photography politics

Has concerned photography a future? Photojournalism, humanitarianism, responsibility

For a long time I have argued that ‘photojournalism’ – that broad swathe of photographic practice that tells visual stories about the world, and which can include documentary, editorial, news or social photography – has a particular responsibility and a particular opportunity to both represent the world better and make better worlds imaginable. It is a sensibility that shares much with Cornell Capa’s desire, articulated in his 1968 anthology The Concerned Photographer,  for “images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism.”

In 2005 I gave the Sem Presser Lecture at the World Press Photo awards, with the same title as this post. It was a chance for me to pull together many of the theoretical, political and practical issues implicated in the production of “concerned” photographs. The purpose was to offer a diagnosis of our contemporary political condition and how a reflexive approach to the production of visual imagery representing that condition might offer a way of negotiating the limitations that bind us all. Five years on, while much could be added to the argument, I feel that the central concerns are still relevant.

World Press Photo once had plans to publish the Sem Presser lectures in a volume, but nothing ever came of those. As a result, I have been meaning for some time to make available the lecture I gave. In this post you will find a summary of the central argument, along with links to the full text, the accompanying slides as well as an audio recording of the event (introduced by Michiel Munneke, managing director of World Press Photo). The quality of that is not great – having been produced via a friend’s recorder in the audience – but it is better than nothing. Links to all these things can be found at the bottom of this post.

Photography’s distinction has always been – and should remain so, in my view – that it has a connection to the world outside imagination. The world is not an unproblematic reality and that connection is not that of an unmediated copy. As a technology of visualization photography constructs, and representation is unavoidable. But there is still some force to the notion of “indexicality” even as we problematise the notion of the index. The event and the world may not be a secure foundation for truth, but it still offers limits on lies.

Our current global context is one of permanent war, an on-going state of emergency and frequent humanitarian crises (Yemen is only the latest trace of this). Injustices abound, but a combination of military strategy and media corporatisation has meant the image of conflict available to us is being severely restricted – despite the proliferation of television channels through cable, digital and satellite.

One of the central issues we face is that large parts of the military, media and information industries have become interwoven and interdependent. This is no accident. Instead, it is a product of transformations in US (and British, and NATO) military strategy that go under the name of the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that has been underway since the 1990s.

The RMA is concerned with how networked information technology is integrated into and changes the battlefield for the military. This means that ‘the battlefield’ is not just a place where military units operate in distant locations. The battlefield is something that surrounds us at all times. We now find ourselves located within – not just the ‘military-industrial complex’ President Eisenhower warned Americans of in 1961 – but what James Der Derian has called the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET).”

Despite the pervasiveness of this new strategic environment and the scale of the challenge, puncturing the de-humanising logic of the RMA offers an opportunity for photojournalism. I think that photojournalism can be an instrument of humanitarian intervention in contemporary conflict even though the concept of humanitarianism has been appropriated by the leading military powers to justify their recent interventions.

Photojournalism is well suited to be an instrument of humanitarian intervention because documentary photography itself has humanitarian roots, and in the lecture I go through the well-known contributions of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and the FSA, amongst others. Nonetheless, significant though it was, the humanitarian ethos of photojournalism in the twentieth century should not be overly romanticised. It was the social conscience of a liberal sensibility that very much wanted to reform a system rather than fundamentally challenge or change a system. Sometimes it was also quite patronising and paternalistic.

So in the lecture I posed this as the central question:

If we were to revivify photojournalism’s humanitarian ethos in the era of global neo-liberalism, network centric warfare and the permanent emergency, what photographic form and style would enable a new progressive stance?

It was then, and is probably still, an impossible question to answer. But working through it helps unpack some of the issues. In the lecture I considered a series of photographs from Darfur. I read them in relation to the fact that Darfur is not a “tragedy”. Darfur is not “another disaster in Africa.” Darfur is a crime – indeed, a series of war crimes committed by people in Darfur and tolerated if not encouraged by people beyond Darfur. How can we picture that?

The most common approach involved foregrounding the ‘personal code’ – using individuals, often in close up, as the locus of the image. But in the absence of special measures to counter this, the personal code implicitly decontextualises and depoliticises the situation, and this is perhaps the most common theme and problem with much documentary photography and photojournalism.

The prominence of the personal code prompts a difficult question: how different are these images from pictures important to photography’s past? Photography emerged as a technology central to the development of anthropology and the power of colonialism – it helped fix and objectify the native in a way that secured racial hierarchies.  The intentions of most contemporary practitioners are of course radically different. But, have we come far enough from this sort of representation? Can we say that photography is now post-colonial? Or does it, even inadvertently, reinforce colonial relations of power? Again, there are no easy answers, but asking the question is an essential part of exercising responsiblity.

How did this lecture go down with the 2005 World Press Photo audience? As the subsequent World Press Photo report demonstrated, it was a mixed reception. This reflected in part the tension between the lecture and its setting. In previous years Vicki Goldberg, Fred Ritchin and then I offered Sem Presser lecture’s with perspectives from outside the industry, and this was not always an easy or comfortable fit with the celebratory air of the award days. It is interesting to see, therefore, that recent lecturer’s at the event have been distinguished photographer’s talking about their practice. While valuable, this means there is a need for World Press Photo to offer a public forum where the many issues facing photojournalism can be debated.

Sem Presser Lecture 2005 – text


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Featured post photo: Queue of containers next to a water source in Farchana UNHCR refugee camp, Chad, June 2004. Sven Torfinn/Panos.