Posts Tagged famine 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.
I used to work as a lighting designer on tour. Early on, I received some good advice from a colleague, a sound manager, who told me, “If a music fan goes to a concert and the sound is great but the lighting is terrible, they’ll leave thinking the concert was terrible. But if they go to a concert where the sound is okay and the lighting is perfect, they’ll leave thinking it was great.”
Strong words that stuck with me. And he was right – we interpret visual symbols more powerfully than we do audio. If the band is tight but my lighting cues are slightly off, the band gets the blame for seeming loose.
A similar analogy can be drawn with famine photography, which is usually presented alongside journalistic text detailing the specific disaster; it is the images that stay with us. This is true and one only need to think of any recent disaster to acknowledge it – how many of us remember the details of the earthquake in Japan? And how many of us have images of it burned into our minds? I think we can agree that more people fall into the latter category.
So the photographs used to report disasters are important, and those who make them and those who distribute them have a responsibility to ensure that they communicate fully.
Recently, David Campbell and Jon Levy (of Foto8) have been debating the practice of famine photography. Discussions can be found here and here. This culminated in a debate last Thursday, hosted by Open-i to which David Campbell followed up with a summation of the points he raised in that debate (found here).
I attended the webinar debate, and found both speakers raised important points. Campbell began by showing the the imagery of famine has barely changed in 50 years, but argued that this imagery fails to communicate the complexity of the story, leaving the viewer with an iconic image but essentially an empty one, in so far as it fails to explain the context for the suffering. He contended that no natural disasters nowadays can really be said to be “natural” – they’re usually either caused by or exacerbated by government policies (eg the Irish Potato Famine occurring despite there being a good supply of potatoes being shipped to England) or economic strategies (eg the impact of bio-fuel farming in Africa). He focussed on the role of the photographer in choosing what to photograph and how to photograph it, while acknowledging that these questions fit into a wider discussion of how these images are distributed, but urged photographers to consider other ways of communicating the depth of a disaster where, in his opinion, famine is merely an end result.
Levy felt that by discussing these meta-questions, we were missing the immediate and visceral response we ought to have when viewing these images – the compassion towards the victims of the famine, coupled with a desire to help. He also argued that what he was viewing** as Campbell’s tendency to blame the photographs for the continuation of famines to be akin to blaming Twitter for the recent riots in England – blaming the tools of communication misses the real problems in our society, and those abroad. Further, he argued that questions about the imagery of famine rightly ought to be directed primarily at the news distributors, and secondarily at the consumers of these images, for failing to promote or demand alternatives. He expanded upon this point by arguing that we are asking too much from photographers to cover the complexities of the issue, and that this could be better provided by journalists. The work of photographers needs to be understood as forming part of a wider framework of communication, and the wider framework should be criticised for failing to make the causes apparent.
This last point reminds me of that piece of advice from the sound manager I worked with. Inevitably, the images in a story will carry more weight than the words. Some wont even read the words, or may skim through to find key details, missing the depth of a well written article altogether. There is a strong sense in which many “read” newspapers at a very superficial level, to “see what’s happening in the world”, in which case, it is the job of the photographer to pull them in to reading the arguments of an article more closely at times.
While I understand and agree with Levy’s point that the wider network of communicators need to also be questioned for failing to make the causes of famine clear, it seems almost defeatist to assume that the iconic bloated-belly image is the best a photographer can hope to produce in this area of work.
I also question the validity of arguing that by engaging in these theoretical discussions we are obliged to surrender any feeling of compassion for the current events. To refer back to the England riots analogy Levy made in relation to blaming communication tools for underlying causes, I think it is wholly possible to feel both anger and sadness at the recent riots yet also seek to understand the underlying causes for them. Likewise with famine photography – I needn’t choose between feeling compassion for those currently suffering in East Africa, and questioning the robustness of the images produced. In fact, if anything, my compassion for the suffering is what causes me to question the robustness of those images; it is precisely because I want to know more, because I want to find solutions, that I look at the images and find something missing in them.
That said, I am fairly well educated, I did study and then work in politics, and I do have some prior knowledge of the political and social factor in Africa that give rise to disasters like that currently happening. I concede that many do not.
Yet, in those cases, I do wonder how much the image influences the feelings they have. Sure enough, we look at the images and we feel moved by them; it is almost impossible not to. But I wonder if the continued reliance upon similarly context-empty images encourages us to naively conclude that such natural disasters are inevitable. In which case, the imagery is arguably undermining the chance of resolving the issues, adding to a continuation of the resulting disasters. There is a sense in which the absence of wider context in the image encourages us not to ask questions.
Undoubtedly, the photographer is constrained by limited publications options, as Paul Lowe pointed out in the Open-i debate – the news outlets are looking for the iconic, impactful, single image; the exclamation mark of what needs an essay to explore.
But this assertion strikes me as being a little bit disingenuous. While it is still true that an image will receive more exposure if published in a major publication, such as the front page of the New York Times, the photography community has been collectively singing the praises of a recent revolution in technology that has enabled self-publishing, the proliferation of independent publishers, and the possibility for good work to go viral quickly and cheaply.
We therefore have to question not merely why the image of a child with a bloated belly seems to be continually promoted by major news outlets as the image of famine, but also why there seems to be an absence of other images of famine. For the number of photographers who flocked to East Africa, where are the youtube/vimeo videos? Where are the photo-essays self-published on personal or agency websites? Where is the work being published through independent print and online publishers?
In summation, it is unreasonable to expect photographers to take the full responsibility for the current state of famine photography, but there are too many holes in the argument that photographers are currently doing the best that can visually be done to convince me that the various issues surrounding this don’t need to be discussed further. It is only through interrogating the status quo that we can hope to create new options that do better justice to the unnecessary loss of life that is continually happening in the world. It is from being deeply moved by the famine photography that I have seen that I have become convinced that the best famine photography must be those photographs that contribute most strongly to the end of famine photography and the creation of a world where natural disasters don’t have the impact they currently do for those unfortunate enough to have been thrown into the world in poverty.
** David Campbell contacted me wishing to clarify this point, which I didn’t make clear. Here are his comments regarding this point, “I just want to underscore that the point attributed to Jon (“He also argued that Campbell’s tendency to blame the photographs for the continuation of famines to be akin to blaming Twitter for the recent riots in England “) is very, very far removed from my views on both famine photography and social media. Just to be clear – I don’t regard images as the reason famines continue. I’ve not written that and certainly don’t believe that.”
A friend shared a link to this article, written by Reuters journalist Barry Malone. Titled, “Me and the man with the iPad”, it offers the viewpoint of a journalist working specifically in East Africa, reporting on famines, and he shares his thoughts on the ethical dilemma he faces in doing this job.
Open-i network have now posted the recording of the webinar debate here.
I’ve added to this post with Famine Photography Redux, which compares this debate about famine photography with the comparative absence of debate around conflict photography (despite ostensibly similar issues being present).
Tim W Glass shared these books in the comments below. I’ve added them here for easy reference:
“Compassion Fatigue” by Susan D. Moeller
“Photojournalism and Today’s News: Creating visual reality” by Loup Langton.
“Truth Needs No Ally: Inside photojournalism” by Howard Chapnick. Excerpt: “For visual journalists, perhaps the time has come to rethink the philosophical basis that determines not only how we photograph but what we photograph.”
“The Construction of Social Reality” by John Searle.