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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.

 

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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.

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Thinking Images v.22: Sport, war and a fantasy

Iran marked it’s defense week last Thursday with a vast display of units and hardware. Among the photographs of the parade was this rather odd image. I saw it in print in the South China Morning Post, Reuters carried it in their spot news slideshow, and it was also captured in this
UPI gallery of the military parade

None of the captions cast any light on the reason for this units’ striking outfits. Resembling the British television game show “Gladiators,” where participants battled each other with padded implements, these soldiers were very different from their conventionally attired comrades. The picture is testament to the photographer’s eye for the exotic, the distinctive, the unexpected.

One detail that stands out is the Addidas logo on each blue or red vest. Is part of the Iranian army sponsored by the European sports wear company? More than unlikely, but it points nonetheless to the close relationship of sport and war. Think of the military metaphors that permeate sport (such as ‘battles’ over ‘territory)’, and the sport analogies present in the reporting of war (famously including General Schwarzkopf’s ‘hail Mary’ pass in the 1991 Gulf War).

The photograph also prompts a fantasy. What if international conflict was resolved through game shows? Any prospective regional clash with Iran might see ‘the Addidas unit’ take on their opponents over three rounds. It would certainly beat another war.

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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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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.  

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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.

 

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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

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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.”

 

 

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photography politics Thinking Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Thinking Images v.15: Syria, social media and photojournalism

Both the scale of the protests in Syria, and the violence of the regime’s response, is growing. Yet photojournalism is able to offer little about this vital story. While we have seen powerful coverage of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen, there seem to be few if any photojournalists – either freelance or associated with the wires – at work in Syria. I have seen one Flickr stream from Syria, but given the nature of the regime, a larger photographic absence is perhaps unsurprising.

In the place of photojournalism, media outlets are using video footage and screen grabs taken from social media sites. For example, to illustrate its 25 April story “Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began,” Reuters has a gallery of ten images many of which come with this warning:

this still image [was] taken from amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on [date]. Editor’s note: Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of the video from which this still was taken.

Reuters Pictures is selling many of these images for clients in a package labelled “Arab States Conflict (Anti-Government Protests in Syria – 25 Apr 2011).” The Guardian used one of them at the top of its Syria live blog on 26 April, and has a related gallery of pictures from protests in Homs here. While the social media provenance of the images is explicit in the Reuters’ credits – they read “REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV” – it is interesting that a picture produced by others can by watermarked by Reuters to protect its value.

Some of the social media-derived pictures are dramatic, as in the case of the man throwing a rock at a tank in Deraa (above). Many of them show large crowds streaming through the streets of various towns, the military gathering around those protests, and the deadly consequences of live fire.

There is, I think, a curious effect of this reliance on amateur images. On the one hand, their lack of a professional aesthetic – especially their graininess, poor focus, and unsteady composition – signifies authenticity and immediacy. The image makers are more interested in the politics than the picture. And yet, on the other hand, their capacity to make us connect with the events portrayed is diminished by the way they render people as anonymous crowds in a middle distance. As a result we lack, I feel, an insight into the people, their passions and purpose.

In Egypt especially we saw photojournalism using a professional aesthetic to connect us to the movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. I argued that coverage could have gone further and provided compelling multimedia accounts to further enhance our connection.

The coverage of Syria to date offers a different lesson. It’s not an argument against ‘citizen journalism’, because in the absence of professional photojournalism the only alternative to getting pictures via social media would be total blindness. We need professionals and amateurs to combine in producing a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, when the professional are not present, something is lacking.

Top photo: A man prepares to throw a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Deraa on April 25, 2011, in this still image from an amateur video. Credit: REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV.

Second photo: Syrian anti-regime protesters waving their national flag and holding a sign that reads in Arabic “Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Druze, I am Syrian” during a demonstration in the central town of Homs. Credit: YouTube/AFP/Getty Images.

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Thinking Images v.14: Looking for agents not victims in Congo

 

Paula Allen’s photograph of the women who helped build a centre for rape survivors in Bukavu, eastern Congo, is a bold depiction that combines celebration and power. As the double-page lead to Katherine Viner’s story on the City of Joy project in Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine, Allen’s photograph departs from much of the conventional reportage of the endemic violence against women in this conflict.

From the outset Viner’s story gives the women concerned a voice through the powerful speech of ‘Jeanne’, and Allen’s photos do the same, manifesting the importance of looking for agents not victims. As a Congolese project meeting the needs of Congolese women, the City of Joy project demonstrates that there are strong indigenous responses to the use of rape as a weapon of war. This theme and Allen’s images reminded me of the cliche-challenging work of Aubrey Graham (go to Images/Beyond the Victim (DRC) on her website).

Numerous photographers have documented the war in the Congo, and many of these projects have incorporated the stories of rape victims. (For multimedia examples, see the Sydney Morning Herald project “Sexual Warfare in the DRC“, Jean Chung’s “Tears in the Congo” or Robin Hammond’s  “Rape of a Nation“). In many ways its remarkable that women who have suffered so much are so willing to speak.

Last summer Aric Mayer wrote an incisive analysis of the problems associated with the photography of sexual violence. He summarised his concerns:

The issues brought up in photographing rape survivors are complex and potentially harmful to the subjects. The ways that photography, video and film function as representative media, and the economies and markets within which they are funded, produced, distributed, achieve recognition and ultimately widespread public exposure can mirror in some ways the trauma of sexual violence.

The possibilities for increasing the trauma are significant. There is the imposition of another person’s vision upon one’s personage, the loss of control over one’s likeness, the potential for permanent and public association with one’s trauma, the problem of consent when one is asked for it by someone in a position of power, and the commodification of one’s own suffering.

The dilemma here is that the normal photographic strategies for “giving an issue a face” can lead to a perpetuation of the original trauma. As Aric concludes:

Publishing names, faces and stories increases the overall reader/viewer engagement with the story. Therefore media pressure will frequently be in the direction of increased disclosure. It also permanently associates a survivor with their trauma in a world where the internet is increasingly available.

Despite the many stories of rape victims already produced, new work is planned. One example is the “Besieged” project that is pitching for crowd-funded support on Emphas.is. A collaboration between Sarah Elliott, Benedicte Kurzen, Ying Ang, and Agnes Dherbeys, they “have come together for this project to remind the world about the horrors of systematic rape in Eastern Congo.” I am not arguing for or against support for their project, though I have reservations about the assumptions linking visibility to political action that are behind the pitch. In a comment on the Emphas.is blog back in January, I suggested they take heed of Aric Mayer’s analysis, and Benedicte replied positively to this suggestion. However, that doesn’t seem to have had an impact on their public call, which details how they intend to construct “a large-scale PORTRAIT INSTALLATION of as many of the women, men and children raped over a 4-day period in Walikale of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as possible.”

While I can’t fault either the commitment or the desire of the “Besieged” partners to do something productive, are more portraits of rape victims – including children – the best way to go? They do outline other dimensions to the project, but pictures of victims are at its core. What if  the “representation of the humanity of these people” paradoxically mirrors the trauma of sexual violence? Might not an emphasis on the agency of victims, as in the photographs of Paula Allen and Aubrey Graham, be a more accurate and engaging visual strategy?

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Thinking Images v.13: Target Libya

More than 100 newspaper front pages are running Goran Tomasevic’s photographs of the airstrikes on Libya. These scans have been made and circulated today by Thomson Reuters, and demonstrate how particular images attract the eye of picture editors around the world. His most featured photograph shows “a bomb from an allied aircraft explod[ing] among vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Col Muammar el-Qaddafi during an airstrike Sunday.”

Pictures like these are what a British cabinet minister called “emotional optics” – visuals that prompt affective responses to international events. The impact of these “emotional optics” on public support for this military campaign remains to be seen, but the echoes of Iraq are concerning those responsible for the strikes.

 

 

 

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Thinking Images v.12: Fake bad girls

The Daily Mail is regarded as the paper of ‘middle England’. It covers prominently the social dangers perceived to threaten that nebulous identity. This Saturday it ran a feature headlined “Bad Girls,” driven by statistics on female criminality in Britain:

While criminal offences by young men have fallen, those committed by girls aged 10 to 17 have increased by 25 per cent over the past three years. Worse still, their violent offences have gone up by a staggering 50 per cent. According to the latest government statistics, one in four violent attacks now involves a female. This means that, in 2008, more than half a million assaults were either carried out by women or involved a female in a gang. In the same year, there were nearly 300 attacks a week carried out by girls under 18. Yet society remains preoccupied by male crime, and it’s still  struggling to catch up with these new kids on the block.

Illustrating the story, both in the paper and online, was this portrait of two knife-wielding girls:

Photo: 67photo/Alamy, licensed for use.

The credit for the photograph in the newspaper was “Alamy (Posed by models)”. The paper has used a set-up stock photograph to visually reference this social issue. Searching on Alamy I found that this is image BK7D3G taken by “67photo” somewhere in the UK in April 2010. It is one of a series of fourteen, amongst which is an extraordinary image with the caption “Teenage girl with baby abusing alcohol” (BK7B05):

Photo: 67photo/Alamy, licensed for use.

Many years ago I was at a World Press Photo seminar where Stephen Mayes presented an overview of industry trends, one of which was the use of constructed photo illustrations to support news stories. This example shows the trend is alive and well.

We also have to reflect on the role of the stock photographer here. On the one hand you have to recognise the enterprise of “67photo” divining British cultural anxieties and producing a portfolio of images ripe for a paper like the Mail to buy. On the other hand, you have to deplore the cynicism involved in doing that (though he/she is not alone in making such pictures). Above all else, I deplore the newspaper’s lack of authenticity in using staged stock photos to support an article on social issues.

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Thinking Images v.11: Kevin Frayer’s aerial view of Afghanistan

Different perspectives on the landscape of war in Afghanistan do exist. Two weeks ago The Frame (the photo blog of Californian newspaper The Sacramento Bee) published “Helmand Province from above,” nineteen black and white images from Kevin Frayer.

Kevin Frayer is a Canadian photojournalist currently working as the Associated Press Chief Photographer for South Asia. His work on the coal scavengers in Bokapahari, India was featured last week in The Guardian’s series “From the Agencies,” and demonstrates the skills of contemporary news agency photographers.

Frayer made the Helmand images this January while flying in a US Army medevac helicopter. The aerial view has historically been associated with a military perspective, particularly in the form of surveillance, but Frayer’s photographs show a range of scenes as the aircraft flies overhead, some of them featuring daily life, others recording moments of military activity.

Aside from their evident quality, Frayer’s photographs demonstrate that being on a military embed does not require the photographer to record only military subjects. In contrast to the three famous photographers who produced (among other images) very similar pictures of US casualties inside the medevac helicopters, Frayer has trained his lens outside the helicopter in order to take in a wider context by showing ordinary moments of daily life in Helmand.

(For a photographer’s discussion of the ‘medevac story’ phenomena see Daniel Etter’s post at dvafoto. There was an angry response from Louie Palu, one of the three photographers named in the BagNews post on the three similar images, reported in PDN, although his reaction doesn’t diminish Michael Shaw’s original argument about the overall effect of three major publications producing very similar and near simultaneous stories.)

Being black and white, Frayer’s photographs are also interesting in relation to the recent debate over the merits of Damon Winter’s iPhone pictures (which I discussed here, along with the similar imagery of David Guttenfelder). Because of the historical and professional legitimacy of black and white imagery in photojournalism, Frayer’s photographs are unlikely to attract any of the opprobrium directed at Winter, even though they are as unavoidably aesthetic as any photographic image of Afghanistan.

Main photo: In this aerial photo taken 20 January 2011 Afghans play soccer as seen from a medevac helicopter of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Shadow “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-214 Aviation Regiment near Marjah in the volatile Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan. Kevin Frayer/Associated Press.

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Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context

Jodi Bieber has won the overall 2011 World Press Photo award for her portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan women disfigured in an act of punishment (above left). Bieber outlines her thoughts on making the photograph in a brief interview here. Any image selected from over 100,000 entries produced by 5,847 photographers is going to draw its fair share of advocates and detractors. Rather than passing comment on the particular merits of the award, I am interested in what this photograph says about the context of pictures, how their meaning is produced, and how we judge them.

As many have observed, Bieber’s photograph recalls Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 (above right). In her brilliant essay on Gula’s picture, Holly Edwards notes the original function of McCurry’s picture was to “epitomize the plight of refugees displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Since that time “the image has been republished frequently in diverse contexts, its meaning altered and augmented with each incarnation.”

It is revealing that a portrait can be so mobile and fluid. It is also revealing that two photographs similar in style can point to such different political situations: refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in the case of Gula’s picture, and the barbarity of the Taliban in the context of the US-led invasion in the case of Aisha’s.

The individual portrait is the most common photographic style in the representation of context. But the portrait (as I argued in my 2005 World Press Photo Sem Presser Lecture) more often than not decontextualises and depoliticises the situation being depicted, leaving it to accompanying captions, headlines and texts to temporarily anchor meaning.

Jodi Bieber (whom I have never met) was interviewed after my lecture and remarked: “What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.” This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” its form was beyond her control (see below left). At the moment it entered the public domain the image was no longer Bieber’s.

 

Focusing on the headline, Jim Johnson calls the Time cover propaganda and the World Press Photo award a category mistake. He provides an effective demonstration of how meaning is changed by associated text with an imaginary cover using the same photo with the headline “What Still Happened Despite Ten Years of Occupying Afghanistan” (above right).

Johnson’s most insightful comment is that the World Press Photo award has performed another decontextualisation and depoliticisation of the Beiber photograph. The award process has extracted the image from the political issues it became associated with, reconstituted the picture as a discrete object, and reattached it to Jodi Bieber as author.

World Press Photo focuses exclusively on pictures alone, and the jury never sees anything other than the photographs themselves when making decisions (though in the case of well-known images such as the Aisha portrait they will surely know what they are looking at).

That is a curious process for the World Press Photo award. Most of us in the viewing public encounter photographs in one context or another. We rarely if ever see them in isolation, devoid of contextual elements. Shouldn’t WPP somehow consider the way images are published and circulated? I am not suggesting that the organisation take political issues and interpretations into account when making their decision. But can we really judge photographs in isolation as discrete objects any more?

Reference:

Holly Edwards, “Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 75-92.

UPDATE 23/02/11: The Sunday Times in Johannesburg has an interview with Jodi Bieber in which she offers some very brief reflections on the use of her of photo. In it she says:

When the story broke in Time magazine, it was berserk. The headline was misleading and it flew all over the world, all over, in front of Obama, everyone. But it was a good thing, regardless of the headline…

There were some women who said I objectified Aisha by showing her in that way, but I want to go and tell them: ‘F**k you, you’re sitting in an armchair at a university and she hasn’t got a nose. Must I show her crying and without ears, too?’

I learnt a lot, because there wasn’t just one response. It depended on whether you’re right- or left-wing American, or a feminist. In South Africa, it was more about the photograph, because we have no association with the politics between America and Afghanistan. In the end, you just put your picture out there and you can’t determine the response or push it in any direction.

While the observation that ‘you can’t determine the response’ is correct and reinforces her quote used in the post, given the significance and prominence of the image it would have been good to have heard more about its use. Whether she said more that didn’t make the final write-up is something we can’t know.

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Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

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

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.

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Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thinking Images v.7: Sudan’s politics in pictures

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

Sudan faces a momentous week beginning Sunday 9 January. A referendum in the south, mandated as part of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, could lead to the division of the country and the creation of a new state. Voting will take place over a week and the result should be known within a month of the polls’ closing.

Photo: Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images

For western eyes, Sudan has most often appeared as a site of famine or war, be it in the south or Darfur. Said to be “one of the hollow-bellied places of the world” or a landscape “seared by war,” the continent’s largest country has often been rendered via stereotypical images.

The politics of the situation facing Sudan is inevitably complex (the International Crisis Group has excellent analyses of the situation here and Alex de Waal has his usual profound insights here). So how can it be visualized? How can politics be represented in pictures?

This week we have seen two conventional strategies in response to that challenge. The first is to invoke images from the past, as in Lucian Perkin’s film for the United States Holocaust Historical Museum, which is running on The Guardian’s web site. Perkin’s film is interesting for the way it begins with Tom Stoddart’s black and white photographs of the 1998 Bar El Ghazal famine before moving onto personal testimony from civil war survivors.

The second is to record the appearance of the visible traces of politics, namely leaders engaged in ceremonies where the trappings of sovereignty are evident. Peter Martell’s pictures of President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to the south earlier this week are an example of this, showing Bashir’s welcome by the south’s leader Salva Kiir, with the requisite red carpet, military officials and marching band.

It is a lot to ask of a single photograph that it represent the complexities of politics, no matter how talented the photographer. No doubt in the week ahead we will see pictures of polling stations, queues of voters, and people raising inky fingers to signify the completion of their electoral act (hopefully images of conflict will be absent). Who, though, will produce something a little different?

UPDATE 8 JANUARY 2011

I didn’t catch up with yesterday’s print edition of The Guardian until this morning and found that the up-coming referendum was marked on their double-page Eyewitness spread by Stefan De Luigi’s photo of a woman gathering rubbish on the Juba dump where she lives. It seems an extraordinarily problematic choice for this political story. For those who hoped the stereotypes of ‘Africa’ as a place of absence, lack and distress were diminishing, the prominent publication of this sort of image in relation to this sort of story demonstrates we have a long way to go. It is possible (though I can’t confirm this) that the photograph comes from De Luigi’s Getty-supported “TIA – This is Africa” project, which was so effectively analysed by John Edwin Mason in October last year.

Caption: A woman gathers rubbish on a landfill site, where she lives, in Juba city. Voters in southern Sudan are preparing to vote on Sunday, when a seven-day referendum on separation from Africa’s biggest country begins. Photo: Stefan De Luigi/VII

While the above picture is flawed for this political story, the mainstream media does not necessarily have a consistent approach to visual representation. So in today’s Guardian we find a strong image from Spencer Platt of prosperous women in a pro-independence parade through Juba this week. If nothing else, it demonstrates their are always options when it comes to both the production and publication of photographs.

Caption: Hope at last: Women drive in a pro-independence parade in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, this week. Most of the four million registered voters are expected to choose separation. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Thinking Images v.6: Gaith Abdul-Ahad’s Taliban photographs

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

The visual landscape of the war in Afghanistan is primarily, and necessarily, a product of embedded reporting. However, because it is easier to be embedded with NATO military forces than the Taliban, we have only ever received an unavoidably partial representation of the conflict, no matter how good those accounts are.

Gaith Abdul-Ahad has done many impressive reports from Iraq and Afghanistan for The Guardian in recent years, and this week his story from inside a Taliban unit has offered an important view of the conflict from the other side (see also this article and video in which Abdul-Ahad describes his experience). I think the eleven accompanying photographs are among the few available recording an operational Taliban unit, but I would be interested in hearing of other examples. In many ways the content and form of these pictures is unremarkable, in so far as they mostly show men with weapons moving through the countryside, but as documents of the rarely glimpsed “enemy combatants” they are exceptional.

Patrick Cockburn had a considered article on embedded reporting in The Independent this week, offering more nuance than is suggested by the title alone. Gaith Abul-Ahad shows how being embedded can produce essential journalism.

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Thinking Images v.5: Picturing a protest and illustrating ‘Africa’

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

The vast majority of news photographs are illustrative – designed to provide a visual punctuation point for the story they accompany. They can arise from an event the day before, as in Thursday’s Guardian front page image of a person kicking in a window during the student protests in London.

Photo: Ray Tang/Jonathan Hordle/REX

A Reuters executive once described news as “a disruption of the norm,” and a violent moment in an otherwise peaceful political event fits the bill perfectly. It is for this reason that news fails so often to provide the context of the main issue, something that a number of journalism analysts are trying to address in their “future of context” project. Note also the way such happenings become photo opportunities, with the phalanx of photographers to the right of the protestor lapping up the action.

Thursday’s Guardian ran two images of ‘Africa’ that provided a non-stereotypical account of their subject, showing how in the absence of the most recent news images newspapers draw upon well-known and long-running projects to provide their visual resources. In the Guardian’s double-page Eyewitness spread was Joan Bardeletti’s prize-winning still from his important “Middle Class in Africa” project (although the image of the Mozambican family is bizarrely entitled “it’s a dogs life”). A couple of page’s later was one of Ed Kashi’s great Niger Delta photographs, anchoring the print version of the story on Shell’s PR campaign in the wake of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution fifteen years ago (the online version has a portrait of Saro-Wiwa).

It’s great to see something from ‘Africa’ that is a little different. One wonders, though, how much the photographers were paid for the publication of their images. I’ll guess it wasn’t much.

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photography politics Thinking Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmund Clark: Camp 4 Mecca Arrow Shackle Eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.3: Laura Pannack and Gideon Mendel

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

Here in the UK, last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine contained something a little bit unusual – two photo essays that many would regard as excellent examples of contemporary photojournalism and/or documentary photography (see my comments on how the practice is defined, in the fourth paragraph here, and the questions below).

The first was from Laura Pannack’s long term project on “Young British Naturists” which she introduced on her interesting blog back in January this year. Laura is an award-winning photographer and this project has received attention in the photographic press, but this weekend’s essay is a major presentation in the print media. Guardian Weekend published 23 photos in varying sizes across six pages, beginning on p. 32, with detailed captions containing quotes from the people portrayed.

The second was work by Gideon Mendel accompanying a report by Mohammed Hanif on the continuing devastation caused by the Pakistan floods. Gideon is an exceptional photographer whose long-term work on HIV-AIDS I have examined and long admired. This story contained 9 images across six pages (many of them large and hence less numerous than Laura’s story), beginning on p .46. The web version has an eight minute video as well, although sadly it has no audio from the people portrayed. One issue with the print story – something that is well beyond the control of the photographer, and an on-going problem with publication in commercial outlets – was the juxtaposition of photographs of devastation with advertisements for expensive televisions and UK city holidays, which always conveys an implicit sense of us/them and superior/inferior.

Apart from their obvious narrative value and visual craft, why did these two stories catch my eye? Well, its what they say about the publication priorities of the contemporary media, and the issue of whether they (especially Gideon Mendel’s) count as ‘photojournalism’.

One of the most oft-repeated claims is that modern magazines don’t carry difficult pictorial stories anymore, and I’ve always tended to agree. But I do wonder what a detailed content analysis of magazines and supplements from the alleged golden age of the 1960s onwards would actually demonstrate. Was the past replete with documentary images? Is the present devoid of them? A good research project awaits…

As to how the practice that creates these stories is named, the issue is whether work funded from a variety of sources over time (Pannack’s) or enabled by an NGO (Mendel’s, done in association with Action Aid) counts as ‘photojournalism’. Its not productive to have a battle of dictionary definitions, but I recalled Neil Burgess’s strong claim that this sort of work can longer be accurately described as photojournalism because it has not been commissioned and funded by the news outlet that carries it. Neil’s view is “let’s call them photographers or artists and say that they ‘do’ documentary photography.” There’s nothing at all wrong with this description, but should we limit our understanding of ‘photojournalism’ to a particular funding model, and should we dispense with ‘photojournalism’ as a descriptor simply because current ways of funding the practice do not follow that model?

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.2: John Moore, and the iPad autograph

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

 

John Moore’s long term project Detained – covering prison sites run by US military and intelligence agencies as part of the global war on terror – was featured on the Lens blog this week. Moore’s work is an important act of documentation, both covering and connecting sites that otherwise remain relatively obscure. It was reviewed a day before WikiLeaks – again in partnership with an array of global media outlets – released another tranche of documents from the Iraq war. These revealed more accounts of torture and more civilian deaths resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq. The more we find out the grimmer the picture becomes. (Caption for photo above: ‘Oct. 27, 2005: A juvenile detainee in a solitary confinement cage at Abu Ghraib was punished for talking through a fence to other detainees’).

This week Barack Obama became the first president to autograph an iPad, during a campaign stop in Seattle (photo: Susan Walsh/AP). Earlier this year Obama expressed his disdain for such devices, when he remarked that “with iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” Obama’s critique chimed with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim earlier this month that “the revolution will not be tweeted” – shorthand for saying that the transformative power of social media was being over-hyped. A couple of things unite Obama and Gladwell. First, both have no experience of the technologies they criticise. Obama confesses he doesn’t know how to work any of the things he names, and Gladwell has never been a Twitter user (something that led Jay Rosen to call Gladwell’s article an instance of journalistic malpractice. Alexis Madrigal is far less critical, but nonetheless points out two of Gladwell’s false assumptions here). Second, both see the platform itself as a political agent rather than just a mode of distribution, which nonetheless – because of the ease and scope of political collaboration it makes possible – has potential political consequences. An interesting counterpoint to this techno-cynicism is that in China (from where I am currently writing) it is the social media and sharing sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc) that are blocked. That doesn’t prove that they are inherently transformative, but it shows some regimes fear that might just help those pursuing change.

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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.1: Chile, Africa and British students

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

You would have to a cold-hearted person not to have been moved in some way at some time by the rescue of the Chilean miners. But there are always other dimensions to such stories. During the week Jay Rosen tweeted: “A big story and a great story, but does 1300 journalists covering the Chilean miners have anything to do with reality?” Later he added: “Wait: you’ve got 1300 reporters at the miners rescue AND you’re asking, “Who’s gonna pay for the Baghdad bureau, people…” You’re sure now?” Yes, when ‘the media’ gets mobilised it can cover international stories exhaustively. So when they say they can’t afford to do other stories, it’s a matter of choice rather than economics. (Photo: Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne (center) speaks during a press conference at the San Jose mine near the city of Copiapo on October 12, 2010. Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images).

Visuals include graphics, and this thoughtful map from Kai Krause has been doing the rounds, circulated by those who want a more complex view of ‘Africa’. It certainly makes a good point, and yet…in comparing a continent with countries, doesn’t it run the risk of perpetuating the homogenization of Africa’s 61 political territories into one entity?

The UK Con-Dem government’s announcement of an increase in tuition fees for university students saw many media outlets turn to the tried and true trope of graduating students in their gowns, as in this Christopher Furlong/Getty Images photo used by The Guardian. The failure of the media to find a way of visualizing higher education beyond these stereotypes is part of a larger representational problem for the university sector. In the absence of contemporary portrayals of mass education in an under-resourced environment, these images reproduce The Brideshead Revisited (or Educating Rita) view of university life, where staff are ‘dons’ who seem to occupy large offices, drink sherry in the afternoon and teach in leisurely one-on-one tutorials. An interesting documentary project awaits the photographer who wants to spend life on campus to see its increasing pressures.