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photography politics

Thinking Images v.25: Iran as perpetual enemy

Iran has a prominent place in America’s geopolitical imagination. The Shah assumed absolute power after a 1953 coup engineered by the UK and the USA removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, only to be overthrown twenty five years later in a revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mutual animosity was secured through the 1979 hostage crisis, during which US embassy staff were held captive in Tehran for 444 days. Add to that Iran’s lamentable human rights record, and concerns over its regional military posture, and Iran has long been a part of the ‘axis of evil’ around which the US structures its strategic outlook.

Against this backdrop are occasional attempts to offer a different view of Iran. The Atlantic’s In Focus 6 January gallery “A View Inside Iran” is one such effort, with 42 pictures from agency photographs capturing prosaic scenes over the last year. This is a good and worthwhile mining of the visual archive to make a general point. It is structured in terms of implicitly providing the inverse image to the stereotype. Other than two shots of crowds engaged in Islamic rituals (#6, #19), we see individuals, artists, sports people, and religious minorities (including Christians and Jews) going about their business peacefully. Against the vague notion of Iran being backward, we see common markers of modernity, including city scenes, internet cafes, people on mobile phones and market traders. To ensure balance, the captions are careful to note the contradictions of Iranian life. The July 2011 photo (above) by Reuters’ Caren Firouz shows mother and daughter Shahrzad and Noora Naraghi practicing on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran. After detailing their commitment to the sport, it states “women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran.” Likewise, the Raheb Homavandi photograph (#41) of the internet cafe makes clear how official censorship works.

Another challenging view of Iran emerged this week through Tyler Hicks’ extraordinary images of the US Navy’s capture of Somali pirates, and the release of thirteen Iranians the pirates had held for a month. Detailed in a series of revealing images, and supported by the vivid writing of C.J. Chivers (here and here), this event would have likely gone unrecorded had Hicks and Chivers not been on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. I was interested to see one reader’s comments on the Chivers/Hicks story, marked as a ‘NYT pick’:

This was a great saga, proving the greatness, compassion and the ability of our military and our values as the most blessed nation on this earth. We show kindness even to our enemies. What sacrifice our armed forces made and courage they displayed!

This rescue notwithstanding, and in contrast to the benevolent American exceptionalism imagined by this reader, US policy towards Iran remains hostile (as does Iranian policy towards the US, Israel and others). Indeed, there are worrying signs that Iran is being embedded in a bellicose narrative reminiscent of the run up to the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Before Christmas US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta conducted a network television interview on board the US nuclear command aircraft (the “Doomsday Plane”), to make the point that the US would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran and that all policy options for responding to a potentially nuclear armed Iran were on the table. He reiterated much of this message yesterday in another CBS interview. And in an unfortunate echo of the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times has been called out for misleading readers by overstating Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

More complex, nuanced photographic accounts of Iran – including those of the many fine Iranian photographers, such as Newsha Tavakolian – are not going to halt misleading journalism or militaristic policy in its tracks. But they might just make some of us pause and think about Iran’s automatic status as a perpetual enemy.

Featured photo: Noora (right) and Shahrzad Naraghi practice on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran, on July 3, 2011. Shahrzad Naraghi started riding motocross eight years ago to spend more time with her daughter Noora who became interested in the sport after watching her father compete in races, and began riding motorcycles at the age of four. The pair raced against each other at first and in women’s only motocross races in Iran in 2009. In 2010, Noora travelled to the United States, completed training courses and raced in competitions sponsored by the American Motorcyclist Association. Women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran. Copyright: Reuters/Caren Firouz.

Second photo: In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month. Sailors detained the Somali pirates in a small skiff. Copyright: Tyler Hicks/New York Times, 6 January 2012.

Categories
photography politics

Imaging famine: How critique can help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What now?

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

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

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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