is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of mind and heart.[1. Quoted in Alex Kershaw, Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. London: Pan Books, 2001, p. 1.].

Awarding the Capa medal to the visual author of “The Unravelling” embodies that understanding and should disrupt the flawed frame through which we have approached the issue of photojournalism, advocacy and change.

NOTES:

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photography politics

How photojournalism contributes to change: Marcus Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals

The hope that photojournalism can “change the world” is often expressed but rarely realised. We have examples of individual photographs improving the lives of individual people (as in the recent case where an AFP picture led to a homeless son being reunited with his family), but precious few contemporary instances where we can show pictorial work has helped bring about collective improvement. But last week there was an important development to which photojournalism was linked. Understanding the precise nature of that link is vital if we are to appreciate what photojournalism can and cannot be expected to achieve.

Intel announced that all its new microprocessors were now “conflict free,” made from minerals sourced from clean mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thereby no longer directly financing part of the conflict in that region. Intel achieved this by developing a system of tracing, auditing and certifying suppliers in the commodity chain that stretched from the mines to smelters to its manufacturing plants.

Intel didn’t do this alone. The company has been a major player in industry groups on the issue, including the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program. In partnership with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other companies, it helped establish the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) in 2011.

Intel was alerted to the significance of conflict minerals four years ago when the current CEO of Intel was approached by The Enough Project offering to work with the company on the issue, as part of its on-going campaign that also featured the usual tool of celebrity activism (with actress Robin Wright). Intel partnered with The Enough Project after deciding that simply sourcing minerals from another country was not going to aid the DRC (see embedded video for this information).

Collaboration and partnership were thus the hallmarks of Intel’s journey to conflict free microprocessors. This is how and when photojournalism comes in.

Marcus Bleasdale has a decade’s experience working collaboratively on conflict stories in Africa, and yesterday I spoke with Marcus to confirm these details. Beginning with the Congo and Darfur in 2004 he shared images with NGOs looking for ways to present their issues. This led to an alliance with Human Rights Watch (HRW) that culminated in The Curse of Gold, which examined how trading this resource on the global market helped sustain the war. After an exhibition of his Congo photographs organised by HRW in Geneva, Metalor Technologies, a leading gold mining company, announced they would no longer do business in the DRC.

With each trip to the DRC, even when he wasn’t directly commissioned by them, Marcus worked with both HRW and The Enough Project, benefiting from their research and occasional logistical support, sharing images, and providing talks and testimony for their campaigns. Three VII Photo multimedia stories supported the Consuming the Congo campaign, and the group exhibition Congo/Women spurred government support for combating sexual violence after being shown during a US Senate hearing in 2009. Legislative action – such as the insertion of a conflict minerals provision into the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act – kept the campaign rolling.

The most recent publication of Marcus’s DRC work came last October via a National Geographic commission, with his photographs part of the Price of Precious story that made clear “the minerals in our electronic devices have bankrolled unspeakable violence in the Congo.” He also reflected on the role of photography in these campaigns, and there are profound lessons here for understanding the function of photojournalism:

Let me say that an individual photograph can have a powerful impact. But the real power is what you do with it and whom you partner with.

It is our responsibility as photographers to use the work we create to make it the most effective it can be. We cannot stop wars with pictures, but we can provide the tools for the dialogue, which eventually will stop wars (quote from here)

To get through to people you have to show individuals touched by the conflict. That’s how you engage people, how you shock them to maybe change their behaviour. I want to repeat, though: It’s difficult for photographs to do this work on their own. You need an advocacy group to partner with who can knock on the doors of Congress and corporations. This advocacy work is as satisfying to me as taking a photograph.

Marcus stressed the commitment advocacy and collaboration required. In the last few years, nearly one-third of his time has been taken up with this issue, and in the last eighteen months he has devoted perhaps 80% of his time to the conflict minerals campaign. This includes much more than photography alone, as when he addressed the Mashable Social Good Summit.

Individual photos can help individuals, usually through a charitable response. Marcus’s photograph of Innocence, a young child who died needless from diarrhoea, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the St Kizito orphanage from readers (obviously unaffected by “compassion fatigue”) who saw it featured in National Geographic’s The Moment. But to go beyond commendable acts of charity and contribute to larger and more substantive social change means appreciating how photojournalism gets its power through collaboration. Photojournalism is one actor amongst many on long-term campaigns, and we should not have the unrealistic expectation it can be the sole cause of change.

Conflict minerals pose a significant challenge for photography generally. Intel’s decision to make conflict free microprocessors is a big step worth celebrating. But more companies have to address this issue, and many of the companies whose products are central to photography have poor records. Canon and Nikon, in particular, need to step up to the challenge. The company rankings of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign (an initiative from The Enough Project) show those big names at the bottom of the pile. Those of us who use their equipment need to find ways to encourage them to follow Intel’s lead. We have to work towards a time when the technology that captures and circulates pictures of injustice does not itself fuel injustice.

Video: “At CES 2014, Intel’s CEO and activists, including actor Robin Wright, discuss the quest for conflict-free technology and call upon industry leaders to join.”

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photography politics

Debating ‘Who’s afraid of home?’, and the importance of narrative

Last week’s post on photojournalism’s ‘foreign fixation’ and the relative neglect of the big domestic stories prompted a debate in both the post comments and on Twitter, especially from Marcus Bleasdale.

Feedback is one of the great virtue’s of social media, and I always get a lot from people’s responses. Because I think this is a really important issues, I’ve put the Twitter debate together using Storify so you can read it below (be sure to click on ‘Load More’ to see the whole stream). At the end, I’ll summarise what I think are the main points that I take away from this conversation.

Here are my conclusions:

  1. There are numerous great photographers working on the ‘home’ front, we need to find ways to see more of their stories, but that is not something that is going to be achieved solely by commissions from mainstream media
  2. This is definitely not a call for less attention abroad; its a call for more attention to ‘home’. I certainly don’t want people to ignore or walk away from the big global stories, and there is much to do to make them better too
  3. The use of ‘home’ as a category has its problems. Its relative to the photographer’s identity or location and can change over time, and the dividing line between home and abroad is increasingly blurred
  4. The major issue, then, is less the geographic location of the story and more the fact we don’t see enough work on ‘the big domestic issues’ – the economy, healthcare, education, unemployment etc – that are always cited as the major electoral concerns. It is, therefore, more about social issues than domestic space per se
  5. One of the biggest challenges is how to portray those big social issues, and that means dealing with the essential question of narrative

For someone developing a visual story on social issues, the most important thing to ask is ‘what is the story you really want to tell?’ Answering that can mean working through these questions:

  • what is the issue?
  • what will be the events/moments?
  • if needed, who are the characters?
  • what is the context?

I think Nathalie Parès of NOOR made a good comment on the original post when she observed that “more than a fear of photographing at home, I would rather talk of a certain difficulty of being original on these topics…” That is something best addressed by articulating the relationship between story, event and issue. This requires knowledge of the context above all else, and that demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.

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photography politics

The new visual stories of ‘Africa’

What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? Is there a pictorial strategy that can account for one billion people, living in 53 countries that occupy 12 million square miles, speaking two thousand languages, embodying multiple cultures and numerous ethnicities, with manifold intersections with our globalised world?

Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity. This process embodies colonial relations of power that distill a complex, hybrid place into visual stereotypes that cast people and their place as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped and so on.

These stereotypes construct both conventional wisdom and its possible alternatives. Others can be reviled for their barbarity or exalted for the closeness to nature, but these options are no more than two sides of the same coin, and each distances ‘us’ from ‘them’. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical account of how (not) to represent Africa captures this dual operation, and news coverage often sees ‘Africa’ as a place of either human misery or natural exoticism. ‘Africa’ is therefore a mythic space, the quotation marks signifying its production.

The visual story that needs to be told about ‘Africa’ is not a single story. It is a series of stories assembled to end the idea of a singular ‘Africa’. We need accounts of complexity, contrasts, and diversity that are drawn from the everyday as much as the exceptional. We need reports that are aware of their own construction and understand how they either affirm or challenge stereotypes.

There is plenty of photographic work that does that. It is too much to ask of each individual project that it ticks all the boxes, but what projects like African Lens can do is aggregate and curate the rich material being produced so that we can see how, in combination, these images enable stories that complicate the simplistic and deepen the superficial.

How this project is framed will go a long way to determining its success. If we do not go beyond the limits of either/or options we will be stuck replicating colonial dualisms. This means that:

  • we need to interpret photographs in terms of the work that they do in relation to stereotypes rather than via an outmoded commitment to ‘objectivity’ and its spouse, ‘subjectivity’. When it comes to reportage we should demand accuracy, but photographs are inescapably representations and never simply mirrors or windows;
  • we need to exceed the idea that optimism versus pessimism, and especially “Afro-romanticism” versus “Afro-pessimism,” defines the options for stories;
  • we need to support new developments in the multimedia practice of photography that can literally give subjects a voice for their own stories.

Government speaker at a political get together, Abidjan. Photo: Joan Bardeletti.

There are many recent photographic projects contributing to this re-visualization of ‘Africa’. Consider Joan Bardeletti’s work on the middle class in Africa alongside Finbarr O’Reilly’s story on white poverty in South Africa. Think of Andrew Esiebo’s portfolio of Lagos nightlife and Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project, Michael Tsegaye’s pictures of working girls in Addis Ababa, Andrew Tshabangu’s documentation of Johannesburg and Marcus Bleasdale’s presentation of the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa to name just a few.

The problem with stereotypes, as Chimamanda Adichie says, is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” Because of this, the new visual stories of ‘Africa’ cannot ignore the issues of famine, injustice, poverty and war. While we can sympathies with Paul Melcher’s cry for no more “dying Africans,” we must have visual accounts of atrocities when they occur. However, they have to go beyond the stereotypes, as with the Condition Critical project on the Congo war or the coverage of human rights issues in Burundi and Malawi.

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time,  achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The need to re-visualize ‘Africa’ is a major concern of mine, and with my colleagues DJ Clark and Kate Manzo, we established the Imaging Famine blog last month as a way of continuing our Imaging Famine project by aggregating and curating work that both confirms and challenges stereotypes.

Many people are contributing to the production and circulation of new photographic portrayals of ‘Africa’ , and to support the recent launch of African Lens I wrote an editorial that summarises what I see as the issues involved in this important effort. This post reproduces that editorial.

Featured photo: Media circus photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Somalia, 1991. Paul Lowe/Panos.