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Springsteen and storytelling

I fulfilled a long held ambition last week – seeing Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band live in concert. It lived up to all expectations. And then some, in a three hour virtuoso performance.

Shortly after I read David Brooks’ New York Times column on what he took from watching Springsteen in Europe. It contained this pearler:

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!” Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?

FFS. How do you get paid good money to write that? I doubt European audiences have any trouble recalling their place of birth. Sometimes they just like a good tune.

Brooks then riffs (sic) off this observation to develop a theory of how we need imaginary worlds (‘paracosms’) and how the best imaginary worlds are those based on the local and the power of the particular.

On Open Culture, Dan Colman endorses that interpretation but also adds the idea that Springsteen’s appeal is based on transcendence – “his ability to transcend his own music and embrace the universal spirit of rock ‘n roll.”

I don’t think we should over-intellectualize our personal passions, though Springsteen is very interesting when he talks about creativity and remix culture, something Brooks ignores with his opposition to “pluralism and eclecticism.”

But there is something we can learn about storytelling from this. The opposition of local/global, particular/universal that structures Brooks’ and Coleman’s readings both misses something and inserts too much for my liking.

I think many fans outside of New Jersey identify with Springsteen because the personal and social concerns he writes and sings about. These are points of intersection with the audience, links between us and the narrative, moments of possible identification. They aren’t structured by geography. They reflect recognisable experiences. To develop compelling stories we don’t need to rely (in Brooks’ terms) on the geography of our past, or, in Colman’s formulation, invoke a universal spirit. We just need (and here Brooks’ is right) to have a commitment to be credible and distinct, and offer stories that can connect in one way or another.

And sometimes those connections can be utterly prosaic. After all, when you live through an English summer that produces storms like this, who could not get something from someone singing this:

Photo: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Stadium of Light, Sunderland, June 2012 / David Campbell

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photography politics

The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context

 

Last week I asked Magnum Photos some questions about the Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures on their site. I had been thinking about these images after conversations with Olivier Laurent of the British Journal of Photography about general issues arising from the use of found photographs. I recalled a Guardian report from earlier in the year reporting on the Libyan archive, which included a 9 minute video providing more background.

The video has Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch recounting how he and Tim Hetherington were given still photos by a Benghazi resident (Idris) who had rescued them from a secret service building that was being ransacked, and video footage from a man called Ibrahim who had received tapes of his brother’s 1984 show trial and execution from other residents who felt free to pass them on after Benghazi’s liberation. What struck me was that although the Magnum-hosted images seemed to be the same as the ones discussed in The Guardian report and video, the text accompanying those Magnum images, and the attribution attached to them, did not reference the Bouckaert/Hetherington role or much about the wider context.

To find out more, I composed three questions about context, ethics and copyright to @magnumphotos, and an online debate ensued, the most important features of which I curated and annotated using Storify, given Twitter’s unavoidable constraints on conversation. Because I thought the questions pointed to important issues, I didn’t want the debate to be a 24 hour ‘flash in the pan’ that was soon to be forgotten. So I then wrote to Alex Majoli as President of Magnum, and Susan Meisalas, President of the Magnum Foundation (Susan being the only senior Magnum person I know personally and a photographer I have enormous respect for) making them aware of the questions, debate and concerns. Both were prompt and engaging in their replies, and I was soon told that Christopher Anderson, as Vice President in New York, would be checking the details over the weekend and making a statement. Yesterday, Christopher Anderson emailed me the official public statement, and provided it to the British Journal of Photography who published it.

This is the statement in full as provided, on which I will make some general comments at the end:

While covering the war in Libya, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch came into the possession of materials (video, photographs and other documents) that appeared to document evidence of torture carried out by the Libyan Secret Service. Bouckaert approached Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak and freelance photographer Tim Hetherington, who were also covering the conflict in Libya, to help him digitize the materials (Which, under the circumstances, meant photographing them.) The reason for this was because HRW did not wish to remove the documents from the country. The two photographers’ understanding was that they would be performing a favor of technical service to Human Rights Watch — they did not view the material as their “work”. Together, the three discussed how best to distribute and archive the material, and Bouckaert asked Dworzak if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW.

Dworzak did the initial copy work, using a small digital camera with pictures laid out on a bed — so the quality was not ideal. Bouckaert later asked Hetherington to photograph a second batch of materials, which may have included rephotographing some of the materials originally copied by Dworzak. No one was focused on this point, as both photographers were simply trying to create a digital archive for HRW under tight conditions.

Hetherinton handed his files over to Bouckaert and told him to put them with the rest of the material that Dworzak had copied. Bouckaert, Hetherington, and Dworzak understood that the files were all to be lumped together for HRW’s purposes and neither photographer ever considered being compensated for any distribution or claiming that he had authored the material. It was simply a favor to a colleague.

Shortly after Hetherington’s death, Bouckaert delivered a bunch of materials to the Magnum offices in London: The digital files that Tim had given him as well as additional, hard-copy materials. He asked Magnum to scan the new materials and include this with the files that Dworzak had created. He again asked if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW. Dworzak discussed with HRW and the Magnum London staff how best to label the material for cataloguing purposes. Some of the material (though it is not entirely clear which part of the material as it had all been lumped together at this point) had been copied by Hetherington, whom Magnum did not represent at the time. Furthermore, given the legal ambiguity of the copyright in the underlying materials, and of photographs of photographs, all parties decided that the credit would read “Collection Thomas Dworzak for Human Rights Watch.” Credit labels are necessary for the logistical reason of the searchability of the Magnum archive, but more importantly, the credit label serves an accountability and vetting purpose. The word “collection” was used to make clear that this was not a work originated by Dworzak as the author, but rather an archive of found materials, curated in some sense by him to the extent distributed by Magnum, and also for which he was responsible. The caption of each individual image provides further clarity as to the origins of the “works”. The red font credit note that appeared on magnumphotos.com, stating inartfully that credit must read “(c) T. Dworzak Collection,” was meant by Magnum staff as a reminder not to credit the work as authored work of Thomas Dworzak — but it seems to have been misinterpreted as some as the opposite, i.e., a claim of authorship. The language is being fixed.

Magnum staff was instructed to distribute the material with the “collection” credit on behalf of HRW, most notably a publication by the Guardian. Magnum acted only as the delivery and storage mechanism to distribute the material to the Guardian – including extensive scanning and retouching — but not to “sell” the material originally. To be clear, however, as a general matter Magnum does not think there is anything inappropriate about passing along to publishers scanning and other costs associated with producing high resolution images, when appropriate. It has come to my attention today that Magnum offices in London did “sell” in at least one case after distributing the materials free of charge to the Guardian and the CBC of Canada. As I understand it, some 550 British pounds were put into the account of the Tim Hetherington estate from that sale and 50 pounds were credited to Dworzak. I assume this amount to Dworzak is to recover the scanning and ingestion costs.

In good faith, Magnum, Thomas Dworzak and Tim Hetherington provided a professional courtesy to HRW and Peter Bouckaert. No parties involved sought financial gain from this material. It was the goal of Magnum, Dworzak, Hetherington and HRW to get this material before the public in an efficient and responsible way.

While this matter highlights questions about the legal ambiguity of copyright and authorship in the photographic industry (particularly when photographs, paintings, property, likenesses etc are visible in a photograph, or when working with found materials), Magnum has made every attempt to conduct this service on behalf of HRW as transparently and correctly as possible. Magnum regrets that this attempt to be of service to the public record has been misunderstood by some as an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain. Magnum has no intention to profit from this material nor to claim it as authored by one of our photographers. (And those who think there is big money on offer for such pictures deeply misunderstand the industry today.) Magnum continues to stand behind the decision to distribute this material and fully accepts responsibility for how that distribution is conducted.

Christopher Anderson

VP Magnum Photos New York

Together, The Guardian report/video and Magnum’s statement help provide the political and logistical context to these important photographs. As I noted during the debate, the fact that Magnum has worked with HRW to make these images available for public viewing is important and commendable. I have no doubt they acted in good faith, and have never claimed that their efforts were “an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain.” Nonetheless, I think that the distinction between “licensing” the images for distribution and “selling” them was lost by the pictures’ presentation with the green “HI-RES AVAILABLE” tag that appears on all Magnum photographers’ pages. Perhaps that is a function of inflexible web site structure rather than the outcome of a conscious decision, but given their content these are not images that should be sold like any other, and I hope that Magnum will clarify this ambiguity relating to how they can be obtained.

Copyright in relation to found images, as the statement observes, is a difficult issue. This morning @sourcephoto offered a link to an article by law lecturer Ronan Deazly discussing domestic “collect” photos that might have some relevant points for this larger question. I am not qualified to comment on the intricacies of copyright in this case, but I very much agree with the Magnum statement above that the “inartful” crediting of the images in terms of copyright contributed to confusion, so it’s good that this misuse of the language is being corrected.

For me, the big lesson to learn from this controversy is the importance of context. If the Magnum-hosted images had appeared at the outset with a narrative based on a combination of The Guardian report/video and the first four paragraphs of yesterday’s statement, everything would have been much clearer to everybody. Instead, the images were accompanied by this opaque text:

It reads:

Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures (ARCH155P). Many of these photos were part of a film that was labelled, in Arabic: “Celebration of distribution of farmland from …. Photographer, Mohammed Abdel Salam”. These files photos were part of a series of photos, films, video and documents that were reportedly rescued from a Secret police building in Benghazi, Libya, before the building was set on fire around Feb/Mar 2011.

That is just not adequate as the only description or explanation of these images. I think all agencies have a responsibility to provide as much context as possible for any photographs they make public online, and the helpful details in the Magnum statement and the stories in The Guardian/report video show what information was available. I know that Magnum are now considering revising that text, and I very much hope they do so.

There are lessons beyond this case. Agencies might argue that they don’t have the resources to write detailed stories to go with their archives, but especially when handling what are obviously controversial and sensitive issues, that’s not a defence. At the very least, much can be achieved by linking to other sources.

Moreover, I think agencies miss an opportunity when they don’t make an effort to provide the fullest context at the outset. The challenges of the media economy mean that its going to be increasingly difficult for agencies to be just content providers and distributors for others in the media. They need to be thinking in terms of also being publishers and broadcasters, actually creating new and substantive content on the issues their photographers are covering.

With the story of the Libyan secret service archive, Magnum had a great opportunity to compile an incredible story. With yesterday’s statement they offered some of that. It’s just a shame that story was not there when the pictures first went up.

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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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Featured photography

Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story?

In telling visual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world. Of course, narrative is something that is far larger than photography. Social communication is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and narrative stories have long been a common and powerful mode for transmitting information. As such, there is much we can learn from the likes of anthropology, history and literary theory.

Here I want to lay out some of the points I discussed yesterday in a lecture to Jonathan Worth’s innovative class on photography and narrative at Coventry (you can listen to the lecture via the #Phonar Soundcloud site – it draws on recent presentations to the IOPF multimedia workshop in Changsha and the MA/International Multimedia Journalism program in Beijing).

A narrative is an account of connected events. To think about narrative, however, involves more than reflecting on how a series of events become connected. We also need to think about how something is constituted as an event in the first place. Events are not found objects waiting to be discovered. As Allen Feldman has stated “the event is not what happens. The event is that which can be narrated” (p. 14).

This means a narrative constructs the very events it connects. For example, when people stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789, they did not understand themselves to be taking part in the first day of an event already known as ‘the French Revolution’. The idea of the French Revolution was the product of historical and political narratives looking back on particular happenings, connecting them in specific ways.

Narratives are not found objects either. They have to be constructed by participants and observers, actors and analysts. Recognising narratives as constructions does not mean anything goes or that anybody can make anything up. It does mean that we cannot escape the clash of interpretations, and that simple-minded appeals to ‘the facts’, ‘objectivity’ or ‘the truth’ are themselves narrative claims that have to be argued and justified.

In photography, narrative is related to the idea of context. No matter how complete or comprehensive a narrative appears it will always be the product of including some elements and excluding others. Inclusion/exclusion is part of what construction is all about, but knowing what is best included or excluded requires an understanding of context. And an understanding of context requires visual storytellers to be highly proficient researchers. As Stuart Freedman recently declared, we need “a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution.”

Narratives can be structured in a number of ways, but the classical form is that of the linear narrative – a story with a beginning, middle and end, strong characters and a story arc along which elements of the narrative run.

Narrative stories will also likely have within them the following moments:

  • exposition
  • conflict
  • climax
  • resolution

If one were following this classical structure, then the key stages in structuring a narrative would include:

  • introducing the location
  • giving the story a ‘face’
  • letting people tell their own story
  • contextualizing those stories
  • following a dramatic form

It is vital to stress these are not rules to follow or templates to apply automatically. These are the elements of common and traditional narrative structures. However, whether linear or non-linear (the latter being exemplified by flashbacks, memories and other arrangements of time), whether they have a resolution or are open-ended, narratives can contain the following dimensions:

  • time
  • spatiality
  • dramaturgy (the ‘art of dramatic composition’)
  • causality
  • personification

One of the most important dimensions is that of personification – does there need to be a character who embodies the issue and gives the story a face? Or does potentially reducing everything to a series of portraits cut us off from the context and individualize what might otherwise be regarded as a collective or social issue? Is it the case, as Robert Hariman has argued, that sometimes  “things speak louder than faces.”

For someone developing a visual story, 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?

The relationship between story, event and and issue requires knowledge of the context above all else. That demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.

Featured photo: kevindooley/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.