Posts Tagged conflict photography
Today, I’d like to continue discussing that topic.
To recap very briefly, one of the feelings that gets aired when discussing the merits and weaknesses of the visual language used in famine photography is that we are wrong to be discussing aesthetic concerns; we should be focussing on the suffering of those pictured.
This is what I’ll be discussing today.
For a start, I don’t think it is a valid complaint. It assumes the choice is either/or – either we engage in critical thinking, or we feel emotion. In reality, we’re perfectly capable of carrying out both processes simultaneously (or within a similar time period).
I don’t think that point should be at all contentious. But a more nuanced statement of this complaint (and one that makes this counter-argument irrelevant) would be that by engaging in critical thinking we are shifting the debate around famine (within the photographic community) away from the event itself, and that by focussing on the syntax of visual communication here, we are in some way undermining the humanitarian goals of the photographers working in these areas – to engage the wider public, to create within them an emotional connection to these strangers who are suffering, and to encourage the wider public to respond to these feelings by contributing to ending the suffering.
Stated like this, the complaint is more serious. But we still have to ask, is it valid?
While all the work constituted “conflict photography”, none of it depicted the “traditional” or “stock” conflict photography language – the silhouetted soldiers, the rebel fighters with guns aloft as a symbol of freedom fought for, the family crying over the death of loved ones, the soldier with a rifle in one hand and holding out his other hand to a small child. The images we’ve come to know as emblematic of conflicts from reading newspapers and, with no question, the imagery that is still preferred by photo editors for front page features.
You might wonder what this has to do with our discussion of famine photography.
Well, for a start, it shows that an area of photography that is very closely linked with newspaper publication (like famine photography is) can deviate from the imagery most often used by the newspapers and still find an audience. If this is possible for conflict photography, we ought to assume that a similar progression is possible for famine photography. Indeed, both areas of photography can carry great risk for the photographers involved, and may require projects to be self-funded. In the case of conflict photography, the risk to the photographer, and the general difficulty of the working conditions (getting enough time to produce thoughtful work, gaining access, etc) is arguably even greater than it is for famine photography.
So we do have to question why and how conflict photography has managed to explore its subject matter with more depth than famine photography currently seems to do. The logistical and safety constraints are the same in both cases, and perhaps greater in the case of conflict photography. And both subject matter are traditionally linked to newspaper publication, yet conflict photography has managed to grow independently of concerns about making the front page of the New York Times or the Guardian. Famine photography hasn’t done so to quite the same degree at all.
This observation undermines the argument that the work is too difficult to be achieved, and also undermines the argument that the photographer is bound by the need to shoot the images the newspaper photo editor wants to see.
This is all pretty basic stuff.
But I think there’s a further point of interest to be gleaned from comparing the two fields of photography. And this observation returns us to our earlier stated argument against critiquing famine photography (namely, “that by engaging in critical thinking we are shifting the debate around famine away from the event itself, and that by focussing on the syntax of visual communication here, we are in some way undermining the humanitarian goals of the photographers working in these areas”).
For me, this claim (if true) would be a persuasive argument against critiquing famine photography. My whole purpose in critiquing such imagery stems from an ethical position – quite simply, I think the suffering is wrong, I want it to be prevented, and I want everyone involved in publicising it and preventing it to bring their A game to achieving that positive outcome. I critique from a desire for improvement, not a desire to judge. If my critiquing gets in the way of improving the situation, then my critique is off-base and negates its own purpose.
So, I think it could be instructive to consider conflict photography and question whether this same argument could be posited against the idea of critiquing conflict photography. If it can, then we ought to consider why critiquing conflict photography doesn’t meet with nearly the same sense of moral opprobrium as critiquing famine photography does.
In both cases, there is an urgent need to report. Yet, we have already dismissed the notion that this urgency ought to prevent us questioning the relevance of conflict photography work, based on its aesthetic choices. By extension, we can equally dismiss these concerns for famine photography.
If there is a moral basis for not critiquing conflict photography, it would likely run something like this: by critiquing conflict photography, we are shifting the debate from the event of the war itself onto the politics behind the war (by way of discussing the visual syntax employed by conflict photographers) and, by doing so, we risk undermining the support soldiers receive from the public and further risk demoralising the soldiers, potentially creating more personal (psychological and/or physical) risk for those engaged in battle.
Is this in any way similar to the argument against critiquing famine photography?
(1) Critiquing the imagery shifts the debate
(2) Shifting the debate in this way can change public perceptions and, by extension public responses
(3) This shift can lead to less support to provide aid and/or other measures that could end the famine
(1) Critiquing the imagery shifts the debate
(2) Shifting the debate in this way can change public perceptions and, by extension public response (eg less moral support for troops, fewer citizens opting to serve, political pressure against governments pursuing military recruitment policies that are targeted at those least well off in a society, etc)
(3) This shift can lead to a weaker military response, more danger for troops, and a more difficult war
I could, rightly, be accused of overstating claims here. But this is a blog post and not an academic article. And I’m just throwing ideas around with a view to clarifying the underlying force of the arguments being made.
I think it is fair to say that, in both cases, photography is considered to be an important tool with the power to bring change, be it immediate or both slower and more subtle. In both cases, no doubt, all photographers working in the field feel the work they are doing is important, and can be part of wider body of work (journalism text, political debates, public debates, etc, etc) that could lead to significant change.
But with conflict photography, there isn’t the same supposed “ethical/emotive concerns” about critiquing the work. It isn’t considered a slight against the photographers carrying out the more newspaper-favoured work, nor is it considered detrimental to resolving the actual event.
I suspect that the real cause of our acceptance for critiquing conflict photography in a way we don’t accept critiquing famine photography stems not from any real ethical dilemma at all, but rather stems from our culture.
While it is commonplace to be critical of conflict, where the man-made causes are readily apparent, and it clearly involves governmental decisions (and when has government ever been popular? or sacrosanct?), critique is openly permitted. Yet, when it comes to famine photography, where the man-made and government-led causes are just as important albeit perhaps less immediately apparent (in some cases*), we shrink away from critiquing the visual work produced with anything like the same force.
We feel compromised in a way that we don’t feel when discussing conflict photography – discussing matters of aesthetics, style, and syntax seems to mean we are not giving due respect or concern to those pictured who are suffering from famine. Yet, we don’t feel this compromise when engaging in the same process of critique discussing conflict photography. And it isn’t because the innocent victims of conflict are any less important or worthy of our compassion than the innocent victims of famine; it is merely that we are more aware of the politics and economics of war, and we are more open to taking a critical stance against the causes of any particular war.
I suspect that a combination of relative ignorance about the underlying causes of famine, coupled with a sense of political correctness leads us to conclude that any debate of famine photography that departs from discussing the immediate suffering is a somewhat cruel or unfeeling debate to have. In reality, we ought perhaps to ask ourselves if we discuss the immediate suffering of those depicted in famine photographs more to make ourselves feel better for having publicly asserted our compassion than to affect real change.
I realise that sounds a very harsh charge to make, but I don’t mean that it is done deliberately, or callously. Not only is it an intrinsically human response to want to vocalise feelings of compassion, it is also imperative that when we see something that is wrong, we don’t shy away from stating that it is wrong. But if the discussion doesn’t move beyond that, we do have to question how important those feelings are to us. And, I would argue, debating the syntax of famine photography is one mode through which we can begin to investigate the complicated causes of such events and how these causes may be altered.
To end this post, I’d like to reblog the final comments I made in my review of the seminar held by Paul Lowe and Jennifer Pollard of LCC about Conflict Photography (emphasis is mine):
To conclude his talk, Lowe argued that instead of judging this style of work based on individual pieces or even individual photographers, we would be better off viewing it as a collective narrative that provides a sustained and complex response to the too-frequently seen classic photojournalistic images of conflict that blinds us emotionally by saturation of imagery to the reality of the situation they set out so earnestly to depict. As Lowe said later, “the problem isn’t in the presence of certain kinds of images [classic photojournalism] but in the absence of certain other kinds of images [the more allegorical and metaphorical style discussed in his talk].” Conflicts, and their effects, run too deep for a solely surface appearance of them to suffice in documenting their true nature.
* In other cases, such as Biafra 1968-1970, the man-made causes were wholly apparent – the famine was directly caused by the Nigerian government surrounding Biafra and cutting off food supplies.
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be invited by Paul Lowe to attend a one-day seminar for LCC students at Liverpool’s CUC.
Why Liverpool for a London University event? Well, Paul Lowe and Harry Hardie have curated the group show, Collateral Damage for Look11. The show features conflict photography and seeks to offer a refreshingly different perspective to the repetition of ‘stock’ compositions that are heavily featured in photojournalism new pieces.
The show runs Tues-Sun, until 26th June 2011. Check it out while you can – my personal opinion is that it is one of the strongest exhibitions in the Look11 festival, and the curatorial aspects of the show really enhance the selection of images by contrasting the approaches of different photographers and positioning them so the different perspectives play off each other very strongly.
The day began with a tour of the show, and some time spent visiting some of the other Look11 exhibitions; some of the Lightbox work and the John Davies/Donovan Wylie Signs of War exhibition at Milk and Sugar. This was followed after lunch by talks from Paul Lowe (LCC), photographer Mishka Henner, and Dr. Jennifer Pollard (LCC), and a roundtable discussion that also included John Davies.
Collateral Damage features work by Simon Norfolk, Tim Hetherington, Zijah Gafic, Paul Lowe, Edmund Clark, Lisa Barnard, Ashley Gilbertson, Adam Broomberg and Olivier Chanarin, Brett Van Ort, Mishka Henner.
The exhibition is largely laid out across three ‘corridors’ where images from two photographers face each other. Brett Van Ort and Edmund Clark are paired together, both works dealing with “what exists but can’t be seen” – Brett’s work shows beautiful looking landscapes in frames which open to reveal coldly photographed product photography of the mines hidden in the landscape, while Edmund Clark’s work comprises photographs of letters sent to inmates at Guantanamo Bay. The photographs are of scanned copies of the letters, with text blacked out, as prisoners never received the actual letters themselves but the scanned copies. The photographs are the more poignant for this fact – the sense of distance the viewer feels is akin in kind to the detachment the inmate has from the actual letter sent, and often sent by a family member. Both works allude to dislocation between beauty hinted at (or proclaimed, in Brett’s work) and the dangers that aren’t at first apparent to the viewer, but ever present for those living in these spaces.
The next ‘corridor’ features work by Tim Hetherington (whose tragic death this blog wrote about here ) and by Lisa Barnard. A perhaps unintended consequence of this pairing is that, in light of Tim’s recent death in Libya, and the attendant discussion in the media and photojournalism forums of the psychological effects of warfare on both those who participate in it and those who document it, Lisa’s images depicting the psychological training and treatment of American troops takes on a further potency than it otherwise might have had. Tim’s work featured in this exhibition is early work, examining the graffiti in post-conflict zones, pointing to the territorial nature of disputes. These ghostly echoes of the causes and basis of war are powerful, both for their similarity in appearance to the markings left in all urban spaces, and for the link with Lisa’s work, namely that marks of war live on after the war has ended, both physically and psychologically. It makes the viewer question where the end of a war actually is.
The final corridor pairs Paul Lowe’s images of the wall separating Israel and Palestine, and Mishka Henner’s aerial google views of American military bases around the world (his 51 states). Each offering unique perspectives on the divisions of architecture, symbolic of the divisions between nation-states, these images carry a hypnotic weight through repetition of content and framing. There is a pervading sense here, as in other work featured in Collateral Damage, that this could be anywhere, and the absence of stereotypical or easy markers for locating the spaces depicted adds to the force of interrogation the viewer faces – by refusing to show whose backyard this is, it becomes everyone’s backyard. Interesting, then, that Lowe and Hardie feature Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen along the side wall, printed in large-scale panoramic format (a powerful counter-point to the comparatively tiny panoramics of Lowe’s Wall), depicting bedrooms of American soldiers. Instigated after Ashley was working on assignment and witnessed the death of a soldier who had taken him to the top of a mosque for picture opportunities, the work is laden with emotional cues and is reminiscent of the Rimbaud poem, The Sideboard and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (see also Gibson, Affordances, 1971) – objects are never merely objects but always exist in relation to us. In this case, the artefacts of youth where life has ended, there is an unsettling feeling created by looking at a bedroom that will never be slept in again. The relationships of attachment, entertainment, and utility that these objects once had in relation to their owners are now broken, and instead the whole room becomes a shrine for the family remembering their loss.
Next to Ashley’s work, and on the opposite wall, creating a pair crossing the walls of Van Ort and Clark, are two images by Simon Norfolk, from Full Spectrum Dominance: Missiles, Rockets, Satellites in America. Like Van Ort and Clark, there is a notion here of what can’t be seen – the missiles are created and transported in top secrecy, and the satellites are fired into space, where they can’t be seen, only their effects are tangible. Here, Norfolk photographs the single brief moment when they are visible, and spectacularly so, during their launch. That these two images are the only clear signs of the “shock and awe” of warfare in the exhibition reminds us of the link between the quieter images presented by the other photographers and the newspaper images we are all saturated with, but Norfolk does it in a conceptually intriguing manner; the viewer is reminded of the childhood (or childish? maybe) interest in war games for their spectacle, for the fireworks we celebrate with every November, for the sheer sense of display.
In all, Lowe and Hardie ought to be commended for producing an exhibition that explores a wide range of different dimensions to the effects of war, on the military involved, the people stuck in war zones, and the families of those lost in the name of supposedly noble causes. Henner’s work also shows how the military machine is everywhere, and inescapable in terms of distancing oneself geographically (and, by extension emotionally), the from the debate. The work presented is quiet but insistent in it’s interrogation of the viewer, and manages to ask questions without polemicising strongly one way or another. A fantastic exhibition, and extremely well delivered.