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photography

How many picture taking devices are sold world-wide?

How are most of the world’s pictures captured? What imaging devices are most commonly sold, and how many of them are identified as cameras? To help answer those questions are two graphs with some interesting data on the global sales volume of picture taking devices, and the global sales volume of digital still cameras.

These graphs come from a presentation by Christian Müller-Rieker, Executive Director of the Photoindustrie-Verband (The German Imaging Association). I’m grateful to tweets from @eric_perlberg that circulated the second of the two graphs below, and provided the Japanese magazine report that originally carried them.  After a bit of online digging, I found that the Photoindustrie-Verband is a co-organiser of Photokina, the biannual trade fair that will be held in Cologne in September 2014. Müller-Rieker’s presentation was part of a 16 April press conference held in Beijing (and perhaps other venues too) promoting Photokina.

The first graph detailing the global sales volume of picture taking devices shows 2.25 billion devices sold in 2014, with the rapidly increasing category of smartphones making up more than half that total. Digital cameras – 89 million devices in 2013 – now comprise only 4% of global sales of devices that take pictures.

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The second graph details the global sales volume of digital still cameras – a very small subset of picture taking devices. It shows a significant decline in point-and-shoot cameras – a category squeezed by the rise of smart phones – but a substantial increase in “premium fixed lens” cameras and an increase in SLR cameras. Given that this data refers to “digital still cameras” it is not clear whether the SLR category includes or excludes video-capabale DSLRs.

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Featured media economy photography

Abundant photography: the misleading metaphor of the image flood

Erik Kessels Flickr photographs flood

“We’re exposed to an overload of images nowadays.”

That was the impetus behind Erik Kessel’s 2011 “Photography in Abundance” installation, in which he printed off 1 million pictures to illustrate the number of daily uploads to Flickr.

Kessels argues we confront a glut images on social media:

Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed. By printing all the images uploaded in a 24-hour period, I visualise the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences.

The metaphor of a flood of images drowning us all has become commonplace in photographic commentary, another of the many conventional wisdoms that shape how we understand contemporary image making and its challenges. This week has seen two more iterations.

Michael Kamber was quoted in a New York Times review of the new Associated Press book on the Vietnam War:

Today’s war photographers produce work “every bit as good as anything out of Vietnam…But when you put more stuff on the Internet, it competes with more stuff on the Internet.” Back then, he said, “great photographs had tremendous staying power: you didn’t have access to billions of photos.”

In a review of Jerome Delay’s working showing at this years Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, James Estrin wrote on Lens that:

His task is to take photographs that will make the viewer stop and look at them in a world that is flooded with more than a billion pictures every day.

Estrin’s invocation of the image flood is an especially interesting example of how this metaphor persists. Writing twelve months previously – also about the Perpignan festival – Estrin observed:

The prizewinners are applauded by their colleagues in the crowd who seem oblivious to the tsunami of vernacular photographs about to wash away everything in its path.

What makes Estrin’s 2013 reiteration of his 2012 point noteworthy is that John Edwin Mason wrote a detailed and sympathetic critique of Estrin’s 2012 claim (in which Mason linked to my previous 2011 post on this issue). Mason gently unpacked Estrin’s argument and by highlighting photography’s historical context drove a stake through the heart of the argument. But unlike a vampire, the flood metaphor lives on. Why?

60 seconds on internet - photo uploads

On the face of it, the metaphor of a contemporary image flood has a lot of evidence to support it. We’ve all seen the astounding numbers (from graphics like this one on an internet minute) used to capture the contemporary proliferation of photography:

  • Facebook’s billion users upload 300 million photographs daily, rising to 1-2 billion on holidays, meaning Facebook receives seven petabytes of image content monthly, and stores more than 220 billion photographs in total
  • Instagram has 100 million users who upload 27,800 photos per minute, meaning the site is now home to 5 billion pictures

The numbers seem irrefutable. Those for Facebook and Instagram come from the sites themselves, so we can assume they are credible. We can raise questions about the global total of photographs though. Estrin’s 2012 post links to a Visual News graphic on cell phone photography, which in turn references Jonathan Good’s 2011 post “How many photos have ever been taken” on the 1000memories blog. A close reading of that post, interesting though it is, shows the global total is based on a series of suppositions:

Digital cameras are now ubiquitous – it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos.

‘Estimated’…’if’…’would be’…not unreasonable claims, but assumptions and projections nonetheless. Overall I don’t doubt these claims point towards the general scale of global image production, but they are not quite the objective data they seem to be. More importantly, though, does this number of global images actually produce a flood?

The trouble with the flood metaphor is threefold. The first is that it renders image consumers as passive victims of a force of nature – we drown in the tsunami which against our will sweeps everything away. But image consumption is not a natural process. It involves a series of conscious decisions – to open the book, read/view the news site, watch television, subscribe to the Instagram feed, click on our friends Facebook albums, and so on. Like Mason, contra Kessels, I don’t see us drowning in other people’s personal representations to the exclusion of news and documentary images. As Mason wrote:

…there is no evidence – none – that people think that photos of sunsets and photos of body parts are equally important.  Quite the contrary, people wielding camera phones – people like you and me – have demonstrated time and again that they understand the difference between amusing their friends and recording something of significance.

For that reason I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the likes of Jerome Delay are competing for attention with the vast majority of Facebook uploads.

Secondly, focusing on the macro level – aggregating the global numbers of image on social media sites – hides the much smaller number of images per person. As one assessment concluded, “Roughly broken down into individual Facebook users, the numbers translate to…one picture uploaded every 3 days per Facebooker.” Similarly, the 1000memories calculation quoted above assumes 150 snaps per person per year. Viewed this way, the situation hardly seems overwhelming.

Finally we have the most important point about why the mantra of the image flood is misleading. While there are billions of photographs online, we do NOT actually have access to all of them all of the time. You have to decide to follow people on Instagram and then you have to decide to look. And Facebook is the most closed site on the internet – it’s a walled garden that makes sharing outside its borders difficult, and you cannot get to someone’s personal album if they don’t give you prior access. In other words, either you or a friend has to turn the spigot on the reservoir before pictures come your way, and when they do it’s more like a controlled stream than an endless flood. Having never encountered anyone other than a photographer or photography critic who fretted about the flood, I’d suggest the population at large – the people producing the bulk of the picture uploads – are largely undisturbed by this stream.

So why is this metaphor of the flood endlessly repeated in the face of counter arguments? In many ways it is either an alibi or code for larger issues. It is part of the contemporary manifestation of historic concerns about information overload. It signifies the tension between “amateurs” and professionals in the image economy. It gives a possible explanation for why photographs don’t have the power to change many think they once had. And it offers a possible account of why photojournalism seems to be perpetually in crisis.

Each of those issues deserves close attention because each comes with questionable assumptions as baggage. But we cannot deal with each specifically if we continue to repeat misleading metaphors that deserve to die. It is hard to drive a stake into something as fluid as the mantra of the image flood, but we really have to avoid its easy repetition if we are going to move understanding forward.

Photo credit 1: Copyright Erik Kessels/Gijs Van Den Berg/Caters News

Photo credit 2: Foxcrawl, VIDEO: 60 seconds on internet

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photography

The purpose of photography

Vanessa Winship

It’s been quiet in these parts again…June was spent working on a video project for the West End Refugee Service in Newcastle, and July was spent doing research on refugee images in the Australian media at the University of Queensland.

Now that I’m back I’ve been catching up on reading, and the “Coming of Age” cover story on creativity in the British Journal of Photography’s June 2013 issue (although not online in its entirety) was interesting. In truth, many of the constructed and stylised images of the featured photographs left me cold. But there were some notable exceptions, especially if the intersection of politics and photography is your concern – Don McCullin, of course, with Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou and David Goldblatt the standouts.

I liked how Goldblatt and Winship talked about their purpose, for it is the purpose of photography that is the most important criteria when judging images:

“I’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years. Today I’m doing exactly what I was doing in the years of apartheid. I’m looking critically at the processes taking place in my country.” (David Goldblatt, p. 73)

“It’s necessary to keep looking at and addressing different narratives and different ways of telling something about the world we live in.” (Vanessa Winship, p. 50)

Critically looking at the processes taking place in one’s country; developing different narratives and different ways of telling something about the world we live in. What better purpose could there be?

Photo: Copyright Vanessa Winship, from The Democracy of Universal Vulnerability: Vanessa Winship’s “She dances on Jackson”.

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photography Thought for the Week

TFTW #9: Azoulay on the photographic encounter

TFTW…thought for the week…some occasional quotes to inspire…

The photograph…is never solely the realization of the preconceived plan or a vision of a single author, but is rather the outcome of an encounter. This encounter involves four protagonists at least – a camera, whoever stands behind the lens, whoever faces the lens, and whoever might become a spectator viewing the product of the encounter.

Mainstream discourses of photography…tend to attribute that which is visible in the photograph to only one of the participants involved in the production of the image. This is the consequence of discursive conventions – in the discourse of art and, eventually, that of photography as well. When this axiom of rule is suspended, however, what is inscribed in the frame no longer appears as derivative of the photographer’s point of view, nor as its projection or implementation. Rather it can be seen to result from the encounter between the four protagonists, each of whom might take on a different form.

Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 219-20.

Photo credit: justLuc/Flickr

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photography

Thinking Images v.26: From Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to Google Images

Given the difficulty of talking about photography, it is possible an image can convey insights about this complex field. Although it is now seven years old, and many will have seen it, Joan Fontcuberta’s Googlegram: Niépce (2005) is perhaps one such image. I’m not often taken by photographic art but seeing Googlegram: Niépce (2005) this week struck a chord.

Fontcuberta’s artwork is based on the first known photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826). Currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the After Photoshop exhibition, the construction of Googlegram: Niépce (2005) is described in these terms:

Fontcuberta created this work by processing the results of a Google Image search for the words “photo” and “foto” through photomosaic software, which generates a tiled picture from a large group of thumbnail images arranged according to chromatic value and density. The result is a composite of ten thousand tiny electronic images that links the photography’s chemical origins to its dematerialized, pixelated present.

It is hard to convey the mosaic, almost impressionistic style, of Fontcuberta’s artwork in a screen grab, but this detailed view gives a sense of the thumbnails that are shaded and shaped to replicate Niépce’s 1826 image.

The link from past to present is neither clear nor linear (and the present is not purely virtual as suggested in the above description), but in representing both the historic and contemporary layers of photography in one image, materialising the popularisation and proliferation of images, Fontcuberta has pictured something important about the complexities of photography.

There remains much anxiety in traditional circles about the impact of vernacular digital imagery and its circulation, not least in the periodic outbursts against apps like Hipstamatic and social media channels like Instagram. Reflecting on the logic of Fontcuberta’s artwork might be one way to rethink the idea that the image present – for all that it involves heightened scale and speed – is just a departure from or corruption of the photographic past.

Image credits: Googlegram: Niépce (2005), copyright Joan Fontcuberta, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection; Googlegram 200 detail, from the National Museum of Wales web site.

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More posts photography

Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.

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photography politics

The importance of criticism

It has been quiet in these parts while I’ve been teaching in the US, but now that I’m back in the UK and in freelance mode, I’m looking forward to again writing here more regularly, trying to articulate the contexts of photography, multimedia and politics.

Having been preoccupied with off-line responsibilities I’ve also had a chance to reflect on the important things that need to be said and done – and its quite a long list! As an opening thought, I wanted to restate why I believe criticism, like the writing here, is important.

I was prompted on this by Jim Johnson’s post (brought to my attention by @MartijnKleppe) on keeping a photography blog and the place of criticism. In turn, Jim was inspired by a great piece from David Levi Strauss on the value of criticism in the context of art. Levi Strauss concluded:

Why does art need criticism? Because it needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.

If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism. Absolutely, and as Jim Johnson said, replace ‘art’ in that sentence with ‘photography’ and ‘photojournalism’, and you have something important to grasp.

Of course, one of the issues central to criticism has to be how we make and understand the connection to the real, to the social. Which is why theory is inescapable for creative practice that wants to engage.

Thinking about what makes for good criticism – and there is plenty of bad, knee-jerk, thoughtless criticism – I’m always drawn back to Michel Foucault’s ethos of practicing criticism:

A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest…Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such. Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.

Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult. That’s what I attempt here. And, as outlined in relation to on-going issues like the representation of famine, it has very practical consequences. Because one of the facile gestures we have to make difficult is the idea that ‘theory’ is distinct from, and even opposed to, ‘practice’. Let’s see where that thought takes us.

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Thought for the Week

TFTW #8: Sekula on photographic meaning

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

The photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning. Only by its embeddedness in a concrete discourse situation can the photograph yield a clear semantic outcome.

Alan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in Thinking Photography, edited by Victor Burgin (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 91.

Thumbnail photo: Wonderlane/Flickr

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photography Thought for the Week

TFTW #7: Shapiro on photography and representation

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

Representations do not imitate reality but are practices through which things take on meaning and value; to the extent that a representation is regarded as realistic, it is because it is so familiar it operates transparently…photography is one of the representational practices that has become so naturalized.

Michael J. Shapiro, The Politics of Representation: Writing Practices in Biography, Photography and Policy Analysis (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), p. xi.

Thumbnail photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr

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Thought for the Week

TFTW #6: Azoulay on the image as statement

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

A solitary image cannot testify to what is revealed through it, but must be attached to another image, another piece of information, another assertion or description, another grievance or piece of evidence, another broadcast, another transmitter. An image is only ever another statement in a regime of statements.

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), p. 191.

Thumbnail photo: webtreats/Flickr

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photography Thought for the Week

TFTW #5: Bolton on photography’s contradictions

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

It seems that wherever we look in photography, we find contradictory impulses and opposing aims. The wide range of photographic applications [from police surveillance to liberal documentary] raises the possibility that photography has no governing characteristics at all save adaptability. Certain practices preserve the status quo and others strive to overthrow it; it is possible to find in the medium contributions to both the domination and the liberation of social life.

Richard Bolton, “Introduction: The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography,” in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, edited by Richard Bolton (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. xi.

Thumbnail photo: Webtreats/Flickr

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Thought for the Week

TFTW #4: Barthes on subversive photography

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. By Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 38.

Thumbnail photo: Bill Gracey/Flickr.

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photography Thought for the Week

TFTW #3: Ritchin on hyperphotography

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

Just as the novel, poetry, and the memoir have explored the permutations of memory, so too might the digital photograph evoke a more complex past. Rather than a single, inarguable reference point that is to thought to be truer than human recollection, it can serve as an element in a web of other supporting and contradictory imagery, sounds and texts, a menu of possible interpretations, a malleable dreamscape and memory magnet…Holistically, the photograph sprouts electronic roots and branches and is, in turn, entwined by other media.

Fred Ritchin, After Photography (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), p. 59.

Thumbnail photo: Mr Mark/Flickr

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photography Thought for the Week

TFTW #2: Ranciere on representation

TFTW…thought for the week…some quotes to inspire…

Representation is not the act of producing a visible form, but the act of offering an equivalent – something that speech does just as much as photography. The image is not the duplicate of a thing. It is a complex set of relations between the visible and the invisible, the visible and speech, the said and the unsaid. It is not a mere reproduction of what is out there in front of the photographer or the filmmaker. It is always an alteration that occurs in a chain of images which alter it in turn.

Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009), pp. 93-94.

Thumbnail photo: webtreats/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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photography

Who believes photographs?

 

Should we accept the oft-repeated view that nobody believes photographs anymore?

Skepticism about the veracity of images is widespread. In a recent interview with Art Info, Nan Goldin recalled:

I gave a talk at the Tate a couple of years ago, and I asked an audience of 200 people how many of them believed that photography was still a true statement. Five people raised their hands.

In his excellent new book, Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris writes:

Today, possibly because of Photoshop and other photography-doctoring software, people have become suspicious of photographs [p.45].

In Picture Perfect, her account of our photo-op culture, Kiku Adatto declares:

Now we are alive as never before to the artifice of images. Today we pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, the pictures can be fabricated, packaged and manipulated [p.7].

And yet there are powerful counterpoints to these conventional claims of disbelief and suspicion.

One is anecdotal, but you might recognize something similar from your holidays. Driving around the Isle of Skye this summer, a regular hazard was the tourist, standing precariously on or near the road, holding a digital camera at arms length, capturing part of the stunning scenery, to presumably affirm their presence, make a record and invoke a memory and feeling. When I came across these tourists – and there were many each and every day – I contrasted it to the claims of distrust and wondered: why would so many of us make pictures if we believed all photography was a fraud?

Another counterpoint can be found in situations of upheaval. In a report on the capture of Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound one newly liberated citizen was quoted:

‘I’m taking photos to show to my brothers and family still in Tunisia,’ Salah Ermih explained, snapping the ransacked interior with his phone camera. Ermih, a surgeon, said that he had dashed from his overworked hospital to have a look at Gaddafi’s inner sanctum.

Ermih’s photography was pure documentary, recording scenes as evidence for others not present to see. He was not alone – the role of the phone camera (both still and video) in making the Arab Spring visible to those beyond the region has been widely noted.

What these counterpoints establish for me is the need for a more complex view, one that refuses a simple black or white rendering of the situation, and appreciates the co-existence of seemingly contradictory attitudes:

If one side of us appreciates, even celebrates, the image as an image, another side yearns for something more authentic. We still want the camera to fulfill its documentary promise, to provide us with insight, and to be a record of our lives and the world around us. But because we are so alive to the pose, we wrestle with the reality and artifice of image in a more self-conscious way than our forebears (Adatto, Picture Perfect, p.8).

We have to be alert to the artifice of the image and the inescapable place of aesthetics in photography. But we have to be careful in our analyses to avoid sweeping and fashionable claims. Recognising the capacity for manipulation does not mean abandoning the documentary promise. Everyday, amateur photographers with their vacation snaps understand this, and we should too.

Photo: Elgol, Isle of Skye, August 2011, from the Campbell family album.

Categories
photography politics

September 11, 2001: Imaging the real, struggling for meaning

 

As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches images of the event are being recycled and recirculated. Many of them are familiar, and the meaning of the event now seems fixed. But anniversaries are part of the process of fixing memory, and as they are repeated they can obscure the uncertainty that prevailed at the moment they now memorialise. They also render a general date as a singular moment, obscuring other historical events of great significance that occurred in previous years on September 11

A couple of weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, I wrote an essay for The Information Technology, War and Peace Project at Brown University on how we struggled to comprehend ‘9/11’ and the role photography played in that process. I am re-posting it here, ten years on, as both an act of commemoration, and a reminder about the interpretative work required to render something as a world historical event.

“The images were just reality, in every bit of its full-color unmediated ugliness.” At first glance, who could disagree? A tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Frightened workers hanging from the windows. An aircraft flashing across the sky and slamming into the second tower. A fireball. The collapse. The screams of the on-lookers, the dust, the rubble, the darkness, and then the silence. As ugly a reality as anyone would never wish to see again.

But we did see it again. And again, and again. Over and over. Television went to live coverage, and as word spread through homes and offices connected to global news networks, hundreds of millions of people distant from the epicenter of disaster became eyewitnesses to the previously unimaginable. We sat with mouths open and heads in hands, aghast at the events unfolding before our own eyes. Real events, in real time, offered up to us through the reality of television. Which then looped the video of those extraordinary one hundred minutes in which some 6,000 people were killed [a number later reduced to 2,977 civilians], and repeated it, and reused it, and recycled it endlessly, searing those images into the public mind.

And yet those images stubbornly defy comprehension. For all that we were there even when we lived elsewhere, for all that we could re-witness them on subsequent news bulletins, and for all that we can still access them on various web sites, the video footage of September 11, 2001 does not seem real. That is why the fictional realm of the disaster movie became for so many the referent of the domain of fact we observed that day.

The morning after brought the newspapers. Across the world, there was a remarkable unanimity of image and headline, with the exploding towers as a sign of attack, war, apocalypse, and terror. My own daily paper in England was no different. On the front page of The Guardian was the fireball produced at the moment the second aircraft flew into the north tower. Inside, however, was something quite different. Text and advertisements were evacuated from pages two and three, and replaced with a single black and white photograph stretching all the way across the double spread. It was southern Manhattan, enveloped in the dust and smoke of the now destroyed World Trade Center. One of the paper’s staff explained that the newsroom’s initial reaction to the catastrophe was stunned silence, and that the use of the opening photographs the following day was designed to make the paper begin “speechlessly.” It worked, and you lingered over the image, reflecting on the events that had produced it, still struggling to come to terms with the event. Television later employed a similar strategy. On the Friday after the attack two news programs in England concluded their broadcasts with a series of still images, each static on the screen for much longer than usual, to the accompaniment of somber music.

The capacity of a photograph to prompt reflection, particularly after a day of non-stop video, recalls Susan Sontag’s argument that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Indeed, one consequence for the media of September 11 has been something of a reinvigoration of photojournalism. Many newspapers have published remarkable images captured by photographers who were at or near the World Trade Center as soon as they learnt of the disaster. With Manhattan being one of the world’s most media rich environments, some of the world’s best-known photojournalists have found the biggest story of recent time taking place in their backyard. And with the web sites of well known media outlets offering a cost effective capacity for publishing the work of these photojournalists, we have been able to see the powerful images of James Nachtway, Anthony Suau (Photoessays @ Time), Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress (Portfolio @ The New Yorker) faster than was previously possible.

The use of photojournalism simultaneously in both print and electronic form highlights an important feature of photography. In and of themselves, photographs do not convey a particular narrative that gives meaning to an event. Photographs rely on headings, captions, and accompanying articles for the creation of meaning. Nachtwey’s photo essay “Shattered” [now updated with some outtakes] comprises fourteen images, [originally] displayed without captions. The lack of framing that results from the absence of text allows the viewer to read them in a number of ways. But when five of those photographs are taken from the series and, along with the work of others, resituated in the special print issue of Time in a section entitled “Day of Infamy,” they function differently. The cumulative effect of associating the pictures with text in a particular way is that they act as an affidavit supporting “the case for rage and retribution” angrily proclaimed by Lance Morrow in the magazine’s final essay. However, the creation of photographic meaning through intertextual location is not restricted to the presence of immediate referents. It also includes the way in which contemporary images are situated through visual citations to established historical narratives. For example, Thomas Franklin’s shot of three fireman raising the Stars and Stripes on a pole amid the ruins invokes the (staged) image of five marines raising the flag at Mt Surabachi, Iwo Jima, in early 1945, thereby further connecting September 11 to World War II.

It is ironic that in an age where real time video has proliferated, the very ubiquity of the stream of images has revivified the power of photojournalism. All the more so given that the attacks on the World Trade Center were said to herald the end of the age of irony. Writing in Time [in one of those proclamations that looks grossly overstated ten years on], Roger Rosenblatt saw the carnage as a chance to chastise the chattering classes who he says claim nothing is real, while other commentators have seized the opportunity to deride those intellectuals they cast as propagators of postmodern and/or postcolonial themes about representation and power. Such polemics minimize the interpretive work a catastrophe demands. One photograph from a picture essay concerned with the aftermath of September 11 [above] reveals the extent to which the reality of a disaster is neither instantly nor easily apprehended. Focusing on “the media blitz,” Anthony Suau’s image centers on a reporter going live to air with an interview for a television station, “Ground Zero” a long way off in the background, while the street is lined with the banks of electronic equipment necessary for the broadcast. As the caption to the image observes, “on nearly every street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” We are all looking for angles, all trying for comprehension, all struggling to understand.

Far from sidelining issues of representation and power, September 11 has foregrounded them. While the hijackings, the crashing of the aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the collapse of the buildings, and the massive loss of life are all too real and all too shocking as events, what they mean is anything but clear. Allan Feldman once observed, “the event is not that which happens. The event is that which can be narrated.” The hours, days, and weeks since the attacks have seen a deluge of different narratives. The outpouring of words, from the personal reflections of those involved to the political recommendations of those at a distance (most of which Susan Sontag has condemned for “reality-concealing rhetoric” designed to “infantilize the public”), all accompanied by a multitude of images, represents the impossibility of an instant and agreed narrativization of an event, even when we have all witnessed its occurrence live.

The act of witnessing made possible by real time video and twenty-four hour news channels has, despite the impression of being beyond mediation, some real limitations. Indeed, what we saw on television on September 11 wasn’t what the event was like. The event was much more horrific than the impression conveyed by the television pictures. Remarkably for an event that saw more people die on US soil than any other single day in American history, the television coverage was marked by the absence of death. Viewing the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing through footage shot from helicopters and the higher reaches of Manhattan (and pooled by the various networks, thereby creating a uniform image across the various outlets) were an oddly dehumanizing experience. Both geographic distance and compressed temporality strangely sanitized even the rarely used footage of people plunging from the World Trade Center to their deaths. We saw these tragic victims, small specks against the vast towers, leap from their offices, and then disappear into the realm of imagination. People spoke of appalling sights, but we did not see them. Witnesses revealed the presence of many body parts in the rubble, but television did not show them. Reports referred to “streets slick with blood,” but the video did not disclose it. Photographers followed suit – John Albanese, a volunteer fireman and amateur photographer who spent twelve hours working and photographing amid the devastation, wrote in one of his captions that “we were looking for bodies, we were finding body parts, we were waiting for a body bag to take away a leg,” but he did not record this pictorially. In all of Time’s photo essays (whether in print or on the web) we see only one body, carried on a stretcher by rescuers, a limp arm protruding from under the blue sheet. In this absence, the vast sea of personal photographs – family snaps, holiday shots, wedding images – circulating on notices for the missing victims, are what brings us face to face with the human loss.

For both television producers and picture editors, the cleansing of the disaster coverage so as to remove graphic images of death was a conscious decision not to reveal the full extent of reality. Moreover, this decision to exclude occurred at more than one level. The picture agencies and pool sources removed many of the most disturbing (and most realistic) images from those they distributed to their media customers. In turn, the editors at those media outlets made further choices to weed out graphic portrayals of the slaughter. In London, The Guardian’s picture desk received more than 1,200 images on the Tuesday of the attack, choosing but a fraction for publication in the paper or on the web site. Criteria for such selection, which is unavoidable given the extent of choice, is far from clear. One picture editor recently described to me how his standards involved imagining what the victim’s family would say if shown the picture and being guided by their reaction. This is testament to the fact that, despite the conventional perception of a media pack with a bloodlust for the unvarnished portrayal of death and destruction, journalistic practice is governed by a social economy of taste and system of self-censorship which severely restricts what we see, especially when the disaster is close to home and anything but foreign. This may or may not be a good thing. We can readily understand that a voyeurism of violence should be avoided. But one conclusion cannot be ignored: the resultant coverage is anything but wholly realistic.

One striking feature of September 11 is the way in which photography has served a personal desire to find an alibi for the real in a moment of great uncertainty. John Albanese produced his photo essay because his time searching the debris for survivors seemed unreal: “It was so quiet – I had the strangest feeling looking out at the devastation – but I couldn’t cry. Because it didn’t seem real. I thought, I’m going to reach out, and it’s going to be a picture. It can’t be real.” Individuals have sought an image that can be their own “certificate of presence” (in Roland Barthes’ terms) for the unimaginable. Thus the writer A. M. Homes described how reaching for the camera was the first response to witnessing from an apartment window the planes’ flying into the twin towers. Likewise, the title image in Anthony Suau’s photo essay “Aftershock” [no longer online] shows a crowd of onlookers gazing at the event, with three of them raising cameras to the site/sight. It’s as if our own eyes, even when viewing the event directly and personally, even when we see it repeatedly on television, requires the silent confirmation that a still image provides. But not even that confirmation confers meaning upon the event. Far from it. The search for this event’s meaning is something with which we will continue to struggle for some time yet.

Photo: “The media blitz was constant from the moment of the first crash. Viewers could watch the situation develop minute by minute and rarely leave “”ground zero”” no matter where in the country they were. On nearly every other street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” Copyright Anthony Suau/Time, September 2001.

September 11, 2001 is regarded by many as ‘the day the world changed’. But different historical periods don’t end one day and begin the next. In my assessment the initial political and military response to the attacks were in fact a ‘return of the past’, in which cold war logic was revived. I make this case in a 2002 article “Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past In the Response to September 11.” 

Categories
photography politics

Imaging famine: A debate

Last week’s post on ‘Famine iconography as a sign of failure‘ drew a very critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I’ve again used Storify to collect the comments and offer a response to address the issues. Be sure to click on ‘Read More’ to see the whole stream. Further comments on this debate are welcome.

Jon and I pursed this discussion in an OPEN-it debate on 18 August 2011, and I wrote a subsequent post summarising points from that debate while underlining my belief in the necessity of critique.

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.20: Famine iconography as a sign of failure

The homogenisation of ‘Africa’ – the rendering of the continent into one form. The anthropomorphisation of ‘Africa’ – the representation of the continent as one person. The infantilisation of ‘Africa’ – the image of the continent as a child. The impoverishment of ‘Africa’ – the construction of the continent as a desperate, poor, passive victim.

Peter Brookes’ 5 July 2011 cartoon from The Times condenses all these attributes into one visual form. Like most editorial cartoons, it derives its symbolic force from the dominant images of the day, in this case the extensive media coverage of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. The all too familiar images of displaced people and starving children amidst a desert landscape have been common in recent days as both NGOs and the media mobilise in response to what is unquestionably a crisis of food security that demands action. From television coverage to photo galleries, we are seeing the sort of pictures we have seen many times before, be they Tyler Hicks colour photos in the New York Times, Robin Hammond’s series for the Guardian, the Save the Children Fund pictures from East Africa (also in the Guardian), or Oxfam’s Flickr gallery. While it is interesting to think about the virtues of colour versus black and white, or ask whether we can spot a difference between photos taken by professionals and NGO staff (and I can’t see much of one), I want to call attention to the larger dynamic which drives this recourse to familiar visuals.

In an excellent post on the coverage of the Horn, Peter Gill argues that “sophisticated early warning systems that foresee the onset of famine have been in place for years, but still the world waits until it is very nearly too late before taking real action – and then paying for it.” With regard to East Africa, both international agencies and NGOs have been warning for some months that a combination of factors – drought, conflict, high food and fuel prices, and funding shortfalls – were likely to produce a humanitarian crisis. But nobody found a way to picture the problem, so the story went unrecorded. When, finally, in late June, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs simplified the story into ‘the worst drought in sixty years’, Gills says “the media mountain moved, and the NGO fund-raisers marched on behind.”

We can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context.

Is it because photographers lack imagination? I don’t think so. As I’ve written before on this topic, it is more a product of the fact that the media generally is caught in a tragic conundrum:

Governments and international institutions are not moved by information alone, and without official activity the media lacks a hook for a story. A story becomes possible when there is visual evidence of disaster, but in the case of famine that evidence cannot be easily visualized (at least in terms familiar to the media) until people start showing an embodied trace of the food crisis (with distended stomachs and prominent ribs) or start dying. By that time, however, because of the indifference of governments, the final stages of a food crisis have begun, the possibility for preventative action has long passed, and the only course of action is humanitarian and remedial.

We have, then, a systemic problem. While there are famine early warning systems that function quite well, the media is generally a late indicator of distress. The urgent task – in advance of the next humanitarian crisis – is to find a way to tell the story of the many and varied reasons that produce food insecurity without waiting for the visual traces that signify it’s too late.

UPDATE 27 August 2011: This post drew a critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I have curated Jon Levy’s points, additional comments, and my response in another post, Imaging Famine: A Debate. After our OPEN-i debate, I wrote another post summarising some points from the discussion to underscore my belief in the necessity of critique.  

Categories
media economy photography

Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?

Should we be worried about image abundance in the contemporary world?

In recent weeks I have heard a number of affirmative answers to this question. At both the University of Sunderland’s excellent “Versatile Image: Photography in the Age of Web 2.0” conference and the Les Rencontres d’Arles symposium on “Photography, the Internet and Social Networks,” a number of contributors voiced concerns.

Heard in presentations and conversations were declarations about the number of circulating images. We live in a time of “too many photographs” and the digital revolution is “worrying and dangerous”. Metaphors of flooding were common. We are inundated with pictures, leaving us as a “lonely figure found amongst the surfeit of images”.

This proliferation was said to have negative consequences. This “over-abundance” makes us “image bulemics” suffering from visual excess. “Quality has been exchanged for quantity”, “taste is dulled and crushed by multiplicity”, and we have arrived at a point where “nobody believes images anymore”.

This quote seems to sum up the connections between quantity, anxiety and effects:

Today the eye of modern man is daily, hourly overfed with images. In nearly every newspaper he opens, in every magazine, in every book—pictures, pictures, and more pictures…This kaleidoscope of changing visual impressions spins so rapidly that almost nothing is retained in memory. Each new picture drives away the previous one…The result—in spite of the hunger for new visual impressions—is a dulling of the senses. To put it bluntly: the more modern man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees much too much to still be able to see consciously and intensively.

But this quote is not recent. It dates from 1932, and is from a German article on image fatigue (reference below). It shows that, in a period we regard as a time of editorial control, relative slowness, and contemplation, anxieties about visual abundance and its effects were also common.

Although few express worries about being swamped by words or text in contrast to pictures, concern about “information overload” has an even longer history. Having located concerns as far back as 1565, Vaughan Bell wrote:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

What is driving the contemporary concern about image abundance? In part it’s the scale of production enabled by digital production and circulation. There are probably 500 billion digital images produced each year, and more than 60 billion have been uploaded to Facebook (with 8 billion on Photobucket, 7 billion on Picasa, and 5 billion on Flickr). When the majority of mobile phones have cameras it is no wonder we take a lot of images – the iPhone 4 is now the single biggest source of Flickr uploads.

I don’t doubt that the ease of digital technology means that overall there are more pictures than ever. However, these macro statistics can be a bit misleading. As Joerg Colberg pointed out a while back, if you take the overall number of photos on Facebook and divide it by the large number of users, the average Facebook album is little more than a hundred images per person. Is that any larger than the analogue prints collected in a traditional family photo album?

The anxiety associated with image abundance condenses a range of concerns. Listening to the debates at Arles in particular, I think this anxiety is driven by a professional concern about the rise of the amateur, and the way in which this is seen as destabilising traditional frames of cultural reference. Most of the statistics cited in relation to the contemporary proliferation of pictures refer to popular production. What people fear is being swamped, I suspect, are the assumed qualities of the professional image.

Far from being a threat, I see the abundance of images as an opportunity for ‘the professional’. We live in a culture where people avidly consume photos. But in this culture there is still a scarcity of certain types of imagery – those which drive a story.

Critical, engaged and reflective photographers (as well as curators and editors) are the people who can offer in-depth, narrative explorations of important issues at home and abroad. Indeed, the general familiarity and fondness for single images in our ‘photo-op’ culture might have expanded the space and grown the demand for more complex, thoughtful visual stories.

There is much to study about photography in all its forms in the context of web 2.0. But in relation to the metaphors of excess, flooding and their assumed effects, its probably time to move on from repeating clichés of cultural anxiety to embracing new creative production.

 

  • Reference: Paul Westheim, “Bildermüde?”, Das Kunstblatt16 (March 1932): 20-22. I am indebted to Mia Fineman, Assistant Curator, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the quotation. She provided the translation, which comes from her dissertation, Ecce Homo Prostheticus: Technology and the New Photography in Weimar Germany (Yale University, 2001).
Categories
multimedia

Laygate Stories: a new multimedia project

 

Laygate Stories’ is a multimedia project that portrays, in their own voices, the lives of those living and working in the Laygate area of South Shields on Tyneside, in the north-east of England.

Creating new visual stories excites me, and its a pleasure to again be working collaboratively with Peter Fryer on this project, which is part of an Arts Council England funded commission (‘Homelands’) organised by the Side Gallery in Newcastle. Peter undertakes the photography, I take the lead on the audio and the technical aspects of production, and together we edit the pictures and sound into a ‘photo film’.

The work is centred on the diverse community along Frederick St and the Laygate area. This is a vibrant area made up of indigenous north-easterners, a long-established Yemeni community – who were once migrants but now includes second and third generation British citizens – as well as people from Angola, Bangladesh, the Congo, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Poland and Somalia.

Through existing contacts and friendships within the community, we are documenting the daily interactions of the different social groups that constitute this community. The work does not profess to be an all-encompassing overview of the area but uses short photo-films to give people a platform to express their everyday thoughts, feelings and concerns, and to reflect on their place within the community.

This project builds on our earlier work in this area, especially the ten-minute photo film ‘The Boarding House‘. It is also inspired by The New York Times One in 8 Million‘ project, which uses sound and images to introduce characters in that city. Their purpose was to showcase “ordinary people telling extraordinary stories, of passions and problems, relationships and routines, vocations and obsessions.”

We have endeavoured to show the everyday, believing that this gives an insight into the extraordinary things people have to offer and the different histories they have to tell. We have also ensured that those who volunteered to speak are involved in the way their stories are produced.

We begin with four stories. Over the next year we will be adding more from this diverse community as the work progresses. As individual pieces they offer insights rather than a developed narrative, but we hope that once we have a dozen or so portraits available the cumulative effect will be the story of a community.

We are grateful to the Side Gallery and the Arts Council England for support. We hope you enjoy the first instalment, which is available on the project site at www.laygatestories.com.

 

Categories
media economy photography

The new media landscape (3): community, transactions and value

 

The disruptive power of the internet has produced a new ecology of information. As outlined in the first post of this series, this is the inescapable big picture for anyone engaged in creative practice.

This new ecology of information incorporates some hard realities for those of us seeking to support creative practice. In the second post of this series, I argued that community is now an essential concept in the new media landscape.

Throughout I have drawn inferences from what is happening to large media organisations in this revolutionary environment so that independent photographers and visual journalists can understand the challenges they face.

In this third and last post of the series, I want to discuss how some media companies are pursuing different sources of revenue. While their strategies are not easily replicable, they show how the dynamics of the new media landscape are playing out when it comes to the nitty-gritty of business models.

The end of distribution supporting scarcity

The past profitability of many media companies was based on controlling the mode of distribution so that scarcity prices could be charged. What the disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation of the media economy exposes is that this control was unique to a particular historical moment, resulting in prices that were artificially high.

As Google argued in a submission to the US Federal Trade Commission, this certainly applied to newspapers:

The large profit margins newspapers enjoyed in the past were built on an artificial scarcity: Limited choice for advertisers as well as readers. With the Internet, that scarcity has been taken away and replaced by abundance. No policy proposal will be able to restore newspaper revenues to what they were before the emergence of online news. It is not a question of analog dollars versus digital dimes, but rather a realistic assessment of how to make money in a world of abundant competitors and consumer choice.

It also applies to television, movies and music, because “the very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution” – that is, control over broadcast networks, cinema chains and record companies. Once that content has been digitised and streamed, centralised control and high prices is much harder to maintain.

The hard reality, then, is that business models have to be decoupled from modes of distribution. In a context where publication and broadcasting have become easier and cheaper, running printing presses and managing TV networks are no longer licenses to print money. No business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution can succeed in the long-term.

Of course, existing media corporations can go on for some time. Legacy industries don’t grind to an instantaneous halt just because the central principles of their operating environment unravel. But if they fail to innovate, they tend to decline slowly before becoming unsustainable.

Diverse and indirect approaches

If a business model predicated solely on control over a mode of distribution cannot succeed in the long-term, another casualty will be the idea of the single business model behind visual journalism. The new approach will be a series of diverse models producing revenue indirectly.

As John Temple, the last editor of the Rocky Mountain News declared, news organisations do not make money from news; news is the ‘brand’ for the organisation and the money comes from relationships and services only indirectly related to journalism.

There is nothing new in this. Advertising has been the main source of revenue for mainstream media, with a contingent and indirect relationship to the journalism we (mistakenly) assume is the raison d’etre of media companies.

While it seems shocking to say news is a ‘brand’, that is how it has functioned. Oliviero Toscani, who was behind the controversial Benetton campaigns of the 1990s once remarked that we should understand that in a capitalist media economy “editorial was always the advertising of advertising.”

Although advertising will remain important for media companies, and new ways of garnering subscriptions might offer small revenue streams, what are these indirect approaches going to comprise?

The community that pays

That is where the idea of community comes in. Those engaged and loyal people – readers, viewers, listeners, fans – who identify with and congregate around their chosen content streams are where revenue comes from.

It’s fashionable to say nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, and there a plenty of online comment threads that can be mined for anecdotal evidence to support this rather glib generalisation. But if we think about the hundreds of millions of TV episodes, 10 billion songs and 10 billion apps sold via iTunes, or the 23 million Netflix subscribers in North America, or Spotify’s 1 million subscribers in Europe, plenty of people reach into their pocket for quality content. If providers offer availability and ease of use, direct payment for something that is not fungible is forthcoming.

If we look at indirect revenue from communities, then transactions are key. Fairfax (publishers of the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the largest media company in Australasia) has seen digital grow into its second largest revenue stream. 60% of their digital revenue comes from transactions, with readers using companies that Fairfax purchased, including a dating service called RSVP and a holiday home rental service, Stayz.com.

Transactions are one way that social networks can be leveraged for revenue, with social recommendations leading to commissions. As one Deloitte analyst predicted,

the next phase of social commerce is about extracting commissions from products which are sold directly as a result of recommendations made…So rather than selling advertising, what you’re doing is taking a commission against a product sold.

A 2011 report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on the business of digital journalism pointed to a number of indirect transactions supporting editorial content, such as The Atlantic magazine’s events business with $6 million/year in revenue. In a similar vein the Washington Post is running online courses and The Guardian is organising weekend masterclasses.

None of these constitute the holy grail that will replace the unending decline in print advertising revenue. But they are good examples of creative approaches that don’t fight the disruption of the internet and work with the contours of the new media landscape.

Can an indirect approach work for photography? When I reviewed the New York Times paid content scheme at the end of March, I painted a different scenario using transactions rather than subscriptions:

The Lens blog is a high profile site with some 750,000 users visiting each month. Instead of raising money by hoping some of those subscribe on their 21st visit each month, consider the monthly visitors as a community of interest around photojournalism and offer goods and services to that community. There could be Lens-sponsored master classes, special events and workshops for both professionals and the general public; print sales; discounted equipment and photographic services via business affiliates; photo tours and themed travel; equipment, medical and travel insurance for practitioners; logistics and visa services for photographers having to travel at short notice…you name it, anything that interests a broad photographic community, amateur and professional, could be offered by negotiated deals where Lens’s earns a percentage on each transaction.

This strategy would leverage the Lens blog Twitter feeds and referrals providing unlimited free access. It would be based on growing the community that comes to the site, thereby underscoring the value of having quality photojournalism distributed globally and the benefit of having it accessible to as many as possible. It could raise more revenue than subscriptions could achieve, and the revenue could go directly to photojournalism.

This is the emerging logic for media companies. Might it work for independent documentary photographers and photojournalists? Even if the scale is different, why not? This logic comes from the dynamics in the new media landscape affecting everybody.

Paul Melcher claims “photographers, photo agencies and related have no experience in building value around their images.” That has to change. Value will be created indirectly more than directly. It begins with the six steps towards building your own community.

Photo credit: Enol/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

 

Categories
media economy

The new media landscape (1): contours of change

Change in the media landscape is constant. Everyone involved in the production of creative content – photographers, journalists, writers, and musicians, as well as those who deal in those products – knows that nothing is as it was.

Too much of the current debate about how creative practitioners can cope with these upheavals proceeds without an understanding of the big picture and historical context. There are some hard realities that have to be properly understood before new strategies can be devised.

In this series of three posts, I want to lay down an understanding of what is happening, how some are responding, and what others can learn from them. Many of the elements I discuss are well known, and many of the examples I cite show that people are already positioning themselves to prosper from these changes. But for those who are still unsure about what is happening and what to do I think it is important to take this step back in order to plan where to go.

These posts are based on a presentation I gave at the CEPIC New Media Conference 2 in Istanbul on 21 May, and I would like to thank Marco Oonk of Fast Media Magazine for the invitation. For that event I knew I could not compete visually with speakers from the stock photography industry, so I selected key words that named the main themes.

In this first post, I will cover the concepts of disintermediation, disruption, ecology, disaggregation and free, including the importance of the relationship between scarcity, abundance and fungibility in the new media landscape. In part two I will unpack the concept of community and its importance, and in part three I will review how some are thinking about business models in this context. As one of my concerns is how documentary photographers and independent photojournalists can work better, I will outline some practical steps they can take to incorporate some of the lessons from this review.

So what are the contours of change in the new media landscape?

The internet has changed everything. That is obvious, but the question is how? ‘Disintermediation’ is one ugly word, but an important handle on the change wrought by the internet. Made popular by Dave Winer, the idea comes from economics and points to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain. It highlights the way you can cut out the “middle man” and deal directly with your audience or customer.

The internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.

All of this means we live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has been expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions, distributors and gatekeepers.

None of this means the internet is the single cause of all change or that we have a perfectly open world. And we have to remember that for all its potential universality, the internet currently only reaches one-third of the world’s population. But it does mean the internet is an important enabler of change that challenges or routes around many of the barriers and gates in our world.


Through disintermediation the internet is disrupting many walks of life, especially information industries. When we consider that global internet traffic is predicted to increase fourfold by 2014 its easy to see how many areas are being affected by the internet.

The disruption that follows from disintermediation can be understood as resulting in what Richard Stacey describes as “the separation of information from its means of distribution.” This means that all those modes of information distribution we have taken to be natural – the newspaper, magazine, radio station, album-length CD, television broadcaster, cinema and the like – are being challenged by new means of producing and circulating content. As one analyst remarked recently:

The very model of the traditional entertainment industry is predicated on the inefficiency of distribution…Films, TV, music are all produced and distributed in a tightly controlled way. The internet blows the doors off that concept because it’s an environment where everyone can distribute with maximum efficiency to everyone else.

Netflix is showing what this means in practice. It now accounts for one-quarter of North America’s aggregate internet traffic because streaming video is so much more efficient than mailing DVDs. It costs Netflix $1 to send out a DVD, but just 5 cents to stream the same movie. As a streaming service they will eliminate the $600 million they currently spend on labour for checking discs and the postal service, with obvious negative impacts for both those sectors.

The lesson from this is clear – in Richard Stacey’s words, “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”


The web, built on top of the internet, has created a new ecology of information, both literally and figuratively. ‘Ecology’ is the study of organisms in relationship to each other and their environment. As a new ecology of information, the web exists as much more than a competitor to existing infrastructures. It is not a new market side by side with traditional markets – it is reshaping both the infrastructures and the markets for everyone.

Yet many information industries treat the web as a competitor rather than an ecosystem. For example, a recent debate about the difficulty of linking from many newspapers stories to supporting information revealed the print-centric nature of media company workflows and CMS’s, and showed how far they were from a digital-first strategy.


In this new ecology – where disruption is powered by disintermediation – we are seeing a change in the structure and process of information.

It is changing what have been called the “atomic units” of established modes of information, and unbundling traditional modes of distribution. We are seeing the disaggregation of forms and formats we have taken to be natural:

  • the disaggregation of albums to individual downloads in music
  • the disaggregation of newspapers and magazines to stories that can be circulated or linked to individually
  • the disaggregation of broadcast stations and fixed schedules to personal streams that can be consumed anywhere and anytime

The idea of the ‘stream’ is significant here. It emphasizes process rather than product, because once disaggregated, things can be updated.

Even when thinks look like fixed commodities we should think in terms of streams. iTunes downloads and Kindle ebooks are sold as though they are fixed units, yet they are parts of a stream leased for use on particular devices. With ebooks your edition can be updated or removed by the organization that controls the stream.

Disaggregation does not mean things dissolve into a formless universe. They are re-aggregated, but that is increasingly done through social networks. For example, a study for CNN found that social media was used to share nearly half of all news.

Disaggregation, therefore, leads to the importance of information that is social, modular and mobile. As Mathew Ingram has observed,

the future of media consumption is going to look a lot more like a smorgasbord of sources and content, personalized and recommended by friends and our social graph, and a lot less like that megaphone traditional media outlets used to have and control.


Few words rile creative producers more than the idea of free. But it is a concept that has to be confronted. We have to move beyond the competing ‘theological assumptions’ that either content should be free or that people should pay. ‘Should’ cannot be the basis for a rational response to the hard realities of the new ecology of information.

There is no escaping the fact that free is part of the intrinsic architecture of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The problem is that the web’s essential characteristic makes earning revenue hard. As Frederic Filoux notes, “the social web’s economics are paradoxical: the more it blossoms, the more it destroys value.”

Filoux’s statement renders value only as price or revenue, thereby overlooking the cultural and social value that flow from free circulation and distribution. Nonetheless, the web’s architecture of free intersects with a basic economic formula.  As Chris Anderson argues in his book Free (p. 173), “if ‘price falls to the marginal cost’ is the law, then free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint.”

That does not mean that everything is given away for nothing. Despite claims to the contrary – for details see my review of his book – Anderson is very clear that (a) free is not a business model and (b) that it is always linked with paid.

The ability to leverage the web’s architecture for paid content depends on the relationship between scarcity and abundance. Most content producers have priced their work on the assumption that it is scarce, and inefficient modes of distribution have supported that. But because the web has made many things abundant, charging scarcity prices is not easily sustainable.

Here I want to introduce one more concept – fungibility.  Something is fungible if it can be substituted by something else. A breaking news story is fungible because there are a number of credible sources that can be substituted for each other. A music track or a specific photograph is not fungible because if you are a fan who wants only a track from a particular band, or an image by a particular artist, they cannot be replaced by music or images from others.

Scare items are not fungible. Abundant items are fungible. If you produce something that is unique and not found elsewhere, you can resist the inevitable free endpoint. If you produce something that is abundant and can be replaced by something else, then you will not be able to directly charge scarcity prices for it (although, as I will argue in the third post, there will be other ways of using that content to produce revenue to support its production).

Conclusion

These are the dynamics that I think drive the changes in the new media landscape. They are the hard realities creating the new ecology we all operate in, producing a landscape marked by disaggregation in which traditional forms and formats of distribution are being unbundled, and content is increasingly social, modular and mobile. Content producers and distributors have to face up to these dynamics, and try and work with these developments in order to achieve their goals. In the second post in this series, I will argue that the concept of community is an essential part of that process.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (2)

The new media landscape (3)

 

Photo credit: laihui/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics

The killing of Osama Bin-Laden is another of those issues in which politics is located in or around the image. However, the debate about the rights or wrongs of releasing the post-mortem photograph obscures the fact that any such image will inevitably have been staged.

I’ve read the many arguments calling for the release of a picture of the dead Bin-Laden (see Pete Brook’s post of many links, as well as Joerg Colberg’s and Michael Shaw’s considered statements). In principle I would opt for openness and transparency, but in this instance I have a difficult-to-articulate unease about the calls for the Obama administration to disclose what they have got.

My unease stems from the fact that the killing was not an act of justice. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway, just to be clear) this is not to suggest Bin-Laden should be mourned. The issue is how we think about our actions in the world. Watching crowds in the US come out on the streets to celebrate a killing is to see an ironic reversal. It’s easy to imagine many of those individuals scorning mourners at, say, Arab funerals for their ‘barbarism’ in the exultation of death. I imagine the release of the post-mortem photograph in this context, where it might function as the bounty hunter’s evidence that the outlaw is no more. I’m not sorry Bin-Laden is gone. I just don’t feel the need to see an image that will close the circle that began with George W Bush’s call to get him ‘dead or alive’ and effectively render the operation as just.

The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame.

The White House’s release of a series of photographs on its Flickr stream showing the President and his national security advisers in and around the Situation Room (see above) was a fascinating but carefully managed insight into the conduct of Bin-Laden’s killing. If the post-mortem photo were to be released, it would also be part of this managed stream. But it was a small detail around another picture in the Flickr stream, of President Obama addressing the media, that showed how central the photo-op is to politics.

In a fascinating account, Donald Winslow reveals how some of the photographs of the President delivering his television statement were “from a re-enactment of his 11:45 p.m. EDT speech, performed minutes later strictly for the benefit of still cameras.” The image shown here is from one of the official White House photographers in the room during the speech. Excluded from the live event were photographers shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times and a freelancer who was filling the ISP (Independent Still Photographer) pool photographer’s slot. As one of the four photographers present recounted:

President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Many newspapers overlooked that detail in the photos caption and ran it as record made live. When they discovered it had been staged there were some angry responses, but as Winslow reported “the ‘photo op’or re-staging of a Presidential speech for the benefit of still cameras has been a long-standing practice for various administrations.”

The concern about the production of this picture deflects attention from a wider issue. If we take a step back we can see that most of the formal moments that feed news photography are theatrical and thus effectively staged. Things like a politician’s press conference, campaign speech, factory tour, walkabout, and voter meet-and-greet take place in order to produce images. (As someone who used to work as a Senator’s press secretary in Australia, I’ve participated in the organisation of these various devices). If the lens is only trained on what is in front of it that construction is missed. Those that are railing at this moment from Obama’s speech generally fail to expose the endemic conceit of daily politics and its visual coverage.

Some photographers do pull back, take in the wider scene, and show how our pictures are often of staged events framed in particular ways. From extreme situations we have Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and other examples of what some in photography inelegantly call a “goat fuck.”

From domestic politics, I recall (but cannot at the moment find) some great David Burnett photographs showing US presidential campaign stops where a vast auditorium hosts a tiny crowd of party faithful who, when pictured, look as though they fill the place. From the UK we have this great image (above) by Simon Roberts from his 2010 Election Project (which he discusses in a podcast here, starting at 51:30). This reproduction cannot do justice to the details of the large print version, but it nonetheless shows Brown in the center being interviewed by a television crew in the ‘press pen’ while other journalists and staff mill around the edges, greatly outnumbering voters. This image shows the context of a campaign stop, and happened to record one citizen, Gillian Duffy (centre, on the footpath in a blue skirt), starting to shout at the Prime Minister, precipitating an encounter that escalated into a major political crisis for Labour.

Images that address the construction of images, pictures that reveal the pervasive nature of the photo-op in our political culture, are essential to photography’s critical purpose. Calling for more of them, as opposed to a post-mortem document, might be the best response to a week in which the political and the visual have once again been enmeshed.

UPDATE 7 MAY 2011: I have revised paragraph 7 above in line with the Jeremy Nicholl’s final point in his first comment below. It now makes clear the official photo used above is from the live speech, and that it was the five news photographers who had to capture the reenactment. Jason Reed of Reuters wrote about these events on the Reuters blog and included a photo he made showing the others news photographers capturing the reenactment. After initial publication he also added a final paragraph clarifying the reasons he was asked to work this way.

 

 

First photo: P050111PS-0210. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo: P050111PS-0918. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Third photo: Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency). 122x102cm. Copyright Simon Roberts.

Fourth photo: Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama Bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Copyright Reuters/Jason Reed.

Categories
multimedia photography

Post-photography: Tim Hetherington’s living legacy

Tributes to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros have been widespread and heartfelt after the devastating news of their untimely deaths in Libya. The injuries to Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown were also shocking, and hopefully they will recover fully.

Photojournalism Links has curated the numerous memorials, including many fascinating videos in which Tim and Chris articulate their visions. I wanted to pay tribute to them, and I’ve been ruminating for twenty-four hours about what to say. I hope its appropriate to offer that respect by pointing to a legacy that can live on.

Over the years I was fortunate to have talked with Tim on a few occasions. Many know him better than I, but even sporadic discussions, such as a debate over embedding in Afghanistan, were testament to his creativity, intellect and generosity.

Back in 2000 Tim was part of a Panos Pictures workshop that opened an exhibition at Side Gallery in Newcastle. Tim was the standout speaker, and presented his “House of Pain” project (published online by Fred Ritchin’s Pixel Press). This was a multimedia piece that began as a student project at Cardiff in 1996 and was influenced by a work placement with Pedro Meyer. To experiment with multimedia more than a decade ago in order to take photojournalism into new areas is proof of Tim’s energy and vision.

Ten years on and Tim was back at Side for the opening of his Liberia exhibition in March 2010. Not only did he speak at the gallery on the first Saturday of the show, on the Sunday he showed the draft of his personal Diary project, and discussed the numerous challenges of filming in a war zone. He was again generous with his time and engaging with his insights, and we enjoyed continuing the exchange about Afghanistan.

Tim’s legacy will be rich and profound. But it can be more than the work he leaves behind. It should also be a living legacy in which the boundaries of photojournalism are continually pushed in pursuit of a story with purpose. To that end, the thinking he exhibited in his June 2010 interview with Michael Kamber could be the blueprint. The whole transcript repays attention, but here are some of the provocative extracts:

If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

If we are interested in the outside world and making images of it and translating it and relaying it to as many people as possible, then in some ways the traditional photographic techniques are really not important.

Authenticity and making a picture authentic is obviously important. I am not interested in traditional photographic techniques. I am not interested in putting a black border around a photograph as a way of saying that is authentic. You know, “protecting photography.”

My point about not being a photographer is that we can’t protect photography – forget photography – when we are interested in the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

We are making so many images, but we aren’t actually connecting these images. We aren’t exploiting what we have made. We aren’t mining it enough to make it into audiences’ minds. A strategy to hit people about this idea of Afghanistan across multiple forms – “Oh, I’ve read Sebastian’s book, “War”; I’ve read the Vanity Fair articles; then I saw the film and the film made me want to see Hetherington’s book” — is a multilayered thing. It is different than the images you see out there that are already lost.

And to make that happen, you have to navigate through the business side of things. That isn’t easy. But if we see ourselves merely as photographers, we are failing our duty. It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.

We who are working in the realm of photojournalism and documentary photojournalism have to focus on whom we want to talk to. We need to know who our audience is. That will help us figure out how to reach them, which language to reach them with. I don’t think enough image-makers do that.

I encourage them to look at many different forms. Not to say, “I am a photographer,” but to say: “I am an image maker. I make still or moving images in real-life situations, unfiltered and un-Photoshopped. I am going to look into how I can put this into different streams for different audiences; maybe some on the Web, some in print.”

That’s why I think the most important thing for our industry is not style, it is authenticity. It is: “I go to you because I know you have an authentic voice in the work that you have been doing.”

We all know that having professionalism in any field is important. We have a weird skill-set. Send us into a difficult circumstance and we will get out there and know how to find a story. That is what we do for a living. That is valuable. It is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution – in addition to citizen journalism, in addition to local photographers. The more, the merrier.

Tim died in pursuit of a story for us. I find it very hard to write those words. But if image makers, visual journalists, put his thoughts into practice, his legacy will be alive and productive. We live in a post-photographic world. It’s one where there are more images than ever before. Forget ‘photography’, meaning the industry. Don’t turn inward and protect a tradition just because its done things a certain way for a long time. Find ways, including photographs, to make “the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.” What better way to honour someone taken prematurely than continue down the path they helped forge?

Categories
media economy photography

Crowd funding photojournalism: how is it going?

Crowd funding is growing as a means to support creative projects. Back in January I discussed the theory and practice of crowd funding through a critique of Larry Towell’s ‘Crisis in Afghanistan’ project, followed by an update on my experience as a contributor. Here I want to provide a review of how crowd funding is currently working for photography and photojournalism, with an analysis of Kickstarter and a look at emphas.is.

There are a number of new crowd funding sites, such as WeFund in the UK, and Norwegian-based New Jelly, though they have few if any photography projects. In contrast, IndieGoGo, which was established in 2008, and says it has raised millions of dollars for over 20,000 campaigns, across 173 countries,” has more than 100 photography pitches. However, only four have been successful (see here, here, here and here), raising a total of US$15,000 between them.

Kickstarter by numbers

In photography circles it is Kickstarter that is best known. Founded in April 2009, contributors have stumped up more than $35 million in the last two years, and the money is coming in at the rate of $1 million/week. In a review this February, GigaOm detailed the figures:

  • more than 600,000 supporters come to the site
  • 5,000 projects have been funded and 2,500 are currently pitching
  • 250-300 proposals are submitted daily, though Kickstarter rejects 45% of these because they do not meet the requirements

I’ve done my own analysis of successful photography projects on Kickstarter between 17 June 2009 and 17 April 2011. These include much more than photojournalism. Here are the numbers:

  • 284 projects
  • $1,295,803 raised in total
  • Average of $4,563/project

The amounts funded range from $25 to $50,000, with the latter for a non-photographic part of Zana Briski’s “Reverence” project. Briski’s large total is very much an outlier, as the average/project above suggests. Of the 284 projects, there were only 19 that bid for and raised between $10–20,000, only three in the $20–30,000 bracket, another three in the $30–40,000 range, with Briski’s the single one beyond that.

Significantly, many of the best known photojournalism projects – by Ashley Gilbertson, Bruce Gilden, Krisanne Johnson, Gerd Ludwig (who raised twice what he asked for), and Larry Towell – are in the $10,000+ category of success.

This has encouraged the Magnum Emergency Fund to set up its own Kickstarter page. The MEF states that “funds raised will be used to cover actual costs and a per diem.” The latter is a controversial point. Are these platforms a way to make a living, or do they provide project expenses only? I’m firmly of the view that it should be expenses only. If by per diem the MEF means a personal fee from crowd funding, that would be unacceptable in my view. If by per diem they mean travel and subsistence costs, that would be legitimate. The doubt around this arises from the fact that most if not all of these pitches remain opaque as to their detailed budget. More transparent accounting is still needed to clarify issues like this.

The promise of emphas.is

Emphas.is is the crowd funding platform focused on visual journalism, and after launching in early March with a few understandable teething problems, it has just seen more than $40,000 raised to fully fund four of its nine opening projects. Of the remaining five, one should succeed, one has failed, and three are precariously placed. That’s not a bad start – though the platform will need to react faster once projects are funded. As I write, Matt Eich’s project has been fully funded for a few days yet remains in pole position as the site’s ‘featured project’.

Aside from its focus, Emphas.is differs from Kickstarter in two important respects. First, it has a board of reviewers that determine which pitches are accepted for the site. With a likely 55:45 funding success rate on the first batch, the review process is no guarantee of success (not that it was intended to be).

The second difference is that as a platform emphas.is both enables and encourages community engagement through its “Making of Zone” where backers get project updates. While this rewards contributors, it also helps the projects. As Tomas Van Houtryve, whose project was fully funded, notes:

Backers have started to pose relevant questions. As my project proposal has made its way through social networks and attracted support from strangers, I’ve made some really fruitful new connections. In addition to generous funding contributions, several individuals have stepped forward with key contacts and very precise and helpful advice. I have already managed to make stronger photos due to their input. This is a pleasant shift over the lone-wolf existence.

What can we conclude so far?

I think the performance of Kickstarter and the promise of emphas.is give us some pointers to crowd funding photojournalism:

  • Successful bids require careful preparation, and the likes of Frank Chimero have good advice on how to make an effective pitch.
  • While the macro-level figures are impressive, the most likely level of project funding is in the US$5,000 – $15,000 range
  • Achieving above $10,000 requires a previously established professional reputation and an active community of support to call on
  • Even with that community of potential support, generating support requires considerable planning and effort, pursuing connections, publicity and pledges. As Rene Clement told PDN recently, “Don’t think money will pour in. You have to work really hard for it.”

Above all else, turning crowd funding into a sustainable source of project revenue for photojournalism requires those how have recently been funded to deliver on their promises. If backers are engaged and see their support enable projects that would otherwise not have happened, then continuing assistance could be forthcoming.

Update 23 April/5 May

The British Journal of Photography (4 May 2011) has a good report on crowd funding with some UK examples.

They discuss three UK-based crowd funding sites I had not previously heard of: CrowdfunderSponsume and WeDidThis. Sponsume is interesting because it has a ’50 per cent’ rule – if pitches get backing for half the total they ask for they can keep the money pledged. Most other sites require the target to be reached in full before funding is made available.

The report also discusses two ‘DIY’ crowd funded projects – the well-known Sochi Project, and the less known appeal by Andy Sewell, in which he has raised over £6,000 for a book by pre-selling a limited edition version.

The most important observation in this BJP report comes towards the end:

With crowdfunding there is a notable correlation between the size of the project leader’s online social network and the amount of money raised – the bigger the network, the greater the chance of reaching the target.

Photo credit: Genista/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
Back Catalogue media economy photography

The Back Catalogue (2): Photojournalism in the new media economy

Welcome to the second in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covered work on representations of ‘Africa’, and the third deals with representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are analyses of documentary photography and photojournalism in the new media economy – specifically the challenges for creative practice and story-telling, challenges for the industry given the disruptive power of the Internet, and new ways of thinking about doing business and funding photographic projects.

Posts: challenges for creative practice

Posts: challenges for the industry

Posts: new ways of doing business and funding work

Posts: other sites

 

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo: drewm/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (1): Representing ‘Africa’

Welcome to “The Back Catalogue,” the first in an occasional series of themed posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The second post in the series deals with photojournalism in the new media economy, while the third covers representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

Here, starting with the oldest, here are items dealing in various ways with the visual representation of ‘Africa’.

POSTS:

ARTICLES:

Salgado and the Sahel: Documentary Photography and the Imaging of Famine,” in Rituals of Mediation: International Politics and Social Meaning, edited by Francois Debrix and Cindy Weber (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 69-96

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

The Visual Economy of HIV/AIDS as a Security Issue, 135 pages, research report for the AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative, May 2008.

“‘Black Skin and Blood’: Documentary Photography and Santu Mofokeng’s Critique of the Visualization of Apartheid South Africa,History and Theory 48 (4) 2009, 52-58.

(with Marcus Power) “The Scopic Regime of ‘Africa’,” in Observant States: Geopolitics and Visual Culture, edited by Fraser Macdonald, Klaus Dodds and Rachel Hughes (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

The Iconography of Famine,” in Picturing Atrocity: Reading Photographs in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books, in press, forthcoming 2011).

PROJECTS:

Imaging Famine (2005)

 

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo: globevisions michele molinari, Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

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

Caption: Orich Florestal (left), 24 and Rosemond Altidon, 22, stand on the edge of their partially destroyed apartment of Port-au-Prince January 9, 2011. Photo: Allison Shelley/Reuters.

One year ago this week a massive earthquake struck Haiti killing 230,000 people. Media coverage of the disaster was both extensive and intensive. One year on, the international media has been running stories marking the anniversary. This week we have seen (amongst many others) visual compilations from media outlets like The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, Time, and from INGOs like UNICEF, not to mention Christian Aid’s sponsorship of Wolfgang Tillman’s unremarkable snaps.

Thinking about these journalistic memorials, and looking back at the original coverage, what are some of the on-going issues relevant to the photographic coverage of disasters? This post will be far from either a comprehensive account of all the concerns or a comprehensive review of all the relevant pictures, but will raise what I think is the most important question – how can visual storytellers report context?

In addition to the legions of print and broadcast journalists who flew into Port-au-Prince in January 2010, more than 80 photographers arrived to cover the aftermath. As the Reuters photographer Jorge Silva observed, the situation they found was overwhelming and overpowering. By and large the images they produced were individually powerful records of destruction and suffering.

The photographer Daniel Morel – a resident of Port au Prince who contributes to Corbis – produced what became the iconic image of a dust-covered survivor being pulled from the wreckage. Morel (later embroiled in a legal fight over the misuse of his image by AFP and others) was critical of the motives of many who came to cover the crisis:

Since the earthquake, I’m documenting what happened for the next generation. I’m not taking photos for a contest or for a prize. I’m taking pictures for history. I want the next generation to see more. I want the next generation to feel it — what happened.

CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was one of those Morel derided for being outside the story and playing with the people, and BagNewsNotes provided a compelling shot-by-shot critique of a Cooper report. But Cooper was just one of the reporters characterising post-earthquake Haiti as a ‘lawless jungle‘ populated either by pathetic individuals who could do nothing but wait for external assistance or by ‘savages’ taking advantage of anarchy. Inevitably, there were media critiques about the prevalence of “pornographic” pictures, the misleading use of captions to direct meaning (as in the description of survival tactics as “looting“), and predictable public lamentations from newspaper editors about the difficulties of using graphic images (see the New York Times public editor, the Washington Post public editor, and this overview of the issue. For my take on the presentation of death in the media, see the essay “Horrific Blindness” here).

However, the major problem of this early coverage was that it proceeded from a false premise. The earthquake in Haiti was not a “natural disaster.” Of course it was triggered by an event in nature, but the consequences of that event were a result of economic, social and political factors. When an earthquake of the same magnitude struck California in 1989, the death toll was 63 not a quarter of a million. It was social infrastructure and economic well-being that produced such radically different outcomes. Seismologists say buildings not earthquakes kill people. But how does one picture that when a population has been decimated?

To be sure, in situations like the Haiti earthquake we need photographers recording the immediate aftermath. In terms of the immediate response, I wouldn’t’ disagree with the thrust of Jorge Silva’s reflection:

Many people ask if journalists help in disasters. I don’t think we help directly. Our job is to trigger the response from institutions that do. This is what motivates us to come to these places, to point the eyes of the world toward people who are suffering and clamoring for help. We have to sensitize people to the situation through our pictures.

But does it take 80 international photographers producing noticeably similar images to do this? Michael David Murphy identified numerous redundant images coming out of Haiti, and suggested that one way to avoid this in future would be to create a pool system:

Why don’t media outlets join forces to divide and conquer the enormity of a situation like Haiti’s? Media outlets could assign individual photographers to follow one aspect of the Haiti story, and the story could be published by all participating outlets.

The multiple images of Fabienne Cherisma, a young woman shot by police, were a poignant conjunction of the issues of redundancy and death. In what was an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, Pete Brook spoke to many of the 15 photographers who made pictures of Fabienne and analysed the issue in a series of important posts. (See also the open-i discussion of this, and for the photographers’ response to the issue of how many covered the disaster, see “Too many angles on suffering?“).

Image redundancy can be a problem, but not one that should lead to a structured pool system. We need multiple perspectives of the same event so that we can establish a “concordance of evidence” and avoid an individual photographer being falsely subjected to charges of manipulation. However, in a situation like Haiti, given the numbers of photographers there, surely we can have multiple perspectives and different stories that probe the context?

The piece that still stands out from the original coverage of the earthquake is Peter van Agtmael’s “Convoy to Nowhere” which reported on the frustrating passage of an aid shipment. Its effectiveness comes from having identified a larger issue beyond immediate suffering, produced a series of pictures, and provided captions that helped establish a narrative into which those pictures are embedded.

Photo: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos for The Wall Street Journal

The bulk of daily photo/journalism exists in – and produces – an “eternal present” where things that are immediate, here and now, drive the images and stories. Once the initial moment has passed, what we need are stories that move beyond frozen time to investigate the history, context, and implications of what we have witnessed.

One year on from the earthquake, how to the reviews stack up in this regard? There have been some excellent features that tackle the issue of time and context head on. NPR’s David Gilkey revisited some key locations and produced some ‘before and after’ dyptichs, The New York Times has an interactive using satellite images of Port au Prince to show the environs before the quake, immediately after and now, and BagNewsNotes marked the anniversary with two Mario Tama photos from the same location a year apart.

Most of the retrospectives paint a picture of a country still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake. In large part that is because Haiti is still struggling. Only 5% of the rubble has been removed. Only 15% of houses have been rebuilt. Countries that promised large sums of aid are yet to deliver. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) has been criticized for failures in governance, and the thousands of NGOs have been slated for lack of coordination. All this means 810,000 Haitians currently remain in temporary camps, and three quarters of them are likely to be still there at year’s end.

If there is one visual form that should be able to address this challenge of detailing context and contesting the ‘eternal present’ it should be multimedia (by which I mean photographers using audio and video in addition to their still images to tell stories).  However, I have not found many examples to review (if you have links do pass them on). Khalid Mohtaseb’s short film started a vigorous debate about “cinematic journalism”. Although Mohtaseb said he wanted to tell a different story it was in effect a technical exercise rather than a journalistic account. Benjamin Lowy has just released a short film with images from early 2010, but it lacks any sense of a narrative. The best collection I have seen is AlertNet’s 12 portraits of people affected by the disaster.

The international community managed the initial emergency response to Haiti with sufficient effectiveness to get aid to millions. Likewise, photojournalism managed to offer its form of the emergency response, ample documentation of the suffering and devastation. What the international community has not done is carry through on its promises of reconstruction and redevelopment. And what photojournalism has for the most part not done is turn its attention directly to that failure and the wider context. Both are relatively good at responding to crises, and less good at producing long-term commitments and perspectives.

After the earthquake Magnum Photos established an internal fund to support in-depth coverage of Haiti for the next twelve months. It is not clear if this resulted in any new work (though I will be asking them). Has anyone else produced a visual story that dismantles the sense of Haiti’s eternal present and addresses the context of its current situation?

Categories
media economy photography

Grants for new visual stories: who provides them?

The photography world is full of awards, grants and competitions. Many of these reward work already done.

But where do you go if you want funding for a new project? Who will fund a visual story you are planning but have not yet commenced?

On a new grants resources page I have collected a range of funding opportunities that meet two basic criteria. The first is that they provide grants specifically for new visual projects (this means grants like the OSI Audience Engagement Grant is not included because it excludes the shooting of new work). The second is that they have an open application process, meaning they do not depend upon prior selection (as in the case of the Magnum Emergency Fund, which uses a group of nominators to invite 100 applicants).

I have identified more than 20 funding organisations to start with. On the Grants page you can click on the links to go to those organisations for further information, including the deadlines for the next round of applications.

If you are aware of other funders, please either add them via the comments or contact me directly, and I will update the list.

Photo credit: cobalt123/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking images v.4: Edmund Clark’s Guantánamo project

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

More documentary photographs in the mainstream press – Guardian Weekend has surprised us again! This week they have published work from a major project, Edmund Clark’s “Guantánamo: If the light goes out.”

Although Guardian Weekend has the all-important (sic) story of Take That’s reunion on the cover, thereby demonstrating the power of celebrity, Clark’s project is showcased from page 12 onwards with text by former detained Moazzam Begg – 21 of Clark’s photographs appear across eight pages and are accompanied by an online feature that has interesting captions from Guy Lane. Other sites have given this project attention, among them Lens Culture’s September gallery of 30 images.

I was prompted to think about Clark’s powerful project when @martincoward tweeted this week that in Clark’s photographers the “objects speak of their implication in political violence.” Clark’s portrayal of three experiences of home — the base where prisoners are detained and the American military community lives, as well as the houses where former inmates now reside – is concerned with the objects and spaces of home. Martin’s remark calls attention, therefore, to the way situations do not need a face to convey their significance.

There are many aspects of Clark’s project that provoke reflection, but his deliberate strategy of imaging spaces and their objects rather than people is an important place to begin. Clark told Culture 24 in October that before he began his project “the imagery I had seen from the camps contributed to the stereotypes of Guantanamo – defenders of freedom against pitiless terrorists; torturers against the abused; national revenge against human rights outrages. No-one seemed quite human.” Yet to highlight humanity Clark avoided people. He elaborated the point in a recent interview on Spoonfed, where he was asked why the project had no personal portraits:

I find that a lot of photographic portraits, you’re not really saying anything. All that’s going to happen is that the viewer’s preconceptions are going to bounce back at them. Some of the ex-detainees wouldn’t have taken part if I wanted to photograph them. I was absolutely adamant that this wasn’t journalistic; I just wanted to work in their homes. I also think if I produced a set of portraits of ex-detainees from Guantanamo, most of whom are of Pakistani, Middle Eastern, African origin, I think a lot of people would look at those and say, “ooh look that’s what a terrorist looks like”. The portraits would be completely dehumanised. They wouldn’t actually say anything about the individual – the spaces are much more evocative.

In the Guardian gallery, alongside the photograph of the exercise cage at Guantánamo, Clark commented:

We’ve seen lots of pictures of people in orange jumpsuits…and plenty of photojournalistic long lens imagery of Guantánamo, and I’m not really sure what that tells anyone. In a way it just reinforces our paranoia, our fear and our suspicion. I wanted to go and photograph areas of personal space … and use that as a way of making people think beyond the representations, the demonisations, and the process of dehumanisation that these people went through.

These remarks are, to me, incredibly important. Here is a photographer employing a deliberate aesthetic strategy — the exclusion of detainees and guards from the photos — in order to humanise the issue. He does so because the normal photographic strategy for humanistation (giving the issue a ‘face’) plays into stereotypes that drive the war on terror. For Clark, rehumanisation involves not showing people. His understanding of the aesthetic and political issues at play in this subject are I think a model example of the reflexivity that is required to make the best documentary work.

Edmund Clark: Camp 4 Mecca Arrow Shackle Eye.

Clark’s aesthetic strategy has two other dimensions. One is its conscious relationship to art practice. As he observed:

Still life imagery of personal space and possessions follows a long tradition of symbolism and metaphor. My work draws on the ‘Vanitas’ style of 17th century Dutch painting in which objects like hourglasses, candles, skulls and flowers symbolized the passage of time and the transience of human existence.

The second involves the edits through which he presents his work, where images of Guantánamo are juxtaposed with domestic pictures, using the narrative structure to make a substantive point:

The narrative is confused and unsettled as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life to naval base and back again. This disjointed edit is intended to evoke the disorientation of the process of incarceration and interrogation at Guantanamo and to explore the legacy of disturbance such an experience has in the minds and memories of these men.

The conditions under which Clark worked in Guantánamo are also worth noting. Access to the camp is obviously restricted by the military so Clark had to cope with censorship. As he told Spoonfed, “working in Guantanamo is a really pressurised time. It’s a constant process of negotiation.” Although he usually shoots on film, Clark had to use digital so his images could be inspected by the US military each day. He was forbidden to photograph many subjects, and some – such as the chair used for force feeding inmates – could only be pictured after long discussions with the authorities. This shows that even in tightly controlled environments it is possible, if the photographer is persistent and thoughtful, to make pictures that are anything but propaganda. (It was for this reason I thought Pete Brook’s criticism of John Moore’s Detained project as being a “product of US military deceit” was too strong. Moore’s project is good, if not as good as Clark’s, but if you read Moore’s description of his negotiations with the military you we can appreciate the limits he had to work with to get anything. Whatever has been excluded in each of these projects it is better that we get to see what Clark and Moore have been able to offer).

Edmund Clark’s project is available in a book from Dewi Lewis, and has been part of three exhibits across the UK. I’m travelling to the Impressions Gallery in Bradford this week to review one of those shows for Source magazine. I am looking forward to seeing his images in that context. Along the way I will be thinking about the page one report (“Iraqi prisoners ‘abused at UK’s Abu Ghraib‘”) from the Saturday paper that contained Clark’s project. Clearly there is much work still to be done.

Categories
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.

Categories
photography

Visualising ‘Africa’: moving beyond ‘positive versus negative’ photographs

A disaster. A lone child. Barefoot. In a barren landscape. The apparent absence of social structures.

This photograph recycles all the main elements in the dominant representation of ‘Africa’. As James Ferguson writes in his important book Global Shadows, “for all that has changed, ‘Africa’ continues to be described through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes.”

Caption: Bududa, Eastern Uganda. A boy walks over the churned mud after heavy rains caused landslides on Mount Elgon on Tuesday. Three villages were engulfed, at least 80 people were killed and around 250 are missing. The Guardian, 6 March 2010, p. 23. Credit: James Akena/Reuters

The recent mudslides in Uganda that James Akena’s photo for Reuters symbolises are certainly worthy of reporting. The question is: regardless of the intentions of the individual photographer – a Ugandan who is an accomplished stringer – why did he choose this particular composition? And, equally important, given that he will have taken a number of images on site, how did this particular photo come to be selected by The Guardian to represent the story?

The choices that Akena made in taking the photograph, and The Guardian made in making it the largest picture in its ‘Eyewitnessed’ double page spread for the first week in March, are evident when compared to other pictures from the same event. On The New York Times Lens blog Stephen Wandera’s photograph for AP (see slide 2) shows a large crowd at the scene searching for survivors, while a Ugandan TV report also shows the community at large. These demonstrate that the photography of the lone boy is a specific choice with particular effects that tap into a long history of visual representation.

It is time for the photographic visualization of ‘Africa’ to offer something different. In this context, it is worth noting that only two days prior to the publication of the Bududa photograph, The Guardian ran a story in its business section headlined “Africa begins to make poverty history.” It opened with claim that:

For decades, it has been seen as the world’s lost continent. Now, a new study says that the view of Africa as a basket case is wrong.

As the continent prepares to welcome thousands of international football fans for the World Cup in June, it seems the image of an economically vibrant region the hosts are keen to project is closer to the truth than tired stereotypes suggest.

It’s an important — though contested — account of recent economic trends should give pause to those who simply recycle the old stereotypes, and some photographers are producing different perspectives that challenge those stereotypes.

One significant project doing this is Joan Bardeletti’s “Middle Classes in Africa,” a twenty-month project in six countries documenting the rise of this group and their potential role in the development of the continent. Three of the stories – from Mozambique, Kenya and the Ivory Coast – are on-line now. One of the pictures from the Mozambique story won a World Press Photo award this year for the “Daily Life/singles” category.

Caption: Un dimanche après midi en famille sur la plage près de Maputo. Joan Bardeletti/Picturetank

Bardeletti’s photographs show people, places, institutions and cultural events that are modern, well-resourced and more than a little familiar to the European eye. They reveal a complexity to ‘African’ life that belies the stereotypes. However, we have to refrain from seeing Akena’s photograph as ‘negative/wrong/false’ while Bardeletti’s are ‘positive/right/true’. These are tired forms of critique that overlook the fact that all photographers make aesthetic choices in the construction of imagery. In terms of what ‘we’ outside of ‘Africa’ see, the overriding concern needs to be less the presence of particular pictures than the absence of all the alternative possibilities.

This chimes with an interview Guy Tillim, the renowned South African photographer, gave to Daniel Cuthbert’s Verbal blog in July last year. Tillim observed:

The thing is, there are serious problems in Africa which did require our attention. One has to be careful with the positive/negative thing. Just because one takes images of dance halls in Lagos, and people being happy, it might end up being as much as a cliché as the suffering image.

Positives images are one that are self-aware or are interesting, penetrating and original no matter what they look at. Negatives images are ones that perpetuate the issue. Let’s face it, Stereotypes are currency in this industry and actively traded by western media.

The problem with images is that we are so visually driven, clichés are bound to be strong. There is a lack of context. If we see a crumbling wall, we think this is a metaphor for the human issue. It’s not, it’s often just a crumbling wall. What is positive and negative depends on your view.

Tillim’s recasting of what positive/negative mean is very important. Instead of it being a simple contrast of picture content — graphic images of famine versus smiling villagers, for example — he sees it as embodying an understanding of the purpose and function of photographs: “positives images are one that are self-aware or are interesting, penetrating and original no matter what they look at. Negatives images are ones that perpetuate the issue [the cliché].”

This is the position from which we should judge Bardeletti’s photographs. It will be interesting to see how many media outlets use Bardeletti’s photographs and stories once the project is completed in the summer of this year. Of course, there are many economic problems still facing the continent – such as the “land grab” of agricultural resources revealed recently by John Vidal – but a more comprehensive visual account of ‘Africa’ must include photographs like Joan Bardeletti’s.

 

UPDATE 18 March 2010:

Asim Rafiqui has an excellent post — How to Take Photos of Africa Or Where Intent and Ideas Collide — that was serendipitously published on the same day as this one. It shares concerns similar to mine, and has a range of additional examples. It is a ‘must read’.

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Revolutions in the media economy (5): the pay wall folly for photographers

This has been a momentous year for media. In my previous four posts on the revolutions in the media economy, I have used the present uncertainty to take a fresh look at the past many now view nostalgically. This critical view demonstrated that newspapers have always been commercial enterprises rather than altruistic associations, they were in decline many years before the Internet restructured the conditions of publishing, and that the practice of investigative journalism is something we need to create as much as we need to protect. In this context, photographers who believe that their practice is defined by an editorial paymaster committed to documentary work are going to have a very hard time. During a recent panel discussion in London on “the new ecology of photojournalism,” Ed Kashi remarked that despite all the gloom and doom we should realize that this is now a potential golden age for photojournalism. He didn’t underestimate the problems but he urged people to think about the prospects for new forms of visual journalism across multiple platforms to diverse communities. I think Ed is spot on with his reasoned optimism, but to appreciate where this might lead us, we have to drive a stake through the heart of a prehistoric argument that has dominated the last few weeks of the year.

‘Parasites, thieves, and promiscuous behaviour’

Rupert Murdoch and his trusty lieutenants (Les Hinton of Dow Jones, James Harding of The Times and Robert Thompson of The Wall Street Journal) have launched a vicious rhetorical war against the free circulation of content on the internet, singling out Google and others for making aggregation and distribution possible. This is part of a News Corporation effort to garner allies for their strategy to charge for news content. Plans to put their papers behind pay walls have been much trailed by Murdoch executives. The time it is taking to implement these proposals, combined with their unwillingness to follow through on their threats to block their content from Google’s view, demonstrates the purpose of these manoeuvres is to try and reshape the public debate, get as many other legacy media companies as possible to join them in similar strategies, and wring some business concessions from the successful new media companies in the process. Murdoch’s protestations – which have been effectively countered by Eric Schmidt – have given some comfort to those in the photographic world who hope that the sight of a pay wall going up might mean the return a benevolent editorial paymaster. It’s time to put that dream to bed once and for all and face up to the challenges and potentials of the new era.

The problem with pay walls

What Murdoch and others are missing is the new ecology of the web and how that has changed things for good, in both senses. For those who want critical journalism in all its forms, the debate on pay walls is at best anachronistic and at worst counter-productive. We can see this in three different ways:

(i) Little money:

Building on the points in my first post of this series, we need to appreciate that even the most successful pay wall strategy will never fund investigative journalism. Pay walls are a form of subscription. But subscriptions have only ever generated about 20% of a newspaper company’s revenue. This means the most successful pay wall will never compensate for the collapse in advertising revenue. Nonetheless, the idea that people paying for content is the holy grail of lost revenue is increasingly promoted by media organisations who are now more willing than ever to explore this option. It has become an almost theological commitment that users should pay. But this overlooks one very significant historical point – consumers have not previously paid for content. As Paul Graham argued, we have paid for the mode of distribution rather than the information being distributed:

Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.

This has been the case with newspapers too. Rupert Murdoch, now demanding customers stump up for his articles, had no qualms about selling at a loss by reducing the price of The Times to 10 pence a copy (or giving it away as a free item in bulks) during the British newspaper price wars of the 1990s. Having never priced his products in terms of the cost of content, now is an odd time for him to start. It is possible that for highly specialized content consumers will be willing to pay something for access (see the conclusion to this debate). While recent surveys offer contradictory data on how much or how often people will pay, even the highest of these numbers offers no hope as a general solution to the economic crisis of distributing journalism (while the lowest condemns it as a flawed strategy). Corporate media debts are too vast to be eased by revenue from premium content, so we should not cling to the false hope that new money will fund the documentary stories that have long been under-resourced.

(ii) Who they block:

The second problem with the supposed pay wall solution emerges when we have a more nuanced understanding of web traffic to news sites. Companies like to make a big deal about the number of “unique users” visiting their URLs, and this summation of global clicks is an important indicator of reach. But most visitors come quickly for something specific and leave equally as quickly. They aren’t reading “the paper” on-line, but searching for a specific piece of information, consuming it, and moving on. Indeed, although some surveys have reported higher numbers, the average time spent on a US news site in November 2009 ranged from just four minutes up to a high of 23 minutes.

If a news organization wants to extract commercial value from its online users, it needs to find a way to first attract large numbers and keep a proportion of these visitors on site for longer so that over time they become loyal. This means the target audience for such an economic strategy is much smaller. To illustrate this, consider the following metrics from the Daily Mail in the UK:

  • 28.7 million unique users/month globally
  • 8.9 million unique users/month from the UK
  • Of the UK users 611,588 came to the web site every day
  • Half of those UK daily users (c. 300,000) stayed for 20 minutes

So while the headline-grabbing number of 28 million unique users suggests a vast community of potential value around the Daily Mail, in fact their loyal on-line users number just 300,000, which is just 7% of their daily print readership.  (The Times editor recently confirmed a similar pattern on his site by contrasting 20 million uniques with the 500,000 who had developed a ‘genuine digital habit’. If one were thinking about a pay wall to control access to content on a paper with these user numbers, where would it be built? Around all content so that each and every visitor had to pay to pass? Around content viewed a certain number of times so the daily visitors were forced to open their wallets? Or directed at those who stayed on site the longest? Two recent posts by Steve Yelvington and Damon Kiesow brilliantly illustrated the counterproductive nature of this dilemma from their experience with local American papers. Kiesow_graph As this graph from Kiesow’s Nahsua Telegraph in New Hampshire makes clear, if your advertising depends on reach, you don’t want to cut off the huge number of uniques on the left, some of whom might be transformed into loyal users if they have open access.  And the number of daily/loyal visitors on the right is too small to build a viable subscription model on. All this shows a general pay wall for news content will slash the number of visitors and fail to generate even modest revenue for investigative journalism. This is not the counter-theological proposition that “all information should be free” (a view Jay Rosen recently found to be often proclaimed but little referenced by those in favour of pay walls). It is recognition of the harsh economic realities of the web’s ecology for news that too many traditional companies are failing to appreciate. Some, though, are realizing that this disparity between the millions of casual users and the thousands of loyal readers points the way to a new strategy. A Fairfax executive in Australia recently remarked that transactions rather than advertising or content were the best on-line revenue streams. Crucially, transactions require news organisations to build a community around their brand and product, and then take a percentage of the transactions (hotel bookings, financial advice etc.) those community members conduct through the associations, links and relationships provided. Building a community based on the smaller, loyal audience is something a Daily Mirror executive outlined, while Slate has been shifting from the pursuit of a mass audience (7 million uniques) to a smaller, more engaged audience (target 500,000) because “one curious reader is worth 50 times the value of the drive-by reader.”

(iii) How they limit public good:

Proponents of pay walls say consumers must contribute to the cost of journalism because it is a public good. We should debate the assumption that journalism per se is automatically a public good given “the media’s” patchy record for accountability in recent times. But even if we rather rashly accept that the majority of the fourth estate is critical of conventional wisdom and questioning of those in power, pay wall advocates have this argument upside down. The public good of journalism in the age of the Internet comes from the vastly expanded possibilities of circulation and distribution. Clay Shirkey has argued this recently (see video here) by calling attention to how a 2002 Boston Globe investigation of child abuse by Catholic priests in the city travelled globally from its Massachusetts origins to the global community of Catholics, mobilising social groups along the way, and ending with the Church having to take action internationally (such as in the recent Irish government report on abuses in the Dublin Archdiocese). Shirkey’s argument is that it was the forwarding of the original article, rather than just its publication, which enabled people to mobilise and force authorities to act. Circulation was what gave the story value as a public good. So while Murdoch and others see public re-use as a crime against civilization, both Shirkey (and Jay Rosen in his interview with Shirkey here, starting at 9:30) demonstrate that in the new ecology of the web this forwarding (or “super-distribution”) of information and its public re-use is the condition of possibility for the very democratic ethos and public virtue media proprietors say they are desperate to defend. If information gets forwarded to journalists to cross-check and challenge their stories it can make them better, and the journalists’ stories get forwarded to people who are the most relevant thereby enabling social action. For Shirkey, this is the public good of publishing on the web. Murdoch might regard it as ‘promiscuous’, but pay walls would prevent the expansive sharing that is at the base of this public good.

Towards the new futures of photojournalism

Here is my point for photographers – forget all the fuss around the Murdoch-inspired debate about paying for content that has dominated the last few weeks of this year. Perhaps News Corporation will make pay walls work for some of its titles, but they won’t be the economic saviour of any media company. Nobody should pin their career hopes on them enabling a rosy future that will replicate a lost and largely mythic past. A new subscription-funded editorial paymaster looking for photographers to assign is not going to emerge, and holding out for media conglomerates to deliver this will only stymie creative development.

However, Murdoch is not really trying to create a new revenue stream (let alone one for documentary work). He is trying to change the terms of the public debate on the web in order to “call time on free distribution.” But that is an even more impossible task, because free distribution is both the intrinsic architecture and great virtue of the web. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the web, was recently asked why he put the web into the public domain as a free facility rather than a private enterprise. “Because otherwise it would not have worked,” he said. (Just watch the first two minutes of this video interview with Berners-Lee to appreciate this core value).

The successful visual journalist in the new media economy is therefore going to be someone who embraces the logic of the web’s ecology, using the ease of publication, distribution and circulation to construct and connect with a community of interest around their projects and their practice. Like the media players beginning to understand that developing and engaging a loyal community is more valuable than chasing a mass audience (while being open so those passers-by can become associates), photographers need to do the same. If people now understand they are publishers as well as producers this puts them in a new and potentially powerful position. It won’t be easy (but when was photojournalism or documentary photography easy?), but the successful visual journalist will be someone who uses social media (in combination with the more traditional tools of books, exhibitions and portfolios) to activate partnerships with other interested parties to fund their stories, host their stories, circulate their stories, and engage with their stories.

The social value of this is obvious, and this social value will be the basis for drawing economic value so the work can continue. A good number of people (like Ed Kashi) are working this way now. Jonathan Worth has been pursuing a fascinating project based on his portraits of Cory Doctorow (read an interview with him here discussing this), and VII is promoting discussions around these themes. In the last couple of weeks we have seen new digital magazine formats unveiled, and if developed these will be exciting platforms for visual work. What all these moves have in common is an embrace of the virtues of digital technology in an open web. Google has been one of the icons of the last decade, and while as a company it is far from perfect, its success marks the path for the future so long as we understand what is novel about the web.

Featured photo credit: Karl Randay/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Categories
photography

Photographing Gaza: AP, Franklin and being political

Ten days on from learning that the Associated Press had forced Stuart Franklin to withdraw his essay about Gaza from part of the Noorderlicht exhibtion, questions and concerns remain about this affair.

The photographic press has failed to unpack the whole story, although the British Journal of Photography ran an updated account on 9 September. Neither PDN nor BJP have done more than produce what is a rather lazy form of “he said, she said” journalism. This is clearest in the fact that no one has (a) explored what the agencies other than AP who have photographers work in the show thought about the controversy, and (b) gone back and questioned AP further about the claims it made in their one and only statement on 1 September – claims that Franklin and Noorderlicht have subsequently questioned. I emailed the questions raised in my previous post to Olivier Laurent of BJP and Daryl Lang of PDN, but they did not reply.

While the photographic press has gone quiet on the issue, the big news this week was PhotoQ’s publication of the second version of Franklin’s text, which means we can read the words AP found unacceptable and ask – how political is the Franklin text, were AP’s objections founded, and what would a political photography of Gaza show?

Like any argument, Franklin’s essay can be interpreted in a number of ways. It does not discuss any photographers or their agencies by name, and shows balance by noting the “atrocious cruelty evident on both sides of this long running conflict.” It states that Hamas rocket attacks precipitated the 2008 conflict and Franklin included in the exhibition pictures of the Qassam brigades preparing to fire on the Israeli town of Sderot.

On the other hand, Franklin’s criticisms are predominantly aimed at Israel for the “excessive violence and disproportionate force that one of the world’s largest armies has brought to bear on lightly armed resistance fighters and unarmed civilians.” Moreover, Franklin aligns the Palestinians with others (including Jews) as victims of “systematic ethnic cleansing.” As an analyst of international politics I would say that describing as Hamas as “lightly armed resistance fighters” and the violence as ethnic cleansing is problematic.

However, as the Noorderlicht organizers declared at the outset, there is plenty of evidence from international organizations to support the claim that Israel used excessive and disproportionate during Operation Cast Lead (as my earlier posts on Gaza showed). Only this week the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released its report on the death toll from the Gaza war that contradicts IDF claims. As B’Tselem states:

The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society. B’Tselem recognizes the complexity of combat in a densely populated area against armed groups that do not hesitate to use illegal means and find refuge within the civilian population. However, illegal and immoral actions by these organizations cannot legitimize such extensive harm to civilians by a state committed to the rule of law.

Franklin’s text is certainly a political account with a particular view. But how could it be otherwise? Is there an apolitical or non-political ground from which to enter the debate about the Israel/Palestine conflict? I very much doubt it. We can have better or worse accounts, arguments more or less supported by evidence, but none of them, whatever they claim, could be considered without politics.

This is where AP’s objections founder, and why their claims that photojournalism can speak for itself in some apolitical way is so naïve. Of course AP has to prevent its photographers from engaging in bias or being used for propaganda. But we have to understand being “political” is something very different from being biased, ideological or partisan. Being political is about being engaged with the world, and that will always be difficult and sometimes controversial.

As soon as photojournalists start to picture the world’s conflicts and problems they are inevitably being political. Too many shy away from this reality by claiming they are just impartial witnesses, acting as humanitarians, recording the face of the victims, objectively documenting what they see in front of them, or any number of similar self-understandings. To witness, be humane and work compassionately and fairly are all important values in photographic practice. But they don’t magically remove one from politics. Photojournalists and their critics need to negotiate the difficulties of their political world (e.g. by providing context to their stories) rather than pretend there is some safe zone in which they are immune from politics.

This means that for AP to force the withdrawal of Franklin’s text by alleging it was partisan is itself a highly charged political act. AP should have accepted the compromise offer to run the text with a disclaimer that it was a personal statement and did not reflect anyone else’s opinions (which was always the case).

The final, and perhaps most important, point to note is that the situation in Gaza requires a more radical political critique than that offered by both Stuart Franklin’s text or any of the Palestinian photojournalism exhibited at Noorderlicht. As I have argued in an earlier post and a draft paper on the photographic coverage of the war, what has been missing is a visual story of the permanent catastrophe that Israel maintains in and over Gaza. We need to move beyond the images of individual victims. We need a photographic account of the governance of all facets of Palestinian life that keeps the residents of Gaza on the brink of disaster.

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Photographing Gaza: more questions in the case of AP vs. Stuart Franklin

The controversy surrounding the forced withdrawal of Stuart Franklin’s essay in the Noorderlicht Photofestival exhibition of Palestinian photojournalism has received some coverage in both Photo District News and the British Journal of Photography.

Those reports don’t delve very deep into this issue. As such, there remain a number of outstanding questions that, given the importance of the principles at stake, demand further investigation.

Because we haven’t been able to read Franklin’s proposed essay, it is difficult for anyone to offer unequivocal conclusions. This, however, is how PDN summarized the text:

Franklin wrote a 700-word essay about the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Festival director Broekhuis provided a copy of the final draft of Franklin’s unpublished essay, but asked PDN not to publish or quote directly from it. The AP confirmed it was the same text they reviewed.)

The text describes Palestinians as victims of disproportionate force by Israel.

The essay depicts Palestinians as resilient victims of Israeli violence and disempowerment. Franklin acknowledges cruelty on both sides of the conflict, and cites specific instances of violence against both Israelis and Palestinians.

The essay does not mention the Associated Press or any other media organizations, nor does it name any photographers. Franklin refers to the photographers generally, noting that they are mostly married men who worried about their safety as they covered the conflict.

In his final paragraph, Franklin likens the Palestinians to other groups of people who have historically been oppressed—including Jews—and says the exhibit is not politically biased, but biased on the side of justice, human rights, and international law.

    This summary would suggest the Franklin essay is in many ways unremarkable, offering opinions that many have voiced. Of course, there are many who will also object forcefully to such views, but one would hardly call Franklin’s essay radical.

    1. AP claims it had a:

    firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view…In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition…When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition.

    In contrast, Ton Broekhuis, director of the Noorderlicht Photography Foundation, has stated:

    First of all, it is vital to understand that there have never been official and unofficial preliminary agreements between AP and Noorderlicht or Stuart Franklin, but the verbal indication that Stuart Franklin’s approach – I quote – ‘would highlight the photojournalism and be balanced’. [According to Franklin]: ‘I have honoured this…No discussion was held with AP about text or their apparent right to censor my curatorial essay until a few weeks ago.’

    Which account is correct?

    2. According to PDN, Franklin selected images from 11 photographers who shoot for four wire services: the AP, Agence France Presse, european pressphoto agency and Getty Images. Did AFP, EPA and Getty ask for assurances on the accompanying text? Were they given any assurances? Did those agencies make any other stipulations about the use of their images? What is their view now?

    3. What do the photographers themselves think?

    4. According to the Noorderlicht press release, AP rejected two compromise options: either a statement accompanying Franklin’s essay making clear it was a “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the photographers’ agencies, or some text from AP itself to counter Franklin’s essay. If this is the case, why did AP reject both these options and instead allegedly threaten legal action against the organisers?

    AP spokesperson Paul Colford told PDN his organization did not want their photos “to bolster a highly charged political point of view.” Given this, why did AP agree – regardless of the nature of any accompanying text – to have its photographs included in the exhibition in the first place?

    The Israel-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not highly charged in all respects, and as an organization AP knows this better than anyone. Their photographers are regularly abused – just read some of the scandalous comments posted on the PDN web site in the wake of this issue that speak of these professionals as “Muslim cowards” and “Arab propagandists.” Or consider the conservative bloggers who revel in calling any images from the Middle East they don’t like “fauxtography.” Or recall the vitriol heaped on AP during the campaign to free their photographer Bilal Hussein from two years detention without trial in Iraq, which saw the AP logo disfigured to read “Associated (with terrorists) Press”.

    Was AP simply afraid of further attacks from the right if Franklin was permitted to exercise his freedom of speech? If so, how is that a non-partisan stance?

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    Photographing Gaza: do pictures speak of politics?

    Do photographs speak? Do they have an intrinsic politics? Or do they rely on the text that accompanies them for political meaning? An unfolding controversy about the photojournalism of Palestinian photographers contracted to western picture agencies is broaching these questions.

    As I’ve written here, although many claimed that Israel’s media controls meant few pictures of the IDF’s December 2008 invasion of the Strip saw the light of day, professional Palestinian photographers working for the likes of the Associated Press, Getty and Reuters were supplying images that got a good run in European newspapers.

    The Noorderlicht Photofestival of 2009, which opens this week, is running work under the title Human Conditions, in order to “reveal the unseen, human stories behind conflicts.” One of the shows, curated by Magnum president Stuart Franklin, whose own recent work on “Gaza Today” can be seen here, contains the Palestinian photographs. As the Noorderlicht web site explains:

    Franklin travelled to Gaza to speak with Palestinian photographers. The exhibition Point of No Return shows their work: raw photojournalism that was done under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The photographs by Mohammed Saber, Mahmoud Hams, Mohammed Baba, Abid Katib, Said Katib, Hatem Moussa, Ashraf Amra, Eyad Baba, Khalil Hamra, Fadi Adwan and Ali Ali rise above the level of detached reporting.

    However, it is not the Palestinian photographs that have sparked the controversy, but Stuart Franklin’s introductory text. The Associated Press objected to the content of Franklin’s essay, and wanted it “substantially moderated.” We do not have access to Franklin’s text, but a press release from Noorderlicht makes clear that AP objected to the fact that:

    the essay acknowledged that criminal acts were committed by both sides, but assigned the principle responsibility for the extent of the bloodshed to Israel. Both Noorderlicht and Franklin believe this conclusion is justified by the critical reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations…

    It seems AP threatened to withdraw their Palestinian photographers’ work or pursue legal action against the exhibition organizers. Outraged by AP’s attitude, Franklin withdrew the essay and left the photographs without accompanying text, while Noorderlicht charged AP was acting contrary to any principle of free speech.

    AP’s director of media relations has responded to the disclosure of its threats by saying:

    Early this year, The Associated Press agreed to a request to display some of its images from Gaza at the Noorderlicht Photofestival, with the firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view.

    The AP is an independent global news organization whose photojournalism stands on its own merits.

    In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition.

    When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition – namely, that the photos would not be presented in support of a political position… (Emphasis added)

    Here we have a set of fascinating assumptions about the meaning of images. For AP, the photographs ‘should speak for themselves’, but they assume that ‘speech’ would not have been ‘political’, because it was only through Franklin’s text these pictures would ‘be presented in support of a political position.’ What, then, does AP think these photographs would be saying, in an apolitical way, when devoid of text?

    Interestingly, Stuart Franklin says that the photographs are also going to speak, but presumably that they are going to say something different to what AP imagines it hears. As Franklin wrote in the Human Conditions catalogue after withdrawing his essay:

    I will say nothing and let the pictures talk. The pictures must speak and one day, we must hope, their stories will be told.

    I think both Franklin and AP are naïve in their view that photographs themselves speak, as though they could construct a larger meaning without text or other related media that put them in context.

    However, in addition to their censorship of Franklin’s views, AP are especially naïve because the professional Palestinian photographs from within Gaza – such as the work of Getty photographer Abid Katib, which was among the first images of the war published in the UK (see one of his photos here) — have already been widely circulated and read with a variety of texts creating various meanings. To suggest that these photographs should now be stripped of prior associations and rendered ‘apolitical’ is itself the most political stance one can take.

    (A hat-tip to Aric Mayer for a prompt on this issue).

    (UPDATE 3 September 2009: I have revised the final paragraph to note Abid Katib is a Getty photographer, as was clear from my earlier post).

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    How photographs make Darfur mean something

    The relationship between photographs and text in the construction of political understanding is often complex and frequently unclear. Although news photographs regularly present themselves as windows illustrating the world, the articles, captions and headlines with which they are associated can bind them into meanings at odds with both their pictorial content and the accompanying textual themes.

    The Guardian 5 March 2009, pp. 4-5

    Odd conjunctions of this sort are common in the visualization of Darfur. Back in March 2009, when the liberal UK newspaper The Guardian wanted an image to accompany the print story of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar al-Bashir, a photograph by French photojournalist Frederic Noy was chosen (in contrast to the web version, which has a portrait of Bashir). Showing a distressed baby boy – identified in the caption as malnourished – being vaccinated by partially obscured adults, it was taken at Koubigou refugee camp in eastern Chad. Noy would have had no control over the use of his image by a British newspaper, but the newspaper’s choice of this picture says much about how ‘Darfur’ has been made visually available to us.

    As my earlier research on this topic has demonstrated (see my “Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict [2007]) photojournalism visually enacts the field it claims merely to document. In the case of Darfur, that visual performance has drawn on the established iconography of disaster in ‘Africa’ in which the political is rendered in terms of the humanitarian, and the humanitarian is signified by the bodies and faces of refugees.

    Indeed, the vast majority of Darfur photographs have come not from the province but the camps in Chad, a product of the way photojournalists rely on international aid organizations to provide access to the edges of the conflict zone. My review of all the pictures used by The Guardian and The Observer in their coverage of Darfur from 2003 to 2005 showed that 43 of the 48 published photographs foregrounded individuals as symbols of the conflict, with two-thirds of these pictures focusing on refugees. And as Lynsey Addario’s March 2009 visual essay of the Otash camp in southern Darfur demonstrates (these being the most recent set of photographs used by the New York Times) the emphasis on the face of the individual remains the most common pictorial form for a political story, even one about the Sudanese government’s expulsion of humanitarian organizations from Darfur.

    Lynsey Addario, New York Times, 22 March 2009

    In fixing meaning, either photographs or text can have the upper hand, depending on their particular context. As Alex de Waal demonstrated in his review of the Darfur essay in David Elliot Cohen’s What Matters, the ambiguities of Marcus Bleasdale’s photographs were expunged by the force of the accompanying text written by Samantha Power and John Prendergast, which ensured the reading of the conflict as genocidal prevailed. However, in the case of the news photographs of Darfur circulating in European and North America, I would argue that the pictures have trumped the words. By constantly reproducing the stereotypes of the refugee as passive victim, these images have made a humanitarian account of the conflict dominant over all others. In turn, these photographs have distilled identities to a fixed essence such that the conflict can be easily mapped in terms of a tribal war or genocide that pits “Arab” against “African”.

    Regardless of whether photographs or text are triumphant in directing the political meaning of a conflict like Darfur, what is missing from both is an appreciation for the wider context, abundant complexities, and many contingencies through which the fate of millions is determined. Although no single media holds the answer, the challenge for visual journalists is to find new ways to tell the story of Darfur so that this lack of certainty can be cogently represented.

    Photo credits: Frederic Noy, Lynsey Addario

    This is a cross-posting with the SSRC ‘Making Sense of Darfur’ blog

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    Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza, part 2

    The Observer Magazine has a cover story today (“A Life in Ruins“) about the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. It details the on-going suffering, and is illustrated with Antonio Olmos’s portraits of Gazans living in their destroyed houses. His photograph of Shifa Salman (below) is a double page spread on the inside, with a similar picture of her adorning the cover. More photographs and short interviews related to the story are available in an audio slideshow narrated by the journalist Peter Beaumont.

    Shifa Silman in the ruins of her house

    Two things strike me about the photographs in this story. The first is their focus on individuals, especially women and children, as signs of the conflict and its aftermath. In this they continue a long tradition of imaging conflict by locating the story in the bodies of those most affected. While that is obviously important, it does mean — as I’ve argued in my recent paper reviewing the photojournalism of the war in Gaza — that the larger context of the political infrastructures through which the lives of these individuals are produced goes mostly un-pictured. This context is referenced in both the magazine article and the audio slideshow:

    And without concrete and steel, aluminium and glass, without tiles for roofs and cladding for stairs and bathrooms – all prevented from entering Gaza by Israel’s continuing economic blockade – no rebuilding has begun. For those who suffered most, the war continues.

    However, the blockade of Gaza that is central to the catastrophization of this Palestinian territory — a blockade which preceded the war and now shapes its aftermath — remains visually unrecorded. To be sure, picturing this political infrastructure would be no easy task, but it is time for someone to try.

    The second thing that strikes me about some of the photographs in this story is the way individualizing the issue intersects with a portrait aesthetic that is widely produced. This is demonstrated in the newspaper’s promotion of the magazine’s content (below), where the pose of Shifa Salman shares much in common with the portrait of the South African botanist or the models showing off “the top 5 summer shorts”. With the background cropped, Shifa could be modelling her garb as much as signifying a political issue. Given this, the task of picturing the political infrastructure that governs life in Gaza is even more urgent.

    The Observer, 5 July 2009, page 2

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    photography politics

    Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza

    Israel’s three-week war against Gaza was a devastating assault. Retaliating to Hamas rocket attacks, Israel’s military campaign caused the death of some 1,300 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of buildings.

    The story of this operation dominated the world’s media in January 2009, yet many felt that the reality of the conflict had been hidden from a global audience because of Israel’s exclusion of the international media from Gaza. However, European newspapers published the work of many photographers from inside Gaza working for international news agencies.

    To consider how this photojournalism visualized the conflict, I have been researching the coverage offered in the UK by The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper The Observer. I am presenting a paper on this research – “Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza” – at the “Aesthetics of Catastrophe” symposium today at Northwestern University in Chicago.

    observer-28-dec-2008-p1

    Much of the pictorial coverage offered a familiar – and often literal – face of war, as the first photo from the conflict, the injured girl on the front page of The Observer of 28 December 2008, demonstrates. While the victims deserve coverage, and it is necessary to see the consequences of war, does the rendering of the Palestinians as suffering subjects above all else provide a comprehensive visual understanding of the conflict?

    Given the paper is intended for eventual publication in an academic journal, and thus 45 pages and 8,000 words long, I won’t summarise the full argument. But the paper covers the following:

    • The assumptions behind the demand to see;
    • How IDF media controls did not so much blind the world as structure a particular visuality of the conflict;
    • What we did see via the photojournalism of two British papers (with the photographs discussed printed in the paper);
    • Whether what we did see was what we should have seen (i.e., the strategy of catastrophization in Gaza I have posted on previously here, here and here);
    • The implications of this for our understanding of the photography of catastrophe.

    The draft paper is available here. This is the first time I have put such an early version of work out into the public realm. The arguments are not finalised and would benefit from constructive engagement, so I welcome responses as I develop the analysis. Please read and comment.

    Photo credit: Hatem Omar/AP; Abid Katib/Getty

    Updates in the Comments below


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    Tiananmen’s other images

    For most of us ‘Tiananmen’ conjures up the image of the lone citizen standing in front of the tank. This iconic picture as been the sign around which memory of the massacre twenty years ago coalesces. 

    However, in today’s Guardian novelist Ma Jian writes in honour of the thousands who were killed. It is a moving account, notable for the stories told by the former solider, now artist, Chen Guang, and the survivor who saw his friends crushed by a tank.

    It is also notable for the photographs (three below) that accompany the narrative — especially the graphic image of the dead on the cover of G2, the wide-angle shot of the square with serried rows of tanks, and the injured protester making his way past groups of soldiers. These are not pictures we see regularly, and in their rarity they function as a powerful testament to the violence that ended those momentous protests.

    See also The Guardian’s gallery for the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen.

    (Update 3 June — The New York Times Lens blog features a great story, Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen, looking at the various versions of the ‘tank man’ photo.).

    (Update 4 June — NYT Lens blog publishes for first time Terril Jones photo of ‘tank man’ from street level, in Behind the Scenes: A New Angle on History).

    More updates in the Comments below


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    g2_pp6-7_web

    g2_pp10-11_web

    Photo credits: AP; Jacques Langevin/Corbis/Sygma

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    Embedded in Afghanistan

    Embedding photojournalists with combat units was one of the military’s greatest victories in the Iraq war. Narrowing their focus in time and space to the unit they were with produced images putting brave soldiers front and center, with both context and victims out of range. Now, with the Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy being questioned, we are being offered similar visual cues from Afghanistan.

    Three soldiers peering into a remote valley, rifles at the ready, the enemy seemingly elusive. High tech weaponry is readied against the elements. This is a war machine looking for a reason, certain a threat is out there, but unsure of its form. There’s even a moment of pathos, with the man on the left in his pink boxers and exposed legs lining up with his comrades. Then there is the second photo, shot from behind in the same place, but showing a strongman taking time out for a gym session. One shows a vulnerable body, the other a muscular physique, but in each case the American soldier is the subject of the photograph.

    What unites these pictures is their location – the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. The embedding process is taking photographers and reporters to this location above all others, and photographers have been prominent in the coverage of US operations there. Balazs Gardi and Tim Hetherington travelled there in 2007, John Moore spent time there in November 2008, producing both stills and a multimedia piece, and Adam Dean and Tyler Hicks have filed stories from an April 2009 embed. (See background to the Hicks’ story here).

    Although the visual skills of these practitioners are not in doubt, the stories they have produced are remarkably similar in both content and approach. US forces are the locus of the narrative and combat scenes are repeatedly pictured. The local community is largely unseen, except for when they encounter the Americans, and never heard. They are rendered as part of an inhospitable environment in which civilians are hard to distinguish from ‘the enemy’.

    The effect of concentrating on one location and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan. The photographers might want to do otherwise but the embedding process is designed to produce this constraint. Its success can be judged by the way these stories effectively structure the visibility of the war in a way that foregrounds competing American military interests.

    How we judge the photographers’ responsibility here is difficult. Logistically, being embedded is the only feasible way to cover some frontline locations. Without it we might not see anything. But the consequence of embedding is the production of a visual landscape that too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory.  This political effect was part of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s critique of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal. (Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance, which I have considered here).

    Picturing the Af-Pak war comprehensively and in context is a major photographic challenge. It cannot be easily disentangled from the politics. We are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention, but there is no simple military solution in Afghanistan that will guarantee security. Yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

    In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues (see John D McHugh’s series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”), and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.

    Photo credit: David Guttenfelder/Associated Press, from WSJ.com Photo Journal, 12-13 May 2009.

    This is a cross-posting with No Caption Needed. It develops thoughts from an earlier post on Afghanistan. Updates after posting are in the comments below.

    RELATED POSTS:

    Thinking Images v.6: Gaith Abul-Ahad’s Taliban photographs, 26 November 2010

    The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan, 17 December 2010

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    Photographic retouching exposed

    The issues surrounding photographic meaning, manipulation and Photoshop have been prominent recently (see my previous posts here and here, with some updates amongst the comments for each).

    Via Fred Ritchin’s After Photography (see his 24 April post) comes news of a Swedish government project Girlpower dealing with sexism in advertising.

    One element is a magazine cover where, step-by-step, you can un-do the manipulation of the model to see how the glamorous cover was produced. You can go through each of the twelve changes that have been made, and at the end click on a red button to see the complete before and after images.

    We know it happens, but in this case, seeing is really believing.

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    Aid images, and the solution offered by local photographers

    Some visual strategies are remarkably persistent, and few more persistent than those employed by humanitarian aid organizations when illustrating their appeals and campaign literature. We documented this in relation to food shortages in Africa as part of the Imaging Famine project.

    You know the pictures without even seeing them – the photographs of mothers and their distressed children, or western aid workers ministering to victims who are passive, pathetic, poor and sick. Over on the duckrabbit blog – a regularly insightful source of photographic critique – there is an interesting breakdown of the Medecins Sans Frontieres photoblog that shows how these representations are alive and well even for one of the best activist organizations.

    As they note, the photographs used by MSF show aid workers who are white and western even though the bulk of humanitarian assistance, even when provided in the name of European organizations, is delivered by local people. The images also suggest that dependency rather than empowerment is the best modus operandi.

    Recently I have been trying to think about photography in ways that shifts our focus from representation to enactment, from the meaning of pictures to the work they do (see ‘War images at work’). From this perspective, even the most common visual representations can have important and unusual effects in certain circumstances.

    This is not entirely the case with the MSF photoblog, and the problems raised by duckrabbit are significant. However, that MSF pursues these visual strategies is not all that surprising. Their purpose is to put MSF at the centre of aid work, show they are making something of a difference, and get viewers to open their pockets to fund that work. Whether we like it or not – and its part of what the social psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect” – when people like us are pictured aiding individuals who are helpless, those pockets open more frequently.

    This is not to overlook the problems of the MSF photoblog as an example of the limitations of humanitarian photography. But it is not meant to offer a full pictorial account of aid, development and Africa. As such, I would put the problem this way: it less about the presence of these stereotypes and more about the absence of alternative visual stories in news from Africa, in particular. When it comes to the photographic production of ‘Africa’, it is largely disaster and humanitarian photography that we see. Sure, we get the exotic nature stories and the romantic travel accounts, but you won’t see many complexities of African culture, politics and society in those glossy narratives either.

    The absence of these alternative stories is often put down to the alleged lack of local and indigenous photographers, and the duckrabbit post makes this point. But I am a bit sceptical about this as the source of the problem. Can we say categorically that local people would be better storytellers? To me that assumption has as many problems as the reliance on the international photographic elite it seeks to replace. Are “local people” a single, homogenous entity with only one voice? Surely they are as diverse, plural and conflicted as our own societies, so which local voices are going to get to tell their stories, and which local voices are we going to pay attention to?

    At about this point I’m going to be misunderstood as seemingly wanting to retain the status quo. Not so. The issue of greater attention to and work for indigenous photographers is an important issue of labour justice and political economy. There are many talented non-European photographers in this world whose work deserves greater play, and initiatives like majorityworld.com are important in redressing the economic imbalances. And nobody could object to more assistance and training for locals to tell their own stories.

    But the idea that their work, simply because they are non-European, offers a fundamentally different and automatically better visual account of the issues and places they cover is as sweeping a generalization as that offered by the stereotypical images that dominate our media. It may be true in some instances, but, for example, having viewed the work of many talented Asian photographers at this years Chobi Mela festival in Bangladesh, I was struck by how familiar were both their subjects and their aesthetic style.

    It is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international”. The Palestinian photojournalists who produced impressive pictures to cover the war in January were in many cases already employed by the big news agencies like AP and Reuters – that’s how they could get their work out so quickly. Are they local, or are they part of the global image economy? They are obviously local to the war zone, but in their professional practice they have to conform to the codes of their global media employer, and these norms condition the pictures that are taken and published.

    We must get to see more work from local photographers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. But we also need better work from European photographers covering those areas. If both local and international photojournalists take the time to engage with the issues rather than just parachute in and out we will all be better off. In the end, though, we should judge them, not on their birthplace or nationality, but on their ability to employ visual strategies in the service of a complex and compelling story.

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    photography

    Photographic truth and Photoshop

    Photography’s anxiety about truth, manipulation and reality has been on show recently. In different ways and from different contexts, people have been asking: “how much Photoshop is too much”?

    From the realm of fashion, French Elle is being celebrated for running a cover story in which the models photographs have not been ‘Photoshopped’ (thereby confirming, as I’ve noted previously, that digital manipulation is the norm in this visual domain).

    From the world of photojournalism, blogs like 1854, PDNPulse and the Online Photographer (with a follow-up here) have been buzzing with the story of the Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen who was excluded from that country’s Picture of the Year competition for excessive colour manipulation of his Haiti story.  Along with two others, Christensen was asked to submit his RAW files to the competition judges who felt that the colour in his photographs had been excessively saturated, and removed his images from the competition as a result. Christensen was subsequently happy to have his files put on the web for comparison and discussion, thereby performing an important service to the photographic community.

    My interest in the case is less in the rights and wrongs of Christensen’s images and more in how we talk about the rights and wrongs of these images. For those who feel the judges were right and Christenson was wrong, the case is relatively simply. Both the judges and the bloggers are in broad agreement. Photography is understood in terms of either art or documentary/photojournalism/reportage, with the latter supposed to be free of manipulation that gets in the way of seeing the world as it really is. You can make changes to digital images that replicate what would have once been with film and paper in the darkroom, but no more. It all seems straightforward with nice clear lines that should not be crossed.

    If only. Framing the debate in these terms relies on a conventional understanding of the history of photography that cannot be sustained. The line between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ has been blurred ever since John Grierson, who coined the term documentary in the 1920s, argued that its purpose was to generate a particular “pattern of thought and feeling” in the viewer. This sense, replicated in all the statements by well-known photojournalists that their function is to bear witness and record the otherwise ignored injustices of modern life, means there is always a particular perspective at the heart of documentary and reportage no matter how often people want to defend it in terms of simple realism.

    There are also some more mundane reasons why the lines of judgment are not so clear-cut. As much as those who take issue with Christensen think that the RAW files are “pretty eloquent all by themselves,” are these files really like film negatives? Can anyone actually see a RAW digital file without any post-processing? (Could we actually see a negative without post-processing?).

    All this suggests we are talking about the degree of alteration and post-processing that is deemed acceptable rather than either the absence or presence of manipulation. This is confirmed by reading some of the comments in favour of the judges. Mike Johnston summarized the view rather well:

    And of course there’s nothing wrong with Photoshop (or any other image editor), or with darkroom manipulation. But in photojournalism those tools are expected to be used to increase the accuracy and veracity of the photograph to the scene—not decrease it. That seems to be Mr. Christensen’s failure here, not the tools he used. He’s simply made himself a suspect witness by overdoing his manipulations to the point of obvious unreality, subverting realism for cheap effects instead of reporting it with an appropriate modicum of dispassion.

    This argument repeats the familiar terms justifying conventional photojournalism – veracity, witness, realism, dispassion. However, given these terms, allowing for some legitimate manipulation, the idea that one can increase accuracy and veracity – as opposed to simply record it without interference – undercuts the logic of the starting point.

    Similarly, the Danish competition judges accept editing in Photoshop, thought some of Christensen’s images were satisfactory, but deemed most of them “too extreme.” So the issue is not whether you can manipulate or not, but how far one can go. The rules of the competition seek to make these limits clear:

    Photos submitted to Picture of The Year must be a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure. You may post-process the images electronically in accordance with good practice. That is cropping, burning, dodging, converting to black and white as well as normal exposure and color correction, which preserves the image’s original expression. The Judges and exhibition committee reserve the right to see the original raw image files, raw tape, negatives and/or slides. In cases of doubt, the photographer can be pulled out of competition.

    So, although you have to have “a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure,” even if you exposed the multi-coloured world in colour you can convert it to black and white. While Christensen was criticized for over-saturating his colours, he would have been in the clear had he simply, and completely, de-saturated them. The excessive addition of colour is a problem, but the total subtraction of colour is permitted. Is that clear?

    Again, my interest is not in the rights and wrongs of the case, but, rather, the terms of the debate about what is right and wrong. We most definitely need photographs (including black and white pictures) we can use as documents, but we cannot justify documentary status through conventional understandings based on a mythical understanding of photography’s history and a supposedly secure analogue past. Photojournalism, as I’ve written elsewhere, has to learn to live with tensions and contradictions as it searches for a better foundation in our digital world.

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    Afghanistan: Limits of the Photographic Landscape

    The visualization of the war against the Taliban has stuck closely to the conventional understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, photojournalism has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an ‘elusive’ enemy.

    Starting with stories like Ron Haviv’s Road to Kabul, and evident in the contributions to the Battlespace project, the close-up portrayal of daily fighting necessarily overlooks the larger political issues. The constraints of being an embedded photographer are clear from the way different practitioners (including Balazs Gardi, Tim Hetherington and John Moore) have all travelled to hotspots like the Korengal Valley to cover American troops in action. Although their visual skills are not in doubt, the effect of photographers like this concentrating on one issue and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan.

    We cannot turn the clock back to 2001, but if we could, pursuing the political and legal strategies then advocated in response to the 9/11 attacks would have been better. Now, though, we are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention in Afghanistan. Dealing with that requires reading the conflict more accurately, so that we can understand that the Taliban were never defeated, the fixation on Iraq distorted policy, and that there is no simple military solution in either Afghanistan or the Pakistan border region that will offer security.

    Photojournalism is, of course, not solely responsible for this, even if the visual landscape it offers us too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory. (This political effect was part of Broomberg and Chanarin’s critique of Hetherington’s World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal – Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance; I considered this debate here). Sometimes, though, the stories that emerge from embedded photographers do reveal the futility of the fighting – John D McHugh’s powerful multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”, is visual evidence for this claim.

    Recent videos of public floggings by the Taliban in Pakistan (see the Channel 4 News report from 24 March below, which begins with a beating the Taliban were happy to have filmed) confirm why anyone interested in human rights wants to see fundamentalists opposed (though see the good questions raised about them here).

    Equally, the story of the 11-year old girls in the must-see New York Times multimedia report “Class Dismissed in the Swat Valley” is a visual indictment. What these demands can’t do is prescribe the best way forward to an inclusive and non-violent future. The Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy is an overdue recognition of the region’s problems, but its planned military tactics are likely to perpetuate the problem. Confronting the “neo-Taliban” – the new generation of Pakistani, Afghan, al-Qaeda and Kashmiri fighters who follow a jihadist ideology – with drone attacks that only add to the civilian death toll will be counterproductive. And, yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

    In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues, and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.

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    War images at work

    Photojournalism’s representation of war is often standardized, familiar, even clichéd. Regardless of the time or place it can seem like we have seen it before, regularly and repeatedly. But if we always approach the problem from the same vantage point – asking how the event is represented – we run the risk of missing vital dimensions and important effects of the image, as this picture from Nepal demonstrates.

    This passenger was among 36 killed when the Maoists bombed a bus in Madi, Chitwan. Photo by Kumar Shrestha

    This picture comes from that country’s decade-long civil war which ended in November 2006. The passenger was among 36 killed when Maoists bombed a bus near Madi in June 2005. As one of the 15,000 people who died in this period, he was an unknown statistic in what was, for the rest of the world, a forgotten conflict, an event that had disappeared from the radar even before it could be remembered.

    We could read this image, which is being recirculated through a book launched at this year’s biennial Chobi Mela festival of photography, as the making visible of something we should have known about. Or it could be another testament to lives lost, marked by hands of death. Or we could see it as a further instance of the indirect marking of mass death, preserving dignity while recording loss. While such accounts provide understanding, they do not draw our attention to the larger significance of this image. If we shift our focus from representation to enactment, from meaning to work, we can appreciate this photograph for its vitality in the present rather than merely its record of the past.

    As one of the 179 photographs by 80 photographers selected from the more than 2,000 submitted for the exhibition “A People War: Images of the Nepal Conflict 1996-2006,” this picture toured Nepal throughout 2008. As a book and exhibition, “A People War” contains what individually might be regarded as unremarkable images in the global archive of war photography. Its catalogue of uniformed guerrillas, grieving widows, destroyed infrastructure, damaged individuals and mobilizing soldiers could, by themselves, have been drawn from any number of conflicts. Despite the editors desire to forgo showing unvarnished violence (hence the photograph of the bomb victim’s hand), there are pictures that shock, especially those that record the lynching of a teacher and journalist.

    If, however, we view the images collectively and ask ourselves what work they are doing through the book and the exhibition, then they become something quite remarkable. Being shown within a year of the war’s end, this collection is an act of raw experience, a detailed encounter with what the conflict’s participants and victims have suffered so recently. Nepalese responded to this act in large numbers, with more than 350,000 people queuing to see it in 30 towns across the country – as in this picture from Surkhet. With thousands of free copies of the book distributed to public and school libraries across the countries, and a Nepali language budget edition made available for widespread sale, the organizers have ensured the photographs the broadest circulation possible.

    Surkhet - local crowds wait to enter the exhibition

    People did not just look at the pictures. They engaged with the photographs. Mothers looked for evidence of missing family members, soldiers faced the consequences of their actions, and children witnessed what the future could be like if politics did not triumph over violence. To this end, the exhibition is also a warning to a fragile country. It functions as a statement in defense of the new federal republic, using the photographs to speak of a time to come, declaring that even if that future is not yet capable of being pictured, Nepalese know only too well what it could look like.

    Photographs by Kumar Shrestha and Kirin Krishna Shrestha/nepa-laya.

    This is a cross-posting with No Caption Needed.

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    Photographic truth and manipulation

    We know photographs can be false yet we want them to be true. Indeed, the desire for photographic veracity has persisted, perhaps even intensified, even as knowledge about image manipulation becomes more widespread.

    Reflecting on the Oscar ceremonies, MediaGuardian has documented the widespread use of Photoshop to enhance celebrity photographs in fashion and gossip magazines. Every cover, says one media insider, has been altered to some degree, with some of these changes exposed in the “Photoshop Hall of Shame” and “Photoshop Disasters”. So common is the practice that when an October 2008 Newsweek cover of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not airbrushed, conservative anchors on Fox television complained that this amounted to liberal bias. (Fox knew about the political power of such changes because it had earlier manipulated the photos of two New York Times journalists it wanted to discredit).

    Despite being widespread, digital manipulation provokes anxiety and unease, especially when news photographs are involved. The scandals surrounding Brian Walski’s 2003 photos from Iraq and Adnan Hajj’s 2006 pictures from Lebanon led to both men being fired from their jobs, and the governments of Iran and the US have been criticized when they released altered military images of missiles and a general.

    What is commonplace in one visual domain (fashion) is regarded as taboo in another (news). Yet both realms are still regulated by a desire for photographs to be accurate and authentic documents. The persistence and power of this desire despite the long history of photographic manipulation (chemical and digital) is something that needs explanation.

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    Death of photography?

    The death of photography is something that is often proclaimed.

    Of course, such an announcement is problematic because what is this thing called “photography”? It is a concept so broad, encompassing everything from the art image to the advertising campaign, from the hard-hitting news photo to the long-term documentary project, that any declaration of its demise has to be premature. 

    Announcing the death of photography is often a coded way of saying that the still picture is no longer important. Yet this declaration to seems more than little premature. In the last year, some 250 billion digital photographs were produced. This number is growing rapidly, so that by 2010 (next year) some 500 billion digital photographs will be made globally. A quick glance at the video from the Chobi Mela opening (below) shows how digital cameras are prominent across the world. 

    Even this sign of health is taken by some to indicate another likely death — that of the professional photographer at the hands of the amateur or citizen photographer. That claim, too, seems premature. A quick glance across any newsstand, or a short time spent surfing the web, will demonstrate that the place of the professional, skilled photographer — while undoubtedly under all sorts of pressure — is nonetheless still very prominent. Professional photographers have a particular responsibility. Our world is mediated visually. We — whether picture makers or image consumers — come to understand our lives in context through visual representations. That visual understanding then establishes the possibility for thinking about politics, citizenship, rights and action. 

    In the global image economy some things are included and many things are excluded. The relations of pictorial power are not equal. The great virtue of Chobi Mela over the years, and the great impact of Drik since its inception, has been to make these questions of inclusion and exclusion — and how these inclusions and exclusions are politically important — unavoidable for all who take photography seriously. 

    Photography is very much alive, very important, but also undergoing great transformations. It is changing rapidly in nature, technology and purpose and we need to understand how these changes will play out politically. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to put our faith in photography as an objective record of the world out there, so how can we use images to document the all-too-common injustices of the present global order? The mainstream media produces and supports one set of global visions, but how can photographers challenge these visual accounts that so often lack both context and complexity? Chobi Mela’s many exhibitions are one way of addressing these questions. 

    [My remarks at the opening ceremony for Chobi Mela V, Dhaka, 30 January 2009]

     
    Chobi Mela V opening from David Campbell on Vimeo.