Categories
photography

Statement on survey methodology in The State of News Photography study

 

State of News Photography

Joint statement from Adrian Hadland, David Campbell, and Paul Lambert:

As the authors of the The State of News Photography report – published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, in association with the World Press Photo Foundation – we would like to respond to criticisms made by Ken Kobre in his short LinkedIn post dated 10 October.

Kobre is a significant voice in the photojournalism community, but our respect for his right to offer critical commentary cannot obscure the fact that the central point of his post is seriously flawed.

The survey research methodology behind the report has been openly and transparently stated, both in the report itself [see page 13, and the detailed discussion in Appendix 1, pp. 71-73] and in the press statements announcing the report’s release.

The report is based on an online survey of the 5,158 professional photographers who entered the 2015 World Press Photo Contest. A total of 1,556 photographers from more than 100 countries completed the 63-question survey. While the World Press Photo Contest is run by the World Press Photo Foundation, which is based in the Netherlands, the Contest has a global reach and survey respondents came from around the world.

As researchers we are the first to acknowledge that “all surveys have aspects that weaken their purview and affect the degree to which inferences can be drawn or conclusions taken.” However, because of the robust methodology and analytical techniques employed, we are confident that “with certain caveats, the survey results can reasonably be expected to be representative of the population of professional photojournalists (The State of News Photography, p. 71).”

The serious flaw in Kobre’s criticism comes from the way it calls attention to the raw numbers of respondents from certain countries, especially the US, claiming these are too low to be meaningful, without paying attention to the statistical methods through which those numbers are analysed. As our statistical expert, Paul Lambert, writes below, “although it seems counter-intuitive, there is no important relationship between the total size of the underlying population, and the size of a sample that would provide representative data about it.”

We cannot definitively judge whether all media coverage on our study has been fair. The journalists that Kobre deems to have ‘failed reporting 101’ can answer for themselves. However, it seems to us the TIME Lightbox article mentioned at the beginning of Kobre’s post offers an accurate statement of the survey behind our study.

What we can unquestionably confirm is that our study provides a meaningful, evidence-based contribution to our knowledge in the area. Indeed, we believe it to be the first attempt to provide some global data on the lives and livelihoods of professional photojournalists, within the parameters we have clearly stated. For too long our understanding of the challenges facing photojournalism has been anecdotally based, and we wanted to offer a corrective to that weak foundation. Rather than seeking to delegitimise The State of News Photography through untrained opinions about survey methodology, it would be good to hear critics propose concrete ways to enhance our understanding of the photojournalism community, because other studies that sampled other populations to provide an even richer account would be very welcome.

 

Detailed methodological response from Paul Lambert (Ph.D in Applied Statistics, head of the research group on Social Surveys and Social Statistics, and Professor of Sociology, Stirling University, UK):

It is important to differentiate between the size of the sample and whether the sample is ‘biased’.  Sample researchers would always prefer, ideally, as large a sample as possible, but the tradition of ‘power analysis’ in statistical research demonstrates that fairly small sample sizes can still do a very good job of providing accurate information about a much larger population. (In a technical sense, they can be analysed in such a way that it is relatively unlikely that either ‘type I’ or ‘type II’ errors will be made – that is, neither ‘false positive’ results that wrongly presume a relationship that does not exist in the underlying population; nor ‘false negative’ results that wrongly fail to identify a relationship that does exist in the underlying population). Additionally, although it seems counter-intuitive, there is no important relationship between the total size of the underlying population, and the size of a sample that would provide representative data about it. 

A well-known example of inference from moderately small sample surveys is when professional opinion polls use samples typically of between 500 and 2,000 thousand respondents to make inferences about attitudes amongst national level populations. Our sample size of over 1,500 is certainly of a magnitude that inference from it to populations of photographers (or to important groups within that population) is plausible.

Sample bias is a different issue. This refers primarily to whether non-response patterns are such that they skew any results from the sample away from the patterns for the population which it is hoped will be represented. All voluntary surveys exhibit some non-response, although if the reasons for non-response are statistically random then this will not in fact introduce bias in the data. Accordingly, sample surveys when they are designed will try to include features that minimise the chances of non-random non-response (steps which we took during the survey design phase).

We do believe nevertheless that our survey will have some bias in its response patterns, as again is normal with professional social survey research projects. Across the social science sector it is generally accepted that useful information can still be obtained from samples with some level of bias, so long as researchers (a) report explicitly on the methods that they used, and (b) pursue analytical methods and report upon their results in ways that should minimise the impact of bias. As is standard practice, we tried to do both in the report.

For instance, we explained the two layers of potential response bias in our sample: first, whether or not questionnaire respondents were a biased sample of World Press Photo Contest entrants, which we suspect is a minimal problem; second, whether or not data about the World Press Photo Contest entrants could reasonably be treated as evidence about the wider population of photojournalists. We believe that the World Press Photo Contest-based sample is a reasonable tool for analysis about photographers in general. The concordance of many of the patterns from the survey with evidence from other sources is potential support for this perspective. Additionally, we generally used methods of analysis that emphasised patterns of relationships such as correlations within the data. Generally speaking, a correlation or association pattern can be expected to be more robust to any bias.

There is a great deal of methodological research into the relative merits of social survey evidence. Most qualified social scientists accept that voluntary questionnaire surveys are an important source of research evidence and are aware of the possible limitations of inferences from survey datasets. We do not claim that our research provides irrefutable evidence, but we do believe that its quality is sufficient to provide a meaningful contribution to the evidence base.

Categories
media economy multimedia photography

Media disruption (1): The primacy of the screen and mobile

What are the key features of the media economy in 2015? And how do those features effect the work of visual storytellers?

Two years on from the publication of Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism, I want to update – in a series of articles – some of the central findings of that research. That report was the summation of the World Press Photo Multimedia Research Project, which was designed to review issues around, and map the global emergence of, multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism.

The research examined the transformation of the media economy so we could better understand how information is being produced, published, consumed, and funded. This is something I have been writing about since my five-part series on the revolutions in the media economy posted in 2009, and three posts on the new media landscape in 2011.

I believe understanding the nature and scale of the on-going disruption in the media economy is essential for anyone involved in documentary, news and non-fiction narratives. While I would argue the analysis in Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism still holds, some things are now even more significant.

First, the primacy of the screen and the rise of mobile.

World_media_consumption
[Source: Screen Fiends]

This year, for the first time, individuals around the world will spend more time online than with any other media platform. There are regional variations, some of this activity will take place concurrently, and given the rise of internet streaming the boundary between online and television is blurred. We have to recognise that internet access is unequally distributed (note the absence of Africa, where only one-quarter of the population use the internet, from the above data). But what is indisputable is that the screen has become the primary access point globally for information and entertainment.

Mobile-phone-screen-evolution
[Source: This Isn’t Happiness]

The primacy of the screen is closely tied to the growth in mobile devices. The 2 billion iOS and Android devices currently in use will soon grow to 3 billion, easily surpassing the 1.6 billion PC’s in existence. Mobile phone ownership has grown dramatically in all the world’s regions.

The smartphone – a touchscreen device with internet access – is becoming supreme. Smartphone ownership in the US has grown from 35% of adults in 2011 to 64% in 2014, and nearly three-quarters of American teenagers have smartphones. In the UK it is up from 30% in 2010 to 66% in 2014, and the level of smartphone penetration is similar in Western Europe. Global smartphone penetration shows wide regional variations, although growth is universal.

Times-and-screens
[Source: Paul Adams, Why ‘mobile first’ may already be outdated, Inside Intercom]

Mobile devices are not really mobile, at least in the conventional view that they are mostly glanced at when on the move. Yes, touchscreen devices – tablets and smartphones – are handheld and used outside the home, but two-thirds of people use them in both the home and beyond. In fact, they have become the way most of us regularly access the internet, accounting for nearly 60% of the time spent online in the UK.

Rather than regarding mobile devices as just a scaled down version of the internet, we should appreciate that each device is an entire internet platform that exceeds the browser version of the web available on PC’s. The smartphone is itself a social platform where apps are networked through contacts, images and notifications. And we know it has eaten the stand-alone camera, with the number of iPhones and Android devices exceeding the total of Japanese cameras ever sold.

This means “mobile” is the wrong frame of reference – it is not about the status of small devices, but the way in which information is produced, published and consumed via the screen. Indeed, the size of device is secondary. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, regards televisions as “just glass-panelled displays connected to the internet” rather than unique devices.

It has become a cultural cliche that smartphones are “ruining our lives” by making us distracted, isolated and stupid (humorously presented in these 27 cartoons). The ever growing number of US users have a different view, however, with the vast majority seeing them as “freeing, connecting, helpful.” This is part of their overwhelmingly positive view of the internet’s impact on society and their lives, with at least three-quarters saying it has been a good thing that improves their ability to learn things and be better informed. Nor do they complain of “information overload” – a majority of internet users (72%) enjoy having so much information at their fingertips, while just 26% find it overwhelming.

All this has important implications for thinking about how information is structured and stories presented. The audience is engaged, and “mobile” can no longer be a subset of digital experience. While some offerings will be for those with little time while in transit, overall the mobile experience for readers and viewers needs to be comprehensive as it might be the only touchpoint between you and your audience. This is especially so given the willingness of users to access immersive, long-form stories via their small screens – as in the case of serious 6,000 word BuzzFeed report that had half its views on mobile with people reading for 12-25 minutes.

People are consuming more media, and doing it principally through screens of various sizes connected to the internet. Other platforms like print will persist, but in new and more limited ways. This is the media infrastructure producers need to know and work with.

Next in this series…how the audience consumes news in the digital space

Categories
photography politics

Photojournalism, advocacy and change

Marcus_Bleasdale_The_Unravelling_Human_Rights_Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

Categories
photography

Why does manipulation matter?

Line in the sand

Does the manipulation of news and documentary photographs matter, and how should we talk about this issue?

The discussion about the number of images disqualified for manipulation in the 2015 World Press Photo contest has been intense, and the debate will be ongoing. But I’ve now left the Secretary’s seat for this year and have returned to civilian life as an independent writer. As Secretary I had enough to say on the specifics of the contest issue last week, and those contributions are best summarised in this podcast and its associated links.

Now it is time to reflect personally on why manipulation matters. I’ve written a lot about manipulation over the years, but not really addressed up front why it matters. In many respects the reasons for being concerned about manipulation, and the way those reasons are articulated, have not been at the forefront of the recent controversy either.[1. I find this particularly fascinating because of my commitment to an ethos of criticism best articulated by Michel Foucault when he wrote that “practicing criticism is about making facile gestures difficult.“] To keep the big picture in mind, so to speak, we need to focus on the reason and how it is justified.

The first thing to observe is that the question of possible manipulation is far from exhausted by the focus on processing digital image files (though that priority makes perfect sense for a debate ignited by a photo contest). At almost every stage in the photographic process from capture, production, to the publication and circulation of photographic images contains the potential for manipulation. The mere fact of going to place A rather than place B to produce an image involves a choice that might represent reality in a partial manner. How travel to a photographic location was enabled and funded raises a series of questions. Once on location, the composition and framing of scenes necessarily involves choices that shape representations. The editing, selection, tagging, and captioning of images for potential publication adds more layers of decision. Which images are then distributed to media clients for purchase, and how those clients present, sequence and contextualise those images, is another realm of creative choice that shapes the representation of events and issues. As David Levi Strauss has observed, “the truth is that every photograph or digital image is manipulated, aesthetically and politically, when it is made and when it is distributed.”

I agree with Levi-Strauss here, especially as I once wrote that we should regard all photography as staged. That was a deliberate provocation to try and break away from the exhausted, incoherent and unsustainable position that photography could be objective and true, which is a commitment still so strong we see traces of it every time an image’s status is questioned.[2. There’s a lot that needs saying about the notion of objectivity as commonly used in relation to photography, something that will have to draw on the 500 page magnum opus on the topic, Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison’s Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007), which details the surprising cultural history of this supposedly scientific concept.] Given its manner of production and distribution, all photography is unavoidably and inherently a construction, an interpretation, a claim or a statement. As a result, I don’t see the concern about manipulation in terms of defending truth or securing objectivity, because nobody has ever been able to do that. If we knew what was irresistibly true and objective in any given situation, there would be no need for any debate or questions – we would just acquiesce to the obvious.

The constructed nature of photography is even more of a fact in the digital age. In many ways, while the digitisation of photography has been understood as transformative, I don’t think we have full appreciated quite how radical the change has been. We have conventionally thought of photography as a practice that makes images directly. This is largely the case with analogue processes, which produce observable or latent images on film or other media. In this context, the camera is understood as a picture-making device.

In the digital era, we still think of the camera of a picture-making device, but this needs to change. In the digital era, we need to understand the camera as a data-collection device, a device which, according to Kevin Connor, is “gathering as much data as you can about the scene, and then later using advanced computational techniques to process that data into the final image. That creates a much more slippery definition of an original, because what is defined at the time of capture is not necessarily a fully formed picture.” With this understanding we need to appreciate much photography has become “computational photography.”[3. Seeing digital photography as essentially computational photography is to adopt a broader definition of computational photography, and take it beyond its more common concern with specific digital processes like HDR.]

This should change much of the language in the manipulation debate because no image exists without processing. Sensors record data. It takes processing to produce the first in-camera file as well as the image on the camera’s LCD screen. That means the idea of “post-” processing is redundant, because there is no “pre-” or original image, to work on. Raw files are not negatives, but data files that are the first step in processing which both allow for and require further processing. This makes all the references to the darkroom, and what famous photographers used to do in those spaces, an anachronistic and irrelevant analogy for the question of manipulation today. These conceptual and technological points underscore the fact concerns about manipulation cannot be expressed in terms of truth and objectivity. What, then, can the concern about manipulation be founded upon?

This is where we need to change the conversation about photography – meaning news photography, photojournalism, documentary or editorial photography, however your want to name these visual accounts of our world. The change involves understanding the integrity of the image in relation to its function, rather than its philosophical status as an object. We need to focus on the process of photography rather than just its products, and consider the issue in terms of what images do rather than what images are.[4. There are many sites in which the purpose and process of photography is not properly highlighted. Elizabeth Edwards makes the compelling case that many exhibitions see the default value of photography as “art” even when presenting documentary images. As she writes, “this implies that photography’s ultimate purpose is aesthetic discernment and expression. But I don’t think that this alone communicates the importance or power of photography.”]

Images can have lots of purposes, and there will be many we want to just entertain or please us. For them, we can have more relaxed standards. However, if we want some pictures to be able to function as documents and evidence, we have to ensure certain things so those pictures can function as documents and evidence. Given that the first question asked of a contentious image is always whether it is faked or somehow changed, it is only by drawing a tight line against even materially small changes that we can underwrite the credibility of such images. We have to be able to show, in a variety of fora, that for the pictures we want to be documents and evidence, material content has not been added or subtracted from the data file captured by the camera and later processed. This is a task for image makers, editors and publishers alike, and it will take time to enhance the integrity of the image through this commitment. No doubt many will break it or bend it in practice, but if there is at least a very low tolerance for even materially small changes, it is feasible to imagine norms changing over time so that the trust of readers and viewers is bolstered.

It is obvious that manipulation is a problem for news images, and the changes are significant, when we see photographs like those of North Korean hovercraft or Iranian missiles cloning objects in order to deceive. It might seem less of an issue to some when the alterations seem to be just tidying up the photographs but not changing their overall meaning, as has been argued in relation the Narciso Contreras’ case. Associated Press severed ties with him when he revealed he removed an object from the bottom of corner of one of his news images. The level of manipulation might have been materially small, but it was nonetheless ethically significant, because AP said he had violated their standards for truth and accuracy. Lewis Bush made a fair observation that AP was defending its business model despite the fact Contreras – who outed himself for an aesthetic change that was not by itself intending to deceive the audience – had in effect revealed the constructed nature of imagery. Lewis argues persuasively Contreras’s revelation runs agains “a common sentiment amongst proponents of photojournalism, that the truth of photography must be continually shored up against the erosive waves of untruth.”

This rhetorical commitment to truth is obvious in many of the comments on the New York Times Lens blog that debated the rules and ethics of photojournalism in the digital age. It is also obvious in the more sophisticated claim that what makes photography unique is the indexical relationship between image and subject. Those who asserted truth in various ways were matched by commenters who expressed their doubts about objectivity by asserting that photography was self-evidently subjective. And there was the featured but anonymous photojournalist, who asked:

What is truth? Photography certainly isn’t. Photography is artifice. We can underexpose and overexpose the same image, neither version is “true” or “untrue” — it is just a different interpretation of the world in front of us.

Claiming photography is just artifice or subjective is very different from what I am arguing here. The notion of artifice can just refer to creativity and expression, but it also means a contrivance designed to deceive or trick, so that is not helpful. Subjectivity is equally problematic. It is a concept that depends on objectivity as its other, the reverse side of the same coin. Logically, if we doubt objectivity we bring down the edifice that includes subjectivity too. Subjectivity is also a concept that leaves the impression everyone has a perspective of equal credibility and value. That might be an appropriate claim for art, but it is not a claim that can advance the understanding of contentious events and issues, where there has to be a struggle in terms of those claims that are better supported by evidence than others.

I have said above that my starting position is that “all photography is unavoidably and inherently a construction, an interpretation, a claim or a statement.” That is the basis on which all I think all understandings of photography must be built, but it is an insufficient basis on which to rest. That is why I think we need to accept that, but then proceed to consider images in terms of what they can do rather than what they are. I think, following Ariella Azoulay, we also need to understand an image as being one statement in a larger regime of statements, so that we dispense with the idea that pictures alone can testify to all they show. Images can be powerful documents and evidence, but they require other statements, other information, to be truly effective.

This is where dealing with the pragmatics of photography (what we want images to do) rather than being bound by false commitments to an untenable philosophical ideal (what we think images are) offers a recasting of the manipulation debate. That might seem like a semantic change to some, but I believe recasting the issues in the terms I have outlined – how do we underwrite the credibility of images we want to function as documents and evidence? – offers a completely different way of understanding manipulation. The return to the mystical foundations of truth have not moved any of this discussion forward because we always founder on the obviously vacuous rocks of objectivity or surrender to the hopelessness of asserting subjectivity. Instead, the reframing in terms of the purpose of image I am detailing here suggests we need to maintain the most vigilant line against material changes to data files that compromise processed images we need as documents or evidence, but we do so in a way consistent with the inherently constructed nature of photography.

Of course, much will be needed in order to develop this argument properly. But one consequence of this reframing is that the integrity of the image cannot be underwritten by commitments to the credibility of digital files alone. Given the many points in the practice of photography which can result in manipulation – according to the broader sense of that term discussed above – the debate needs to bring the manipulation of pixels into the broader realm of verification. If an image is just one statement in a larger and wider regime of statements, then we have to deal with the credibility of that regime as a whole. Verification is a concept getting a lot of attention in journalism more widely, especially but not exclusively because of the rise of user generated content, and photojournalism needs to catch up with these issues (some of which I canvassed in section 9 of the Integrity of the Image report). A digital audit trail is an essential part of a broader commitment to open photographic practices that allow images and stories to be verified, and it is possible that a more developed approach to verification for photojournalism could address some of the broader issues of manipulation that cannot be revealed through digital forensics. That is a topic I will explore in the future.

PS: I meant to add this at the time of posting, but John Macpherson’s thoughtful comment below reminded me to include this as an update – I’m not going to debate here anything about the World Press Photo contest experience or rules. As I say at the start of this article, I’m back in civilian life as an independent writer, and interested here in the conceptual issues about how, when and why talking about manipulation matters with regard to images we want to function as documents and evidence in the media economy.

NOTES

Categories
photography

The integrity of the image: Global practices and standards concerning the manipulation of photographs

Manipulation

I am directing a research project on “The Integrity of the Image” for World Press Photo. We trailed this during the sessions on manipulation at the Awards Days in April, and the terms of reference have now been finalised.

AIM

To undertake research in order to compile as comprehensive a map as possible of the current practices and accepted standards relating to the manipulation of still images in photojournalism and documentary photography world-wide, focusing predominantly on the post-processing of these images. This research will be published so as to encourage debate on the integrity of the image, and inform World Press Photo about issues relating to manipulation relevant to its annual contest.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

  1. What forms of manipulation are relevant to the integrity of the image? In addition to post-processing of negatives, RAW files or unprocessed JPEGs, it could also includes the framing, cropping, selection, captioning and contextualisation of images, among other issues. Should these dimensions also be considered and, if so, how?
  2. Is manipulation generally a growing problem? If so, how and why?
  3. Is post-processing itself a problem, or is post-processing a problem only when certain levels of changes are made? If so, how are the legitimate levels known or identified?
  4. What ethical guidelines and protocols relevant to the integrity of the image are followed by media organisations in different countries?
  5. What ethical guidelines relevant to the integrity of the image are promoted by professional media associations in different countries?
  6. Are there national, regional and cultural differences in the ethical guidelines, accepted standards, and current practices relevant to the integrity of the image? Are there any points of consensus on manipulation regardless of geographical or cultural differences?
  7. Are there different norms with regard to manipulation in different image genres? Are the norms for news and documentary the same as those for nature, sports, and portraits (staged and observed), or are their differences?
  8. What are the most effective means for the detection of manipulation?
  9. What sanctions exist with the media industry after manipulation is detected?
  10. What rules exist within major international photo contests relating to the integrity of the image?

METHODOLOGY

The primary research will include interviews with directors of photography, senior photo editors and relevant media executives at quality news organisations and international wire services; interviews with directors and/or relevant staff at photography agencies; interviews with directors and/or relevant staff at national media and photojournalism associations; interviews with digital forensics experts; interviews with camera manufacturers’ sensor/software experts; and the collection of codes of ethics relating to the integrity of the image from media organisations and professional associations world-wide. The secondary research includes online and library research for existing scholarship on ethical debates relevant to the integrity of the image.

GEOGRAPHIC SCOPE

The research will be as global as is practically possible, and will aim to interview people and examine documents from at least nineteen countries: United States, China, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, India, France, Russia, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Denmark, Mexico, Argentina, Japan, and Indonesia.

We will present the findings in October/November this year. I would welcome any feedback on the project’s aim, questions and scope. And I would very much welcome any contributions of ideas or references.

Photo credit: Unidentified American artist (Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders), ca. 1930, as exhibited in  Faking It: 150 years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop.

Categories
Featured photography

What are the current standards relating to the manipulation of photographs? A discussion at the World Press Photo Awards Days 2014

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 11.38.11

The manipulation of images poses a challenge for the credibility of photojournalism that seeks to document events and issues. In my capacity as Secretary to the World Press Photo contest jury, I oversaw new procedures relating to the contest this year. At the Awards Days in Amsterdam last week we organised a public discussion to make people aware of what these new procedures involved and the effect they had on this year’s contest.

In this post I want to outline this year’s contest experience, show some examples of alterations to images that led them to being ineligible for the final round of the contest, make available the discussion from the public panel held on 25 April, and indicate where we go from here on this important issue.

The 2014 Contest experience

This year’s contest saw new procedures with regards to manipulation. World Press Photo had all entries being considered for prizes in the later stages of judging examined by an independent digital photography expert before the jury made their final decisions. A total of 120 photographers were contacted in order to obtain their unprocessed files to compare to each contest entry.

To be eligible for prizes, entries must be valid according to the contest rules. The relevant rules states:

The content of an image must not have been altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry are allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards…

The expert carried out a case-by-case analysis of the level of post-processing in the files that were entered in the contest by comparing them with the unprocessed files. The jury received a full briefing from the expert on all the entries being considered for prizes in the last round before finals. This was followed by a thorough discussion.

In applying the contest rules, the jury affirmed the content of an image must not be altered. This means no significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning. The jury based their decision on the outcome (whether significant material had been added or removed) irrespective of the technique (cloning or toning) used. This judgement was applied in the same way to each entry in each category. The result was that 8% of the images eligible for the finals were disqualified – 8 stories and 2 singles, entered in the Nature, Sports, People, Spot News and Contemporary Issues categories.

Each of the photographers whose work was ruled ineligible received a confidential letter detailing the specific frames and precise problems. Photographers who were asked for unprocessed files, but did not win an award, can safely assume in the absence of a confidential letter from World Press Photo that there were no issues with their images relating to manipulation.

While the actual examples of ineligible images will not be published, the independent digital photography expert (Eduard de Kam) prepared some examples to demonstrate what the 2014 jury considered to be problematic. (I discuss these examples at approximately 11:00 in the audio recording below). This gallery [updated 13 May 2014] contains three sets four sets of images, each time showing an original image followed by two altered examples, where either cloning or toning has materially changed the picture. These examples demonstrate the sometimes minor alterations that led to images being ruled ineligible from this year’s final round of judging. In order to examine the changes, please see the full size versions of these examples [also updated] on this page.

Awards Days public discussion

Public panel on current practices and accepted standards in manipulation - World Press Photo Awards Days 25 April 2014

The public panel last week began the discussion of manipulation in relation to the annual contest The past two jury chairs (Santiago Lyon and Gary Knight) discussed issues arising from the last two contests, from the controversy surrounding Paul Hansen’s 2012 winner (an image that was not “faked” and would have been eligible to win this year) to this year’s new procedures. We recorded the event – introduced by Barbara Bufkens and chaired by Olivier Laurent – and you can listen here to the one hour panel discussion and the half hour question and answer session here:

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We were rightly called out for the lack of gender diversity on this panel. I can only speak about the panel I helped organise, but we should have offered a wider range of speakers. The previous day we had a meeting at which senior women from the industry – Daphne Angles (New York Times), Evelien Kunst (Noor), Sarah Leen (National Geographic) and Maria Mann (EPA) – contributed to a rich discussion on manipulation that will guide future research on this topic, and we should have had their voices on the public panel too. If we had been able to draw on the diversity that characterised this year’s juries – which had 12 men and 9 women from 12 different nationalities – we would also have benefited. However, the Awards Days panels were comprised of jury members and others who made their own way to Amsterdam for the event, as we were not in a position to bring specific contributors to the city for this discussion.

The panel’s discussion was nonetheless wide-ranging, as you will appreciate if you have the time to listen to the full recording. The first half hour deals with the issue of manipulation in the context of the last two World Press Photo contests, where the emphasis was on how the problematic alterations photographers made to their pictures did nothing to enhance or improve those images.

After that the discussion broadens out to a more general debate, considering the full range of things that can be considered under the umbrella term of “manipulation.” I think it is fair to say none of the panelists felt absolute, universal standards were either possible or desirable. Beyond the specific context of the photo contest, none of them favoured the creation or imposition of rules across the globe. Above all else, the panelists favoured the idea of an on-going discussion that would have diverse inputs and be committed to transparency in order to foster the integrity of the image for photojournalism and documentary photography.

Where do we go from here?

We need a better sense of these current practices and standards around the world relating to manipulation. It seems clear that different organisations in different countries operate different and varying standards. They also use different means to identify and respond to perceived manipulation.

To get this better sense I am directing a new research project for the World Press Photo Academy over the next few months that is designed to map how different parts of the photojournalism industry identifies and deals with image manipulation. We are working on the terms of reference for the research now and will have more details in the next couple of weeks.

It is very important to be clear what we are not proposing with this research. We are not proposing to develop and impose a strict code or designated rules that apply in all circumstances and all places to all parts of the media. Instead, we will listen to and map how various participants in the global image economy deal with the question of manipulation. We will be seeking input from any interested parties and publishing the information we find in an open way so as to further the debate about manipulation. This discussion could then feed into further refinements of the contest procedures in coming years, as well as contribute to what should be an on-going, industry-wide discussion. By definition this research will involve a diverse range of global inputs.

Conclusion

Speaking personally, I think this is an interesting moment and great opportunity for thinking about the purpose of photojournalism and documentary photography. I was struck in the public panel discussion how participants spoke more often in terms of credibility and integrity than objectivity and truth. I think this is a good sign that the conversation about photography is changing. As I said in the discussion, if we can shift the grounds of the debate so that we recognise all photography is an interpretation and representation, we can think about the issues of manipulation in terms of their impact on what we want certain images to do, the work they perform for us, and the effects we desire them to have. To my mind that would be a much more productive discussion.

Photo credits: Faked Iranian missile test photo, via Fourandsix.com; Gallery of manipulation examples prepared by Eduard de Kam for World Press Photo; Awards Day public panel photo, copyright Bas de Meijer

Categories
media economy photography

World Press Photo 2014 contest: Reflections from the Secretary’s seat

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I’ve been in Amsterdam for fourteen long days working with many others on the intense process that judges the winners for the World Press Photo 2014 contest (which includes the award of the World Press Photo of the Year 2013).

This was my first year working as Secretary to the contest jury, though it was the second year I have witnessed the judging. Last year I was present for about two-thirds of the time, learning from my predecessor about the Secretary’s responsibilities. Unlike other jury members, the Secretary does not participate in debates or vote on photographs in any of the rounds. The Secretary is tasked with ensuring fairness in the process and is responsible for all procedural matters relating to the conduct of the judging, which means applying the written rules to ensure the jury can reach the best possible outcome. Looking back on the last two weeks I’m in no doubt we ran a judging process that treated all contestants and jurors equally and fairly.

I’ve had a long association on and off with World Press Photo, having presented the 2005 Sem Presser Lecture and directed the Multimedia Research Project in 2012-13. Up until the time I was employed by World Press Photo for the research project I occasionally wrote here about debates involving their procedures and the prizes awarded. When I was directing the research project I decided I could no longer do that. While the Secretary is not an employee of World Press Photo, I still maintain the position that it is not appropriate for me to comment one or another on winning photographs. I leave that for the time being to others, and you can see Martijn Kleppe’s independently curated list of commentary for most of those debates.

What I want to do here, therefore, is detail how the judging process operates so that the jurors can reach their decision. I am presenting some detailed information for others to debate if they so wish, but will not be debating these points directly myself. World Press Photo keeps its procedures under review and I will be contributing to those internal discussions. I am writing this because after two years of having an insider’s view, I feel that those on the outside will benefit from knowing more about the stages of what is a long and complex process. Sometimes I get the sense that without knowing what happens at various stages, people on the outside view the jury process as something akin to the cardinals electing a pope – an opaque process, in which deals are done and favours called in, that culminates mysteriously in the release of white smoke to signal a conclusion.

I’m sure there will be many who continue to hold that view even if they read this, but I feel it is my responsibility to the nineteen jurors who gave their time and energy to the process this year – without payment – to lay out how they worked. All the jurors and the Secretary are bound by a signed commitment to confidentiality, meaning we are unable to discuss what individual jurors do or do not say, and we are unable to discuss which specific images went out and why. This cardinal rule is designed to create an environment of openness and trust within the jury room amongst the jurors, so they can speak critically and freely in the knowledge their contributions will not be misrepresented later. This of course complicates the desire to be transparent about all aspects of the debates. Other competitions operate in different ways, with, for example, Picture of the Year International running live webcasts of its judges at work. While that seems to be the model of openness, I have heard from former PoYI judges it has the potential to constrain judges in speaking freely because of the concern that those up for awards might be watching. Which approach is superior is for others to debate, but there are good arguments on both sides, and as a result I can only discuss how the procedures of the World Press Photo contest work.

I know also there are a number of people who doubt the value of contests in principle, and that can be a valid view point. World Press Photo has been judging professionals annually for nearly sixty years and retains considerable respect and status within the international photographic community. While I am Secretary I want people who question the contest to do so from as informed a position as possible. As a result, this will necessarily be a long post, quite dry in large part. I will be covering:

  • data on entries
  • jury structure and principles
  • the first and second week of judging
  • conflict of interest procedures
  • manipulation and processing issues

I hope those wanting to continue the debate will take the time to read it closely, because a good critique depends on some knowledge of what you are talking about.

Data on entries

This year the contest received 98,671 images from 5,754 photographers with 132 nationalities. Photographers enter their images in one of nine categories

Data on the national breakdown of entries is interesting. If we consider all countries from which 100 or more photographers entered we get this list of the proportion of entry nationalities:

USA 10%

China 9.4%

Italy 8%

Spain 4.4%

UK 4.3%

Germany 4%

India 3.6%

France 3.4%

Russia 3.1%

Poland 3%

Brazil 2.8%

Netherlands 2.8%

Iran 2.3%

That means entrants from thirteen countries constitute 61% of the total number of entries, and those from 119 countries make up the remaining 39% (with Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Indonesia and Mexico prominent amongst those). We would have to look at other years to know whether this national breakdown was either typical or anomalous. It is worth noting that 61% of this year entries came from freelancers who work professionally, with 39% from directly employed professionals. Male photographers made up 86% of entrants, and 14% were female.

The jury structure and principles

In the first round their are specialised juries – News and Documentary, Nature, Sports and Portraits. – that consider their respective categories. You can see who was on each specialised jury here. News and Documentary is the largest specialised jury, with five voting members, because it considers the bulk of the entries – 68,023 photographs this year. The other juries have three voting members. A great deal of effort goes into having a diverse group of jurors. There were nineteen judges from more than a dozen nationalities, though judging always takes place in English.

The juries operate with three general principles:

  1. Over the two weeks juries are, in two stages, editing a large body of work down to smaller numbers in order to award prizes to singles and stories in each category.
  2. The jury process is a form of peer review, where people from the industry and wider photographic community make the judgements.
  3. The images are presented anonymously, without any credit identifying the names of photographer, agency or publication. Jurors are prohibited from mentioning any names if they recognised images and they are prohibited from speculating on names if they are unsure, and this prohibition applies both inside and outside the jury room. As it is not uncommon for different photographers to independently submit images from the same event or place, event those who think they recognise work are often surprised when the names of winners are revealed after the conclusion of judging. To enable discussion of anonymous entries, each image and story has a code number jurors can refer to if they wish to review something.

The contest has five voting rounds: the first, second, third and fourth round, and the finals. Each jury has a specific role, and each round had different voting requirements and procedures.

The first week of judging

The first stage of the judging process runs for the first week. In each specialised jury, singles or stories are passed to the second round if one member of the jury says ‘yes’ on the basis of seeing the screened image. All images are on the screen for roughly the same brief period of time, and there is no caption information available at this stage.

Because they are dealing with smaller bodies of work, the Nature, Portraits and Sports juries proceed to the second round in the first week. Work passed with a single ‘yes’ is then seen again, and requires at least two votes to proceed. If stories do not proceed, then each jury member can if so desired select a single image to be entered into the same singles category. These specialised juries then bring a minimum of six entries in each category to the second week of judging.

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The second week of judging 

The General Jury conducts the second week of judging. The Chair and Secretary of News and Documentary act as Chair and Secretary of the General Jury. They are joined by the Chairs of Nature, Portraits and Sports, and five new members who did not participate in the first round.

The General Jury begins with the third round. Voting is anonymous, with an electronic voting machine recording each jurors ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only the Secretary sees and calls the results of each vote. It requires at least 6 votes of the 9 voting members for a picture or story to pass to the fourth round. Caption information (provided by the photographers when they enter) is available. It was read as a matter of course for stories and on request for singles. Work voted out can be recalled if proposed and the vote is supported by at least 6 jurors, and work can be moved to another category if proposed and supported by the same number of jurors.

In the fourth round, voting is also anonymous and conducted electronically. The aim of the fourth round is to edit each category of singles and stories down to between four and six entries for the final round. That is achieved by alternating negative and positive voting. Jurors first vote to reject work for the finals by voting ‘no’ with the machine, and it takes at least 6 ‘no’ votes for something to go out. If there are less than four or more than six entries left, the jury will then revert to positive voting (voting ‘yes’ with the machine) to reach the four to six entries required for finals. If this takes longer, then the process alternates between positive and negative voting.

In a new procedure for this year, all singles and stories voted through from the fourth round to the finals were reviewed by an independent digital expert to see they complied with the contest rules on manipulation and processing. I’ll detail that process in the section below. Those entires deemed eligible entered the finals for consideration for prizes, with a maximum of four entries in each category.

Extensive discussion is a feature of the process. From the third round onwards the jury engages in extensive debate on the singles or stories in front of them. This was like being in an advanced visual studies seminar – jurors explored aesthetics, ethics, editing, the depiction of violence, informed consent, stereotypes, narrative, story and more.

In the final round, a different voting process, involving the distribution of preferences, operates. Entries are still presented only with their code. Voting is anonymous, using paper ballots, and jurors are prevented from discussing their votes. Jurors have 10 points to distribute to singles or stories they wish to award first, second and third prizes too. They can award a maximum number of 7 points to any entry. This means they chose any combination of 10 points from 7/3/0 to 4/3/3 is given to the three winning entries they favour. Once they have voted these points are counted and the prizes determined.

After all first/second/third prizes are awarded in the nine categories for both singles and stories then the process of selecting the Photo of the Year begins. Only those singles which were first place in their respective categories, plus any frame from any of the first/second/third prize winning stories that was taken is 2013, are eligible to be considered for Photo of the Year. Jurors then nominate photographs – which are still anonymous, without the names of the photographer etc – to be considered and a long list is produced. After debate, successive rounds of positive and negative voting along the lines described above (each time requiring at least 6 votes to keep a photo in or remove it) are conducted until two photographs remain. After more debate, a secret paper ballot is conducted with jurors voting for photo A or photo B. The photo with at least an overall majority amongst the nine members is selected as the winner.

Conflict of interest procedures

I have laid out the jury structure, principles and process in detail because I don’t think these procedures are widely known. The complexity of the voting structure over five rounds is designed to ensure that to progress singles and stories have to build strong majority support and resist majority opposition. The anonymised images and confidential voting process is specifically designed to prevent one individual pushing a favoured image, for whatever reason, against the majority view. Having watched this for one year and operated it this year I have no doubt it works exceedingly well.

The judging process, as I observed at the outset, is a form of peer review. It is inevitable that when you have entries from thousands of professional photographers around the world, someone on a jury of peers could have some relationship with submitted work. This is dealt with in two ways. Firstly, if they know they have an interest jurors must publicly declare it to the jury so it can be factored into debate. Secondly, to check that jurors are declaring an interest, from the third round onwards in the General Jury, the Secretary is given data from the support staff that cross checks the entries remaining to highlight potential interests. I can make two general observations on this. The first is that to date the only reason jurors have not declared an interest before being told of the interest is because they do not know or recognise the work under consideration as being somehow related to them. People assume jurors automatically recognise all work from their colleagues or publications, but this is far from being the case. The second is that people should not assume jurors declaring an interest automatically go on to advocate for the work in which they have an interest – they are at least as likely to oppose it.

Of course, there are many ways organisations can handle the appearance of, or potential for, conflicts of interest. Pictures of the Year International represents its process in these terms:

Pictures of the Year International selects judges who maintain the highest journalistic and ethical standards. We have confidence that these same values will apply as jurors for POYi. We recognize that our profession is a close network and that the judges are also working journalists. So, we carefully research and consider any potential conflicts and then counsel all the members about their obligations to be fair and impartial. Any judge with entries in a category are asked to recuse themselves. The entire three weeks of judging is an open forum for anyone to quietly observe the process. POYi conducts the annual competition with complete transparency and integrity.

Without knowing the full detail of their research and counsel, this sounds similar to the World Press Photo approach. One big difference is that World Press Photo jurors cannot submit entries in the year they are judging, so there are no ground for recusal as there are for POYi judges.

The appearance of a conflict of interest has been a topic in the aftermath of the Photo of the Year award because the winning photographer, John Stanmeyer, is a member of VII, founded by Gary Knight and others. As Lens blog reported:

Mr Knight said that although he had asked to be removed from the final judging because of his friendship and professional relationship with Mr Stanmeyer, the World Press rules did not allow for it. He emphasised that at every level there was complete transparency. “If anything,” he said, “I was a hindrance for John getting the award, not a help.”

This is true. According to the rules, all jurors have one vote and must vote, and no one can abstain in the vote. There was complete transparency at every level and all the rules were followed strictly. The winning image had to progress through the various rounds with majority support as detailed above. Like all the votes from the third round onwards the final vote was anonymous and confidential so we do not know how any individual juror voted. To be blunt, it is an insult to the intelligence and integrity of the eight other voting members of the jury to suggest they made an award on the basis of a declared interest. As Secretary and the person responsible for the integrity of the process I have no doubt whatsoever that all the winners were decided on in accordance with both the rules and the spirt of fairness and equality. There is simply no basis in evidence for questioning the conduct and integrity of Gary Knight, the general jury chair, who at all times created an open environment for free debate on all entries. That was one of the things remarked on and appreciated by all jurors.

Peer review is the backbone of a good system of governance. Anyone with experience in research knows that peer review helps ensure the best quality outcome. In academia peer review determines the award of grants and publications that involve millions of dollars and secure employment. Yet procedures in the university sector often lack the levels of assurance and robustness found in the World Press Photo voting scheme.

The problem is that peer review in a relatively small professional community is going to create the appearance of a conflict of interest where none exists. That is a difficult issue we will struggle with so long as judging by peers is the principle. I’m sure those respected film, literary, musical and theatre awards which use peers from the highest levels of their respective industry struggle with similar issues. Given that 5,754 professional photographers from 132 nationalities entered, making the avoidance of the appearance of a conflict of interest the primary basis on which a jury was structured would eliminate anybody – photographers, editors, publishers, broadcasters, journalists, gallery owners, writers, curators, foundation funders, not to mention any personal friends or current and former partners – who in some way were associated with or worked with that global network. If you made recusal mandatory for any declared interest, then contests could be decided by a jury of peers reduced to a much smaller number of people that could alter with each vote on a single or story, which would distort the process and outcome in other ways. Would it be fair if there were nine jurors voting on one entry, six on the next and only two on the last? That would be a nightmare to administer in terms of equitable procedures.

Of course, you could advocate having a photography contest judged by people who had absolutely nothing to do with any aspect of the global network of photographers who entered. But then you would have a totally different contest and potentially a whole new set of problems. It might be a good idea for someone to set up such a contest and see how it works out, but it’s obviously unlikely to be under the auspices of World Press Photo.

In the end, I don’t know an easy way around the problem of communicating the integrity of a process based on peer review in a small professional community beyond what is covered here. I would be interested in any considered responses on that topic. My hope is that fair minded readers will appreciate that the detail of these reflections is necessary in order to understand how the structure of voting deals with the conflict of interest issues in advance of the specific processes for checking and declaring an interest. With regard to this year’s award, too many critics have, in ignorance of the procedures, remained at the level of appearance, confusing correlation with causation. We know we have a communications problem, and we know that appearances matter. What we do not have is a fairness or integrity problem.

Manipulation and processing issues

In a new development, this year World Press Photo had all entries being considered for prizes in the final round examined by an independent digital photography expert from the Netherlands before the jury proceeded to deliberate. This was to determine that all singles and stories going into the final round were eligible. To be eligible for prizes, entries must be valid according to the contest rules. The relevant rules states:

The content of an image must not have been altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry are allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards…

The expert carried out a case-by-case analysis of the level of post-processing in the files that were entered in the contest by comparing them with the unprocessed files. 120 photographers were contacted with the request to submit the unprocessed files for analysis. The jury received a full briefing and this was followed by a thorough discussion.

In applying the contest rules, the jury affirmed the content of an image must not be altered. This means no significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning. The jury based their decision on the outcome (whether significant material had been added or removed) irrespective of the technique (cloning or toning) used. The jury applied accepted standards in the industry, which, for example, allow for the cleaning of dust and scratches, and this judgement was applied in the same way to each entry in each category.

The jury decided that 10 entries were not eligible for the finals. That is 8% of the entries that were still in competition after the fourth round. There were 8 stories and 2 singles rules to be ineligible, entered in the Nature, Sports, People, Spot News, and Contemporary Issues categories. World Press Photo will be writing in confidence to those photographers whose work was ruled ineligible to make them aware of the decision.

Was this a large number of problem entries at that stage of the competition? Given that it is the first year this process has been in place, there is no point of comparison. We will have a better idea in the future, but then we would expect that percentage to drop as future entrants will be aware of what being caught means, so we won’t be able to say if that proportion is reflective of the industry as a whole. The Jury Chair reflected on these numbers:

I was really distressed, especially because so much of the post-processing that had made these images ineligible was absolutely unnecessary…It was materially minute but ethically significant. Or it was just laziness – it was photographers trying to turn a pig’s ears into a silk purse. One image in one story disqualified the whole story.

The review of eligible entries is an on-going process given the need to closely analyse unprocessed files as they come in from photographers. Work found to be ineligible can be disqualified after judging, as was the case in a previous year.

Conclusion

I am presenting this detailed information on the process for others to debate if they so wish, but will not be debating any points relating directly to this year’s competition myself. I am happy to accept comments below, but will only respond myself if there is a factual point about this years procedures to clarify, or a general observation to engage.

I have to conclude by saying I was honoured to accept the post of Secretary to the World Press Photo contest jury and I am already looking forward to next year. I am proud of the way this year’s judging was conducted by all concerned. There’s lots of analysis to do on what the contest can tell us about the state of the global visual economy and the representation of the world it gives us, and this was something this year’s jury debated too. But since returning form Amsterdam I have been sleeping well in the knowledge the results of this years contest were achieved fairly, equally and with unquestionable integrity on the part of all who deliberated.

Update: 18 February 2014

The World Press Photo Managing Director issued a statement which concludes: “World Press Photo has total confidence in its judging process and how it was applied this year. We trust absolutely in the integrity of our chairs and jurors and we honor the selections they have made.”

Photos credit: © Michael Kooren photography / Hollandse Hoogte — the general jury working, at World Press Photo HQ, 11 February 2014.

Categories
photography politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
photography politics

Staging Politics: Beyond White House Access, the Photo Op is the Larger Issue

Obama Soccer Tunnel Mandela Service

(South Africans cheers President Obama waits in a tunnel at the soccer stadium before taking the state to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Media representatives and White House officials have started a series of meetings to discuss photographers’ access to the President. But it is unlikely that the bigger issue was on the table – access to what? If media organizations want to give us open journalism that pulls back the curtain on the theatre of politics, they have to use this moment to question the centrality of the photo op in the presentation of politics.

President Obama’s recent trip to the Nelson Mandela memorial service gave us another glimpse into what is at stake in the access issue. These two photos from Pete Souza and Stephen Crowley show both that some independent access is still possible, but that access may not produce radically different images. Souza captures, in his familiar style, the President silhouetted from behind, while Crowley records the crowd looking down into the same tunnel, with the arrangement and colour of the umbrellas on the left suggesting he is positioned only a yard or two in front of Obama.

On the flight to South Africa, with the President accompanied by the Bushes and Hilary Clinton, the access dispute was more evident. CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted that:

“Press photographers in the Air Force One pool on flights to/from South Africa were given no oppty to photograph Presidents Obama & Bush.”


(Dec. 10, 2013. Attendees look down into a stadium entrance at the state memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in the Soweto township of Johannesburg. Stephen Crowley – New York Times/Redux)

Regardless of their thirst for access, media organizations lapped up the White House provide images of the two presidents together, questioning their ability to support their protest with sanctions.

The media’s grievances have been stated strongly, with AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon calling White House provided pictures “visual press releases” that amount to little more than “propaganda.” Given the transformations of the new media economy, no administration now or in the future is going to forgo the opportunity to be its own broadcaster and publisher. Politicians have always wanted to bypass the gatekeepers and get their message direct to the public. The televised address from the Oval Office, or the live radio show in preference to the written journalists interview, are ways in which politicians seek to maximise control of their image. Now the platforms and tools have proliferated, and leaders as dorkish as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or evil as Syria’s Assad use Instagram accounts to offer their own visual account.

There is obvious merit to the substance of the media’s protests to the Obama administration. That there should be an “independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government” is an unimpeachable principle. But the debate cannot end there.

Souza bill signing

Access is a necessary but not sufficient condition for that independent view. Access is not a value in itself. Access does not, and historically has not, guaranteed a critical, visual account of politics. Yes, a critical account requires some access to the events and people to be recorded, but the larger question is what will image makers and editors do with that access?

In the midst of this controversy the White House released a picture of photographers recording a bill signing in the Oval Office. Many, including BagNewsNotes, took the release as a provocation to show ongoing access. Moments like this were well described by former White House photo editor Mike Davis:

Six highly skilled, professional photographers dash into the Oval Office, a sense of practiced urgency in their assessment of how to make the most telling photo of the president, in about a minute, as he signs a document or chats with someone before continuing the real business of his job.

Then the photographers are quickly ushered out to wait for the next historic event. They are members of the White House Photo Pool doing what’s called “a spray” — arguably the least desirable type of presidential photo-op.

Maybe this image was a provocation, but I read it differently. I read it in terms of the event the media wants to access, the photo op of the President at work in the Oval Office (something emphasized by the AP). Of course these moments need to be recorded, and that takes some access, but is pressing for “the spray” to be made up of a large number of independent photographers (as David Hume Kennerly argued) where the real fight should be? Christopher Morris proposed that a “pool photographer should be given special access for the day, basically to shadow the White House chief photographer, for let’s say 50 percent of the day or as the President’s schedule allows.” Will such access alone be the sufficient condition for critical visual journalism?

The juxtaposition of two photos in the New York Times article, “Photographers Protest White House Restrictions,” raises further questions about what is at stake in this controversy.

Souza’s privileged position got him the intimate family holiday portrait of the President swimming with his daughter, while restrictions on Doug Mills meant he was reduced to a long shot of the Obama’s lunching on a balcony. As this MSNBC report comparing White House imagery and independent pictures makes clear, Souza’s position does give him consistently cleaner and more intimate portrayals.

But do these cleaner, more intimate pictures offer a radically different image from the independent ones? How much better off would we be if Mills had been able to take the Souza shot? Would an independently shot, intimate family portrait be qualitatively different to one provided by the White House? Or would it be a case of independent journalism becoming complicit in the propaganda it wants to rightly resist? Doug Mills is right in this respect: the White House images are “all about controlling the image and putting the president in the best light…There’s no chance for a gaffe, or a bad hair day, or a sour expression, or much spontaneity when photographs are subject to approval by the presidential gatekeepers.” However, the controversy surrounding Michelle Obama’s sour expression in the now infamous Presidential Mandela ‘selfie’ shows, capturing such moments might not lead to the truth either.

It is worth noting that the role of the White House photographer began in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and came about because LBJ desired the photogenic public image that independent photographers had given John F. Kennedy, including now famous photographs like George Tames “The Loneliest Job” or Alan Stanley Tretick’s “John F. Kennedy Jr. under the Resolute Desk.” Access may have been easier, independent photographers may have taken the shots, but the propaganda value was at least as great as that produced in today’s social media feeds.

All this makes clear that the larger and more important issue has to be the photo op and how to report it visually. Photo ops are themselves, even before being photographed, moments of sanitization, reducing politics to theatre, regardless of whether they are photographed by independent or partisans. So much of the photography of politics involves a reciprocal staging – the event is staged so that an image can then be made without which the event would not exist – that what we need is a visual means of pulling back the curtain to see the event’s construction.


(A photograph of goats on a lawn sign directs reporters to where goats will be released at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, on Aug. 7, 2013. More than 100 goats will be taking over Washington’s Historic Congressional Cemetery to help clean up brush in an area away from the graves. The goats will graze 24 hours a day for six days to eliminate vines, poison ivy and weeds, while also ‘fertilizing the ground’. Charles Dharapak/Associated Press).

One thing we need are images that address the construction of the image, including pictures showing photographers in the photo, the set-up of the photo-op, or using particular visual strategies such as different angles, depth of field, and framing. We see them from time to time – Kiku Adatto’s 2008 book Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op argues they have been published from the early 1990s onwards – but they need to be the norm rather than the exception if we want the value of access to be realised. To situate the photo-op photographers can call attention to the peripheral elements that help make the scripted show. Campaign photos that show candidates speaking to small crowds in large venues (here or here) is one good example. David Burnett’s “Larry King, Clinton & Gore, and the Hair”  is a great picture of the pre-show ritual, and Charles Dharapak’s Instagrams of Washington photo ops show the political rituals.

What is interesting about Dharapak’s images is that he makes them on the side with his iPhone while producing standard news imagery with his DSLR. We need that relationship changed so that the subject and style of his Instagram’s are more central to visual political coverage. This is where the professional can potentially give us so much more than amateur – using their experience and knowledge of the photo op they can craft unique images that reveal more than the standard news snap.

The current antagonism between photographers and the White House needs to be broadened beyond the simple question of access. Yes, we should argue for open government and the independent coverage of “newsworthy activities of public significance.” That should be backed by media organisations refusing to run official images provided by the White House when independent access would previously have been given. But access cannot be a solution in itself. Media organizations should always ask, what are we being given access to? It is time to look at the bigger picture, and make the photo-op as much the subject, so we have a visual record of how events and issues are managed and staged.

(This post was first published on BagNewsNotes 18 December 2013)

Categories
media economy photography

Documentary Photography in the Age of Anxiety: Fred Ritchin’s “Bending the Frame”

Ritchin Bending the Frame

We live in a period of anxiety, a time of deep uncertainty about the foundations and frameworks through which we make sense of life. It may have always been like this, but various faiths and philosophies work to convince us that there are guideposts and touch points around which we can orient our purpose and values. The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, in his seminal 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, coined the term “Cartesian Anxiety” for the generalised belief that we have lost even the pretence of secure reference points. As Bernstein argues (p. 19), we face “the growing apprehension that there may be nothing – not God, reason, philosophy, science, or poetry…that answers to and satisfies our longing for ultimate constraints, for a stable and reliable rock upon which we can secure our thought and action.”

This Cartesian Anxiety manifests itself in multiple forms and different ways. In recent times it has been evident in the media economy, where economic and technical disruption has challenged the traditional frames image makers, reporters and storytellers have relied upon to give their enterprise purpose. In Bending the Frame, Fred Ritchin – former picture editor, educator and one of the most important writers on the social role of photography over the last two decades – asks some of the big questions that flow from these disturbances. What is photography for? Do photographs help anyone? How should journalistic and documentary photographers regard themselves? Ritchin’s book is structured like an essay that probes debates and perspectives rather than a linear argument leading to a single conclusion. He generally avoids the easy temptation of those afflicted by Cartesian Anxiety, a nostalgic longing of a better and simpler past. Instead, he sees great but largely unrealised potential in the new digital possibilities for storytelling, a point that reinforces his important argument about “hyperphotography” from his 2009 book After Photography. This is especially the case given that tools like Luminate, Stipple and ThingLink now allow producers to embed information in online images and connect them to other sources of data, a commercial function that has great potential for visual storytelling.

One of Ritchin’ virtues is his upfront recognition that photography inevitably and inescapably is an act of construction and interpretation. Photographs have been granted the cultural status of “a reliable trace of the visible and the ‘real’” (p. 8), but they embody the photographers point of view amongst other factors. This should be obvious to the point of being a truism, but it is surprising how many discussions of photography’s meaning and status proceed by assuming an unshakable, but conceptually unsustainable, commitment to objectivity (partly, I suspect, as an unconscious way of warding off the Cartiesian Anxiety). Ritchin acknowledges this commitment by references to John Szarkowski’s claim photographs were “windows” on the world, transparent devices to record reality, but is not bound by it. Nonetheless, Ritchin wants to retain the social purpose that was part of that commitment, the idea that photographs are “also capable of telling truths, however partial.” Pictures have this capacity, but it is not derived from their status. Rather, it flows from how they are used: “photographs have to be employed rhetorically to build a case and to persuade.” Cast in this light, photographs, “rather than routinely indicate what is (as records of the visible)…increasingly point to what might be – with the potential for much deeper understanding, as well as for a particularly subversive simulation designed to mislead” (pp. 6, 9). Given this, documentary photographers, who, Ritchin argues, “have always seemed to approach the world with touch of both the poet and the social worker, aware of both what is and what might be” (p. 152), must “increasingly emphasise the role of interpretation rather than that of transcription” (p. 49).

The increased recognition of the professional photographer as author rhetorically building a case – for which Ritchin uses the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s as an interesting analogue – is heigthened by the contemporary image economy. Claims that we are being saturated to the point of passivity by photographs proliferating daily, are now a staple of much commentary. Ritchin variously invokes this perspective when he writes of the “cascade of screens submerg[ing] viewers with enormous numbers of images, including billions of their own photographs and videos,” “societies experiencing a surfeit of images,” and the “unrelenting barrage of vivid, often heart-wrenching imagery” (pp. 9, 20, 30). There is a quasi-conservative strain to these claims, a sense that the population at large is ill-equipped to make sense of the visual information it is presented with. While it is easy to cite some egregious example of public stupidity, and while we must contextualise information better, do we really believe the citizenry – of which we are all a part too – cannot cope with the billions of images they readily contribute to? I confess I have only ever heard this claim from photographers and photography critics. Part of the problem with framing our concerns in terms of image saturation is that we can be seduced by the macro numbers oft cited in relation to mobile phones, Facebook uploads and the like. There is no doubt that the growth of mobile devices and social media is one of the most significant developments of our time, but the idea that all of us face a tidal wave of billions of images daily is far from personal reality. As I’ve argued previously, the metaphor of the image flood is deeply misleading. If you average out the global numbers of Facebook photo uploads across all users, they are the equivalent of one picture every three days per person. Add to that the fact these uploads are more personal than public – we generally don’t see the images uploaded unless we are recognised as friends or followers – and the automatically assumed cultural problems said to be induced by those global numbers are looking a little overstated. Not to mention that the popularity of photographic images in social media might actually be a good thing for visual storytellers to connect to and build on.

Ritchin does qualify the claims about image saturation: “Grumbling about the enormous number of images online now makes little sense without acknowledging that they constitute a new, expanding visual literature that, riddled with its share of inanities, will in the end transform our understanding of ourselves and our universe” (p. 48). And the fact his New York University photography students were ignorant of the work of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros (p. 145), suggests there are some dry spots in the pictorial deluge. Making good work more visible is one of Ritchin’s main concerns, and it leads to his consideration of the need for a new “front page” for the online world that helps societal priorities surface and “tells us where to look.” Ritchin proposes “informed groups of people, a rotating cast of experts who have studied certain issues at length or lived through them,” helping us ascertain what matters, and funded by users micropayments (pp. 145-46). He suggests these groups could be – “like the editors and community leaders of yore – people we learn to trust” (p. 147).

Ritchin’s proposal informed the 2011 Aperture exhibition “What Matters Now: Proposals for a New Front Page” he coordinated. I was amongst those who contributed to the section run by Stephen Mayes that concluded we “didn’t want new conventions to replace the old.” Given that front pages of even the most estimable newspapers promote what Daniel Hallin called the “sphere of consensus” – which is a reduction of political options to a series of accepted that frameworks that sometimes involves printing lies – some of us felt the new structures of post-industrial journalism we now live with were already doing a better job of contextualising and promoting important issues. But, as Ritchin notes, “Others at the exhibition felt differently – asserting that media strategies are necessary to prioritize events and issues, in order to create a community with at least certain similar preoccupations” (p. 149). While I don’t doubt that we need ways of prioritising and creating community around pressing issues, the new networks and structures of our disaggregated media economy are already doing this and permitting this. What we need to see is more of it around visual projects of significance.

That disagreement aside, Bending the Frame provides us with an essential starting point for debating the place and role of the image and image makers in the new media economy. We need to change the conversation around the place and role of the image and image makers in the new media economy, and Ritchin’s book will play a big part in that movement.

This is a revised version of my review of Fred Ritchin, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (New York: Aperture, 2013) that appeared in Source 76, Autumn 2013.

Categories
photography

Changing the conversation about photography

My concern has always been for photography that connects with the world to say something about the world so we can do things in the world.

That leads to me to focus mostly on the practices we know as documentary and photojournalism, but my concern has often been frustrated and limited by the terms of the conversation about photographic imagery, especially when it gets bogged down in the exhausted philosophical straight jacket of objectivity/subjectivity.

Maybe things are changing. This one minute statement from Marvin Heiferman – who edited Photography Changes Everything – is very important:

 

He says there is no simple story about photography, no tidy narrative, that we have to rethink what photographs are and do, and our conversation needs to be more sophisticated.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 15.29.01

Marcus Bleasdale follows what I think is a similar line of thought – in a short video that could not be embedded but is available here. He states, “It’s not the individual photograph, it’s what you do with it, and who you engage with it, that makes it powerful.”

Together these short statements tentatively point towards a new framing of the conversation – away from a concern with the products of photography to its process. This will be a conversation that deals first and foremost with the purpose and effect of images. And it will make transparent the processes through which the photographic image (still or moving) can be an opening or organising node in a network of intersubjective actions and possibilities.

Categories
media economy photography

George Rodger’s lessons for contemporary photojournalism

Rodger 2

The 100th anniversary of Robert Capa’s birth this week has called attention again to one of photojournalism’s pivotal figures, one of the four founders of Magnum Photos. Cartier-Bresson is equally well remembered, but David ‘Chim’ Seymour and George Rodger sometimes less so. Yet there is much to learn from George Rodger’s career, in addition to the stories around his famous World War II and Nuba photographs.

I re-read Carole Naggar’s excellent biography George Rodger: An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995 before interviewing her for Jonathan Worth’s #phonar course at Coventry University. Carole was a brilliant interviewee, and what she has to say is worth the 50 minutes of the interview:

There were a lot of issues relevant to the state of contemporary photojournalism in the book and interview, but here are some of the things relating to the industry that stood out for me:

  • Rodger was one of the photographers present at the creation of photojournalism in the 1930s, but he understood himself to be a “writer-photographer” who developed “package stories” that combined pictures and text – multimedia, if you like. These picture essays were also considered “stories with a point of view.”
  • Producing stories with a viewpoint was essential to Capa and Rodger because they thought photographers should be authors, not just illustrators who were inferior to writers. That meant photographers had to gain control of their work – own their own copyright, choose assignments and take pictures without censorship.
  • Rodger and many of his peers rose to prominence working for LIFE magazine, but they came to resent the fact they lost both copyright and their physical negatives to the publisher. Given the communication technologies of the day, it sometimes took months for photographers to get their work back to the magazine, and when in the field they never saw their tearsheets to see how their work was used.
  • In the aftermath of World War II LIFE magazine often assigned Rodger to social and society shoots, which he despised. One drew his “ironic contempt” – a story on dancing rabbits entitled “Rabbits Who Walk on Front Paws.” That LIFE would make the war photographer they lauded with a seven page feature a few years earlier cover such a story shows that fluff and trivia in the media is far from a new thing.
  • The magazine market in both Europe and the US drove the emergence of photojournalism, but in the late 1940s and 1950s it was already in decline, and circulation at outlets like Picture Post collapsed (from 1.38 million in 1950 t0 600,000 when it closed in 1957).
  • Those economic pressures meant Magnum members had to accept industrial reports and even commercial shoots as a necessity. Rodger, for example, took a commission from Standard Oil to photograph its installations worldwide, work he disliked intensely.

Together these points demonstrate that if there ever was a golden age of magazine-funded photojournalism it was extremely short, and shouldn’t be the model by which contemporary practice is judged. The conventional economic structure of photojournalism – when based on commercial media where journalism has always been cross-subsidised by advertising – has always been precarious. The on-going revolutions in our media economy pose many new challenges, but those challenges may not be as new as many think. And reclaiming and developing the idea of photographer as author of a package story with a point of view would be a very good thing.

Categories
photography

Photojournalists on Instagram: a more inclusive list

06_instagram

I’m interested in how professional image makers use social media as part of their practice. People ask if photojournalism can survive in the age of Instagram and similar services. Yet for all the industry anxiety around Instagram, and for all the legitimate concern around its terms of servicemany photojournalists have accounts that stream quality pictures, demonstrating that photojournalism and Instagram are not necessarily inimical.

The other day I tweeted a link to an article by Kate Knibbs at Digital Trends that drew attention to seven of them working in conflict areas as a way of underscoring that point:

http://twitter.com/davidc7/status/389035322635718656

John Edwin Mason responded to that quickly and correctly with an important observation:

He raised a very important point – too often the pivotal dimensions of gender and race go unremarked, perhaps even unnoticed, in photography circles.

Zarina Holmes added:

And John then noted:

So let’s widen the appreciation (also beyond the conflict remit of the original list) to include those recommended by John and Zarina, and a couple of others from me, giving us (in alphabetical order) this list:

Lynsey Addario

Karim Ben Khelifa

Marcus Bleasdale

Michael Christopher Brown

Laura El-Tantawy

everydayafrica

Glenna Gordon

David Guttenfelder

Ed Kashi

Teo Kaye

Teru Kuwayama

Melissa Lyttle

Ben Lowy

Phil Moore

Randy Olson

Ruddy Roye

Q. Sakamaki

It won’t be possible or desirable to come to a definitive record…as John said “there are so many.”

But this is surely a start on a better mix of diverse talents, although far from being fully comprehensive and inclusive.

Are their others who we should call particular attention to?

As I finished this post I caught up with another of John’s tweets:

Looking forward to that, and other, contributions in expanding the limited list that began this important discussion.

UPDATE 14 October 2013

John Edwin Mason’s post – 37 Instagram Photographers You Might Not Know (But Should Definitely Follow) – is up and its a beauty. He wants you to send suggestions for more photographers to follow too, and I will pass on any new ones mentioned here.

Photo credit: Stacy Kole, Retro Branding

Categories
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

Categories
Featured photography politics

Syria and the power of images

AP Photo-Shaam News Network

What is the relationship between imagery and action in Syria?

Following the horrendous chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, two international actors have made statements that suggest some link.

In UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s 26 August “Remarks on Syria” he stated:

We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident. We owe it to the families of the victims to act.

Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, tweeted:

Images distributed via social media have been significant throughout the war in Syria, especially as photojournalists were barred from entry in the early days of the conflict. And it is interesting to note how Ban Ki Moon spoke of television and social media, and not newspapers and magazines.

Atrocities like the chemical weapons attack are made present through videos uploaded to social media sites – The Guardian reported that within hours 120 videos had been put online:

most depicting scenes of men women and children in respiratory distress, on watery floors, and doctors describing the victims’ symptoms. Other videos showed scores of bodies wrapped in white shrouds, or lying on grey concrete. White foam was bubbling from the mouth and nostrils of many victims. Some writhed in distress, apparently struggling to breathe.

The connection between imagery and action is not strictly causal. Streams of distressing images over the last two years have not forced international action despite the death toll in Syria exceeding 100,000. Yet now, when the “red line” of chemical weapon use is crossed, high-level officials invoke imagery in order to establish a reason for action. That suggests images do not automatically produce specific responses, but they can function as the impetus for a response when backed by political will.

Note: thanks to Mark Esplin for the Ban Ki Moon reference to social media.

Photo credit: ‘This image provided by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show mourners next to bodies of victims of an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network).’

 

Categories
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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media economy multimedia

Newspapers, advertising and the Internet: How journalism has always been subsidised

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The disruptive power of the Internet changed everything in media. But it did not cause everything.

The decline of newspapers, so long the editorial paymaster for photojournalism, is a trend dating back six decades.

Globally there are mixed signals concerning newspaper circulation, with some reporting growth in Asia offsetting falls in Europe and the US, while other sources reveal “printed newspaper readership is now declining in almost all major economies,” including China and India.

In the US, UK and Canada, the data is clear and dramatic. The Communications Management Inc. study on Sixty Years of Daily Newspaper Circulation Trends shows newspaper circulation has been falling since 1950:

CM2011 newspaper circulation comparison

Because the defining characteristic of the new media economy is “the separation of information from its means of distribution” we cannot conclude that the decline in newspapers means the demise of journalism, visual or otherwise. The reverse is in fact true – journalism has many homes and benefits from the freedom of circulation and distribution that the Internet makes possible – the Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News is a great example.

The problem is that the traditional homes of journalism have seen their already parlous financial health further undercut. However, we have to remember that most media organisations are in business, but not primarily the business of journalism. Legacy organisations (including great ones like The New York Times) spend no more than 20% of their budget on news content (in fact, in the US the industry average is 12.7%). The rest goes on the management and operation of the distribution model.

Media organisations are in the business of advertising, advertising has accounted for 80% of their revenue, and that revenue has subsidised the journalism that provides the content that draws the readers/views in to see the advertisements. Above all else it is the collapse in advertising revenue for print media that has been the single largest cause of journalism’s financial crisis, as this graph from Mark Perry shows dramatically:

Newspaper ad revenue 1950-2012

The disruption of the Internet has put added pressure on print advertising and online advertising has not replaced print losses.

There are some vital lessons flowing from this for the future of visual storytelling. We have to understand that:

  • journalism (reporting, stories, pictorial coverage) has never been a viable, stand-alone product. It has never paid for itself directly and its users have never directly paid for all of it. Journalism has always been subsidised by indirect sources, principally advertising;
  • the culture of “free” is originally a product, not of the Internet, but of the mass media model – it comes from “free to air” radio, “free to view” television (both financed indirectly by advertising) and newspapers with small subscription fees making up no more than one-fifth of their revenue, all of which enabled many generations of users to get their information for no charge at the point of consumption;
  • there will not be a one-size-fits-all, single business model for good journalism in the future, but it will continue to depend on sources of indirect subsidy;
  • successful journalism operations (of which there many good examples) are becoming sustainable not by discovering some untapped, secret pot of gold, but by diversifying income, making new connections between advertising, paying for content, selling data and technology, events, freelancing, consulting etc.;
  • photojournalists and visual storytellers should not pin their hopes on “paywalls” for established news sites as the single best solution, because even if they work on some measures these are not going to bring back a lost golden age of editorial assignments, as user subscriptions can never replace lost advertising revenue for legacy organisations.

This historical perspective challenges some important myths about what happened to media. None of this makes the present struggle for critical visual journalism easy. But it should re-set the terms of the debate about what is happening now, and re-frame some of the strategic options for the future.

This is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

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Featured media economy multimedia photography

‘Multimedia’, photojournalism and visual storytelling

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What is “multimedia”?

Searching for a single definition in answer to this question is neither possible nor desirable. At its most basic, “multimedia” signifies some combination of images, sound, graphics, and text to produce a story. In different realms of practice people speak of “cross media,” “transmedia” or “mixed media.’ In photojournalism, “multimedia” has often been first understood as “photography, plus…”, principally the combination of still imagery with other content. Nowadays we see it in multiple forms ranging from online photo galleries where pictures are combined with text captions, to audio slideshows, linear video (both short-from and long-form), animated infographics, non-linear interactives, and full-scale web documentaries and broadcast films.

The digital revolution has been a defining development in the emergence of “multimedia” that blurs the boundary between still and moving images. But that boundary has long been blurred. Even a brief consideration of the history of image making shows considerable overlap between still and moving images. Close-ups and freeze frames are moments in which cinema employs the still image, and photo-stories and sequences testify to the influence of cinema on photography. Famous photographers like Man Ray, Paul Strand and Gordon Parks were all involved in filmmaking and films like Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (1962) and Agnes Varda’s “Salut Les Cubains” (1963) were based on still photographs. Ken Burn’s creative use of archival pictures in “The Civil War” (1990) was so powerful it gave rise to an effect now immortalised in video editing software. Modern television is not averse to deploying stills in either opening credits (as in David Simon’s “Treme”) or in news broadcasts, when a slower pace is needed to underline the significance of the event (the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq being two such cases), or when video is unavailable.

The roots of “multimedia” go deeper still. In the media history of photographic images, prior to mass reproduction of images in print becoming possible, pictures were displayed to the public with the help of technological devices such as the magic lantern (as well as the gloriously named phenakistiscope, zoetrope, praxinoscope, mutoscope, etc.) that created the perception of moving images in theatrical settings.

Moving forward again, we can recall other photographic projects in which images were entwined with other forms of content. Nan Goldins’ famous “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was originally shown in the early 1980s as a constantly evolving slideshow with music. Pedro Meyer’s “I Photograph to Remember” (1991), Rick Smolan’s “From Alice to Ocean” (1992) and “Passage to Vietnam” (1994), and Tim Hetherington’s “House of Pain” (1996) were all on CD-ROMs and it was speculated that CD-ROMs might replace books as the chosen platform for photographic presentation. Gilles Peress’ “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace” (1996) was an interactive photo essay, while Ed Kashi’s “Iraqi Kurdistan” flipbook style production (2006) closed the circle by deploying a nineteenth century technique on a twenty-first century platform.

Photojournalism has always been influenced by technological changes, and the arrival of DSLR cameras with video capability – the Nikon D90 in August 2008 followed shortly thereafter by the Canon 5D Mark II – have again highlighted the relationship between still and moving images, providing practitioners with dual image capability in a single camera body.

What is the significance of this history? It confirms that any attempt to strictly define “multimedia” would exclude more than it includes. And it demonstrates that what we need is not a restrictive definition of one genre, but an expanded understanding of “the photographic,” especially the long-standing and complex relationship between still and moving images, possibly what Tim Hetherington meant when he spoke of a “post-photographic” world. This is not a world in which one visual form has died, but a world in which multiple visual forms are alive and stronger than ever.

This is why this study speaks of “visual storytelling”. It opens up the field to different communities who share a common purpose in image-oriented reportage. It is the zone in which photojournalism, videojournalism, documentary, cinema and interactive storytelling have the potential to intersect. This does not create a new visual genre, but it constitutes a space in which photojournalists can bring their aesthetic abilities and commitment to reporting, and learn from those operating outside of photography.

This is not the “convergence” of everything into one, nor a place where a single new form replaces all others – none of this leads to the conclusion that all forms of print are passé. Instead, we have arrived at a place where image making is important to storytelling, and storytelling encompasses many forms across many platforms.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the content of “Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post-Industrial Journalism“, the World Press Photo/Fotografen Federatie study of the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism. The posts are searchable with the ‘Multimedia Research Project’ tag.

Image credit: Magic lantern show, 1881. This engraving of a magic lantern show is from La Nature (vol 1, 1881), and is signed ‘Smeeton Tilly’. The image being projected depicts a castle at night. © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library — All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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photography politics

Mythical power: Understanding photojournalism in the Vietnam War

VietnamInc

Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is a masterpiece, a classic work of photojournalism in the Vietnam War.

But it is often falsely claimed that the photographs in this book changed the course of world history. The latest iteration of this claim was a Magnum Photos tweet:

In response I wrote:

After some further tweets on why this claim is a myth, Magnum added quotation marks to their text and cited the book’s publisher Phaidon as the source. Indeed, Phaidon’s blurb declares:

Originally published in 1971, this groundbreaking book was essential in turning the tide of opinion in the US and ultimately helping to put an end to the Vietnam War

This myth is to be found in places other than a publisher’s blurb, with the Guardian obituary for Philip Jones Griffiths a prime example. And although there are some more considered reflections on the impact of Vietnam Inc., such as Val Williams obituary for Jones Griffiths, this myth about the power of pictures in relation to the Vietnam War (equally evident in claims about Nick Ut’s 1972 “napalm girl“), gets repeated airings.

Why are such claims false, and why is it important for contemporary photojournalism to call attention to this myth?

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible was the necessary step in ending it.

The problem is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s The Uncensored War – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the US government view.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of its historical role and potential power. Many of the visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the American media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

As much as many people want to believe that Philip Jones Griffiths’ images were puncturing the public consciousness from the front pages of newspapers, the reality of how his work was done and circulated is very different. As Jones Griffiths’ himself made clear in a 2002 video interview, he was not a press photographer who sought public change – he did the work for himself, was motivated by the idea of producing an historical document, and went to Vietnam with a contract for a book. A Photo Histories interview with Jones Griffiths also noted:

These images were too damning for Magnum to sell to a market dominated by the American media, but they came to fill the pages of a book that was to become one of the defining works of photojournalism.

Vietnam Inc. is therefore reportage after the event, and no less significant for that. Although Jones Griffiths first went to Vietnam in 1966, his book appeared in 1971. Even if we could show it made a dramatic impact at that particular time – something that has never been established – it is bad history to claim that pictures published then were major factors in either the peace movement or the end of the war.

I can’t give a full history of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement here, but a brief consideration of the conflict’s timeline shows obvious problems with the myth of picture power. If we make the Vietnam War synonymous with American and allied involvement, then here are the key milestones:

  • Late 1961: Kennedy sends US military advisors to South Vietnam
  • January 1962: the first US combat involvement when American helicopters ferry South Vietnamese troops into battle
  • February 1965: the Johnson administration begins the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing missions, and this brings the anti-war movement, which is associated with the civil rights movement, to prominence
  • March 1965: 3,500 Marines are sent to Vietnam, and this is the start of American involvement in the ground war, with polls showing US public in overwhelming support
  • April 1965: Johnson administration begins its escalation with US combat troop numbers increased to 60,000
  • December 1965: 200,000 Marines deployed
  • Late 1966: 385,000 US troops in Vietnam with another 60,000 off shore
  • January 1968: the Tet offensive is the turning point for US involvement, and public support shifts
  • March 1968: Johnson announces he will not seek re-election
  • May 1968: peace talks between the US and North Vietnam begin (and concluded in January 1973)
  • August 1968: riots at the Democratic National Convention
  • June 1969: Nixon administration starts troop withdrawal
  • October 1969: the “Vietnam Moratorium”, perhaps the height of the peace movement
  • 1970-71: two-thirds of US troops pulled out from Vietnam
  • January 1972: “Vietnamization” of the ground war means US no longer directly involved in troop combat
  • March 1973: last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam, meaning for the United States war is officially over, although Saigon does not fall to North Vietnam until August 1975

Why is all this important? Rendering Jones Griffith’s and others as responsible for altering the course of world history is bad history, because placing their work into the war’s timeline shows they were part of an already existing anti-war movement, and American involvement ended for political reasons. Above all else, though, it sets false and impossible expectations for contemporary photojournalism. Present day practitioners are going to feel somewhat inadequate if they think there work is not halting contemporary conflict like their predecessors supposedly did.

But if we see that one of the great works of photojournalism was always conceived as a book, intended as an historic document, did not appear in the mainstream media, and was funded indirectly by payment from “images of Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech visiting Ankor Wat in Cambodia,” then we can appreciate that crucial parts of the so-called golden age of photojournalism might not differ as much from the present as we think.

Timeline sources:

For basic online information on the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, see PBS, Battlefield: Vietnam; Wikipedia; and The Anti-War Movement in the United States. For one of the most comprehensive accounts, see Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, which was also an excellent 13-part PBS TV series.

 

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photography

The difficulty of talking about photography

What is photography?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References: 

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

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

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More posts photography

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 gun and the camera: an historical relationship

The link between the camera and gun is evident in a shared metaphor, but is historically closer than we might imagine.

During the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a marine shooting an insurgent in a mosque. Jon Kudelka’s cartoon (published in The Australian) references this event and points to the similarities between shooting images and people, something we recognise through that common language.

However, as Paul Landau has written, the connection exceeds language because “the technologies of the gun and camera…evolved in lockstep,” with George Eastman of Kodak the pivotal figure.

In the 1860s the development of breech loading guns, using chemicals enclosed in a cartridge with an interior firing pin, gave the hunter a mobile weapon with ammunition that did not explode in the users face. At the same time dry-plate photography replaced plates hand coated with collodion, thereby solving some of the chemical restraints on mobile photography.

However, making a photograph was still a cumbersome business. Although some dry plate cameras were explicitly modelled on Colt revolver mechanisms, and cinema cameras looked to machine guns for design elements, there was still a lot of camera equipment to be carried while travelling if one wanted to make images.

After cancelling a trip to Santo Domingo because of the bulk of photographic equipment, George Eastman – later to found Eastman Kodak – resolved to produce something simpler.

Eastman partnered with William Walker, the first camera maker to use manufacturing methods pioneered by gun makers to permit interchangeable parts. But it was their use of chemistry that provided both the greatest breakthrough and the clearest link with gun technology.

Eastman and Walker developed a paper negative that used guncotton. A French inventor extended that by creating a gelatinized guncotton that could be cut into strips, thereby also permitting the first modern smokeless gun powder. When the first Kodak was released in 1888 it took 100 exposures on sheets of dry, etherized, guncotton backed up paper.

The next development involved Eastman Kodak’s chief chemist adding amyl acetate to guncotton, creating a stable “celluloid”. A year later two English chemists made the explosive cordite by adding nitroglycerine and acetone to guncotton. As Landau concludes, “breech-loading guns and the Kodak camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges.”

Have we, in the digital era, freed ourselves from photography’s’ violent genealogy?

Reference: Part of this account draws on Paul S. Landau, “Empires of the Visual: Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa,” in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 146-49.

Cartoon credit: Jon Kudelka, The Australian, 2004. From a postcard representing ‘Behind the Lines’, a travelling exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia.

Categories
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.

Categories
photography politics

Photojournalism and change: voices of humility

How should we think about the contribution photojournalism might make to the task of social change?

Reflecting on the Kony2012 phenomenon I concluded with observations about the difficulty of specifying how political change comes about and our potential contribution to it.

Thinking more about this, I recalled videos in which two of the best photographers of our time reflected on the relationship of their work to activism. They warrant another view for the important insights they made.

In Sebastiao Salgado: The Photographer as Activist, a 2004 event at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ken Light and Fred Ritchin converse with Salgado about the relationship between his work and the injustices he has portrayed. This is a 90 minute film that is worth watching in its entirety, but I have extracted here a crucial 7 minute segment where they address the issue of activism directly:

[jwplayer config=”Custom Player” mediaid=”3134″]

This clip begins with Light asking Ritchin about the activism in Salgado’s work. Ritchin contrasts Salgado’s approach to the conventional desire of photographers to be witnesses who make things visible, and details the novelty (at least in 2004) of people working in alliance with NGOs. Then – contrary to the video’s title – Salgado in fact declares he is not an activist. Not because he doesn’t want his work to effect change, but because he has a complex understanding of the relationship between his work and activism. His description of photography as only a small slice in the overall dynamic of activism that might produce change is significant for its realistic modesty. It’s well worth watching and thinking about.

In a 2010 video produced by the Open Society Institute, Susan Meiselas talks about photography as something which has huge potential to expand the circle of understanding. This is another 7 minutes well worth your time, even if you’ve seen it before:

Meiselas’ thoughtful articulation of her approach chimes with Salgado’s humility. She understands photography as giving people an opportunity to respond, offering a bridge they can possibly cross, creating the possibility of connecting and engaging. “Can we really point to things that have changed because photographs were made?,” she asks. “This is the dilemma, the challenge and the hope.”

That Meiselas answers her question with a cautious desire rather than a definitive declaration is hugely significant. As she articulates so well, the power of the image is all about potential rather than certainty, and that potential depends upon associations, collaborations and relationships through which images might have additional lives.

I think we should follow the lead of Salgado and Meiselas and reset our expectations of what photography, especially photojournalism, can do in the face of global challenges. If we persist with the flawed idea that somehow there is a clear, linear, causal linkage between information, knowledge and action we are only going to be frustrated. And it is that frustration, in my view, which animates myths like compassion fatigue. When we believe (generally without evidence) that making things visible automatically changes the world, and the world doesn’t change instantly, we foster a resentment against either image makers or their audience. What we need is a more complex understanding of how change evolves and a more humble appreciation of how we might contribute, even as those contributions are ever more urgently needed.

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More posts photography politics

The myth of compassion fatigue

The dream of photojournalism is that when a crisis is pictured the image will have an effect on its audience leading to action.

However, according to Jacques Rancière, the dominant mood of our time revolves around “a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image.” This suspicion is generated in part by “the disappointed belief in a straight line” – as visualised in the photography of Sarkozy at Rwanda’s genocide museum – “from perception, affection, comprehension and action”.[nbnote ] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot (London, 2009), p. 103.[/nbnote]

Before we can construct a meaningful account that traces possible links between visual representation, knowledge and action, we need to dispense with some conventional wisdoms that purport to explain how photographs work. With this post I am publishing the first draft of a new research paper that undertakes some of the excavation necessary to clear the way for that construction. I believe one of the largest obstacles to be removed is the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis.

One of the commonest claims relating to the alleged impact of photographs of atrocity, violence and war is that they induce ‘compassion fatigue’ in the public at large. This claim often starts with an assertion about our media saturated world, and is part of the general suspicion about the capacity of images Rancière noted. At its heart is the notion that, far from changing the world, photographs work repetitively, numbing our emotional capacity and thereby diminishing the possibility of an effective response to international crises.

Expressions of this belief can be found in a wide range of disparate contexts,[nbnote ]Here are examples from 2010-12 in which this belief manifests itself: in an interview following his World Press Photo award, photography Pietro Mastruzo noted “Shocking pictures do not really communicate anymore, because the audience is accustomed to looking at them”; the late Magnum photographer Eve Arnold was reported as once saying, “You know in the beginning we thought we were going to change the world. I think people live in so much visual material these days, billions of photographs annually, that they grow numb after too much exposure”; the new media artist Peggy Nelson told Nieman Storyboard that, “we can’t have all the news from everywhere and everyone all the time. There’s info overload and there’s compassion fatigue”; in an analysis of disaster coverage, University of London professor Pavrati Nair wrote, “The floods in Pakistan have given rise to a veritable deluge of photographs documenting devastation. On a daily basis, we have been seeing representations of untold suffering, as people struggle to survive, while filth and chaos reign around them. Nevertheless, despite efforts to mobilise relief, a certain degree of apathy often accompanies our responses to such images”; in his review of the Tate Modern’s Exposed, noted photography writer Gerry Badger made a direct endorsement of Sontag’s 1977 statement that “Images anaesthetise”; Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing, said of violent images on the web, “human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video….at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?”; and award-winning documentarian Danfung Dennis introduced his new video app by claiming “Society was numb to the images of conflict”. Even academic research projects exploring how images affect people start from bold assertions of compassion fatigue. See Charlie Beckett, “Four steps to success in a humanitarian appeal,” 15 November 2011, which begins: “People are exhausted by messages they receive from humanitarian NGOs. They’ve become desensitized to images of distant suffering and repeated appeals for help.”[/nbnote] and numerous writers and photographers attest to the ubiquity of this view.[nbnote ]John Taylor notes the popularity of the claim that photography is analgesic, Carolyn Dean remarks that the belief is commonplace in both Europe and the United States, and Susie Linfield describes the thesis as “a contemporary truism, indeed a contemporary cliche” such that “to dispute this idea is akin to repudiating evolution or joining the flat-earth society.” See John Taylor, “Problems in Photojournalism: Realism, the nature of news and the humanitarian narrative,” Journalism Studies 1 (2000), pp. 137-38; Carolyn Dean, The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (Ithaca, 2004), p. 2; and Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago, 2010), p. 45.[/nbnote] I argue in this paper that the compassion fatigue thesis, like the repeated invocation of “pornography,” is an allegory that serves as an alibi for other issues and prevents their investigation.

What is notable about compassion fatigue is that it means one thing in the context of health care and social work, and the reverse in relation to the media and politics.

From perhaps the 1980s and certainly the 1990s, compassion fatigue was understood as “Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and diagnosed in people either suffering directly from trauma or individuals working closely with people suffering trauma. In this context, although it concerned a set of negative impacts on those affected – such as reduced pleasure and increased feelings of hopelessness – it derived from the problem that “caring too much can hurt.” In other words, compassion fatigue was prompted by an excess of compassion rather than a lack of compassion. As the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project states, when caregivers, who have a strong identification with those suffering, fail to practice “self-care” they can be prone to destructive behaviours.[nbnote ]See http://www.compassionfatigue.org/. See also Eric Gentry, “Compassion Fatigue: A Crucible of Transformation,” Journal of Trauma Practice, 1 (2002), pp. 37-61; Bertrand Taithe, “Horror, Abjection and Compassion: From Dunant to Compassion Fatigue,” New Formations 62 (2007), p. 135; and Charles Figley, “Compassion Fatigue: An Introduction.”[/nbnote]

Susan Sontag is the writer who drove much of the popularity of this thesis in relation to photography, and the paper unpacks her arguments in On Photography, exploring their logic and supporting evidence (or lack thereof) before discussing how she retracted much of them in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag’s reversal has had little impact on the ubiquity of the compassion fatigue thesis, and that is in large part a result of arguments like those found in Susan Moeller’s book Compassion Fatigue. The third section of this paper dissects Moeller’s claims to reveal how in her hand ‘compassion fatigue’ is an empty signifier that becomes attached to a range of often contradictory explanations and factors.

The limits of Moeller’s text are exposed in the fourth section of the paper, which reviews all the available evidence of which I am aware relating to the relations between photographs, compassion and charitable responses. None of that evidence supports the compassion fatigue thesis.

While you will need to read the whole paper to consider all the arguments, one bit of data can be presented here.

The dictionary definition of compassion fatigue cites the “diminishing public response” to charity appeals as evidence. But is the public response diminishing?

In Britain there are 166,000 charities that received donations totalling £10 billion in 2009. In the United States, there are more than 800,000 charitable organisations, and Americans gave them more than $300 billion in 2007.

The British public’s response to disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake (for which the Disasters Emergency Committee raised £106 million) shows that the willingness to act on empathy for the victims of natural disasters is still considerable even when they are distant.

The DEC conducts consolidated appeals for the fourteen leading aid NGOs in the UK, and a look at their various appeals over the last few years shows that there is a constant willingness to donate, albeit at variable rates, from the 2009 Gaza appeals’s £8.3 million to the massive £392 million given for the 2004 Tsunami appeal.

There is, then, no absence of compassion as expressed in charitable giving. That, however, is not to say that all issues are responded to equally. There are clearly differential responses, but these do not add up to the generally diminished response named ‘compassion fatigue’.

It is time to remove this myth as an obstacle to understanding how photographs of extreme situations can and do work. I hope you will read the paper and engage the argument. It is a draft, and there is much scope for improvement.

Photo: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy visits the Memorial of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali on February 25, 2010. Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday paid homage to the victims of the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis during a highly symbolic visit aimed at mending strained relations. ‘In the name of the people of France, I pay my respects to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsis,’ he wrote in the visitors book of the main genocide memorial in the capital Kigali. Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images – used under license.

Categories
photography

This photo is not just what it is: reading the World Press Photo debate

What can Samuel Aranda’s 2011 World Press Photo of the Year tell us about how we view photojournalism?

For this post I’m not interested in whether it deserved to win or didn’t deserve to win, or the details of what it means or what it doesn’t mean. Anyone who wins an award for one picture selected from one hundred thousand deserves our congratulations, and anyone who works in situations as difficult as Yemen deserves our respect.

Rather than dealing with the photograph itself, I want to focus on the subsequent debate about the photograph. I want to take a step back and ask: what does the conversation prompted by Aranda’s winning photograph tell us about the conventional way of understanding such images?

For Aranda, such debate is unlikely to be the issue. When asked by the British Journal of Photography if the Pieta-like form of the image was deliberate, he remarked:

It was not intentional…You know how it is in these situations – it was really tense and chaotic. In these situations, you just shoot photos. It is what it is. We’re just photographers. I consider myself just a worker. I just witness what is going on in front of me, and shoots photos. That’s it.

Aranda’s description of his modus operandi embodies one of the most treasured assumptions about photojournalism: that it is a window on the world, transparently witnessing a moment before the lens.

The production of an image, however, is just that: the production of an image. Reality is not copied by the camera, it takes on meaning through the whole apparatus of photographic practices that culminate in – but are not limited to – someone releasing the shutter. Photography is much more than what the photograph ‘is’. The meaning that results in part from the image is not limited to either details within the frame or the intentions/self-understanding of the photographer.

We can see that in debates like the very one prompted by the award for Aranda’s picture, a debate that Martijn Kleppe has curated at bit.ly. The fact that the New York Times (which first published Aranda’s picture) instantly cast his photograph in fine art terms as “painterly” shows how even the industry’s readings quickly move beyond naturalism to aesthetics. “Painterly” may be one of those oft-repeated and rather tiresome labels, but the Lens blog’s invocation of the idea should lay to rest the misleading notion that news pictures are somehow beyond aesthetics.

If you go through all the posts discussing Aranda’s photograph collected by Kleppe, the variety and richness of the interpretations is remarkable. People have understood it as a Christian icon, a 19th century orientalist painting, a sculptural form, a depoliticization of the Arab Spring, evidence of the hegemonic Western eye, a sign of a bloody conflict, a rendering of universal humanity, a personal moment of compassion, an affirmation of the strength of Islamic women, and an image whose beauty forces us to look.

This range of readings demonstrates neither a problem with the photograph nor a failure of criticism. To the contrary, it shows how photographs are polysemic and polyvalent – as part of their condition, they are inescapably open to multiple readings, and can often sustain different if not contradictory readings. The proliferation of clashing interpretations demonstrates the naturalist faith is untenable. If a photograph were just what it ‘is’ there would be nothing to discuss and the pictures’ public role would be minimal at best.

Robert Hariman is right when he says,

we need to see through symbols, but in both senses of the verb: to use them to see more than we might see otherwise, and to recognize and look past their limitations to see what they would distort or occlude.

The disparate readings of Aranda’s photograph, taken together, contradictions and all, are thus helping us see through symbols, in both senses of the verb.

The lesson from the debate about Aranda’s winning photograph is that even with press pictures we see through symbols. Such photographs are inescapably symbolic. We might think they illustrate the news through a simple process of depiction, but it is much more common that they function as symbolic markers. Indeed, the New York Times original publication of Aranda’s photograph is a case in point – it accompanied an October 2011 article that led with US drone strikes in Yemen even though the picture’s subject was injured by Yemeni government forces.

Nor is the symbolic nature of this picture a function of Western concerns or readings. If you consider closely the quoted statements of those Yemenis speaking approvingly about Aranda’s picture, they talk of how they, their country and their struggle have been and should be represented. In the words of the Yemeni blogger Affrah Nasser,

it sums up what the Yemeni nation and the rest of Arab (and non-Arab) revolutionary nations have gone through in pursuit of democracy and freedom.

It doesn’t get much more symbolic than that.

This photograph, then, is not just what it is.

And that opens up the way for thinking differently about the function of photojournalism, which is something I will write about in the future.

Photo: screenshot of http://www.worldpressphoto.org/, 20 February 2012.

Categories
photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.24: Lu Guang’s activist photography

What is the power of photography?

In the abstract, that is an impossible question to answer. There are many general claims about photography being able to ‘change the world’, but when it comes to evidence for such arguments, we know surprisingly little about how photographs actually work. There are clearly moments in which images can induce action. With Lu Guang’s photography, we can appreciate the impact some projects can have in some circumstances.

Lecturing in Beijing recently as part of the BFSU/Bolton MA in International Multimedia Journalism, Lu Guang discussed his long-term investigation of pollution in China, which he began in 2005. A self-funded freelancer, Lu Guang has won international recognition for his work in the form of World Press Photo awards, the 2009 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the 2010 National Geographic photography grant. As the Lens blog noted, Lu Guang’s affinity with Eugene Smith is apparent in his commitment to investigate and expose the consequences of rampant industrialisation.

Lu Guang’s 2003 portraits from the AIDS village in Henan are as graphic and unvarnished as any images you will ever see. They had a dramatic impact in China, forcing local and regional authorities to provide the care and treatment they had previously refused. In his lecture, Lu Guang described how his current work on pollution, which is equally direct and to the point, offering pictures as evidence, is also prompting remedial action at local and regional levels.

That photography can move authorities in a political system well known for its desire to control information is remarkable. That someone like Lu Guang, even when commissioned by a western NGO like Greenpeace, can work effectively in China challenges the external perception of a system constantly covering crises up. Lu Guang spoke candidly of the harassment he faces while working, so the risks he take should not be underestimated. But he made a fascinating observation – if he was revealing something specific and unknown to particular authorities, Lu Guang felt he could carry on and overcome the obstacles in his path. While his disclosures are uncomfortable to profiteers, the political authorities sometimes either tolerate or encourage that discomfort.

Having spent a fair amount of time in China over the last eighteen months and more, I have been constantly struck by the large number of indigenous journalists and photographers whose daily work manifests an unflinching commitment to critical investigation regardless of the consequences. I think we have a lot to learn from the likes of Lu Guang.

Workers at a lime kiln in the Heilonggui Industrial District in Inner Mongolia. The woman on the left is wearing two scarves, a red one to protect her eyes, a grey one to cover her mask. Photo: Courtesy of Lu Guang, 22 March 2007.

Top photo: The sewage plant of the Fluorine Industrial Park discharges its untreated waste into the riverbed of the Yangtze River through a 1,500-meter-long pipeline. Changshu City, Jiangsu province. Courtesy of Lu Guang, 11 June 2009.

 

Categories
photography politics

The elusive enemy: Looking back at the “war on terror’s” visual culture

Last week The Guardian published an extraordinary report on how Al Qaeda is using aid to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of displaced Somalis in East Africa’s zone of food insecurity. Jamal Osman’s investigation – including a compelling eleven minute video – reveals how aid workers and medical units, including American and British citizens, are making food and money available in a refugee camp in southern Somalia.

What is striking about the photographs and video that Osman’s team produced is the way the Al Qaeda unit is both present and absent. While their aid distribution was a carefully orchestrated media event, with their leader reading a prepared statement to a group of journalists, the Al Qaeda personnel remained shrouded in scarves obscuring their faces throughout.

Al Qaeda’s elusiveness is something that has marked the decade long ‘war on terror’. After ten years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US-led military interventions that made those countries the front line are slowly being wound up. What began with the October 2001 launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is now the United States’ longest war, and the American commitment is being scaled back as part of the transition to Afghan security control by December 2014. In Iraq the change is swifter, with President Obama announcing last month US combat forces will withdraw from the country by years’ end.

These changes provide useful markers against which to think about the visual culture of conflict, specifically the ‘war on terror, over the last decade. As this post will argue, focusing on news photography and photojournalism, the visual culture of the ‘war on terror’ over the last ten years can be understood as both beginning and ending with absence.

As a response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, the ‘war on terror’ was inaugurated in President Bush’s congressional address on 20 September 2001. Denoting the attacks as an “act of war,” Bush mapped a moral geography in which an axis of evil divided those who were with America from those in conflict with America. This moral geography was heavily indebted to notions of identity/difference that have historically driven US foreign policy. It also constructed a narrative of terror that obscured other potential points of origin for a war, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, or Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of a jihad against Jews and Crusaders that preceded those attacks (as detailed in Stuart Elden’s Terror and Territory).

Because the ‘war on terror’ was understood as a new type of conflict, fought against an “elusive enemy” in disparate and dispersed locations, visualizing the event was always going to be a challenge. Through its enactment as a response to something real yet virtual, the ‘war on terror’ was an event that both privileged representation yet made representation difficult. What overcame this aporia is the way the ‘war on terror’ has, for us, been largely framed by US-led military action, such that the overwhelming majority of photographs we associate with the ‘war on terror’ are both concerned with and part of US-led military action that began with the 7 October 2011 attack on Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.

It is common to identify the embedding of journalists and photographers with US and allied forces as the primary reason for the affinities between images and strategy (which is something I debated with Tim Hetherington). Embedding has played a significant role in the visualisation of Afghanistan, though not from the beginning, because when Operation Enduring Freedom began the Pentagon had not yet conceived the specific system. Moreover, given that the first military operations in Afghanistan were covert actions by Special Forces against a non-state actor, embedding was from the military’s viewpoint untenable. As a result, the US-led strikes in Afghanistan proceeded with minimal media access but there were few if any serious protests about this lack.

The early photographic coverage of Afghanistan was, therefore, part of the overall coverage of the ‘war on terror’ arising from the 11 September attacks. Photography is deployed to mark globally significant events, and some US newspapers underwent a “sea change” in their use of news pictures, doubling the number published after 9/11. Part of this proliferation of images was the use of pictures that, while showing something from the general area of operations, did not depict the specific events being reported. This symbolic function, where the repetition of icons associated with 9/11 provided cues and prompts for viewers, meant photographs became a means of moving the public through its trauma, enabling support for the military action in Afghanistan.

A severely wounded US Marine hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) is carried by his comrades to a medevac helicopter of U.S. Army’s Task Force Lift “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-171 Aviation Regiment to be airlifted in Helmand province, on October 31, 2011. The Marine was hit by an IED, lost both his legs and fights for his life. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

What we have come to see from Afghanistan is a steady stream of familiar pictures made up of allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families (the monthly galleries at The Atlantic offer examples). Of course there are exceptions, and very occasionally we get to see things from the other side. But generally photojournalism on the front line has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an elusive opponent, with allied soldiers and their weaponry front and centre. Much the same can be said of the visualisations of Iraq since 2003.

Coverage of the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the value to government of the embedding process (although Simon Norfolk has demonstrated being embedded does not preclude making photographic work that questions government policy). Michael Griffin’s survey of US news magazine photographs showed “a highly restricted pattern of depiction limited largely to a discourse of military technological power and response.” However, while the number of combat photographs from Iraq increased from those published in the 1991 Gulf War, they still only comprised ten percent of published pictures. This was less than expected from front-line reportage, and demonstrates that news pictures are less concerned with the first-hand recording of events and more with the repetition of familiar subjects and themes. While individual photographers felt they operated with freedom within the system of embedding, and sometimes even broke the rules, the way their pictures were used in publications did not challenge the official war narrative. That is because the news photographs the public ends up seeing are chosen less for their descriptive function or disruptive potential and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes the prosthetic hand of Medal of Honor award recipient U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Leroy Petry after he introduced Obama to speak at the American Latino Heritage Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 12, 2011. SFC Petry lost his right hand tossing away a grenade to save his fellow soldiers during combat in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

As a result, much of our media operates within the limits of official discourse, with journalists working on the field of perception through commitments to their national frames (something apparent in images of official ceremonies with their symbols of sovereignty, as in the Kevin Lamarque/Reuters photograph of a Medal of Honor recipient). Although we still harbour a belief that journalism is indebted to the ethos of the Pentagon Papers or Watergate, fearlessly investigating government failings, much contemporary war coverage directly or indirectly supports military strategies. For example, although British television broadcasters exhibit more faith in the idea of impartiality when compared to the overt patriotism of their American counterparts, a review of their Iraq invasion coverage found that “when it came to contentious issues such as WMDs or the mood of the Iraqi people…overall, all the main television broadcasters tended to favour the pro-war, government version over more sceptical accounts.”

Throughout the last decade, whatever the intentions of individual practitioners, news photography has re-presented the ‘war on terror’, in the form of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, in ways consistent with military strategy. Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’, obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective, rendering casualties and context as absent. Nowhere was this clearer than in the official White House photo of Osama Bin Laden’s killing. Instead of releasing an image of Bin Laden, what we saw was the Obama national security team in the Situation Room watching a monitor on which the event might have been unfolding. The centrality of absence to the visualisation of the war on terror could not have been more obvious.

Embedded journalism has contributed to this confined view, but this practice has also been constrained by the way the media generally offers a limited challenge to established positions. In this context, calling for an unsanitized view of the war is bound to be insufficient as a strategy for challenging the official photographic narratives. What we require is the exposure of all the frames involved in the production of the field of perceptible reality. To that end, enacting an alternative view requires an aesthetic strategy that draws history into view, pluralizes perspectives, and seeks to overcome the absences that have marked the pictorial coverage to date. Given that the struggle with Al Qaeda will outlast the American withdrawal from both Afghanistan and IRaq, this will be an on-going project.

This post is based on an editorial written for e-IR.info, and cross-posted here and at BagNewsNotes with permission. 

Featured top photo: Al-Qaida medical workers at Ala-Yasir camp in Somalia, also known as K50. Jamal Osman for the Guardian.

Categories
media economy photography

Agencies as publishers: a new approach to photojournalism

Should some photo agencies become publishers and broadcasters?

Last week I concluded the post on the issue’s surrounding Magnum’s archive of Libyan Secret Service pictures with the view that agencies miss an opportunity when they don’t provide the most comprehensive context of their stories in conjunction with their images.

The challenges of the media economy mean that its going to be increasingly difficult for agencies to be just content providers and distributors for others in the media. Stephen Mayes, for example, argued in a lecture to the MA International Multimedia Journalism in Beijing earlier this year that agencies need to rethink their function and are “finished” if they stick the old ways of doing things, which means just selling photographs or photographers’ time. Stephen’s lecture was wide-ranging, thoughtful and revealing, but I won’t engage here much of what he said. There is, though, one thing in particular that stuck with me.

He suggested that the boutique, documentary agencies, those most associated with photojournalism – Contact Press Images, Magnum, Noor, Panos Pictures, VII, among others – offer something distinctive and important. They provide what Stephen called a particular kind of journalism that goes beyond description to embody an approach to, and concern with, the world.

That being the case these agencies should be thinking in terms of being publishers and broadcasters, actually creating new and substantive content on the issues their photographers are covering, and making that content available both through their own channels as well as other media outlets.

My thinking on this further prompted last week when I received an email from Panos Pictures, promoting Robin Hammond’s “Tuvalu Sunset” and Joceyln Carlin’s “Global Warming’s Front Line”. But it went beyond that to something interesting and important – it provided me with news I was previously unaware of. I had no idea the situation in Tuvalu warranted a state of emergency prompting a response from both the Red Cross and Oceanic governments. It achieved, therefore, exactly what a news article or television segment generally does.

Agencies have long provided short text introductions and detailed captions for their images online, but I don’t think its unfair to say that information has generally been secondary to the photographs and, now, multimedia, and that it falls some way short of detailed context.

Why not make it a priority and provide even more information and context, that could then be published on an agencies’ site as an article/report as well as sold to other media outlets? People could go to agencies for substantive content on issues they care about, and agencies could have an output more valuable than a few photographs.

I don’t doubt there would be many hurdles for such a suggestion, not least the research and resources needed to make it real. But given that we regularly (and rightly) bemoan the lack of important international stories in the mainstream media, why not leverage the skills of those photojournalists who are actually reporting to make something more substantial regularly available?

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.23: Gaddafi’s death

The extensive pictorial coverage of Gaddafi’s death yesterday takes us back to the question I posed, also in relation to Libya, at the end of August – when should we see the dead?

There I wrote that generally the mainstream media operates in terms the idea of “taste and decency” thereby sanitising the coverage of conflict. In my view, graphic images that serve the story, helping to offer a more complete account, are important. Pictures that are displayed for their own sake, and without which there would be no story, should be avoided.

So how does the world wide publication of images showing Gaddafi’s final moments and aftermath sit with that argument? Clearly, there are moments like Gaddafi’s death when sanitised coverage gives way to an almost frenzied graphic-ness. But I don’t think that voids the earlier analysis of the media’s general tendency with regard to the coverage of death, or the value such coverage can have in reporting all the dimensions of a story.

Critical reflection doesn’t have to be a series of ‘black and white’, either/or propositions. We can also think in terms of both/and, with this being one of those moments. Which means I would argue the on-going coverage of conflict should not be afraid to represent its graphic moments, while also maintaining that if the graphic nature of that coverage becomes its own preoccupation then that is excessive. Today is one of those excessive moments, and I came to that conclusion via some online discussion and sources I have curated in a Storify post below.

While some images of Gadaffi’s death were required somewhere in each media outlet for there to be a comprehensive story, a photograph such as that used by Le Figaro on their front page today is just as effective in setting up that story.

Photo: Le Figaro, front page, 21 October 2011, from The Guardian.

Categories
photography politics

The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Anderson

VP Magnum Photos New York

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

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

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

It reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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More posts photography politics

The problem with the dramatic staging of photojournalism: what is the real issue?

Photojournalism Behind the Scenes [ITA-ENG subs] from Ruben Salvadori on Vimeo.

Ruben Salvadori’s video – “an auto-critical photo essay” – demonstrates clearly that when we see a conflict, what we see is the outcome of “conflict image production.” It’s like those still photographs which reveal photographers at work – 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 many other examples.

These all demonstrate that photographs are neither mirrors nor windows offering untrammelled access to events. Events come to be through technologies of visualisation, and that is a process in which all participants in the visual economy (subjects, image makers, news agencies, media networks, audiences, and others) have a role in the construction of people and places.

The difficult conclusion from this is that all photography is staged. But, as I’ve argued previously, staging is not the same as faking. Photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. However, events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre, and photographers emphasise the dramatic. And if you look at the examples offered by the Italian digital lab 10b Photography, we can appreciate that aesthetic dramatisation has long been, and continues to be, part of the most respected photojournalism.

When these stagings produce or reinforce stereotypes, they are a big problem (as duckrabbit rightly argued in their take on Salvadori’s video). But photography’s dramatic stagings are not the main problem. I believe that avoiding or challenging stereotypes necessitates changing the terms of the debate.

The problem is that too often controversies over the staging of images proceed as though there is a photography free from staging (meaning construction, enactment, interpretation, or production). Moments of staging are called out, seen as exceptions, and judged against supposedly universal norms. An example is the way the excellent PetaPixel blog introduced Salvadori’s video. Calling it “eye-opening,” they wrote:

Here’s a fascinating video in which Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori demonstrates how dishonest many conflict photographs are. Salvadori spent a significant amount of time in East Jerusalem, studying the role photojournalists play in what the world sees. By turning his camera on the photographers themselves, he shows how photojournalists often influence the events they’re supposed to document objectively, and how photographers are often pushed to seek and create drama even in situations that lack it (emphasis added).

Salvadori’s video is certainly revealing, but “eye-opening” suggests a level of surprise that few in photography should have. It reinforces the idea that what we see in this case are a few bad apples who are failing to be “objective”. There is much that needs to be said about the claim of objectivity with regard to photography, and I hope to write more later. But how could a photojournalist in the scene Salvadori films not influence events? The presence of a camera changes the dynamics of any situation regardless of the intentions of the photographer. Indeed, any scene is changed by the presence of any participants, so the idea that you can imagine a scene that is hermetically sealed from those in and around it is naive. If scenes are to be witnessed, then witnesses will inevitably ‘contaminate’ the scene. And what would an “objective” photo of this scene look like? I can imagine many different images from those moments, but can you conceive of any that aren’t constructed?

Surely it’s time to drop the pretence of shock when photography’s constructed-ness is exposed. If we constantly view the essential nature of photographic practice – that it inescapably and unavoidably constructs, enacts, and produces images – as always exceptional and sometimes perverse, we are missing the main problem. That is, how, within a practice that necessarily constructs the world, can we produce authoritative accounts of events and issues?

I suspect many might read this and misunderstand the point I am struggling to make. I am not defending the conflict photographers portrayed in Salvadori’s important video essay. Their images are dramatised, though in ways common to conflict photojournalism. Nor am I arguing the images they produce are the best of that scene. Finally, I am not minimising the problems caused by dramatic stagings that turn into one-dimensional stereotypes.

Above all else, I want to argue that its ultimately self-defeating for photographers to be outraged by the idea that photographs construct situations. Let’s judge how pictures produce narratives, and the effects of those narratives, instead of being hung up on the fact narratives are produced. If we are constantly bogged down in the unfounded belief that somehow there is a photography unencumbered by the problems of representation, we will never move the debate on visual enactment forward.

To underscore these points, I’ll enlist Errol Morris’s support. Morris recently condensed the argument of his book Believing is Seeing (well reviewed by David White) into ten tweets. Numbers 1, 9 and 10 are most relevant to this post:

[blackbirdpie id=”120329863180726273″]

[blackbirdpie id=”120567296392564736″]

[blackbirdpie id=”120570913224790016″]

 

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.” 

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photography

Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington on war and sexuality

Sleeping Soldiers_single screen (2009) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

I’m publishing here a short article written earlier this year by Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington that explores the themes of aggression, masculinity, sex and war, and the way they informed Tim’s work.

Entitled “The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’,” the article was a collaborative effort. As Stephen Mayes told me, “we’d talked about these subjects for years and he approached me to write the piece with him, and we managed to distil many of his ideas into it. He read it, liked it, and went to Libya.”

Originally written for a small American journal, it was never published in this complete form. Because it offers a fascinating insight into Tim’s thinking – with the themes present in his work form Liberia to Afghanistan (especially the ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ project) and then Libya – I am pleased that Stephen has agreed to it being made available.

World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch have just announced the establishment of the “Tim Hetherington Grant,” a €20,000 award for a photographer “to complete an existing project on a humanitarian or human rights theme.” Applications close on 15 October this year, and you have to have participated in the World Press Photo awards between 2008-2011.

Last year Tim had spoken of a post-photographic world, and the need for visual communicators to stop thinking of themselves as just a photographer. I hope that the judges of the Tim Hetherington Grant will look for creative approaches that embody this position. Above all else – and despite the mere 750 words provided to applicants for a proposal – let’s hope the judges reward someone who puts as much effort into thinking about the issues he visualized as Tim did.

Link to PDF, Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington, The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.21: Seeing the dead

When should we see the dead?

In this photograph of a Libyan rebel surveying a possible massacre site we are confronted with an unusually graphic portrayal of war dead. (This picture ran in The Guardian print edition on 29 August (pp. 14-15), appeared online, along with a similar image from the same photographer that can be seen in a New York Times gallery here). The charred remains of people whose identities are unknown embody the violence of a regime entering its last days and seemingly bent on revenge.

Coverage of the Libyan conflict by the mainstream press has, like the coverage of most recent wars, been relatively sanitised when we consider the number of graphic pictures in relation to the scale and intensity of the fighting that has left thousands dead. If you scroll through any of the recent photographic galleries from the conflict (see the New York Times presentation of “The Battle for Libya” for example), pictures of the dead are a minority of those on display. And when the subject is broached, its often done at a safe distance (as here), via partial or camouflaged disclosure (as here) or through traces like the blood-stained uniform (as here).

The reasons for this relative sanitisation of war are many and varied. In cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is connected to the formal restraints of embedding. Allied forces put considerable effort into avoiding the production and publication of photos showing both military casualties and civilian deaths. In the case of Libya, where the nature of the conflict is different, we might expect to see more given that “foreign bodies” are sometimes easily shown.

The fact that we still don’t see much demonstrates how the mainstream media operates within an economy of “taste and decency” that regulates the pictorial representation of death and atrocity. Although conventional wisdom often portrays the media as ‘blood thirsty’, in his book Body Horror, John Taylor offers an assessment that is still valid:

Displays of the horror and hurt of bodies are a measure of the industry’s mix of prurience and rectitude. The press errs on the side of caution in depicting death and destruction. It is careful to write more detail than it dares to show and often uses the metonymic power of photographs to remove harm from flesh to objects. When the press decides to picture bodies, the imagery tends (with notable exceptions) to be restrained. Newspapers do not revolt audiences for the sake of it. On the contrary, disgust forms a small part of the stock-in-trade and papers use it sparingly (1998, 193).

Should we see more of the consequences of war? Overall, I think so. Obviously the amount and presentation has to be carefully handled in order to avoid gratuitous displays. Anything that could attract the mis-used descriptor of ‘porn’ has to be avoided. But images that serve the story, helping to offer a more complete account, are important. Pictures that are displayed for their own sake, and without which there would be no story, should be avoided.

An example of the latter was the Daily Mail’s recent focus on the death of an aerial stuntman. Without both still images and video (which I refuse to watch) that story would not have been globally reported. Contrast that focus on a falling man to the US media’s avoidance of the Twin Towers jumpers on 11 September 2001. Richard Drew’s now famous photograph appeared only once in the New York Times despite the fact some 200 individuals decided to leap from the World Trade Centre rather than face death in the buildings. Their painful choice was part of that horrendous day and Drew’s photo, calling attention to an important dimension of the event, deserved to be seen more.

Equally, Sergey Ponomarev’s powerful picture from Libya demands more attention. Without it the numerous words detailing unwarranted killings can wash over us, while the television images rush by us. Making us pause and think is an important part of photography’s function, even if the event it points to is hard to stomach.

Featured photo: A rebel inspects at least 50 burned bodies, said to be civilians killed by pro-Gaddafi soldiers, inside a warehouse in Tripoli. Copyright Sergey Ponomarev/AP

For a more detailed analysis of this issue, see my article “Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research, 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

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photography politics

Imaging famine: How critique can help

What is the point of critique, and how can it help produce better visual stories?

According to Jonathan Jones (writing in the Guardian on 22 July) all the sophisticated critiques of photojournalism are pointless when it comes to picturing famine:

It seems shocking that commentators…wasted their breath on the ethics of a photograph instead of urging action to deal with the suffering it showed. The fact that people far away can see with visceral immediacy the facts of a crisis like the one now hitting the Horn of Africa is one of the most optimistic aspects of the modern world. Consciences are awakened by the camera.

Jones’s own critique is simplistic – either you see or you don’t, visibility is better than blindness, and images provoke conscience. The last point demands more consideration, but in casting the issue in terms of a simple either/or proposition of seeing or not seeing, Jones misses the big picture. The issue is HOW we see, what effect does a particular way of seeing have on our understanding of the issue, and how might we see more effectively?

I’ve been debating related issues with Jon Levy, and yesterday we participated in a productive OPEN-i forum that revealed both much common ground and some continuing differences. As a result I wanted to set out a series of propositions that encapsulate my thinking on how we can contribute to a better visual account of famine.

1. Critique is not negative, and does not involve blaming photographers.

A critique is an intervention in established modes of action and thought. Such interventions try and disturb those practices which are settled, untie what appears to be sown up, and render as produced that which claims to be natural. There is an ethical imperative behind such interventions, a desire to open up possibilities being foreclosed or suppressed by that which exists. Intervening involves a questioning of what is established, that questioning follows from a concern or dissatisfaction with what is settled and appears inevitable, and creates the possibility for the formulation of alternatives. We can’t know where we are going unless we understand where we are now and how we got here. And although discussion necessarily proceeds through examples of particular images by individual photographers, it is not about accusing practitioners of bad faith.

2. There is no distinction between an event and its representation.

The reason we begin photographic critique with images, the individuals who make them and the institutions that distribute them is because they offer a way into thinking about the visual economy through which a disaster like famine is made real for the majority of people. Few if any of us have direct experience of disasters, so we necessarily rely on mediated knowledge. That means our reality comes through representation. NGO officials understand this. As Don Redding once observed, “the construction of the event (the humanitarian emergency) becomes the event – for the purposes of public opinion and policy flow.” To engage the event, and how we should respond to the event, demands an analysis of the event’s representation (some of which is discussed in posts reflecting on recent photographic and broadcast coverage.)

3. Famine is made real through a particular visual tradition, and we continue to see it.

The 2003 cover of the New York Times magazine above, with 36 portraits of malnourished children from dozens of different countries over a 50-year period, illustrates the dominant way of representing this sort of disaster. It has been common from the nineteenth century, as we showed in the 2005 Imaging Famine exhibition.

In the current picture galleries from East Africa, we see much of the same (see herehere and here). There has been little if any evolution in the way famine is represented. The problem is that these images individualise an economic and political issue, and focus our attention on passive victims awaiting external assistance.

In the OPEN-i debate Jon argued that these photographs “show you what’s going on.” I think that the stereotypes are politically necessary in certain contexts, and it’s possible to make a case for their use, as Tyler Hicks and Bill Keller of the New York Times have done. But the major problem is that the stereotypes do not show us what is going on. They show us only the end of a process. They show only the final, fatal stages of food insecurity. Most of the issue remains obscured by their continual reproduction.

4. Famine is not a natural disaster, and photography needs to get to grips with this.

While the fact East Africa is suffering the worst drought in 60 years provided the hook for most recent coverage, the disaster is not natural. Indeed, few if any disasters these days are natural. When an earthquake of the same magnitude kills hundreds of thousands in Haiti, but less than a hundred in San Francisco, the differing death toll is not simply a result of the earth moving.

According to the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, “this crisis is manmade…Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”

Famines, paradoxically, are also not simply the result of food shortages. As Cambridge lecturer David Nally observes, during the Irish famine food exports continued while people starved, and Bengal in 1943 (memorably recorded by Werner Bischof) saw hundreds of thousands perish even though that part of India had its biggest rice harvest ever:

The historical study of famine shows that the people of countries that are nominally resource-rich can starve because those resources are extracted to meet the needs of a global economy rather than the nutritional needs of local populations. The recent use of African land to grow crops for biofuels is particularly instructive: filling the tank of a sport utility vehicle, for instance, uses 450 lbs of corn – enough food to feed one person for an entire year. Thus policies designed to enhance the ‘food and energy security’ of relatively affluent places, such as Europe, can compromise the security of peoples in Africa. Today, as in the nineteenth century, life and death decisions of a terrifying scale are woven in the fabric of international economic relations.

These issues cannot be encapsulated within a single photographic frame, and representing them in their complexity is not simply photography’s responsibility. But I don’t see any examples from the current crisis in East Africa that even gestures towards these larger issues. Of course, correct me if I am wrong.

5. What now?

With more than 12 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and some areas of Somali having more than 40% of children under five suffering from acute malnutrition, their situation has to be pictured.

But, as with the coverage of Japan, Egypt and Libya this year, East Africa is being covered by a relatively large number of excellent photographers that surely means there is scope for someone to do something different. Do all of them have to go to Banadir hospital in Mogadishu to photograph fly blown, emaciated children? Could not some of them record audio as well as shoot photos so we can hear from the people affected? Can’t their editors push for alternatives and offer greater support to achieve them? Is it beyond our collective capacity to follow the leads from critical questioning and see what’s really going on with famine?

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
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.19: Do local photographers have a distinctive eye?

Do local photographers offer a distinctive perspective on their worlds?

That question was prompted by reading Patrick Witty’s interesting account of a photography workshop held in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq earlier this month. The workshop was organized by Metrography, the first Iraqi photo agency, and sponsored by Washington-based IREX International. Witty writes that the workshop was “the brainchild of Stephanie SinclairSebastian Meyer and Kamaran Najm,” and that he was one of four instructors, along with Kael AlfordNewsha Tavakolian, and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Interestingly, the venue was the Amna Suraka, the national genocide museum, which offers an account of the ‘Anfal’ campaign waged by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurds in the late 1980s. (The museum is the subject of an interesting project by British photographer Ben Hodson). With regards to the Anfal campaign – which included the infamous gassing of the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 – it is vital to recall that Saddam Hussein was then a US ally and the US was well aware of Iraqi chemical weapons capabilities. None of that stopped the US later – in the run-up to the 2003 invasion – hypocritically citing the Halabja gas attack as proof of Saddam Hussein’s barbarity.

Back to the workshop – Witty’s account and the enthusiastic comments of the participants testify to the value of the event. As the headline suggests, we benefit from seeing “Iraq through Iraqi eyes.” The gallery of images from the workshop showcase some interesting images, with Gona Aziz’s photo feature here one of the ones that stood out for me. But I’m sceptical about the idea that a person’s national identity offers a naturally distinctive eye.

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 or supplement. 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?

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 Majority World 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 is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international,” and this Iraq workshop is an example of that. Some of the participants already work for international wire agencies, and the instructors are global, both personally and professionally, and the skills they are passing on come from the global image economy.

None of this is to criticize the organizers or instructors. All of them deserve credit for creating an important opportunity for Iraqi photographers. They are not necessarily making the general claims I am highlighting. Being ‘local’ means potentially easier access to ‘home‘ and can thus be the starting point for original stories. But being ‘local’ is not in itself the basis for a unique perspective. Originality and context come from sources other than national identity.

Photo: Copyright Gona Aziz – A portrait of Ashti Abdulrahman, from the series, “Women,” from TIME Lightbox 23 June 2011.

 

Categories
photography politics

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

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

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

Here are my conclusions:

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

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

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

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

Categories
photography politics

Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

The US presidential election began this week. Although polling day is still 18 months away, yesterdays Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire marks the start of the race.

As ever, the economy, jobs, healthcare and education will be key issues, with more people worried about these than war. In Britain, along with immigration and multiculturalism, the picture is pretty much the same, which is not surprising given we face an ideological government savaging public services.

Which got me wondering – what does photojournalism contribute to these debates? Beyond the daily campaign picture and stock political portrait, what stories are we seeing from photojournalists and documentary photographers that engage these issues? My sense is not much, and certainly not enough.

Photojournalism has long been fixated on the foreign. Check out the web sites of major agencies like Magnum, VII, Panos and Noor and you will see that in the featured stories domestic concerns are a minority interest (though LUCEO is perhaps an exception to this). I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ‘Features and essays’ in Mikko Takkunen’s excellent Photojournalism Links, and over the last month foreign stories outnumber domestic ones by a ratio of 3:1. All this confirms Stephen Mayes 2009 statement that photojournalism is now more romantic – meaning “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” – than functional, and supports Asim Rafiqui’s claim that we face a “strange silence of the conscience” whereby the “hollowing out” of our societies is under-recorded.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous (even this one). What counts as ‘home’ is linked in part to personal identity, so, given the preponderance of American and European photographers in the industry, I’m thinking of the minority world as ‘home’ and the majority world as ‘foreign’.

It is also the case that in a globalized and interdependent world, the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ is far from clear-cut. Many stories cut across borders. Even war is not something that occurs only beyond the water’s edge. When Nina Berman, Edmund Clark and Ashley Gilbertson show the impact of conflict on the home front, it is not easy to locate their work on one side or other of the international boundary.

There are also a number photographers working in domestic space on social issues. Recent examples from the UK include Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’, Liz Lock and Mishka Henner’s Borderland and Hinterland, George Georgiou’s Curry and Chips, my multimedia partner Peter Fryer’s work in South Shields, and of course Amber/Side’s long history of documenting the north east of England. On emphas.is (although still a minority) the recent US-based projects of Matt Eich, Aaron Huey and Justin Maxton would count as domestic. The ongoing projects of Anthony Suau and Matt Black (highlighted by Asim Rafiqui) are impressive, and no doubt readers can (and should) add others.

And yet so much more is needed. It’s best illustrated by one of my all-time favourite multimedia pieces, Evan Vucci’s 2009 story “Faces of the Uninsured.” It tells the story of working Americans who cannot afford health care and must travel long distances to access the services of Remote Area Medical, an NGO that once focused on aid to “the Third World” but now concentrates on the US (17 of their 21 missions in 2011 are in America). Vucci’s story is an under-stated but shocking presentation of a domestic issue.

Given that the Republicans scorn Obama’s modest health care reforms as ‘socialism’ there is ample reason for a humanist tradition of photography to engage this issue alone. Initiatives like Facing Change: Documenting America and American Poverty.org show promising signs of movement on other related concerns. I’m not suggesting people walk away from the important international stories. But surely there are more than enough visual storytellers for many lenses to be turned towards home.

Photo credit: A discarded kitchen appliances sits in one of many fields surrounding the Hattersley Estate. Copyright Liz Lock & Mishka Henner, 2006.

Categories
Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third 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’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

POSTS

ARTICLES

Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

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

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 photography

The new media landscape (2): the importance of community

 

The disruptive power of the internet has made ‘community’ an essential concept in the new media landscape. A community is a group of people who share the similar interests, concerns or pursuits. They form around common purposes or practices.

As argued in the first post of this series, 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.

These distributed networks and new social groups are the basis of any new community. This post will argue that for creative producers community is a precondition of successfully operating in the new ecology of information.

There is, however, one common assumption about community that need to be dispelled before I consider what is involved in the development of a community that can support an individual’s creative practice.

Does size matter?

The ease with which web content can reach a wide audience can lead us to think that success is defined by mass interest. YouTube videos with millions of views seem to be the benchmark we must aim for. However, some data from new organisations shows how scale is not necessarily synonymous with success.

Newspaper web sites hailing the tens of millions of unique users they attract monthly is a regular feature (see this example). However, Navigating News Online, a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, although flawed in many ways, offers a different take on these numbers.

NNO identified an important distinction between ‘casual’ and ‘power’ consumers of information. More than three-quarters of the traffic to the top 25 American news sites came from users who visited just once or twice a month. In most cases they will have arrived via a link or search, read once piece, and then moved on.

While there is an obvious social benefit in getting a media organisation’s content to as many as possible, these infrequent flyers will not offer much economic benefit even in terms of an audience for advertisers.

In contrast, the NNO report found that ‘power users’ – people who came to the same news site more than ten times each month, and spent more than hour each month on those visits – comprised on average only 7% of the total web readership.

This trend was known before the NNO report, and applies also to UK examples. Although the numbers are now larger, these 2009 metrics from the Daily Mail show the number of casual versus power consumers:

  • 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/month

So while the headline-grabbing tens of millions of unique users suggests a vast audience around the Daily Mail, their loyal British users numbered no more than 300,000 in 2009.

These dynamics are the reason pay walls attract a small number of subscribers in relation to the overall readership of a news site. Subscribers come from power users: pay walls exclude or limit casual users so depend on subscriptions from the most loyal.

Working with fans

The idea that it is the power users, the most loyal consumers, that are the basis of an economic strategy to fund creative content is common to the music industry, where such people are known as fans.

What the internet has done, however, is made to possible to directly access prospective fans and provide them with content. The consequence of that is that artists don’t have to pursue a ‘blockbuster’ strategy to succeed. Instead of waiting for the one thing that might offer stardom with all its rewards, artists can build a community of those who appreciate their work and might be willing to support it.

Kevin Kelly famously outlined this concept with his post on 1000 True Fans. Like so many things influenced by the web, Kelly identified how a power law curve, which is the basis of the long tail phenomenon, suggested new possibilities. While the number of 1000 was indicative only and varied according to the artist’s media, Kelly maintained that if you could move people from an encounter with your work to being ‘lesser fans’ and on to  ‘true fans’ regular support would be forthcoming.

Kelly later conducted interviews with artists to see if his argument played out in practice. The results supported the thrust of his original argument but tempered its enthusiasm. He concluded that:

there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. (my emphasis)

Mike Masnick’s review of musicians supports this conclusion, and importantly demonstrates that the logic applies to more than just the famous who already have a fan base.

How does an individual create a community?

So, if you wanted to pursue this strategy what would it involve? The first thing to note is the hard graft. Kevin Kelly’s interviews made clear “it takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.”

Assuming you are committed, here are six steps to create a community around your practice:

  1. Get yourself a web platform (site, blog etc) to make some work and your thinking available for viewing and linking, and keep updating this platform;
  2. Think of yourself as a publisher or broadcaster, find your angle or voice, and offer information beyond self-promotion on a regular basis;
  3. Participate in social networks and other on-line forums, offering comments, links, information;
  4. Understand that a community is more than the sum of your social media followers and friends. Social networks are a necessary but insufficient condition of community;
  5. A community’s members have varying degrees of commitment, from observers to occasional supporters to committed fans. Followers and friends are, until they demonstrate otherwise, not ‘true fans’. But they might become committed supporters if they are engaged with your work;
  6. Engagement means offering your community a sense of belonging and commitment to your practice and the thinking that informs it. This comes through conversation and dialogue around ideas and information rather than just appeals or material inducements;

In the debate about crowd funding photojournalism I have emphasized how having a community is a precondition of successful support. Those who have raised funds have either been already well-known (which means they have had a community of support) or they have in effect followed most of the steps above. As Bryan Formals wrote in his good post on crowd funding, “it all starts to tie together: transparency, authenticity, community building, collaboration, funding.”

Point 6 is probably the most difficult and most important in the process. It is the step where supporters feel they participate in the project, something Joerg Colberg identified as important, and which Tomas van Houtryve has put into practice creatively and effectively. But like all engagement, this participation is not a one-way street – as van Houtryve has found, creative practitioners can learn a lot from their supporters and their work can be better as a result. The benefits are not just financial.

Conclusion

As I shall argue in the third post of this series, the idea of community is important for big media players as much as individual artists, and it is behind some of the new economic strategies to support journalism. There are lessons to be learnt from those strategies for individuals too.

The principles that make community possible are the same in both cases even if the scale is different. The internet’s logics of disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation affect everyone. It’s harder for individuals to perform all the necessary tasks that make a successful community, but the rewards are potentially great.

 

Related posts

The new media landscape (1)

The new media landscape (3)

 

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

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.18: Ratko Mladic and the limits of visibility

 

 

This photograph of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic after his arrest was (as Tom Keenan observed on Facebook) too long in coming but nevertheless still satisfying.

In many ways its hard to equate the pathetic visage on display here with the barbaric deeds Mladic’s forces committed in the Bosnian War between 1992-95, with the genocide at Srebrenica the most appalling. For anyone who doubts the enormity of the crimes committed under the leadership of Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the prosecutor’s indictment in Case No. IT-95-5/18-I should make salutary reading (thanks to @martincoward for the link). Mladic deserves a fair trial, and whatever the limitations of the ICTY in the Hague, the trial he will receive there will be infinitely fairer than the vengeance he wrought on thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in the former Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian War was something that preoccupied me for much of the 1990s, and I researched the issues it raised for years before publishing a book, National Deconstruction, on the subject in 1998. I subsequently conducted a detailed investigation of the controversy surrounding the media coverage of the Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps in the Prijedor region, which was published in 2002. It is the case that all sides in the conflict committed war crimes, but I have no doubt that the nationalist programme of Karadzic and Mladic – backed by Milosevic in Belgrade – resulted in the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. (To those who might want to redirect responsibility for the atrocities in comments, don’t bother, they won’t be posted. I’ve done my time trying to debate revisionists who want to diminish the suffering inflicted by those who partitioned Bosnia, and I’m no longer willing to engage people who are impervious to evidence).

The Bosnian War was a seminal event in the photographic visualization of atrocity, and one that exposed the limits of visibility. Because it took place on Europe’s border, was shown nightly on television, and widely pictured in the press, you might think that the abundant images of innocent victims would have provoked a major response from either Europe or America. The war was certainly a major media story. And there was much diplomatic activity and many grand statements by concerned leaders. But the fact is that no amount of visual evidence form the siege of Sarajevo, and the destruction of other cities, moved countries to offer more than under-equipped UN forces distributing inadequate care packages. When NATO did eventually act with limited air power towards the end of the war, it only secured the partition of Bosnia along lines that rewarded ethnic cleansing.

The idea that photographers, broadcasters and journalists could produce a just political response through the power of their imagery came up short in Bosnia. We still have much to learn about how pictures work and the nature of their relationship to change. In the meantime, I will take some belated satisfaction that we get to see the portrait of a man whose violent past has caught up with him.

Photo credit: Politika, via Reuters, from the MSNBC.com PhotoBlog

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.17: The starving child as symbolic marker

Contemporary news photographs are chosen less for their descriptive function and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives. Although news images can illustrate the story they accompany, it is often the case that the photograph published with a story does not depict the specifics of that story.

This photograph – a stereotypical famine picture from Ethiopia – that appeared in the print version of Monday’s Guardian is a case in point (the online version of the story is here, but it is illustrated with a political portrait of Berlusconi and Sarkozy). The photo’s relationship to the critique of France, Germany and Italy’s aid performance by the charity One is tangential at best. It seems that that a chain of association – aid, Bono and Geldorf, the 2005 G8 pledge and sub-Saharan Africa – justifies the use of “a malnourished child in Ethiopia.” While Ethiopia is subject to ongoing food insecurity, the World Food Program reports that after two troublesome years the situation is currently improving.

What is even more remarkable about this photograph, and what demonstrates further the symbolic function of news imagery, is that it was used previously by the Guardian in September 2009. On that occasion it accompanied a story headlined “By 2050, 25m more children will go hungry as climate change leads to food crisis.” In that instance the caption read “A malnourished boy at a feeding centre in Ethiopia. Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia will be most vulnerable to food shortages, the IFPRI report found.”

The original photograph was taken in June 2008 by Jose Cendon of AFP, and the Getty Images caption for editorial photo number 94984780 reads: “A malnourished boy is portrayed at a feeding center 10 June 2008 in Damota Pulassa village, southern Ethiopia. Ethiopia said the number of people in need of food aid had risen to 4.5 million from 2.2 million due to failed rains, as it issued a plea for international help. IFRC/AFP PHOTO/JOSE CENDON.” The key words are: “Fly, Center, Village, Horizontal, Africa, Famine, Ethiopia, Underweight, Feeding, Drought, Poverty, Child, Weather, Boys, Malnutrition, Crisis.”

 

 

Categories
photography politics

Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

What would a critical photographic response to the war in Afghanistan involve?

The is no single answer to that question, but having both contributed to and learnt from a workshop on the Burke + Norfolk show at the Tate Gallery in London this past week, it is one we have to pursue.

To begin to answer that question requires that the frames – the cultural, political and aesthetic frames that produce what Judith Butler calls “perceptible reality” – be exposed. First up is the fact that a set of myths about the Vietnam war and the role of the media in that conflict continue to shape how both the US military and its critics approach the imaging of war.

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible is a necessary step in ending it.

For the military the lesson learnt was that they need a better way of regulating the media, which resulted in a series of schemes culminating in the system of embedding implemented for the invasion of Iraq. For the critics, the conclusion was that showing an unsanitised view of war is the basis for any critical response. As a result, much of the debate around the imaging of Afghanistan has been locked into a stand off about the pros and cons of embedding.

The problem with this framing of the options is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s ‘The Uncensored War’ – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the national frame.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of it’s historical role and potential power. The visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones-Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’ obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective. Embedding is one such frame, but it is located within frames too, especially the frame of historical memory that has mythologized aspects of Vietnam. There is also the general journalistic frame that means, in the absence of any radical divisions amongst the governing political elite, the mainstream media presents what Hallin calls a “sphere of legitimate consensus” through which debate is prescribed and critical alternatives are marginalised.

Burke + Norfolk embodies one critical response to Afghanistan – bringing the historical frame into view by putting contemporary images about the allied war machine (some of them produced while embedded) into a relationship with nineteenth century imperial portrayals (reviewed here by Russell Watson). At the Tate symposium, Mishka Henner offered another strategy.

Although a documentary photographer, Henner is now working with “photography from the world” (images produced by others) as much as “photography of the world” (his own practice). He has produced a series of creative works from Google Earth and Google Street View databases. Using the latter, No Man’s Land is an insightful project that both reveals the marginal existence of sex workers and comments on the aesthetics of landscape photography. It is, he says, part of an effort to critique visual discourses through editing and curation that re-purposes their meaning.

 

Henner is now mining the US Department of Defense photographic collection looking for categories of images produced by particular stylistic frames. In a form of ‘coding’ that is categorising pictures throughout the identification of repeated styles, he is exposing what I think could be called the “sphere of legitimate aesthetics” through which Afghanistan is being made perceptible. Henner has uncovered hundreds of images that show, for example, men and machines silhouetted against golden sunsets (what he calls “Empire Sunset” and what Beierle and Keijser called “Sunset Soldiers“), soldiers extending hands to children (“The Friend”), and military doctors treating sick civilians (“The Healer”).

Simon Norfolk’s exposure of the historical frame, and Mishka Henner’s and Beierle and Keijser’s delineation of the stylistic frame, are new critical responses, though of course they are not the only ones. They won’t end the war, because no picture has the power to do so. The cliche that certain photographs can by themselves change the world is another of the myths that needs to be dispensed with. But photographs do force us to think hard about what is happening and why. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida “ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

First photo: Life, April 16, 1965

Second photo: Sunset soldiers, February 24, 2011

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.