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Famine Photography Redux

Last weekend, ST84Photo chimed in with its own .02 cents on the Famine Photography debate primarily between David Campbell and Jon Levy, of Foto8.

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?

Back in June, ST84Photo published a series of posts (here, here, and here), reviewing the Collateral Damage exhibition and seminar, organised by Paul Lowe (LCC) and Harry Hardie (HOST Gallery).

The Collateral Damage exhibition was a group show of conflict photography, featuring work by Simon Norfolk, Ashley Gilbertson, Mishka Henner, and others.

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?

In summary:
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

Conflict Photography
(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.

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Collateral Damage Part II (Paul Lowe & Harry Hardie)

You can read Part I here.

After a quick coffee and lunch, we reconvened at Novas CUC for the afternoon of the LCC seminar: talks by Paul Lowe (LCC), Mishka Henner, and Dr. Jennifer PollardDr. jennifer Pollard (LCC), and a roundtable discussion that also included John Davies.

This “talks and discussion” session was scheduled to be broadcast as a live webinar, with input from a global audience. But this wasn’t to be. I believe the politically astute term for this scenario may well be “technical glitch”. I also believe the politically not very astute gesture for this may well be a faux-shock gaping mouth and a finger pointing directly at the LCC MA Course Director. Hi Paul. Got my MA application, yet? Just checking.

To be fair, it was more that the venue had a very weak wifi signal, a fact known to ex-musical heathens like myself, from days spent practicing in the adjoining rehearsal rooms of Elevator Studios. But I was surprised that neither the venue nor the Look11 team seemed to have sought a workaround for this event, or to inform the LCC of this issue. I’m not sure who really dropped the ball here, but it was a fairly rookie mistake from someone or, more likely, several.

Lowe’s talk could be described as a Rough Guide to Conflict Photography History. I mean no insult there; as a relative newcomer to looking at conflict photography beyond the pages and webpages of the broadsheets, it was a very useful introduction to the debate, and I culled much in the way of notes for future reference.

Lowe’s argument was essentially that rather than there being a supposedly fairly recent trend of making a different form of conflict photography in response to photojournalistic efforts, photographers had been doing this all along. It wasn’t something that started with Paul Seawright and contemporaries (see here for more), but rather has it’s roots as early as the days of Stanley Green, who was experimenting at the start of the 20th Century with this notion of alternative story-telling, using metaphor and allegory to photograph the unphotographable (to quote that threadbare phrase).

He elaborates that while an increasing number of photojournalists are taking cues from the fine art world in how they make and present their work, we ought not to pass over the icons of classic photojournalims, like Green and Robert Capa, who frequently did find alternative ways to document what they witnessed.

That said, he noted that photojournalism trails behind fine art practice in adopting new techniques and methods of portrayal, leading me to question both why this is, and whether it will continue as the distribution media for classic photojournalism continues to weaken and new channels of distribution are created and experimented with. It seems to me that experimentation and reiterative processes are key to fostering creativity, and with a distribution media either in collapse or in flux (depending on the strength of view you take regarding the rise of the mount olympus of social media), the time is ripe for some truly innovative work to be produced. I think we may have yet to see that work be made, but I do wonder if, how, and when it might happen.

He also shared a few variations on The Capa Quote™ (note: quote must be uttered with defiant tone) “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Joel Sternfeld: If your pictures aren’t good enough, then you’re too close.

Todd Pappageorge: If your pictures aren’t good enough, then you’re not reading enough.

This sums up a move away from the literal into the metaphoric, a move perhaps most strongly demonstrated in the work of Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk, and in Broomberg and Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died (links in Part I of this review).

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.

Edit – struggling to find the relevant links for the rest of this post and must dash for work. Shall finish up later tonight.

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