Categories
photography Thinking Images

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

What is the power of photography?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Categories
media economy photography

Dead or alive? The state of photojournalism

Photography has always been associated with death. The French painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead” after he saw his first daguerreotype. Whatever the provenance of that quote, miniature portrait painting was replaced by new photographic technologies, even though their long exposure times meant, as Geoffrey Batchen has written, “if one wanted to appear lifelike in a photograph, one first had to act as if dead.” And with the rise of digital technologies in the 1980s and 1990s the discourse of photography’s death gained new life, as various commentators declared that the ease of image manipulation meant that photography’s documentary status had come to a terminal end.

As a specific practice within the broad field of photography, photojournalism has had its death proclaimed on numerous occasions too. In the 1950s the influential curator and critic John Szarkowski declared that photojournalism’s heyday had lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s. For those who didn’t accept this early cessation, the closure of Life magazine in 1972 was taken to be the moment of morbidity. Continuing signs of vitality have often been met with other declarations of death, as in The Digital Journalists’ January 2000 editorial (which was revisited in recent articles here and here). In the run-up to the 2009 Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan The New York Times weighed in with a “lament for a dying field.” Then in August this year, Neil Burgess – who has managed a number of prominent agencies and is an agent for Sebastiao Salgado and others – finally decided to call it: “Photojournalism: time of death 11.12. GMT 1st August 2010.” Amen.”

How can we understand these repeated death certificates? What drives these declarations when there is abundant evidence of the continuing production of new photographic stories? I want to examine these questions by thinking through the definition of photojournalism and some important moments in its history. I then want to suggest that if we appreciate the difference between a mode of information and a mode of distribution, we can understand much better exactly what is supposed to have been killed.

What is photojournalism and when did it live?

‘Photojournalism’ is an essentially contested category – there are a number of different accounts of what is or isn’t photojournalism, many photographers are happy to wear the label and many – like Christopher Anderson and Martin Parr – are not. I’ll call photojournalism the photographic practice in which someone tells a story about some aspect of their world, where this story is compiled first using lens-based imaging technologies that have a relationship with that world. This encompasses what others call documentary photography, editorial photography, and the like, but excludes works of visual fiction produced with computer-generated images.

The history of photojournalism is well told in Mary Panzer’s introduction to Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955, a book published by Chris Boot for the 50th anniversary of World Press Photo. Beginning with the Illustrated London News in 1842 and the first mechanically reproduced photograph in The New York Daily Graphic in 1880, it is clear that photojournalism has been profoundly influenced by new technologies and the modes of story telling they make possible. The arrival of small 35mm cameras in the 1920s, combined with the emergence of picture magazines in Germany, France and the United States in the 1930s, meant photo stories were more easily produced and published.

It did not take long, however, for the commercial constraints of these media outlets to grate with photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith’s resignation from Life magazine in 1955 after an editorial dispute came at a time, Panzer notes, when “most of the leading photojournalists were already freelance.” In the 1960s, wanting to exercise their editorial freedom photographers who started out working for magazines took advantage of reduced printing costs and started to bypass periodicals by publishing books. This was a significant development, as Panzer notes:

In retrospect, the point when photojournalists chose to publish their work in their own books coincides with the moment when the form began to outgrow its origins. A creation of the press, the photojournalist was beginning to claim a role beyond it.

Combined with the creation of galleries specifically for photography and increased interest from museums in the practice, visual story-tellers now had multiple avenues along which their work could travel. Indeed, Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, a show currently at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, makes the case that socially conscious photojournalism has flourished independently of the print media for decades.

Modes of information and modes of distribution

Central to understanding the current status and potential futures of photojournalism and documentary photography we need to always keep in mind the distinction between modes of information and modes of distribution.

Social media consultant Richard Stacy has provided what I think is the most succinct way to understand the defining characteristic of the evolving media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.

This is because the Internet has solved the problem of distribution and collapsed the cost of printing, as I discussed in my series of posts last year on the revolutions in the media economy. The web – the hyperlinked network of sites accessed via the Internet – offers a historically unparalleled opportunity to have a mode of distribution with global reach at virtually no cost (at least assuming access to computers and broadband, something that does have a price and is yet to be universal).

This repositions any debate about the ‘death of journalism’ and the ‘death of photojournalism’. We need to understand that journalism is the information and newspapers are the means of distribution. Equally, photojournalism is the information, and newspapers, magazines, books, and galleries are the means of distribution. There are profound changes underway in the modes of distribution, but this does not translate into the end for the modes of information.

So let’s come back to Neil Burgess’s recent declaration of photojournalism’s death. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, Neil was talking about the ‘death’ of a mode of distribution:

Today I look at the world of magazine and newspaper publishing and I see no photojournalism being produced. There are some things which look very like photojournalism, but scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.

You can see how Neil ties photojournalism directly to magazine and newspaper publishing. He recognizes that visual stories are being produced, but because they are being enabled by sources other than magazines and newspapers, for him they do not count as photojournalism. He then underlines this by declaring:

We should stop talking about photojournalists altogether…there is no journalism organisation funding photographers to act as reporters. A few are kept on to help provide ‘illustration’ and decorative visual work, but there is simply no visual journalism or reportage being supported by so called news organisations.

Even in its own terms, Neil recognizes (as he told the Foto8 Story is Born seminar in London on 1 October) that this is too bold a statement, as there is still the occasional piece commissioned by a news organization.

But even if news organisation offered no current support, Neil was wrong to suggest that as a mode of information photojournalism was no more. Photojournalism – or documentary photography, or whatever name we want to give visual story telling about the world – is not defined by its paymaster and mode of distribution. As David Walter Banks of Luceo recently observed, “It is absolutely ridiculous to say that photojournalism is dead…it’s definitely changing, but I think that’s exciting. The modes of delivery and consumption are changing, but there’s a lot of great work being done.”

If photojournalism had been left to the magazines and newspapers over the last fifty years it might very well have died. Richard Stacey knows why  – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”

That fact that as a practice, as a mode of information, photojournalism and documentary photography is very much alive is because over the last fifty years it has not tied its entire future to modes of distribution that are now undergoing revolutionary changes. That future has many challenges, but it is a future that has already moved well beyond the fortunes of newspapers and magazines.

References:

  • Geoffrey Batchen, “Ectoplasm,” Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (London: Chris Boot Ltd, in association with World Press Photo, 2005).

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license