photography politics

The gun and the camera: an historical relationship

The link between the camera and gun is evident in a shared metaphor, but is historically closer than we might imagine.

During the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a marine shooting an insurgent in a mosque. Jon Kudelka’s cartoon (published in The Australian) references this event and points to the similarities between shooting images and people, something we recognise through that common language.

However, as Paul Landau has written, the connection exceeds language because “the technologies of the gun and camera…evolved in lockstep,” with George Eastman of Kodak the pivotal figure.

In the 1860s the development of breech loading guns, using chemicals enclosed in a cartridge with an interior firing pin, gave the hunter a mobile weapon with ammunition that did not explode in the users face. At the same time dry-plate photography replaced plates hand coated with collodion, thereby solving some of the chemical restraints on mobile photography.

However, making a photograph was still a cumbersome business. Although some dry plate cameras were explicitly modelled on Colt revolver mechanisms, and cinema cameras looked to machine guns for design elements, there was still a lot of camera equipment to be carried while travelling if one wanted to make images.

After cancelling a trip to Santo Domingo because of the bulk of photographic equipment, George Eastman – later to found Eastman Kodak – resolved to produce something simpler.

Eastman partnered with William Walker, the first camera maker to use manufacturing methods pioneered by gun makers to permit interchangeable parts. But it was their use of chemistry that provided both the greatest breakthrough and the clearest link with gun technology.

Eastman and Walker developed a paper negative that used guncotton. A French inventor extended that by creating a gelatinized guncotton that could be cut into strips, thereby also permitting the first modern smokeless gun powder. When the first Kodak was released in 1888 it took 100 exposures on sheets of dry, etherized, guncotton backed up paper.

The next development involved Eastman Kodak’s chief chemist adding amyl acetate to guncotton, creating a stable “celluloid”. A year later two English chemists made the explosive cordite by adding nitroglycerine and acetone to guncotton. As Landau concludes, “breech-loading guns and the Kodak camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges.”

Have we, in the digital era, freed ourselves from photography’s’ violent genealogy?

Reference: Part of this account draws on Paul S. Landau, “Empires of the Visual: Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa,” in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 146-49.

Cartoon credit: Jon Kudelka, The Australian, 2004. From a postcard representing ‘Behind the Lines’, a travelling exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia.

photography politics

The elusive enemy: Looking back at the “war on terror’s” visual culture

Last week The Guardian published an extraordinary report on how Al Qaeda is using aid to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of displaced Somalis in East Africa’s zone of food insecurity. Jamal Osman’s investigation – including a compelling eleven minute video – reveals how aid workers and medical units, including American and British citizens, are making food and money available in a refugee camp in southern Somalia.

What is striking about the photographs and video that Osman’s team produced is the way the Al Qaeda unit is both present and absent. While their aid distribution was a carefully orchestrated media event, with their leader reading a prepared statement to a group of journalists, the Al Qaeda personnel remained shrouded in scarves obscuring their faces throughout.

Al Qaeda’s elusiveness is something that has marked the decade long ‘war on terror’. After ten years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US-led military interventions that made those countries the front line are slowly being wound up. What began with the October 2001 launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is now the United States’ longest war, and the American commitment is being scaled back as part of the transition to Afghan security control by December 2014. In Iraq the change is swifter, with President Obama announcing last month US combat forces will withdraw from the country by years’ end.

These changes provide useful markers against which to think about the visual culture of conflict, specifically the ‘war on terror, over the last decade. As this post will argue, focusing on news photography and photojournalism, the visual culture of the ‘war on terror’ over the last ten years can be understood as both beginning and ending with absence.

As a response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, the ‘war on terror’ was inaugurated in President Bush’s congressional address on 20 September 2001. Denoting the attacks as an “act of war,” Bush mapped a moral geography in which an axis of evil divided those who were with America from those in conflict with America. This moral geography was heavily indebted to notions of identity/difference that have historically driven US foreign policy. It also constructed a narrative of terror that obscured other potential points of origin for a war, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, or Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of a jihad against Jews and Crusaders that preceded those attacks (as detailed in Stuart Elden’s Terror and Territory).

Because the ‘war on terror’ was understood as a new type of conflict, fought against an “elusive enemy” in disparate and dispersed locations, visualizing the event was always going to be a challenge. Through its enactment as a response to something real yet virtual, the ‘war on terror’ was an event that both privileged representation yet made representation difficult. What overcame this aporia is the way the ‘war on terror’ has, for us, been largely framed by US-led military action, such that the overwhelming majority of photographs we associate with the ‘war on terror’ are both concerned with and part of US-led military action that began with the 7 October 2011 attack on Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.

It is common to identify the embedding of journalists and photographers with US and allied forces as the primary reason for the affinities between images and strategy (which is something I debated with Tim Hetherington). Embedding has played a significant role in the visualisation of Afghanistan, though not from the beginning, because when Operation Enduring Freedom began the Pentagon had not yet conceived the specific system. Moreover, given that the first military operations in Afghanistan were covert actions by Special Forces against a non-state actor, embedding was from the military’s viewpoint untenable. As a result, the US-led strikes in Afghanistan proceeded with minimal media access but there were few if any serious protests about this lack.

The early photographic coverage of Afghanistan was, therefore, part of the overall coverage of the ‘war on terror’ arising from the 11 September attacks. Photography is deployed to mark globally significant events, and some US newspapers underwent a “sea change” in their use of news pictures, doubling the number published after 9/11. Part of this proliferation of images was the use of pictures that, while showing something from the general area of operations, did not depict the specific events being reported. This symbolic function, where the repetition of icons associated with 9/11 provided cues and prompts for viewers, meant photographs became a means of moving the public through its trauma, enabling support for the military action in Afghanistan.

A severely wounded US Marine hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) is carried by his comrades to a medevac helicopter of U.S. Army’s Task Force Lift “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-171 Aviation Regiment to be airlifted in Helmand province, on October 31, 2011. The Marine was hit by an IED, lost both his legs and fights for his life. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

What we have come to see from Afghanistan is a steady stream of familiar pictures made up of allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families (the monthly galleries at The Atlantic offer examples). Of course there are exceptions, and very occasionally we get to see things from the other side. But generally photojournalism on the front line has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an elusive opponent, with allied soldiers and their weaponry front and centre. Much the same can be said of the visualisations of Iraq since 2003.

Coverage of the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the value to government of the embedding process (although Simon Norfolk has demonstrated being embedded does not preclude making photographic work that questions government policy). Michael Griffin’s survey of US news magazine photographs showed “a highly restricted pattern of depiction limited largely to a discourse of military technological power and response.” However, while the number of combat photographs from Iraq increased from those published in the 1991 Gulf War, they still only comprised ten percent of published pictures. This was less than expected from front-line reportage, and demonstrates that news pictures are less concerned with the first-hand recording of events and more with the repetition of familiar subjects and themes. While individual photographers felt they operated with freedom within the system of embedding, and sometimes even broke the rules, the way their pictures were used in publications did not challenge the official war narrative. That is because the news photographs the public ends up seeing are chosen less for their descriptive function or disruptive potential and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes the prosthetic hand of Medal of Honor award recipient U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Leroy Petry after he introduced Obama to speak at the American Latino Heritage Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 12, 2011. SFC Petry lost his right hand tossing away a grenade to save his fellow soldiers during combat in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

As a result, much of our media operates within the limits of official discourse, with journalists working on the field of perception through commitments to their national frames (something apparent in images of official ceremonies with their symbols of sovereignty, as in the Kevin Lamarque/Reuters photograph of a Medal of Honor recipient). Although we still harbour a belief that journalism is indebted to the ethos of the Pentagon Papers or Watergate, fearlessly investigating government failings, much contemporary war coverage directly or indirectly supports military strategies. For example, although British television broadcasters exhibit more faith in the idea of impartiality when compared to the overt patriotism of their American counterparts, a review of their Iraq invasion coverage found that “when it came to contentious issues such as WMDs or the mood of the Iraqi people…overall, all the main television broadcasters tended to favour the pro-war, government version over more sceptical accounts.”

Throughout the last decade, whatever the intentions of individual practitioners, news photography has re-presented the ‘war on terror’, in the form of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, in ways consistent with military strategy. Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’, obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective, rendering casualties and context as absent. Nowhere was this clearer than in the official White House photo of Osama Bin Laden’s killing. Instead of releasing an image of Bin Laden, what we saw was the Obama national security team in the Situation Room watching a monitor on which the event might have been unfolding. The centrality of absence to the visualisation of the war on terror could not have been more obvious.

Embedded journalism has contributed to this confined view, but this practice has also been constrained by the way the media generally offers a limited challenge to established positions. In this context, calling for an unsanitized view of the war is bound to be insufficient as a strategy for challenging the official photographic narratives. What we require is the exposure of all the frames involved in the production of the field of perceptible reality. To that end, enacting an alternative view requires an aesthetic strategy that draws history into view, pluralizes perspectives, and seeks to overcome the absences that have marked the pictorial coverage to date. Given that the struggle with Al Qaeda will outlast the American withdrawal from both Afghanistan and IRaq, this will be an on-going project.

This post is based on an editorial written for, and cross-posted here and at BagNewsNotes with permission. 

Featured top photo: Al-Qaida medical workers at Ala-Yasir camp in Somalia, also known as K50. Jamal Osman for the Guardian.

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.

More posts photography politics

The problem with the dramatic staging of photojournalism: what is the real issue?

Photojournalism Behind the Scenes [ITA-ENG subs] from Ruben Salvadori on Vimeo.

Ruben Salvadori’s video – “an auto-critical photo essay” – demonstrates clearly that when we see a conflict, what we see is the outcome of “conflict image production.” It’s like those still photographs which reveal photographers at work – 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 many other examples.

These all demonstrate that photographs are neither mirrors nor windows offering untrammelled access to events. Events come to be through technologies of visualisation, and that is a process in which all participants in the visual economy (subjects, image makers, news agencies, media networks, audiences, and others) have a role in the construction of people and places.

The difficult conclusion from this is that all photography is staged. But, as I’ve argued previously, staging is not the same as faking. Photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. However, events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre, and photographers emphasise the dramatic. And if you look at the examples offered by the Italian digital lab 10b Photography, we can appreciate that aesthetic dramatisation has long been, and continues to be, part of the most respected photojournalism.

When these stagings produce or reinforce stereotypes, they are a big problem (as duckrabbit rightly argued in their take on Salvadori’s video). But photography’s dramatic stagings are not the main problem. I believe that avoiding or challenging stereotypes necessitates changing the terms of the debate.

The problem is that too often controversies over the staging of images proceed as though there is a photography free from staging (meaning construction, enactment, interpretation, or production). Moments of staging are called out, seen as exceptions, and judged against supposedly universal norms. An example is the way the excellent PetaPixel blog introduced Salvadori’s video. Calling it “eye-opening,” they wrote:

Here’s a fascinating video in which Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori demonstrates how dishonest many conflict photographs are. Salvadori spent a significant amount of time in East Jerusalem, studying the role photojournalists play in what the world sees. By turning his camera on the photographers themselves, he shows how photojournalists often influence the events they’re supposed to document objectively, and how photographers are often pushed to seek and create drama even in situations that lack it (emphasis added).

Salvadori’s video is certainly revealing, but “eye-opening” suggests a level of surprise that few in photography should have. It reinforces the idea that what we see in this case are a few bad apples who are failing to be “objective”. There is much that needs to be said about the claim of objectivity with regard to photography, and I hope to write more later. But how could a photojournalist in the scene Salvadori films not influence events? The presence of a camera changes the dynamics of any situation regardless of the intentions of the photographer. Indeed, any scene is changed by the presence of any participants, so the idea that you can imagine a scene that is hermetically sealed from those in and around it is naive. If scenes are to be witnessed, then witnesses will inevitably ‘contaminate’ the scene. And what would an “objective” photo of this scene look like? I can imagine many different images from those moments, but can you conceive of any that aren’t constructed?

Surely it’s time to drop the pretence of shock when photography’s constructed-ness is exposed. If we constantly view the essential nature of photographic practice – that it inescapably and unavoidably constructs, enacts, and produces images – as always exceptional and sometimes perverse, we are missing the main problem. That is, how, within a practice that necessarily constructs the world, can we produce authoritative accounts of events and issues?

I suspect many might read this and misunderstand the point I am struggling to make. I am not defending the conflict photographers portrayed in Salvadori’s important video essay. Their images are dramatised, though in ways common to conflict photojournalism. Nor am I arguing the images they produce are the best of that scene. Finally, I am not minimising the problems caused by dramatic stagings that turn into one-dimensional stereotypes.

Above all else, I want to argue that its ultimately self-defeating for photographers to be outraged by the idea that photographs construct situations. Let’s judge how pictures produce narratives, and the effects of those narratives, instead of being hung up on the fact narratives are produced. If we are constantly bogged down in the unfounded belief that somehow there is a photography unencumbered by the problems of representation, we will never move the debate on visual enactment forward.

To underscore these points, I’ll enlist Errol Morris’s support. Morris recently condensed the argument of his book Believing is Seeing (well reviewed by David White) into ten tweets. Numbers 1, 9 and 10 are most relevant to this post:

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[blackbirdpie id=”120570913224790016″]


photography politics

September 11, 2001: Imaging the real, struggling for meaning


As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches images of the event are being recycled and recirculated. Many of them are familiar, and the meaning of the event now seems fixed. But anniversaries are part of the process of fixing memory, and as they are repeated they can obscure the uncertainty that prevailed at the moment they now memorialise. They also render a general date as a singular moment, obscuring other historical events of great significance that occurred in previous years on September 11

A couple of weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, I wrote an essay for The Information Technology, War and Peace Project at Brown University on how we struggled to comprehend ‘9/11’ and the role photography played in that process. I am re-posting it here, ten years on, as both an act of commemoration, and a reminder about the interpretative work required to render something as a world historical event.

“The images were just reality, in every bit of its full-color unmediated ugliness.” At first glance, who could disagree? A tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Frightened workers hanging from the windows. An aircraft flashing across the sky and slamming into the second tower. A fireball. The collapse. The screams of the on-lookers, the dust, the rubble, the darkness, and then the silence. As ugly a reality as anyone would never wish to see again.

But we did see it again. And again, and again. Over and over. Television went to live coverage, and as word spread through homes and offices connected to global news networks, hundreds of millions of people distant from the epicenter of disaster became eyewitnesses to the previously unimaginable. We sat with mouths open and heads in hands, aghast at the events unfolding before our own eyes. Real events, in real time, offered up to us through the reality of television. Which then looped the video of those extraordinary one hundred minutes in which some 6,000 people were killed [a number later reduced to 2,977 civilians], and repeated it, and reused it, and recycled it endlessly, searing those images into the public mind.

And yet those images stubbornly defy comprehension. For all that we were there even when we lived elsewhere, for all that we could re-witness them on subsequent news bulletins, and for all that we can still access them on various web sites, the video footage of September 11, 2001 does not seem real. That is why the fictional realm of the disaster movie became for so many the referent of the domain of fact we observed that day.

The morning after brought the newspapers. Across the world, there was a remarkable unanimity of image and headline, with the exploding towers as a sign of attack, war, apocalypse, and terror. My own daily paper in England was no different. On the front page of The Guardian was the fireball produced at the moment the second aircraft flew into the north tower. Inside, however, was something quite different. Text and advertisements were evacuated from pages two and three, and replaced with a single black and white photograph stretching all the way across the double spread. It was southern Manhattan, enveloped in the dust and smoke of the now destroyed World Trade Center. One of the paper’s staff explained that the newsroom’s initial reaction to the catastrophe was stunned silence, and that the use of the opening photographs the following day was designed to make the paper begin “speechlessly.” It worked, and you lingered over the image, reflecting on the events that had produced it, still struggling to come to terms with the event. Television later employed a similar strategy. On the Friday after the attack two news programs in England concluded their broadcasts with a series of still images, each static on the screen for much longer than usual, to the accompaniment of somber music.

The capacity of a photograph to prompt reflection, particularly after a day of non-stop video, recalls Susan Sontag’s argument that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Indeed, one consequence for the media of September 11 has been something of a reinvigoration of photojournalism. Many newspapers have published remarkable images captured by photographers who were at or near the World Trade Center as soon as they learnt of the disaster. With Manhattan being one of the world’s most media rich environments, some of the world’s best-known photojournalists have found the biggest story of recent time taking place in their backyard. And with the web sites of well known media outlets offering a cost effective capacity for publishing the work of these photojournalists, we have been able to see the powerful images of James Nachtway, Anthony Suau (Photoessays @ Time), Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress (Portfolio @ The New Yorker) faster than was previously possible.

The use of photojournalism simultaneously in both print and electronic form highlights an important feature of photography. In and of themselves, photographs do not convey a particular narrative that gives meaning to an event. Photographs rely on headings, captions, and accompanying articles for the creation of meaning. Nachtwey’s photo essay “Shattered” [now updated with some outtakes] comprises fourteen images, [originally] displayed without captions. The lack of framing that results from the absence of text allows the viewer to read them in a number of ways. But when five of those photographs are taken from the series and, along with the work of others, resituated in the special print issue of Time in a section entitled “Day of Infamy,” they function differently. The cumulative effect of associating the pictures with text in a particular way is that they act as an affidavit supporting “the case for rage and retribution” angrily proclaimed by Lance Morrow in the magazine’s final essay. However, the creation of photographic meaning through intertextual location is not restricted to the presence of immediate referents. It also includes the way in which contemporary images are situated through visual citations to established historical narratives. For example, Thomas Franklin’s shot of three fireman raising the Stars and Stripes on a pole amid the ruins invokes the (staged) image of five marines raising the flag at Mt Surabachi, Iwo Jima, in early 1945, thereby further connecting September 11 to World War II.

It is ironic that in an age where real time video has proliferated, the very ubiquity of the stream of images has revivified the power of photojournalism. All the more so given that the attacks on the World Trade Center were said to herald the end of the age of irony. Writing in Time [in one of those proclamations that looks grossly overstated ten years on], Roger Rosenblatt saw the carnage as a chance to chastise the chattering classes who he says claim nothing is real, while other commentators have seized the opportunity to deride those intellectuals they cast as propagators of postmodern and/or postcolonial themes about representation and power. Such polemics minimize the interpretive work a catastrophe demands. One photograph from a picture essay concerned with the aftermath of September 11 [above] reveals the extent to which the reality of a disaster is neither instantly nor easily apprehended. Focusing on “the media blitz,” Anthony Suau’s image centers on a reporter going live to air with an interview for a television station, “Ground Zero” a long way off in the background, while the street is lined with the banks of electronic equipment necessary for the broadcast. As the caption to the image observes, “on nearly every street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” We are all looking for angles, all trying for comprehension, all struggling to understand.

Far from sidelining issues of representation and power, September 11 has foregrounded them. While the hijackings, the crashing of the aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the collapse of the buildings, and the massive loss of life are all too real and all too shocking as events, what they mean is anything but clear. Allan Feldman once observed, “the event is not that which happens. The event is that which can be narrated.” The hours, days, and weeks since the attacks have seen a deluge of different narratives. The outpouring of words, from the personal reflections of those involved to the political recommendations of those at a distance (most of which Susan Sontag has condemned for “reality-concealing rhetoric” designed to “infantilize the public”), all accompanied by a multitude of images, represents the impossibility of an instant and agreed narrativization of an event, even when we have all witnessed its occurrence live.

The act of witnessing made possible by real time video and twenty-four hour news channels has, despite the impression of being beyond mediation, some real limitations. Indeed, what we saw on television on September 11 wasn’t what the event was like. The event was much more horrific than the impression conveyed by the television pictures. Remarkably for an event that saw more people die on US soil than any other single day in American history, the television coverage was marked by the absence of death. Viewing the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing through footage shot from helicopters and the higher reaches of Manhattan (and pooled by the various networks, thereby creating a uniform image across the various outlets) were an oddly dehumanizing experience. Both geographic distance and compressed temporality strangely sanitized even the rarely used footage of people plunging from the World Trade Center to their deaths. We saw these tragic victims, small specks against the vast towers, leap from their offices, and then disappear into the realm of imagination. People spoke of appalling sights, but we did not see them. Witnesses revealed the presence of many body parts in the rubble, but television did not show them. Reports referred to “streets slick with blood,” but the video did not disclose it. Photographers followed suit – John Albanese, a volunteer fireman and amateur photographer who spent twelve hours working and photographing amid the devastation, wrote in one of his captions that “we were looking for bodies, we were finding body parts, we were waiting for a body bag to take away a leg,” but he did not record this pictorially. In all of Time’s photo essays (whether in print or on the web) we see only one body, carried on a stretcher by rescuers, a limp arm protruding from under the blue sheet. In this absence, the vast sea of personal photographs – family snaps, holiday shots, wedding images – circulating on notices for the missing victims, are what brings us face to face with the human loss.

For both television producers and picture editors, the cleansing of the disaster coverage so as to remove graphic images of death was a conscious decision not to reveal the full extent of reality. Moreover, this decision to exclude occurred at more than one level. The picture agencies and pool sources removed many of the most disturbing (and most realistic) images from those they distributed to their media customers. In turn, the editors at those media outlets made further choices to weed out graphic portrayals of the slaughter. In London, The Guardian’s picture desk received more than 1,200 images on the Tuesday of the attack, choosing but a fraction for publication in the paper or on the web site. Criteria for such selection, which is unavoidable given the extent of choice, is far from clear. One picture editor recently described to me how his standards involved imagining what the victim’s family would say if shown the picture and being guided by their reaction. This is testament to the fact that, despite the conventional perception of a media pack with a bloodlust for the unvarnished portrayal of death and destruction, journalistic practice is governed by a social economy of taste and system of self-censorship which severely restricts what we see, especially when the disaster is close to home and anything but foreign. This may or may not be a good thing. We can readily understand that a voyeurism of violence should be avoided. But one conclusion cannot be ignored: the resultant coverage is anything but wholly realistic.

One striking feature of September 11 is the way in which photography has served a personal desire to find an alibi for the real in a moment of great uncertainty. John Albanese produced his photo essay because his time searching the debris for survivors seemed unreal: “It was so quiet – I had the strangest feeling looking out at the devastation – but I couldn’t cry. Because it didn’t seem real. I thought, I’m going to reach out, and it’s going to be a picture. It can’t be real.” Individuals have sought an image that can be their own “certificate of presence” (in Roland Barthes’ terms) for the unimaginable. Thus the writer A. M. Homes described how reaching for the camera was the first response to witnessing from an apartment window the planes’ flying into the twin towers. Likewise, the title image in Anthony Suau’s photo essay “Aftershock” [no longer online] shows a crowd of onlookers gazing at the event, with three of them raising cameras to the site/sight. It’s as if our own eyes, even when viewing the event directly and personally, even when we see it repeatedly on television, requires the silent confirmation that a still image provides. But not even that confirmation confers meaning upon the event. Far from it. The search for this event’s meaning is something with which we will continue to struggle for some time yet.

Photo: “The media blitz was constant from the moment of the first crash. Viewers could watch the situation develop minute by minute and rarely leave “”ground zero”” no matter where in the country they were. On nearly every other street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” Copyright Anthony Suau/Time, September 2001.

September 11, 2001 is regarded by many as ‘the day the world changed’. But different historical periods don’t end one day and begin the next. In my assessment the initial political and military response to the attacks were in fact a ‘return of the past’, in which cold war logic was revived. I make this case in a 2002 article “Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past In the Response to September 11.” 


Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington on war and sexuality

Sleeping Soldiers_single screen (2009) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

I’m publishing here a short article written earlier this year by Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington that explores the themes of aggression, masculinity, sex and war, and the way they informed Tim’s work.

Entitled “The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’,” the article was a collaborative effort. As Stephen Mayes told me, “we’d talked about these subjects for years and he approached me to write the piece with him, and we managed to distil many of his ideas into it. He read it, liked it, and went to Libya.”

Originally written for a small American journal, it was never published in this complete form. Because it offers a fascinating insight into Tim’s thinking – with the themes present in his work form Liberia to Afghanistan (especially the ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ project) and then Libya – I am pleased that Stephen has agreed to it being made available.

World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch have just announced the establishment of the “Tim Hetherington Grant,” a €20,000 award for a photographer “to complete an existing project on a humanitarian or human rights theme.” Applications close on 15 October this year, and you have to have participated in the World Press Photo awards between 2008-2011.

Last year Tim had spoken of a post-photographic world, and the need for visual communicators to stop thinking of themselves as just a photographer. I hope that the judges of the Tim Hetherington Grant will look for creative approaches that embody this position. Above all else – and despite the mere 750 words provided to applicants for a proposal – let’s hope the judges reward someone who puts as much effort into thinking about the issues he visualized as Tim did.

Link to PDF, Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington, The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’

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.

Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.



Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.










photography politics Thinking Images

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 PhotoBlog

photography politics

Vietnam, Afghanistan and the sphere of legitimate aesthetics: developing a critical photographic practice

What would a critical photographic response to the war in Afghanistan involve?

The is no single answer to that question, but having both contributed to and learnt from a workshop on the Burke + Norfolk show at the Tate Gallery in London this past week, it is one we have to pursue.

To begin to answer that question requires that the frames – the cultural, political and aesthetic frames that produce what Judith Butler calls “perceptible reality” – be exposed. First up is the fact that a set of myths about the Vietnam war and the role of the media in that conflict continue to shape how both the US military and its critics approach the imaging of war.

The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was a “living room” war in which a highly critical media subjected its audience to a stream of graphic images depicting combat and its casualties. These pictures – including the iconic black and white photo photographs we can all easily recall – are said to have shocked viewers and mobilised public opinion against the war.

What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half that view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible is a necessary step in ending it.

For the military the lesson learnt was that they need a better way of regulating the media, which resulted in a series of schemes culminating in the system of embedding implemented for the invasion of Iraq. For the critics, the conclusion was that showing an unsanitised view of war is the basis for any critical response. As a result, much of the debate around the imaging of Afghanistan has been locked into a stand off about the pros and cons of embedding.

The problem with this framing of the options is that what happened in Vietnam does not accord with the myth. The best analysis of American coverage – Daniel Hallin’s ‘The Uncensored War’ – shows that far from being unpatriotic, newspapers, magazines and television continued to support official government perspectives even as the peace movement grew. Far from showing an incessant diet of gory visuals, the US media shied away from graphic images. Overall, journalists filed reports that were easily woven into a narrative that fitted the national frame.

This is significant for photojournalism’s understanding of it’s historical role and potential power. The visual icons we now associate with the war – the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones-Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority coverage.

Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’ obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective. Embedding is one such frame, but it is located within frames too, especially the frame of historical memory that has mythologized aspects of Vietnam. There is also the general journalistic frame that means, in the absence of any radical divisions amongst the governing political elite, the mainstream media presents what Hallin calls a “sphere of legitimate consensus” through which debate is prescribed and critical alternatives are marginalised.

Burke + Norfolk embodies one critical response to Afghanistan – bringing the historical frame into view by putting contemporary images about the allied war machine (some of them produced while embedded) into a relationship with nineteenth century imperial portrayals (reviewed here by Russell Watson). At the Tate symposium, Mishka Henner offered another strategy.

Although a documentary photographer, Henner is now working with “photography from the world” (images produced by others) as much as “photography of the world” (his own practice). He has produced a series of creative works from Google Earth and Google Street View databases. Using the latter, No Man’s Land is an insightful project that both reveals the marginal existence of sex workers and comments on the aesthetics of landscape photography. It is, he says, part of an effort to critique visual discourses through editing and curation that re-purposes their meaning.


Henner is now mining the US Department of Defense photographic collection looking for categories of images produced by particular stylistic frames. In a form of ‘coding’ that is categorising pictures throughout the identification of repeated styles, he is exposing what I think could be called the “sphere of legitimate aesthetics” through which Afghanistan is being made perceptible. Henner has uncovered hundreds of images that show, for example, men and machines silhouetted against golden sunsets (what he calls “Empire Sunset” and what Beierle and Keijser called “Sunset Soldiers“), soldiers extending hands to children (“The Friend”), and military doctors treating sick civilians (“The Healer”).

Simon Norfolk’s exposure of the historical frame, and Mishka Henner’s and Beierle and Keijser’s delineation of the stylistic frame, are new critical responses, though of course they are not the only ones. They won’t end the war, because no picture has the power to do so. The cliche that certain photographs can by themselves change the world is another of the myths that needs to be dispensed with. But photographs do force us to think hard about what is happening and why. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida “ultimately, Photography is subversive, not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”

First photo: Life, April 16, 1965

Second photo: Sunset soldiers, February 24, 2011

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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.

multimedia photography

Post-photography: Tim Hetherington’s living legacy

Tributes to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros have been widespread and heartfelt after the devastating news of their untimely deaths in Libya. The injuries to Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown were also shocking, and hopefully they will recover fully.

Photojournalism Links has curated the numerous memorials, including many fascinating videos in which Tim and Chris articulate their visions. I wanted to pay tribute to them, and I’ve been ruminating for twenty-four hours about what to say. I hope its appropriate to offer that respect by pointing to a legacy that can live on.

Over the years I was fortunate to have talked with Tim on a few occasions. Many know him better than I, but even sporadic discussions, such as a debate over embedding in Afghanistan, were testament to his creativity, intellect and generosity.

Back in 2000 Tim was part of a Panos Pictures workshop that opened an exhibition at Side Gallery in Newcastle. Tim was the standout speaker, and presented his “House of Pain” project (published online by Fred Ritchin’s Pixel Press). This was a multimedia piece that began as a student project at Cardiff in 1996 and was influenced by a work placement with Pedro Meyer. To experiment with multimedia more than a decade ago in order to take photojournalism into new areas is proof of Tim’s energy and vision.

Ten years on and Tim was back at Side for the opening of his Liberia exhibition in March 2010. Not only did he speak at the gallery on the first Saturday of the show, on the Sunday he showed the draft of his personal Diary project, and discussed the numerous challenges of filming in a war zone. He was again generous with his time and engaging with his insights, and we enjoyed continuing the exchange about Afghanistan.

Tim’s legacy will be rich and profound. But it can be more than the work he leaves behind. It should also be a living legacy in which the boundaries of photojournalism are continually pushed in pursuit of a story with purpose. To that end, the thinking he exhibited in his June 2010 interview with Michael Kamber could be the blueprint. The whole transcript repays attention, but here are some of the provocative extracts:

If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

If we are interested in the outside world and making images of it and translating it and relaying it to as many people as possible, then in some ways the traditional photographic techniques are really not important.

Authenticity and making a picture authentic is obviously important. I am not interested in traditional photographic techniques. I am not interested in putting a black border around a photograph as a way of saying that is authentic. You know, “protecting photography.”

My point about not being a photographer is that we can’t protect photography – forget photography – when we are interested in the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

We are making so many images, but we aren’t actually connecting these images. We aren’t exploiting what we have made. We aren’t mining it enough to make it into audiences’ minds. A strategy to hit people about this idea of Afghanistan across multiple forms – “Oh, I’ve read Sebastian’s book, “War”; I’ve read the Vanity Fair articles; then I saw the film and the film made me want to see Hetherington’s book” — is a multilayered thing. It is different than the images you see out there that are already lost.

And to make that happen, you have to navigate through the business side of things. That isn’t easy. But if we see ourselves merely as photographers, we are failing our duty. It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.

We who are working in the realm of photojournalism and documentary photojournalism have to focus on whom we want to talk to. We need to know who our audience is. That will help us figure out how to reach them, which language to reach them with. I don’t think enough image-makers do that.

I encourage them to look at many different forms. Not to say, “I am a photographer,” but to say: “I am an image maker. I make still or moving images in real-life situations, unfiltered and un-Photoshopped. I am going to look into how I can put this into different streams for different audiences; maybe some on the Web, some in print.”

That’s why I think the most important thing for our industry is not style, it is authenticity. It is: “I go to you because I know you have an authentic voice in the work that you have been doing.”

We all know that having professionalism in any field is important. We have a weird skill-set. Send us into a difficult circumstance and we will get out there and know how to find a story. That is what we do for a living. That is valuable. It is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution – in addition to citizen journalism, in addition to local photographers. The more, the merrier.

Tim died in pursuit of a story for us. I find it very hard to write those words. But if image makers, visual journalists, put his thoughts into practice, his legacy will be alive and productive. We live in a post-photographic world. It’s one where there are more images than ever before. Forget ‘photography’, meaning the industry. Don’t turn inward and protect a tradition just because its done things a certain way for a long time. Find ways, including photographs, to make “the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.” What better way to honour someone taken prematurely than continue down the path they helped forge?

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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 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 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?


Burke and Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan

Simon Norfolk’s new project on Afghanistan opens at the Tate Gallery in London on 6 May, and comprises new work exhibited alongside the nineteenth century Irish photographer, John Burke. There will be a book forthcoming from Dewi Lewis and – full disclosure – I was commissioned to write a short essay for this publication. As a result, I’ve seen some of the new work and think it will be an important show.

The Tate’s press release provides this summary:

John Burke was one of the first people to take photographs of Afghanistan, having travelled there during the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878 to 1880. His images of landscapes, cities and inhabitants provided a cue for Simon Norfolk to begin a new series of photographs in October 2010. Norfolk’s work responds to Burke’s Afghan war scenes in the context of the contemporary conflict. Seeking out the original locations of these images or finding modern parallels with their subject matter, Norfolk’s new body of work depicts bomb-damaged buildings, local communities, soldiers and embassy workers, as well as uniquely contemporary sites such as internet cafés and wedding halls. Within the exhibition, these images will be presented alongside prints of Burke’s corresponding photographs, bringing history into close proximity with the present and drawing comparisons across a century of British involvement in the region. Also on display will be two original hand-illuminated Burke portfolios.

Amongst the new photographs Simon Norfolk has produced are contemporary portraits that echo nineteenth century pictures. One of them shows the intersection of war and image:

Media Ops team including a Combat Camera Unit, Camp Bastion, Helmand. Copyright Simon Norfolk

Top photo: Afghan Police receiving shooting training from US Marines, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand. Copyright Simon Norfolk


multimedia photography

Missing multimedia: where are the stories from Egypt, Japan, Libya?

World Press Photo announced the shortlist for its inaugural multimedia award this week, with three narrative stories and three interactive projects. Coming after six weeks of monumental global events, it got me thinking: where are the multimedia stories from the revolution in Egypt, the disaster in Japan and the conflict in Libya? Recalling Paul Conroy’s March 11 photograph (above) of his colleagues running from an air strike in Libya prompted this thought, so let me explain the connection.

In an interview accompanying the WPP announcement, the chair of the jury, Ed Kashi, outlined multimedia’s benefits. ‘Multimedia’ embraces a huge range of approaches and styles and their are few if any rules. It is a concept that has been applied to everything from the short-form news story to the long-form documentary, from something that adds a little audio to something that is predominantly video.

Everyone has their preferences, and mine are for stories that have still photographs at their heart, accompanied by audio of the subjects and their environment, supplemented by video if and when appropriate. These are the sort of projects well done by the likes of MediaStorm, the Bombay Flying Club and duckrabbit (who prefer to call them “photofilms”), and I have tried to follow their lead in the two I have produced to date.

I think of multimedia as fundamentally a photographic project that can address context through additional technologies. While I’ve seen some video pieces from Egypt made with DSLRs, these are either television reports or scenes with sound but no overall story. They are impressive demonstrations of what these cameras can do visually, but they are not the photo-based narratives I find most compelling. I think the absence of this type of multimedia project from these events is a missed opportunity for photojournalism. Please correct me If I’ve overlooked examples, but I can’t think of any. So how did Conroy’s photo trigger this post?

Large numbers of the world’s best-known photographers have made their way to cover recent events, and they have produced a considerable body of compelling work that has been published in print and on-line. Conroy’s photo shows (left to right) Lynsey Addario, John Moores, Holly Picket, Phillip Poupin, Tyler Hicks, and (as Photojournalism Links worked out) the legs of Yuri Kozorev between Poupin and Hicks. It makes great sense for photographers to band together in dangerous environments, and the last thing we should be asking of them in such moments is to whip out the audio recorder or start shooting video in addition to taking stills, let alone spend their nights struggling with Final Cut Pro to produce a film.

However, once an event has gone on for a few days, and once we have seen a range of similar images from photographers working together, wouldn’t it be possible for one or more photographer to find a new angle on the story and develop that angle with sound as well as stills?

Reflecting on his weeks in Egypt covering the revolution, Ed Ou remarked:

Having been photographing Tahrir for the last few weeks, it became very difficult to make images. You start to run out of ideas, because you photograph the same thing every single day. Until today, it was really hard to keep things fresh or give a new angle that wasn’t being repetitive.

Ed noted in another story that after doing his stills he was shooting video for Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, but what I imagined was this:

  • instead of another day shooting stills of people in Tahrir Square, a photographer found a protester they could spend a day with taking pictures and asking questions
  • during that day, with a simple audio recorder, they record their subject reflecting on what they did before the protests, what made them come to the square and what they wanted the protests to achieve
  • at the end of the day, in addition to filing pictures, the photographer FTPs their audio files to an editor/producer in their agency/news organisation
  • a day or so later, that agency has a 3-5 minute story with some focus and depth to go alongside the stills galleries, as well as another saleable commodity

Think of the possibilities in Libya – a story with an accountant from Benghazi who has taken up arms to fight Gaddafi’s forces, or the insights of a migrant worker caught in the camps on the Tunisian border. We have television reports with their obvious conventions, but we don’t have the combination of powerful still images and the subjects speaking for themselves.

Last year, after more than sixty well-known photojournalists went into Haiti to cover the earthquake, Michael David Murphy wrote about the problems of redundancy in visual coverage. While I don’t agree with his proposal for a pool system to deal with that, I do think the convergence of the corps of international photographers on Egypt, Japan and Libya again raises questions about both the dimensions of the story we could see, and the different forms in which we could see it.

If I am correct about this absence of stills-based multimedia, photojournalism – as both an industry and creative practice – is currently missing a great opportunity to offer more in a way that is manageable for photographers in the field. In the first instance this is not the responsibility of individual photojournalists. I think agencies should take a lead in setting up a workflow along the lines indicted above. It would benefit all of us, but none more than the subjects of the stories.

Featured photo: New York Times photographers Tyler Hicks (right, in glasses) and Lynsey Addario (far left), run for cover during a bombing run by Libyan government planes at a checkpoint near the oil refinery of Ras Lanuf on Friday, Mar. 11. Copyright Paul Conroy/Reuters, via MSNBC Photoblog.

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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.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.

photography politics Thinking Images

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?


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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The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan


The US-led war in Afghanistan is one of the longest running conflicts in America’s history. After more than nine years, the US and its allies have been fighting in Afghanistan longer than Soviet Union was by the time of its 1989 withdrawal. The war in Afghanistan has also surpassed the formal duration of the Vietnam War, although that claim can be contested.

Photographing this war has only been possible through the system of embedded journalism the US and its allies established for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading to an understandable concentration on certain locales like the Korengal Valley (as I discussed here, in a good debate with Tim Hetherington). Only on rare occasions have we seen the conflict from a perspective beyond allied forces, as in the Taliban photographs recently made by Gaith Abdul-Ahad.

Covering such a long-running conflict, the dynamics of which have not altered greatly in its nine years, necessarily produces a certain uniformity to the subjects conveyed. In’s Big Picture gallery for November 2010 we see 43 high quality images that detail allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families. There is also an inevitable regularity to the look of these images. As Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has noted,

most photojournalists working today, including me, are using similar equipment (very high end 35mm digital SLR cameras) so what we do sometimes looks very uniform.

The aesthetics of the conflict is a vital dimension of assessing how the war in Afghanistan as been pictured. But to raise the issue of “aesthetics” is to travel into troubled terrain. A lot of photojournalism is still predicated on the idea that it conveys “things as they are.” This phrase stems from a Sir Fancis Bacon quotation that Dorothea Lange regarded as her working motto:

The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error and confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention

It also provides the title for the World Press Photo book on the history of photojournalism (Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955), it crops up in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment, and I heard David Hurn invoke those same words during a foto8 seminar in October this year.

The commitment to photojournalism’s descriptive ethos in opposition to “a whole harvest of invention” runs deep. It is a commitment that suggests description is distinct from aesthetics, which is taken to be solely about art and beauty, such that any attempt to “aestheticize” a reality like war is morally suspect.

Photo: Private Santiago taking a cigarette break after a firefight. Damon Winter/NYT

We have seen this in recent months through the mixed reactions to the Afghan war images made with iPhones and photography apps. In March this year David Guttenfelder produced a portfolio of Polaroid-like pictures (using ShakeIt Photo) detailing daily military life in Afghanistan. Then last month Damon Winter also made an iPhone series with the Hipstamatic app, one of which was used in the New York Times.

For both Guttenfelder and Winter these pictures, made in addition to their “straight”, DLSR produced, photographs were designed to represent both the daily grind of the war and the vernacular images that soldiers themselves take. According to Winter, “composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate…And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.” Guttenfelder made this interesting observation:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that Marines and soldiers are now shooting more photos and video themselves. They email them home or post them on their Facebook pages. I’ve even seen them set up a little point-and-shoot video camera next to themselves in the middle of a firefight. But usually they photograph the little moments during their down time to show how they live. The photos are little bits of memory, keepsakes from their long deployments, and a way of communicating with people back home. So, in a way, I was trying to create those kinds of real-life, non-newsy snapshots that Marines might shoot for themselves.

One of the things that is interesting about the Guttenfelder and Winter pictures I have chosen here is their stylistic similarity to Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo winner of an exhausted US solider in the Korengal Valley. It seems that whatever the chosen tools, some looks are common.

That said, the need to produce something new after nine years of war is part of what is driving photographers to deploy new approaches and tools. It is evident in different subject matter like Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen, and in novel forms like Damon Winter’s rotating panoramas of US military locations. However, the attention garnered by iPhone pictures and the panoramas led two of the best analysts of contemporary photography to a shared critical commentary on Twitter (14 December 2010):

(Michael Shaw, @BagNewsNotes) Hate to sound like luddite, but iPhone pics and now buzz re: 360º views feels like war coverage has forgotten the war.

@BagNewsNotes couldnt agree more: 1st mobile hipstamatics and now 360ºs enuf with the tech over substance war photos

@foto8 Thing is, it’s not about hi-tech, lo-tech, old-tech or no-tech so much as plain fundamental boredom with the war.

I think we should ask hard questions about how to represent a war that has gone on for so long. I don’t think, though, that those questions are best pursued by a concern over the technologies of representation or the anxiety about aesthetics.

That is because the critique of photography in terms of aestheticization gets to the very nature of photography itself. As Mark Reinhardt asks in Beautiful Suffering, “do indictments of aestheticization in the narrowest sense shade into a challenge to photographs’ sensory engagement itself? Is it the work of giving photographs aesthetic form, as such – is it the very nature of the photographic image – that provokes anxiety?” He thinks so, and I agree.

As the introduction to Things As They Are notes, “in the end, the business of representing reality is all about invention.” In this context, aesthetics is about how we see, perceive and represent the world generally. Photography as a technology of visualization is therefore inevitably and inextricably bound up with aesthetics. Nobody taking or making pictures can escape that.

Photo: An injured Corporal Manuel Jiminez, struck by an IED, is shielded by his fellow marines as a medvac helicopter lands in the clearing. Victor Blue.

As an example, consider the photographs of freelancer Victor Blue. According to PDN, ‘Blue is shooting the project primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II, and converting his images to black and white. “I envisioned Afghanistan in gray tones. I saw color as a distraction,” he explains.’ Blue’s photographs, excellent in many regards, invoke the traditional aesthetic of Vietnam era photojournalism. And, as always, they demonstrate that the desaturation of shots is permissible while oversaturation or specialist apps are deemed to be dubious. And what about David Guttenfelder’s “regular” DLSR photographs. Are they not the product of a conventional news/reportage aesthetic?

Perhaps we have reached an impasse in photographing the war in Afghanistan, with both the standard and different approaches no longer carrying the emotional weight of a nine-year conflict. Perhaps, then, the path forwards is not a matter of expressing anxiety about aesthetics per se, or choosing one aesthetic approach over another, but of using the full range of aesthetic options to tell a different story? Which begs the question – what is that different story that needs to be told about the war in Afghanistan after all this time?

Featured photo: A US marine wakes up in the morning after sleeping with his platoon in a mud walled compound in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helamnd province. David Guttenfelder/AP


  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (World Press Photo/Chris Boot Ltd, 2005)
  • Mark Reinhardt, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain, edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
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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.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.

photography politics

Chomsky’s Bosnian shame

Following on from the controversy surrounding Noam Chomsky’s October 2009 Amnesty International lecture in Belfast (see here), I have been receiving new information on interviews Professor Noam Chomsky has given in recent years where he discusses, amongst other issues, the 1992 ITN television reports of the Bosnian Serb camps at Omarska and Trnopolje.

My correspondence with Noam Chomsky:

I’ll say some more about these interviews below, but one thing I have always wondered was whether Chomsky was open to evidence that these TV reports were in fact an accurate portrayal of the Prijedor region camps. So, having written the most detailed study available on this issue – Atrocity, Memory, Photography, a two-part academic article – last week I decided to write to Professor Chomsky and ask if he had, or was willing to read, my two articles, and if so, what he thought about them. He did reply, and the reply is revealing.

Here is the verbatim exchange:

To: Noam Chomsky <>
Sent: Thursday, November 12, 2009 1:30  PM
Subject: Bosnian camp photos – the true story of ITN vs LM

Dear Professor Chomsky

In 2002 I published two lengthy, refereed academic articles in  the Journal of Human Rights on the controversy surrounding the ITN news reports from the Bosnian Serb camps in 1992. These articles (attached as PDFs) were the result of two years research using many primary sources, and they have been freely available on the web for the last few years.

I am aware that you have made a number of statements repeating and endorsing the substance of the Thomas Deichmann/Living Marxism critique of the ITN reports.  I am referring to two items available on your web site, namely the 2005 interview with The Guardian ( and the 2006 interview with RTS (

In light of my research, I find those statements very disturbing. I believe if you examined the empirical details of the case you would recognise that the Deichmann/LM position is without foundation when it comes to the accuracy of the original TV reports and the meaning of the camp at Trnopolje.

I hope you will read my work, and I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

David Campbell

Within hours, Chomsky responded:

On 12/11/2009 19:13, “Noam Chomsky” <chomsky@MIT.EDU> wrote:

Thanks for the reference.  I’ll look it up.  I doubt that I’ll have any comments, unless you raised the matter of freedom of speech.  On the camp and the photo, I’ve barely discussed it, a single phrase in an interview, in fact, which didn’t say much.  I realize that the Balkans are a Holy Issue in England, far more sensitive than Israel in the US, so perhaps it is not surprising that a single phrase in an obscure interview, which said virtually nothing, would arouse utter hysteria, as it has.

As for the sources you cite, one of them (the Guardian interview) was known at once to be a complete fabrication, so ridiculous that the Guardian ombudsman quickly issued an apology and it was withdrawn from their website (over my objection — I think the antics of the media should be exposed).  As for the other, I said almost nothing about the photo and the camp, apart from repeating Knightley’s conclusions about what was probably the case.   I presume you agree that he is a credible source, whether right or wrong.  I’ll be happy to send it to you if you haven’t seen it, along with his bitter condemnation of British intellectuals for their shameful contempt for freedom of speech.  In the interview to which you referred, that is what I discussed.  If you disagree with him, you should write to him, not me.

I am well aware that the concept of freedom of speech is not regarded highly in England, so even this shameful escapade passed with virtually no criticism, in fact with euphoria.  I’ll be interested in seeing how you handled it in your articles.  I don’t see anything at all disturbing in my comments, except that they were perhaps too mild in condemnation of British intellectual practices.  I do, however, think you might consider your own reaction, and ask whether the words “very disturbing” might be appropriate.

Noam Chomsky

This wasn’t exactly an invitation to intellectual engagement (“I doubt that I’ll have any comments…”). And he doesn’t hesitate to conclude with an attack (that my concern about his statements is itself “very disturbing”). Given this, I didn’t bother with a direct reply. But a public reply is warranted given the seriousness of the issue, so I intend to examine in detail Chomsky’s response.

Let’s skip over the question of whether the Balkans are a “holy issue” in England; whether calling attention to his statements is evidence of “utter hysteria”; and his claim that freedom of speech is “not regarded highly in England” and that “British intellectual practices” are to be condemned tout court. I am neither English nor British, but the more important point is that Chomsky has said all these things many times before, and the repetition of these charges suggests he keeps a stock answer for enquiries such as mine. Engaging with the challenging views doesn’t seem to interest him. Of course, If Professor Chomsky decides to debate the substance of the two articles I sent him in a future reply, I will post his response and correct anything below should he demonstrate anything I’ve written is incorrect.

What Chomsky has said on the photographs of the Bosnian camps

Lets instead look at what Chomsky, in his own words, has actually said about the issue of ITN news reports, the photograph of Fikret Alic, and the Bosnian camps.

  • From the outset Chomsky has viewed the issue as one of free speech above all else, and thus lent his support to LM’s case against ITN and its reporters. However, after the jury verdict found against LM, Chomsky was quoted in The Guardian (Media supplement, 21 February 2000, p. 9) as saying that it was “evil” if LM’s reporting “dishonoured the suffering of those in the Bosnian war.” That was the high point of Chomsky’s concern for the human rights of those in the Bosnian camps.
  • In the 2003 Swedish controversy surrounding Diana Johnstone’s revisionist book, as discussed in the previous post, Chomsky endorsed the statement that said this book was “an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.” Johnstone’s book quotes and endorses the LM critique of the Bosnian camp stories (see pages 72-73). Given that it was published after the High Court trial found the LM case to be totally without merit, Chomsky is indirectly claiming the reiteration of falsehoods counts as “an appeal to fact and reason.” He goes further in his letter to Swedish friends when he states the case of Living Marxism “is important” and that Johnstone “argues – and, in fact, clearly demonstrates – that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.”
  • In 2005, in his contested interview with The Guardian, Chomsky stated that “LM was probably correct” in its claims about the pictures and the camp, and that although “Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist…he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.” This is the first interview I cited in the email above, and the text comes from Chomsky’s own web site. Chomsky objected strenuously to this interview and The Guardian (wrongly in many people’s eyes) issued him an apology. However, his main objection related to his views on Srebrenica, and his list of objections is available here. Chomsky never cited the statement about LM or Vuillamy as being wrongly reported, so he has not previously viewed it as “the complete fabrication” he now calls it. Presumably he doesn’t want to retract his statement in the interview about freedom of speech, that “…in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous.” (I’ll return to the significance of that claim below).
  • The second interview I cited in the email to Chomsky was one he gave Danilo Mandic of Serbia’s RTS on 25 April 2006. It covered a range of issues, but does include a significant exchange on the Trnopolje pictures. Despite saying in his email to me that “I said almost nothing about the photo and the camp…”, here is the relevant section (starting at 01:40 in the video):

NC: …However, but if you look at the coverage, for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man [‘in the concentr…’] behind the barb-wire.

DM: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

NC: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and ‘we can’t have Auschwitz again.’ The intellectuals went crazy and the French were posturing on television and the usual antics. Well, you know, it was investigated and carefully investigated. In fact it was investigated by the leading Western specialist on the topic, Philip Knightly [sic], who is a highly respected media analyst and his specialty is photo journalism, probably the most famous Western and most respected Western analyst in this. He did a detailed analysis of it. And he determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted and, near the thin man was a fat man and so on, well and there was one tiny newspaper in England, probably three people, called LM which ran a critique of this, and the British (who haven’t a slightest concept of freedom of speech, that is a total fraud)…a major corporation, ITN, a big media corporation had publicized this, so the corporation sued the tiny newspaper for lible [sic]….”

Perhaps that is ‘saying almost nothing’ to Chomsky, but it contains a number of untrue claims and is consistent with his earlier views. Indeed, in describing the pictures of Fikret Alic at Trnopolje as the ‘thin man behind barbed wire’ photographs, Chomsky is using Diana Johnstone’s phrasing to repeat Thomas Deichmann’s erroneous allegations. Most importantly, the RTS interview shows that he accepts the interviewer’s declaration that “the photograph of the thin man” – which Chomsky starts to say is in a “concentration camp”, but corrects himself to say just “behind the barb-wire” – is “fraudulent.” That is a major claim, and one that is demonstrably wrong.

Examining Chomsky’s source: the flaws in Philip Knightley’s argument

In his email reply to me, Chomsky maintained that his RTS interview simply repeated Phillip Knightley’s conclusions about the case. I accept that Knightley has written some credible things on war reporting generally, but in the case of the Bosnian camp photos his analysis, such as it is, is filled with errors and wrong in its conclusions. I have a copy of the Knightley analysis, so let’s examine the document that Chomsky continues to draw on for his understanding of this issue.

The main elements of Philip Knightley’s statement on the case can be found here. I have a longer document written by Knightley (and circulated recently by Chomsky) that incorporates this but has some other details.

Those details make clear Knightley’s document dates from 1998-99, and consists of a statement Knightley gave to Helene Guldberg, who was then the publisher of LM and one of the three named defendants in the libel action brought by ITN. Although it is claimed that Knightley presented this statement to the High Court in London during the trial, the transcripts of the libel trial show Knightley did not testify, and there is no record of the role, if any, his statement played in proceedings. It seems, therefore, to have been a background briefing for the LM defendants as they prepared their defence.

The chronology of Knightley’s interest in this case is worth noting. He says he first came across the still image taken from the ITN reports when he was researching an article on female war correspondents for the Australian magazine The Independent Monthly. Knightley says this was in October 1994, but in fact the article appeared in the October 1993 issue (I have a paper copy). This reveals that, although he casts himself as the authority on war photography and reporting, he does not trace his memory of the Trnopolje pictures to their original broadcast and publication more than a year earlier.

Knightley then makes the interesting claim that on his first, albeit delayed, encounter with the photograph of Fikret Alic that “I was immediately struck by the fact that the image was too good to be true.” This judgment – or, more accurately, pre-judgment – then colours the remainder of his analysis.

Knightley says he examined the ITN report frame by frame, but given his summary conclusions and the lack of any detailed analysis in his statement we have to wonder how much attention he paid to the specifics of the report. Knightley writes:

I have no way of knowing what the ITN team members said or decided when they were compiling their report after their visit to Trnopolje. But I know enough about television war reporting to be able to say that once they saw the image their camerman had captured of an emaciated Fikret Alic with the stand of barbed wire across his chest, that image then drove and dominated their report. Their words were chosen to fit the image whether the facts justified them or not.

This conclusion is unsupported on two counts. The first is that the ITN reports (both Penny Marshall’s ITV story and Ian Williams’ Channel 4 story) concentrate at the outset by what the reporters found at Omarska rather than Trnopolje. Indeed, it is revealing that throughout this controversy LM and its defenders studiously ignored this fact and carefully avoided discussion of the larger camp at Omarska. Yet Omarska was the subject of the first half of both these television stories. The second half of each deals with Trnopolje, but the sequence of Fikret Alic at the barbed wire fence runs for 20 seconds in Marshall’s story and a mere five seconds in Williams’.

The claim that the image of Alic behind the fence “drove and dominated” these reports is, therefore, simply wrong. The best way to see that is to do something that Knightley did badly and I doubt Chomsky has done at all – actually view the reports in their entirety. Anyone can see them here.

Of course, if Knightley wanted an insight into what the ITN team members said or decided when compiling their report he could have interviewed them, as he interviewed Thomas Deichmann to get the details of his charges against ITN. After the High Court trial he could also have revisited the issue, because in testimony that very discussion was probed (see my article, part 2, p. 148), revealing that the ITN team decided against using the term ‘concentration camp’ to frame their report, thereby ensuring that the Alic images played a minor role in their coverage.

There are two other elements in Knightley’s flawed analysis that are worth highlighting. The first is his claim that, although ITN was right to report that Alic and others were detained at Trnopolje, the camp “was not a concentration camp in the Second World War sense.” This is also part of Chomsky’s statement to RTS (that the Alic pictures lead everyone to assume the camp was like Auschwitz), is what drives much of Diana Johnstone’s views, and was absolutely central to the whole LM campaign against the ITN coverage. The issues here are complex (and are discussed in detail in my article, part 2, pp. 145-52).  Trnopolje is not like Auschwitz. But the important point is that the line of argument which says ‘Trnopolje cannot be a concentration camp because it is not the same as Auschwitz’ betrays an impoverished historical knowledge about the phenomenon both of concentration camps generally and the vast Nazi system of labour, concentration and death camps that made up the Final Solution.

The second and final feature of Knightley’s flawed analysis I want to draw attention to is his claim that the image of Alic behind the barbed wire “changed the course of the war” in Bosnia. It is a view Chomsky repeats in his RTS interview where he states that the Alic photo was “one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion.” Both these statements are unfounded. Knightley alleges that the Bush administration of 1992 changed its policy to Serbia within 20 minutes of the ITN story being shown on American television, and that an emergency British cabinet meeting immediately agreed to send 1,800 ground troops to Bosnia. Neither thing happened as claimed, as I make clear in my article, part 2, pp. 158-59.

It seems that Knightley has taken the view about US policy changing quickly from a Sunday Times report in 1992 which made just this statement, something that demonstrates the shallowness of Knightley’s analysis. In fact, what then President Bush said was, having seen the report, he was personally outraged and would press for a UN Security Council resolution to ensure humanitarian relief convoys reached needy civilians. At no stage was there ever a suggestion of US ground troops being dispatched to Bosnia to intervene in the war. Indeed, the only US ground forces that made it to the region did not arrive until 1996 when they were part of the international mission overseeing the Dayton piece agreement, which partitioned Bosnia and rewarded the Bosnian Serbs for their ethnic cleansing. Equally, no British forces were dispatched in the wake of the report, and the only ones that made it to Bosnia were UN ‘peacekeepers’ sent to supervise relief convoys. They weren’t given a war fighting mandate and had to stand on the sidelines watching ethnic cleansing operations being carried out. The idea that the picture of Fikret Alic paved the way for the rapid deployment of western military forces to fight is a fiction of the revisionists’ imagination – and a forlorn desire of those Bosniaks who at the time were desperate for such action.

What about free speech in this case?

What unites Chomsky and Knightley in their outrage at ITN is the view that this whole issue is about freedom of speech above all else. When ITN decided to take legal action against LM for its claims about their reporters and the August 1992 story, many British commentators (in a challenge to Chomsky’s anglophobia) were opposed to the idea that a major media corporation would sue a smaller (albeit well produced and generously funded) publication. I discussed these issues in my original study (part 2, pp. 160-66).

There are important issues relevant to freedom of speech in Britain’s peculiar laws of libel, and many people want to see these laws overhauled. Indeed, only this week Index on Censorship and English PEN have released a major report as part of the Libel Reform Campaign that details the needed changes. This demonstrates, contra Chomsky, that there are many significant British voices concerned about freedom of expression. I support this campaign for libel law reform and support the recommendations of IoC and English PEN.

However, in the case of the Bosnian camp photos we need to separate a number of different strands. Questions about the veracity of the ITN coverage and details of the conditions at Omarska and Trnopolje need to be considered apart from the issue of whether it was right that ITN was able to sue LM. This is where Chomsky, Knightley and others fail so spectacularly. It would have been quite possible for Chomsky to say LM should be able to publish what it wanted without any repercussions even though what they published in this case was both wrong and offensive. In his first comment on the case, Chomsky adopted a position something like this. However, since then he has folded his freedom of speech concern into a series of claims that support the substantive details of LM‘s untrue allegations, while at the same time disingenuously claiming he is not taking a position on the merits of the case. As a result, Chomsky, Knightley and their supporters refuse to see the different dimensions here, prioritise an absolutist view of freedom of speech, and then make revisionist arguments designed to belittle the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in order to buttress their outrage at what one media company did to another. In so doing, they choose to regard ITN as simply a corporation, and overlook the way the individual reporters pursued the story despite military censorship by the Bosnian Serb authorities. Indeed, at no point in this controversy have Chomsky and others been concerned about the freedom of speech of those reporters.

I also think that, as strange as existing British libel law is, it had an important and surprisingly beneficial effect in the case of ITN vs LM. The LM defendants and Thomas Deichmann were properly represented at the trial and were able to lay out all the details of their claim that the ITN reporters had “deliberately misrepresented” the situation at Trnopolje. Having charged ‘deliberate misrepresentation’, they needed to prove ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. To this end, the LM defendants were able to cross-examine Penny Marshall and Ian Williams, as well as every member of the ITN crews who were at the camps, along with other witnesses. (That they didn’t take up the opportunity to cross-examine the Bosnian doctor imprisoned at Trnopolje, who featured in the ITN stories and was called to testify on the conditions he and others suffered, was perhaps the moment any remaining shred of credibility for LM’s allegations evaporated). They were able to show the ITN reports to the court, including the rushes from which the final TV stories were edited, and conduct a forensic examination of the visuals they alleged were deceitful. And all of this took place in front of a jury of twelve citizens who they needed to convince about the truthfulness of their allegations.

They failed. The jury found unanimously against LM and awarded the maximum possible damages. So it was not ITN that bankrupted LM. It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist. Their freedom of speech has thus not been permanently infringed.

Concluding thoughts on Chomsky and the Bosnian camp photos

According to Alexander Cockburn, “Chomsky’s enemies have often opted for these artful onslaughts in which he’s set up as somehow an apologist for monstrosity, instead of being properly identified as one of the most methodical and tireless dissectors and denouncers of monstrosity in our era.”

I am not an enemy of Noam Chomsky. But I am a strong critic of his position on the Bosnian camp photos because his repeated statements of purported fact indicate that – in this instance – he is an “apologist for monstrosity” rather than one of its “tireless dissectors and denouncers.” Although he says he only speaks about the freedom of speech issues implied by this case, he has to this day consistently made and repeated substantive claims about the status of both the visuals of Fikret Alic and the camp in which he was interned, while trying to elide the fact of those statements. Chomsky’s insistence on seeing Alic and the reporters who witnessed Omarska and Trnopolje as pawns in a story that puts an absolutist notion of freedom of speech above the issues of human rights and historical accuracy is, to repeat, very disturbing. In fact, it is worth than that – it is shameful.

In writing that the words “very disturbing” might be an appropriate description for my concern about his statements on the Bosnian camp pictures, Chomsky demonstrated he sees no need to engage with the substance of arguments that contradict his views. For one regularly praised as an important intellectual of his time, that stance is a problem. In the words of Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland representative, “we all have a responsibility to stand up for justice and to stand against those who would take away the human rights of the most vulnerable.” In this particular case, that means we have to stand against Noam Chomsky’s revisionist and unfounded claims about what happened and was reported at Trnopolje in August 1992.

(I began drafting this post on 14 November 2009 – hence the URL date – but did not complete it or publish it until 16 November 2009).

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photography politics

Karadzic, photography and revisionism

The trial of Radovan Karadzic for genocide in Bosnia has begun in The Hague despite the accused’s boycott of the proceedings.

Amidst all the legitimate issues this trial will provoke, one problem stands out – the Karadzic trial has already become another plinth upon which the revisionists who seek to deny the systematic ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in Bosnia can parade their prejudices. And in this pernicious denial, the claims about the alleged fabrication of pictures from Bosnian Serb concentration camps continue to circulate and play a role.

Last week, BBC Radio 4’s “Moral Maze” hosted a discussion on the Karadzic trial and war crimes generally. On the panel was Claire Fox, and interviewed as “expert witnesses” were David Chandler and John Laughland. (Thanks to Gary Banham for the pointer to this programme). What was never disclosed during the discussion was Fox’s and Chandler’s earlier association with the infamous attack by the Revolutionary Communist Party’s journal Living Marxism on journalists who in 1992 reported on the Bosnian Serb concentration camps in the Prijedor region of Bosnia.

Ron Haviv, Bosnian prisoners, Trnopolje, 1992

Photo: Ron Haviv, Bosnian prisoners, Trnopolje, 1992. Source:

As I have detailed extensively in my investigation “Atrocity, Memory, Photography,” a network of individuals originally associated with the RCP used the fundamentally flawed 1997 article “The Picture that Fooled the World” to claim the western media (especially ITN) fabricated images of emaciated victims in Bosnia in order to legitimize US military intervention in the region. The simple fact that the 1992 reports did not lead to any such response, and that the claims about the journalists have been proven wrong, has never deterred them from persisting with the argument – as in this April 2009 article by Edward Herman.

Herman, of course, is a sometime co-author of Noam Chomsky’s, and last week also saw Chomsky’s role in the perpetuation of this revisionism revisited. Chomsky gave the Amnesty International lecture in Belfast on 30 October. AI’s Patrick Corrigan said Noam Chomsky’s message is as relevant for people in Belfast as it is for those in Beirut, Baghdad or Beijing:

We all have a responsibility to stand up for justice and to stand against those who would take away the human rights of the most vulnerable.

But not Bosnia, it seems. The Balkans are something of a blind spot for Chomsky, for he has become directly and indirectly associated with the revisionists. As I write in the second part of “Atrocity, Memory, Photography,” Chomsky lent his support to Living Marxism’s case against the journalists on the grounds of “free speech.” Although on one occasion he later back-pedalled by saying he wouldn’t have supported LM if its campaign dishonoured those who suffered in the Bosnian War, he nonetheless maintained that the journalists who witnessed the Bosnian Serb camps in 1992 “happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true,” and that “LM was probably correct”. Under the guise of an absolutist defence of free speech, then, Chomsky has taken a particular, partisan and unethical stance on the conduct of the Bosnian War and its victims. For the oft-praised intellectual who bases his arguments on “fact” these statements are nothing short of shameful.

This background lead Ed Vuillamy, The Observer journalist who was at Trnopolje and other camps in August 1992, to write an outraged open letter to Amnesty protesting the organisations failure to hold Chomsky to account for these views and for giving him another public podium in the name of human rights.

Chomsky certainly gets an easy ride from sympathetic media. On 7 November, Seamus Milne wrote a hagiographic paean for The Guardian to the man he described as “the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar.” Milne concluded his story by declaring that “in the Biblical tradition of the conflict between prophets and kings, there’s not the slightest doubt which side he represents.”

Such adoration is prompted by their shared antipathy to US foreign policy. As far as it goes, there’s nothing wrong with a critical approach to American security strategies, but when the opposition to “US imperialism” becomes its own absolute and distorts any other considerations, then we have entered the terrain of political fundamentalism. And when fundamental opposition to any policy associated with the US leads individuals to sympathise with the policies of Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic in the name of a progressive politics, then we are in very dangerous territory.

In Milne’s report there is no mention of Bosnia or Karadzic. Perhaps that is because Chomsky and The Guardian have clashed previously on his attitude to the war in the Balkans. In 2005 Emma Brockes interviewed Chomsky after he was nominated as the world’s leading intellectual. Brockes commendably asked some tough questions of Chomsky including his apparent endorsement of Diana Johnstone’s book Fools Crusade, which has a revisionist chapter on Srebrenica.

Chomsky objected to the way the interview was written up, and his supporters endorsed his concern. That interview is no longer available on The Guardian after the paper apologised to Chomsky for its presentation, though it can still be read here. And it deserves another read in order to understand Chomsky on the Balkans.

In the subsequent controversy, Chomsky sidestepped the issue of what he really thought and said about Bosnia with the same freedom of speech defence he used in relation to LM. As The Guardian’s readers’ editor wrote in upholding his complaints, “Both Prof Chomsky and Ms Johnstone…have made it clear that Prof Chomsky’s support for Ms Johnstone, made in the form of an open letter with other signatories, related entirely to her right to freedom of speech.”

This is not a full and fair statement, as “freedom of speech” for Chomsky masks what appears to be a much deeper commitment to the revisionist account of the Balkan wars.

Chomsky’s original involvement came about after an interview with Diana Johnstone, discussing her book’s claims about the Balkans, appeared in the summer 2003 issue of the Swedish magazine Ordfront, illustrated with the famous photograph of Fikret Alic at Trnopolje. That interview prompted a media storm in Sweden (including the resignation of the magazine editor and an apology to survivors of the war), a seemingly partisan account of which can be read here. I cannot comment on the details of the whole issue – except to note that this document on the Swedish debate also takes LM’s position with regard to the Trnopolje pictures – but in relation to Chomsky we can see two things from this. First, Chomsky signed a statement that said:

We regard Diana Johnstone‘s Fools‘ Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.

This “outstanding work” calls the truth of the Srebrenica massacre into question, and continues to recycle the canard about the pictures from the Bosnian Serb camps originally published by LM (Oliver Kamm has more details here). The letter Chomsky signed did go on to say “but whatever opinion one may have of that book, there are more fundamental issues at stake, namely freedom of expression and the right to express dissenting views.” Nonetheless, it is clear Chomsky thinks highly of Johnstone’s book. In a letter to Swedish friends, Chomsky engaged the substance of the debate in that country to defend particular points in Johnstone’s book, amongst which he includes further favourable references to LM. In general Chomsky concludes:

Johnstone argues – and, in fact, clearly demonstrates – that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.

This is a long way beyond defending people’s right to speak even if they are wrong.

If you think this is all passé, then remember that the veracity of a 17-year-old picture remains the foundation for revisionist accounts of the Bosnian War. It is a curious testament to the power of imagery, but one we should never let pass without critical comment.

Although Chomsky and allies claim the mantle of progressive politics for their critiques of their Balkans, they are in partnership with British conservatives and Eurosceptics such as John Laughland, who has detailed his primary concern for the plight of the Bosnian Serbs here, or Daniel Hannan (see here). This replicates the alliances between the LM crowd and the libertarian right in the US.

Although these individuals argue in terms of the threats to “free speech” they are in privileged positions from which they contribute regularly to the mainstream media, frequently appearing on the BBC, writing columns for national newspapers and contributing to on-line journals with the time and space to peddle their disinformation. The voices that go unheard most often are those who were photographed in the Bosnian Serb camps of the Prijedor region. It is their freedom and speech progressives should be most concerned about, and if the Karadzic trial can contribute to that goal, it will have been worthwhile.

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Photographing Gaza: AP, Franklin and being political

Ten days on from learning that the Associated Press had forced Stuart Franklin to withdraw his essay about Gaza from part of the Noorderlicht exhibtion, questions and concerns remain about this affair.

The photographic press has failed to unpack the whole story, although the British Journal of Photography ran an updated account on 9 September. Neither PDN nor BJP have done more than produce what is a rather lazy form of “he said, she said” journalism. This is clearest in the fact that no one has (a) explored what the agencies other than AP who have photographers work in the show thought about the controversy, and (b) gone back and questioned AP further about the claims it made in their one and only statement on 1 September – claims that Franklin and Noorderlicht have subsequently questioned. I emailed the questions raised in my previous post to Olivier Laurent of BJP and Daryl Lang of PDN, but they did not reply.

While the photographic press has gone quiet on the issue, the big news this week was PhotoQ’s publication of the second version of Franklin’s text, which means we can read the words AP found unacceptable and ask – how political is the Franklin text, were AP’s objections founded, and what would a political photography of Gaza show?

Like any argument, Franklin’s essay can be interpreted in a number of ways. It does not discuss any photographers or their agencies by name, and shows balance by noting the “atrocious cruelty evident on both sides of this long running conflict.” It states that Hamas rocket attacks precipitated the 2008 conflict and Franklin included in the exhibition pictures of the Qassam brigades preparing to fire on the Israeli town of Sderot.

On the other hand, Franklin’s criticisms are predominantly aimed at Israel for the “excessive violence and disproportionate force that one of the world’s largest armies has brought to bear on lightly armed resistance fighters and unarmed civilians.” Moreover, Franklin aligns the Palestinians with others (including Jews) as victims of “systematic ethnic cleansing.” As an analyst of international politics I would say that describing as Hamas as “lightly armed resistance fighters” and the violence as ethnic cleansing is problematic.

However, as the Noorderlicht organizers declared at the outset, there is plenty of evidence from international organizations to support the claim that Israel used excessive and disproportionate during Operation Cast Lead (as my earlier posts on Gaza showed). Only this week the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released its report on the death toll from the Gaza war that contradicts IDF claims. As B’Tselem states:

The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society. B’Tselem recognizes the complexity of combat in a densely populated area against armed groups that do not hesitate to use illegal means and find refuge within the civilian population. However, illegal and immoral actions by these organizations cannot legitimize such extensive harm to civilians by a state committed to the rule of law.

Franklin’s text is certainly a political account with a particular view. But how could it be otherwise? Is there an apolitical or non-political ground from which to enter the debate about the Israel/Palestine conflict? I very much doubt it. We can have better or worse accounts, arguments more or less supported by evidence, but none of them, whatever they claim, could be considered without politics.

This is where AP’s objections founder, and why their claims that photojournalism can speak for itself in some apolitical way is so naïve. Of course AP has to prevent its photographers from engaging in bias or being used for propaganda. But we have to understand being “political” is something very different from being biased, ideological or partisan. Being political is about being engaged with the world, and that will always be difficult and sometimes controversial.

As soon as photojournalists start to picture the world’s conflicts and problems they are inevitably being political. Too many shy away from this reality by claiming they are just impartial witnesses, acting as humanitarians, recording the face of the victims, objectively documenting what they see in front of them, or any number of similar self-understandings. To witness, be humane and work compassionately and fairly are all important values in photographic practice. But they don’t magically remove one from politics. Photojournalists and their critics need to negotiate the difficulties of their political world (e.g. by providing context to their stories) rather than pretend there is some safe zone in which they are immune from politics.

This means that for AP to force the withdrawal of Franklin’s text by alleging it was partisan is itself a highly charged political act. AP should have accepted the compromise offer to run the text with a disclaimer that it was a personal statement and did not reflect anyone else’s opinions (which was always the case).

The final, and perhaps most important, point to note is that the situation in Gaza requires a more radical political critique than that offered by both Stuart Franklin’s text or any of the Palestinian photojournalism exhibited at Noorderlicht. As I have argued in an earlier post and a draft paper on the photographic coverage of the war, what has been missing is a visual story of the permanent catastrophe that Israel maintains in and over Gaza. We need to move beyond the images of individual victims. We need a photographic account of the governance of all facets of Palestinian life that keeps the residents of Gaza on the brink of disaster.


Photographing Gaza: more questions in the case of AP vs. Stuart Franklin

The controversy surrounding the forced withdrawal of Stuart Franklin’s essay in the Noorderlicht Photofestival exhibition of Palestinian photojournalism has received some coverage in both Photo District News and the British Journal of Photography.

Those reports don’t delve very deep into this issue. As such, there remain a number of outstanding questions that, given the importance of the principles at stake, demand further investigation.

Because we haven’t been able to read Franklin’s proposed essay, it is difficult for anyone to offer unequivocal conclusions. This, however, is how PDN summarized the text:

Franklin wrote a 700-word essay about the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Festival director Broekhuis provided a copy of the final draft of Franklin’s unpublished essay, but asked PDN not to publish or quote directly from it. The AP confirmed it was the same text they reviewed.)

The text describes Palestinians as victims of disproportionate force by Israel.

The essay depicts Palestinians as resilient victims of Israeli violence and disempowerment. Franklin acknowledges cruelty on both sides of the conflict, and cites specific instances of violence against both Israelis and Palestinians.

The essay does not mention the Associated Press or any other media organizations, nor does it name any photographers. Franklin refers to the photographers generally, noting that they are mostly married men who worried about their safety as they covered the conflict.

In his final paragraph, Franklin likens the Palestinians to other groups of people who have historically been oppressed—including Jews—and says the exhibit is not politically biased, but biased on the side of justice, human rights, and international law.

    This summary would suggest the Franklin essay is in many ways unremarkable, offering opinions that many have voiced. Of course, there are many who will also object forcefully to such views, but one would hardly call Franklin’s essay radical.

    1. AP claims it had a:

    firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view…In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition…When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition.

    In contrast, Ton Broekhuis, director of the Noorderlicht Photography Foundation, has stated:

    First of all, it is vital to understand that there have never been official and unofficial preliminary agreements between AP and Noorderlicht or Stuart Franklin, but the verbal indication that Stuart Franklin’s approach – I quote – ‘would highlight the photojournalism and be balanced’. [According to Franklin]: ‘I have honoured this…No discussion was held with AP about text or their apparent right to censor my curatorial essay until a few weeks ago.’

    Which account is correct?

    2. According to PDN, Franklin selected images from 11 photographers who shoot for four wire services: the AP, Agence France Presse, european pressphoto agency and Getty Images. Did AFP, EPA and Getty ask for assurances on the accompanying text? Were they given any assurances? Did those agencies make any other stipulations about the use of their images? What is their view now?

    3. What do the photographers themselves think?

    4. According to the Noorderlicht press release, AP rejected two compromise options: either a statement accompanying Franklin’s essay making clear it was a “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the photographers’ agencies, or some text from AP itself to counter Franklin’s essay. If this is the case, why did AP reject both these options and instead allegedly threaten legal action against the organisers?

    AP spokesperson Paul Colford told PDN his organization did not want their photos “to bolster a highly charged political point of view.” Given this, why did AP agree – regardless of the nature of any accompanying text – to have its photographs included in the exhibition in the first place?

    The Israel-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not highly charged in all respects, and as an organization AP knows this better than anyone. Their photographers are regularly abused – just read some of the scandalous comments posted on the PDN web site in the wake of this issue that speak of these professionals as “Muslim cowards” and “Arab propagandists.” Or consider the conservative bloggers who revel in calling any images from the Middle East they don’t like “fauxtography.” Or recall the vitriol heaped on AP during the campaign to free their photographer Bilal Hussein from two years detention without trial in Iraq, which saw the AP logo disfigured to read “Associated (with terrorists) Press”.

    Was AP simply afraid of further attacks from the right if Franklin was permitted to exercise his freedom of speech? If so, how is that a non-partisan stance?


    Photographing Gaza: do pictures speak of politics?

    Do photographs speak? Do they have an intrinsic politics? Or do they rely on the text that accompanies them for political meaning? An unfolding controversy about the photojournalism of Palestinian photographers contracted to western picture agencies is broaching these questions.

    As I’ve written here, although many claimed that Israel’s media controls meant few pictures of the IDF’s December 2008 invasion of the Strip saw the light of day, professional Palestinian photographers working for the likes of the Associated Press, Getty and Reuters were supplying images that got a good run in European newspapers.

    The Noorderlicht Photofestival of 2009, which opens this week, is running work under the title Human Conditions, in order to “reveal the unseen, human stories behind conflicts.” One of the shows, curated by Magnum president Stuart Franklin, whose own recent work on “Gaza Today” can be seen here, contains the Palestinian photographs. As the Noorderlicht web site explains:

    Franklin travelled to Gaza to speak with Palestinian photographers. The exhibition Point of No Return shows their work: raw photojournalism that was done under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The photographs by Mohammed Saber, Mahmoud Hams, Mohammed Baba, Abid Katib, Said Katib, Hatem Moussa, Ashraf Amra, Eyad Baba, Khalil Hamra, Fadi Adwan and Ali Ali rise above the level of detached reporting.

    However, it is not the Palestinian photographs that have sparked the controversy, but Stuart Franklin’s introductory text. The Associated Press objected to the content of Franklin’s essay, and wanted it “substantially moderated.” We do not have access to Franklin’s text, but a press release from Noorderlicht makes clear that AP objected to the fact that:

    the essay acknowledged that criminal acts were committed by both sides, but assigned the principle responsibility for the extent of the bloodshed to Israel. Both Noorderlicht and Franklin believe this conclusion is justified by the critical reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations…

    It seems AP threatened to withdraw their Palestinian photographers’ work or pursue legal action against the exhibition organizers. Outraged by AP’s attitude, Franklin withdrew the essay and left the photographs without accompanying text, while Noorderlicht charged AP was acting contrary to any principle of free speech.

    AP’s director of media relations has responded to the disclosure of its threats by saying:

    Early this year, The Associated Press agreed to a request to display some of its images from Gaza at the Noorderlicht Photofestival, with the firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view.

    The AP is an independent global news organization whose photojournalism stands on its own merits.

    In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition.

    When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition – namely, that the photos would not be presented in support of a political position… (Emphasis added)

    Here we have a set of fascinating assumptions about the meaning of images. For AP, the photographs ‘should speak for themselves’, but they assume that ‘speech’ would not have been ‘political’, because it was only through Franklin’s text these pictures would ‘be presented in support of a political position.’ What, then, does AP think these photographs would be saying, in an apolitical way, when devoid of text?

    Interestingly, Stuart Franklin says that the photographs are also going to speak, but presumably that they are going to say something different to what AP imagines it hears. As Franklin wrote in the Human Conditions catalogue after withdrawing his essay:

    I will say nothing and let the pictures talk. The pictures must speak and one day, we must hope, their stories will be told.

    I think both Franklin and AP are naïve in their view that photographs themselves speak, as though they could construct a larger meaning without text or other related media that put them in context.

    However, in addition to their censorship of Franklin’s views, AP are especially naïve because the professional Palestinian photographs from within Gaza – such as the work of Getty photographer Abid Katib, which was among the first images of the war published in the UK (see one of his photos here) — have already been widely circulated and read with a variety of texts creating various meanings. To suggest that these photographs should now be stripped of prior associations and rendered ‘apolitical’ is itself the most political stance one can take.

    (A hat-tip to Aric Mayer for a prompt on this issue).

    (UPDATE 3 September 2009: I have revised the final paragraph to note Abid Katib is a Getty photographer, as was clear from my earlier post).


    How photographs make Darfur mean something

    The relationship between photographs and text in the construction of political understanding is often complex and frequently unclear. Although news photographs regularly present themselves as windows illustrating the world, the articles, captions and headlines with which they are associated can bind them into meanings at odds with both their pictorial content and the accompanying textual themes.

    The Guardian 5 March 2009, pp. 4-5

    Odd conjunctions of this sort are common in the visualization of Darfur. Back in March 2009, when the liberal UK newspaper The Guardian wanted an image to accompany the print story of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar al-Bashir, a photograph by French photojournalist Frederic Noy was chosen (in contrast to the web version, which has a portrait of Bashir). Showing a distressed baby boy – identified in the caption as malnourished – being vaccinated by partially obscured adults, it was taken at Koubigou refugee camp in eastern Chad. Noy would have had no control over the use of his image by a British newspaper, but the newspaper’s choice of this picture says much about how ‘Darfur’ has been made visually available to us.

    As my earlier research on this topic has demonstrated (see my “Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur Conflict [2007]) photojournalism visually enacts the field it claims merely to document. In the case of Darfur, that visual performance has drawn on the established iconography of disaster in ‘Africa’ in which the political is rendered in terms of the humanitarian, and the humanitarian is signified by the bodies and faces of refugees.

    Indeed, the vast majority of Darfur photographs have come not from the province but the camps in Chad, a product of the way photojournalists rely on international aid organizations to provide access to the edges of the conflict zone. My review of all the pictures used by The Guardian and The Observer in their coverage of Darfur from 2003 to 2005 showed that 43 of the 48 published photographs foregrounded individuals as symbols of the conflict, with two-thirds of these pictures focusing on refugees. And as Lynsey Addario’s March 2009 visual essay of the Otash camp in southern Darfur demonstrates (these being the most recent set of photographs used by the New York Times) the emphasis on the face of the individual remains the most common pictorial form for a political story, even one about the Sudanese government’s expulsion of humanitarian organizations from Darfur.

    Lynsey Addario, New York Times, 22 March 2009

    In fixing meaning, either photographs or text can have the upper hand, depending on their particular context. As Alex de Waal demonstrated in his review of the Darfur essay in David Elliot Cohen’s What Matters, the ambiguities of Marcus Bleasdale’s photographs were expunged by the force of the accompanying text written by Samantha Power and John Prendergast, which ensured the reading of the conflict as genocidal prevailed. However, in the case of the news photographs of Darfur circulating in European and North America, I would argue that the pictures have trumped the words. By constantly reproducing the stereotypes of the refugee as passive victim, these images have made a humanitarian account of the conflict dominant over all others. In turn, these photographs have distilled identities to a fixed essence such that the conflict can be easily mapped in terms of a tribal war or genocide that pits “Arab” against “African”.

    Regardless of whether photographs or text are triumphant in directing the political meaning of a conflict like Darfur, what is missing from both is an appreciation for the wider context, abundant complexities, and many contingencies through which the fate of millions is determined. Although no single media holds the answer, the challenge for visual journalists is to find new ways to tell the story of Darfur so that this lack of certainty can be cogently represented.

    Photo credits: Frederic Noy, Lynsey Addario

    This is a cross-posting with the SSRC ‘Making Sense of Darfur’ blog


    Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza, part 2

    The Observer Magazine has a cover story today (“A Life in Ruins“) about the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. It details the on-going suffering, and is illustrated with Antonio Olmos’s portraits of Gazans living in their destroyed houses. His photograph of Shifa Salman (below) is a double page spread on the inside, with a similar picture of her adorning the cover. More photographs and short interviews related to the story are available in an audio slideshow narrated by the journalist Peter Beaumont.

    Shifa Silman in the ruins of her house

    Two things strike me about the photographs in this story. The first is their focus on individuals, especially women and children, as signs of the conflict and its aftermath. In this they continue a long tradition of imaging conflict by locating the story in the bodies of those most affected. While that is obviously important, it does mean — as I’ve argued in my recent paper reviewing the photojournalism of the war in Gaza — that the larger context of the political infrastructures through which the lives of these individuals are produced goes mostly un-pictured. This context is referenced in both the magazine article and the audio slideshow:

    And without concrete and steel, aluminium and glass, without tiles for roofs and cladding for stairs and bathrooms – all prevented from entering Gaza by Israel’s continuing economic blockade – no rebuilding has begun. For those who suffered most, the war continues.

    However, the blockade of Gaza that is central to the catastrophization of this Palestinian territory — a blockade which preceded the war and now shapes its aftermath — remains visually unrecorded. To be sure, picturing this political infrastructure would be no easy task, but it is time for someone to try.

    The second thing that strikes me about some of the photographs in this story is the way individualizing the issue intersects with a portrait aesthetic that is widely produced. This is demonstrated in the newspaper’s promotion of the magazine’s content (below), where the pose of Shifa Salman shares much in common with the portrait of the South African botanist or the models showing off “the top 5 summer shorts”. With the background cropped, Shifa could be modelling her garb as much as signifying a political issue. Given this, the task of picturing the political infrastructure that governs life in Gaza is even more urgent.

    The Observer, 5 July 2009, page 2

    photography politics

    Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza

    Israel’s three-week war against Gaza was a devastating assault. Retaliating to Hamas rocket attacks, Israel’s military campaign caused the death of some 1,300 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of buildings.

    The story of this operation dominated the world’s media in January 2009, yet many felt that the reality of the conflict had been hidden from a global audience because of Israel’s exclusion of the international media from Gaza. However, European newspapers published the work of many photographers from inside Gaza working for international news agencies.

    To consider how this photojournalism visualized the conflict, I have been researching the coverage offered in the UK by The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper The Observer. I am presenting a paper on this research – “Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza” – at the “Aesthetics of Catastrophe” symposium today at Northwestern University in Chicago.


    Much of the pictorial coverage offered a familiar – and often literal – face of war, as the first photo from the conflict, the injured girl on the front page of The Observer of 28 December 2008, demonstrates. While the victims deserve coverage, and it is necessary to see the consequences of war, does the rendering of the Palestinians as suffering subjects above all else provide a comprehensive visual understanding of the conflict?

    Given the paper is intended for eventual publication in an academic journal, and thus 45 pages and 8,000 words long, I won’t summarise the full argument. But the paper covers the following:

    • The assumptions behind the demand to see;
    • How IDF media controls did not so much blind the world as structure a particular visuality of the conflict;
    • What we did see via the photojournalism of two British papers (with the photographs discussed printed in the paper);
    • Whether what we did see was what we should have seen (i.e., the strategy of catastrophization in Gaza I have posted on previously here, here and here);
    • The implications of this for our understanding of the photography of catastrophe.

    The draft paper is available here. This is the first time I have put such an early version of work out into the public realm. The arguments are not finalised and would benefit from constructive engagement, so I welcome responses as I develop the analysis. Please read and comment.

    Photo credit: Hatem Omar/AP; Abid Katib/Getty

    Updates in the Comments below


    Embedded in Afghanistan

    Embedding photojournalists with combat units was one of the military’s greatest victories in the Iraq war. Narrowing their focus in time and space to the unit they were with produced images putting brave soldiers front and center, with both context and victims out of range. Now, with the Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy being questioned, we are being offered similar visual cues from Afghanistan.

    Three soldiers peering into a remote valley, rifles at the ready, the enemy seemingly elusive. High tech weaponry is readied against the elements. This is a war machine looking for a reason, certain a threat is out there, but unsure of its form. There’s even a moment of pathos, with the man on the left in his pink boxers and exposed legs lining up with his comrades. Then there is the second photo, shot from behind in the same place, but showing a strongman taking time out for a gym session. One shows a vulnerable body, the other a muscular physique, but in each case the American soldier is the subject of the photograph.

    What unites these pictures is their location – the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. The embedding process is taking photographers and reporters to this location above all others, and photographers have been prominent in the coverage of US operations there. Balazs Gardi and Tim Hetherington travelled there in 2007, John Moore spent time there in November 2008, producing both stills and a multimedia piece, and Adam Dean and Tyler Hicks have filed stories from an April 2009 embed. (See background to the Hicks’ story here).

    Although the visual skills of these practitioners are not in doubt, the stories they have produced are remarkably similar in both content and approach. US forces are the locus of the narrative and combat scenes are repeatedly pictured. The local community is largely unseen, except for when they encounter the Americans, and never heard. They are rendered as part of an inhospitable environment in which civilians are hard to distinguish from ‘the enemy’.

    The effect of concentrating on one location and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan. The photographers might want to do otherwise but the embedding process is designed to produce this constraint. Its success can be judged by the way these stories effectively structure the visibility of the war in a way that foregrounds competing American military interests.

    How we judge the photographers’ responsibility here is difficult. Logistically, being embedded is the only feasible way to cover some frontline locations. Without it we might not see anything. But the consequence of embedding is the production of a visual landscape that too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory.  This political effect was part of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s critique of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal. (Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance, which I have considered here).

    Picturing the Af-Pak war comprehensively and in context is a major photographic challenge. It cannot be easily disentangled from the politics. We are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention, but there is no simple military solution in Afghanistan that will guarantee security. Yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

    In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues (see John D McHugh’s series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”), and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.

    Photo credit: David Guttenfelder/Associated Press, from Photo Journal, 12-13 May 2009.

    This is a cross-posting with No Caption Needed. It develops thoughts from an earlier post on Afghanistan. Updates after posting are in the comments below.


    Thinking Images v.6: Gaith Abul-Ahad’s Taliban photographs, 26 November 2010

    The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan, 17 December 2010


    War in multimedia

    As I wrote in today’s photographic post on Afghanistan, John D. McHugh’s multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan offers some of the best visual insights into the military realities of that conflict.

    McHugh, in a session chaired by Roger Tooth of The Guardian at London’s Fontline Club last week, also provides a series of good insights into both the benefits and problems of producing his multimedia stories. You can see a 79 min video of this discussion here. The discussion deals with these issues from the 30 min mark onwards, and reveals how uncertain the political economy of multimedia is for news organisations in the UK. How to manage, produce, publicise and value multimedia is still being worked out project by project. The visual revolution for journalism is still very much in its infancy here.


    Afghanistan: Limits of the Photographic Landscape

    The visualization of the war against the Taliban has stuck closely to the conventional understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, photojournalism has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an ‘elusive’ enemy.

    Starting with stories like Ron Haviv’s Road to Kabul, and evident in the contributions to the Battlespace project, the close-up portrayal of daily fighting necessarily overlooks the larger political issues. The constraints of being an embedded photographer are clear from the way different practitioners (including Balazs Gardi, Tim Hetherington and John Moore) have all travelled to hotspots like the Korengal Valley to cover American troops in action. Although their visual skills are not in doubt, the effect of photographers like this concentrating on one issue and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan.

    We cannot turn the clock back to 2001, but if we could, pursuing the political and legal strategies then advocated in response to the 9/11 attacks would have been better. Now, though, we are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention in Afghanistan. Dealing with that requires reading the conflict more accurately, so that we can understand that the Taliban were never defeated, the fixation on Iraq distorted policy, and that there is no simple military solution in either Afghanistan or the Pakistan border region that will offer security.

    Photojournalism is, of course, not solely responsible for this, even if the visual landscape it offers us too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory. (This political effect was part of Broomberg and Chanarin’s critique of Hetherington’s World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal – Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance; I considered this debate here). Sometimes, though, the stories that emerge from embedded photographers do reveal the futility of the fighting – John D McHugh’s powerful multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”, is visual evidence for this claim.

    Recent videos of public floggings by the Taliban in Pakistan (see the Channel 4 News report from 24 March below, which begins with a beating the Taliban were happy to have filmed) confirm why anyone interested in human rights wants to see fundamentalists opposed (though see the good questions raised about them here).

    Equally, the story of the 11-year old girls in the must-see New York Times multimedia report “Class Dismissed in the Swat Valley” is a visual indictment. What these demands can’t do is prescribe the best way forward to an inclusive and non-violent future. The Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy is an overdue recognition of the region’s problems, but its planned military tactics are likely to perpetuate the problem. Confronting the “neo-Taliban” – the new generation of Pakistani, Afghan, al-Qaeda and Kashmiri fighters who follow a jihadist ideology – with drone attacks that only add to the civilian death toll will be counterproductive. And, yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.

    In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues, and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.


    War images at work

    Photojournalism’s representation of war is often standardized, familiar, even clichéd. Regardless of the time or place it can seem like we have seen it before, regularly and repeatedly. But if we always approach the problem from the same vantage point – asking how the event is represented – we run the risk of missing vital dimensions and important effects of the image, as this picture from Nepal demonstrates.

    This passenger was among 36 killed when the Maoists bombed a bus in Madi, Chitwan. Photo by Kumar Shrestha

    This picture comes from that country’s decade-long civil war which ended in November 2006. The passenger was among 36 killed when Maoists bombed a bus near Madi in June 2005. As one of the 15,000 people who died in this period, he was an unknown statistic in what was, for the rest of the world, a forgotten conflict, an event that had disappeared from the radar even before it could be remembered.

    We could read this image, which is being recirculated through a book launched at this year’s biennial Chobi Mela festival of photography, as the making visible of something we should have known about. Or it could be another testament to lives lost, marked by hands of death. Or we could see it as a further instance of the indirect marking of mass death, preserving dignity while recording loss. While such accounts provide understanding, they do not draw our attention to the larger significance of this image. If we shift our focus from representation to enactment, from meaning to work, we can appreciate this photograph for its vitality in the present rather than merely its record of the past.

    As one of the 179 photographs by 80 photographers selected from the more than 2,000 submitted for the exhibition “A People War: Images of the Nepal Conflict 1996-2006,” this picture toured Nepal throughout 2008. As a book and exhibition, “A People War” contains what individually might be regarded as unremarkable images in the global archive of war photography. Its catalogue of uniformed guerrillas, grieving widows, destroyed infrastructure, damaged individuals and mobilizing soldiers could, by themselves, have been drawn from any number of conflicts. Despite the editors desire to forgo showing unvarnished violence (hence the photograph of the bomb victim’s hand), there are pictures that shock, especially those that record the lynching of a teacher and journalist.

    If, however, we view the images collectively and ask ourselves what work they are doing through the book and the exhibition, then they become something quite remarkable. Being shown within a year of the war’s end, this collection is an act of raw experience, a detailed encounter with what the conflict’s participants and victims have suffered so recently. Nepalese responded to this act in large numbers, with more than 350,000 people queuing to see it in 30 towns across the country – as in this picture from Surkhet. With thousands of free copies of the book distributed to public and school libraries across the countries, and a Nepali language budget edition made available for widespread sale, the organizers have ensured the photographs the broadest circulation possible.

    Surkhet - local crowds wait to enter the exhibition

    People did not just look at the pictures. They engaged with the photographs. Mothers looked for evidence of missing family members, soldiers faced the consequences of their actions, and children witnessed what the future could be like if politics did not triumph over violence. To this end, the exhibition is also a warning to a fragile country. It functions as a statement in defense of the new federal republic, using the photographs to speak of a time to come, declaring that even if that future is not yet capable of being pictured, Nepalese know only too well what it could look like.

    Photographs by Kumar Shrestha and Kirin Krishna Shrestha/nepa-laya.

    This is a cross-posting with No Caption Needed.