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.