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photography

The difficulty of talking about photography

What is photography?

One of my favourite books is Mishka Henner’s Photography Is. Not a single image and 3,000 disparate statements torn from writing that attempt to define the field.

Of course, definitions are difficult things. Nietzsche had it right when he said, “all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated defy definition; only something which has no history can be defined.” As photography has a complex and varied history, definition seems unattainable.

I’m coming to doubt the usefulness of both the question ‘what is photography’, and writing that presumes the unity of a field as it investigates its problems. Indeed, in recent times – especially after speaking at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, an academic conference in Toronto, and running the first World Press Photo multimedia seminar in Amsterdam – I’ve been personally struck by the difficulty of even talking about photography generally. To use the term as an all-encompassing concept seems pretty much impossible.

After all, what, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a lot of good writing about this thing variously called photography. As I catch up with material filed away while travelling, I’ve benefited greatly from Michael Shaw’s three part analysis of the state of the news photo, and John Edwin Mason’s critique of claims about the “tsunami of vernacular photographs.”

What connects such analysis is that they don’t focus on the alleged essence of photography, what it is. They deal with its function and its effects.

To do that we will all have to make clear our own assumptions about the particular functions or effects we want to investigate. As Mason observes, “photography is one of the most complex phenomena of the modern world.” That may be the only simple, singular statement we can make about it.

So rather than ask what photography is, perhaps we should probe what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.

References: 

1. Friedrich Nietzsce, On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53. Thanks to Ian Douglas and others for reminding me of the source.

2. Shaw’s analysis might be seen as an important extension and update of Stuart Hall’s important essay “The determinations of news photographs,” in The Manufacture of News, edited by Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (Sage Publications, revised edition, 1981).

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More posts photography politics

The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan

 

The US-led war in Afghanistan is one of the longest running conflicts in America’s history. After more than nine years, the US and its allies have been fighting in Afghanistan longer than Soviet Union was by the time of its 1989 withdrawal. The war in Afghanistan has also surpassed the formal duration of the Vietnam War, although that claim can be contested.

Photographing this war has only been possible through the system of embedded journalism the US and its allies established for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading to an understandable concentration on certain locales like the Korengal Valley (as I discussed here, in a good debate with Tim Hetherington). Only on rare occasions have we seen the conflict from a perspective beyond allied forces, as in the Taliban photographs recently made by Gaith Abdul-Ahad.

Covering such a long-running conflict, the dynamics of which have not altered greatly in its nine years, necessarily produces a certain uniformity to the subjects conveyed. In Boston.com’s Big Picture gallery for November 2010 we see 43 high quality images that detail allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families. There is also an inevitable regularity to the look of these images. As Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has noted,

most photojournalists working today, including me, are using similar equipment (very high end 35mm digital SLR cameras) so what we do sometimes looks very uniform.

The aesthetics of the conflict is a vital dimension of assessing how the war in Afghanistan as been pictured. But to raise the issue of “aesthetics” is to travel into troubled terrain. A lot of photojournalism is still predicated on the idea that it conveys “things as they are.” This phrase stems from a Sir Fancis Bacon quotation that Dorothea Lange regarded as her working motto:

The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error and confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention

It also provides the title for the World Press Photo book on the history of photojournalism (Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955), it crops up in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment, and I heard David Hurn invoke those same words during a foto8 seminar in October this year.

The commitment to photojournalism’s descriptive ethos in opposition to “a whole harvest of invention” runs deep. It is a commitment that suggests description is distinct from aesthetics, which is taken to be solely about art and beauty, such that any attempt to “aestheticize” a reality like war is morally suspect.

Photo: Private Santiago taking a cigarette break after a firefight. Damon Winter/NYT

We have seen this in recent months through the mixed reactions to the Afghan war images made with iPhones and photography apps. In March this year David Guttenfelder produced a portfolio of Polaroid-like pictures (using ShakeIt Photo) detailing daily military life in Afghanistan. Then last month Damon Winter also made an iPhone series with the Hipstamatic app, one of which was used in the New York Times.

For both Guttenfelder and Winter these pictures, made in addition to their “straight”, DLSR produced, photographs were designed to represent both the daily grind of the war and the vernacular images that soldiers themselves take. According to Winter, “composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate…And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.” Guttenfelder made this interesting observation:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that Marines and soldiers are now shooting more photos and video themselves. They email them home or post them on their Facebook pages. I’ve even seen them set up a little point-and-shoot video camera next to themselves in the middle of a firefight. But usually they photograph the little moments during their down time to show how they live. The photos are little bits of memory, keepsakes from their long deployments, and a way of communicating with people back home. So, in a way, I was trying to create those kinds of real-life, non-newsy snapshots that Marines might shoot for themselves.

One of the things that is interesting about the Guttenfelder and Winter pictures I have chosen here is their stylistic similarity to Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo winner of an exhausted US solider in the Korengal Valley. It seems that whatever the chosen tools, some looks are common.

That said, the need to produce something new after nine years of war is part of what is driving photographers to deploy new approaches and tools. It is evident in different subject matter like Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen, and in novel forms like Damon Winter’s rotating panoramas of US military locations. However, the attention garnered by iPhone pictures and the panoramas led two of the best analysts of contemporary photography to a shared critical commentary on Twitter (14 December 2010):

(Michael Shaw, @BagNewsNotes) Hate to sound like luddite, but iPhone pics and now buzz re: 360º views feels like war coverage has forgotten the war. http://nyti.ms/fiPX4O

@BagNewsNotes couldnt agree more: 1st mobile hipstamatics and now 360ºs enuf with the tech over substance war photos http://nyti.ms/fiPX4O

@foto8 Thing is, it’s not about hi-tech, lo-tech, old-tech or no-tech so much as plain fundamental boredom with the war.

I think we should ask hard questions about how to represent a war that has gone on for so long. I don’t think, though, that those questions are best pursued by a concern over the technologies of representation or the anxiety about aesthetics.

That is because the critique of photography in terms of aestheticization gets to the very nature of photography itself. As Mark Reinhardt asks in Beautiful Suffering, “do indictments of aestheticization in the narrowest sense shade into a challenge to photographs’ sensory engagement itself? Is it the work of giving photographs aesthetic form, as such – is it the very nature of the photographic image – that provokes anxiety?” He thinks so, and I agree.

As the introduction to Things As They Are notes, “in the end, the business of representing reality is all about invention.” In this context, aesthetics is about how we see, perceive and represent the world generally. Photography as a technology of visualization is therefore inevitably and inextricably bound up with aesthetics. Nobody taking or making pictures can escape that.

Photo: An injured Corporal Manuel Jiminez, struck by an IED, is shielded by his fellow marines as a medvac helicopter lands in the clearing. Victor Blue.

As an example, consider the photographs of freelancer Victor Blue. According to PDN, ‘Blue is shooting the project primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II, and converting his images to black and white. “I envisioned Afghanistan in gray tones. I saw color as a distraction,” he explains.’ Blue’s photographs, excellent in many regards, invoke the traditional aesthetic of Vietnam era photojournalism. And, as always, they demonstrate that the desaturation of shots is permissible while oversaturation or specialist apps are deemed to be dubious. And what about David Guttenfelder’s “regular” DLSR photographs. Are they not the product of a conventional news/reportage aesthetic?

Perhaps we have reached an impasse in photographing the war in Afghanistan, with both the standard and different approaches no longer carrying the emotional weight of a nine-year conflict. Perhaps, then, the path forwards is not a matter of expressing anxiety about aesthetics per se, or choosing one aesthetic approach over another, but of using the full range of aesthetic options to tell a different story? Which begs the question – what is that different story that needs to be told about the war in Afghanistan after all this time?

Featured photo: A US marine wakes up in the morning after sleeping with his platoon in a mud walled compound in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helamnd province. David Guttenfelder/AP

References:

  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (World Press Photo/Chris Boot Ltd, 2005)
  • Mark Reinhardt, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain, edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
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photography politics

Wikileaks: from the personal to the political

The global controversy surrounding Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables is a moment in which media, politics, visual culture and war intersect in complex ways. There has been no shortage of good commentary on the story, as evidenced in the range of views curated by Alex Madrigal’s post “how to think about Wikileaks”. What I want to do is contrast the visualization of the story with some the main elements, some of them somewhat buried, in the current coverage.

Coverage of the Wikileaks this week has been a classic case where a political story is personalized to the detriment of its context and complexity. As Michael Shaw noted, Julian Assange has been demonized as ‘public enemy #1’ via an oft-repeated screen shot from Interpol’s most wanted web page, and then criminalized through ‘perp walk’ photos from his court appearance in London. One Reuters photographer was open about how his portraits of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson were designed to capture the supposedly covert nature of the organisation.

I have no view one way or the other on the sex crimes Swedish prosecutors allege, other than to make the obvious point that we should regard someone as innocent until proven guilty after due process. What is telling, though, is the way Assange’s private issues have become the focal point over and above the larger public questions of diplomacy and war. In part that is because of the way his London court appearance intersected with the extraordinary and escalating rhetoric from America that he be charged with espionage or treason, dealt with as an enemy combatant or terrorist, or even assassinated. The effect has been to make the story a media event driven by a personality rather than an account of the larger issues at stake.

Although it too centres on the person of Assange, Peter Macdiarmid’s July 2010 photo of the Wikileaks founder at the Frontline Club in London (featured above) places him in a relationship with three elements that direct us to the context of the overall issue. Assange is holding up a copy of The Guardian displaying a front-page story on the earlier release of the Afghan war logs. He is standing with his laptop. In the background is Don McCullin’s famous 1968 photograph of a shell-shocked marine from Hue in Vietnam. Signifying, first, the relationship between Wikileaks and its media partners, second, the role of the Internet, and third, the historical memory of the Vietnam War that hangs over current American military operations, this picture provides the basis for reflecting on some crucial elements in the Wikileaks story. I would emphasis six points:

  • The leak of the war logs and diplomatic cables came from within the US military, with an army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning, the suspect. Manning was one of 3 million people cleared to access the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) used by US military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors to distribute classified material. In July this year The Washington Post published a remarkable investigation, “Top Secret America,” on the rise of the clandestine arm of the security state in the wake of 9/11. It revealed that more than 850,000 Americans have “Top Secret” security clearance, which is a level above the diplomatic traffic Manning could allegedly access. Given the number of people involved, the only question is why there has not been a leak like the war logs or diplomatic cables earlier.
  • Wikileaks is a web publisher and not an espionage or hacking organisation, making calls for Assange’s prosecution for spying or treason ludicrous. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court held that while it was a crime to leak classified material it was not a crime to publish that material once leaked. In the current story, Wikileaks occupies the position held by The New York Times in 1972, so that all journalists should be chilled by the threat to free speech that US politicians are now making. Shutting down Wikileaks is on a par with shutting down a major media company. The next time the same politicians demand that countries like China cease Internet censorship and back a free press, what do we think the response from those countries is going to be? Journalists involved in “shameful attacks” on Assange should think very hard about this.
  • For both the war logs and diplomatic cables story, Wikileaks has partnered with major news organisations like Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, The Guardian and The New York Times. If Assange is in the sights of the US politicians riled by the most recent leaks, what about these organisations? Senator Joe Lieberman has already called the New York Times publication of some of the leaked material “an act of bad citizenship.” What does that say about the state of the free press in his eyes? Where does that leave American moral capital the next time they want to press for international press freedom?
  • While many have claimed Wikileaks is ‘indiscriminately dumping’ all 250,000 cables on the internet without review, one of the least recognised parts of this story is that Wikileaks is publishing the cables only after its media partners have reviewed them and written about them. Moreover, when Wikileaks does publish the cables it does so with the redactions made by those media partners. (The Guardian explains how it does this here). So at the time of writing, Wikileaks (as the picture above from its site makes clear) has released only 1,203 of the 251,287 cables contained in the leak. This makes the coverage of the cables a prime example of networked journalism from which all partners, including the public, win. (Though note how even this positive commentary perpetuates the myth of the document dump).
  • Efforts to shut Wikileaks down – apart from failing to understand its role as publisher rather than spy – are failing because of the willingness of many to establish mirror sites on the Internet where the material can be accessed. At last count, there were 1,368 mirrors. Here, then, is a good lesson in the open structure of the Internet. You can close a domain, but you cannot remove material from the system if others a willing to host it. The more domains you close the more mirrors will appear. There are also many other organisations and sites similar to Wikileaks, such as cryptome.org, that don’t have the same public profile but can host leaked documents.
  • The structural impossibility of running someone off the Internet means that state authorities will try and find new ways of exercising power. This is where the pressure on companies to end commercial relationships with Wikileakes comes from. US authorities and politicians have pressured Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa, among others, to cease trading with Wikileaks and these companies have all to readily complied. This is a form of indirect power in which private actors become “points of control” for state policy. This also means that so long as “cloud computing” is a commercial operation there are going to be potential limits to openness in this system.

In 2009, Wikileaks and Julian Assange won the prestigious Amnesty International New Media Award for exposing hundreds of alleged murders by the Kenyan police, an act which led to a United Nations investigation.

Other releases have included a list of websites banned by the Australian government, copies of the Scientology “bible”, and emails from inside the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela. When Wikileaks focused on foreign regimes it was a beacon of freedom. After its releases this year, it has become an entity ‘at war’ with the United States and its allies. In moments like these we need to understand the context, retain a critical perspective, and avoid the personification of the issue.