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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:

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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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photography politics

The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Anderson

VP Magnum Photos New York

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

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

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

It reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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photography politics

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.”