Photojournalism – some thoughts from the home front

Is there a danger that photojournalism has become regarded as a beacon only by it’s own?

The images that are made/ taken/ found by these practitioners are then edited/ manipulated/ abused by the ‘industry in a complicit arrangement with, on the one hand, the photojournalist and on the other the ‘news provider’ and by consequence the ‘network sponsor’.

The spectacle of the ‘show’ is seemingly stage managed to deliver both the ‘need’ – that forceful endorsement of action to bolster the interests of the West – by saving the West from further action, nullifying the threat and neutralizing the potency of the aggressor. And, almost as a beneficial side effect, ensuring that the ‘payback’ of commercial interests are vested in the home state? By micro-managing the spectacle this complicit notion of media, commerce and government ensures that ‘collateral damage’ to capitalism is kept to minimum. And if this is so what is the point of the photojournalist? McCullin, for example, has admitted many times that he never made a difference, the images he made, and by consequence, those of his contemporaries in a time when media management wasn’t the sophisticated machine that it is today. What hope then for the altruistic photojournalist of today (if that isn’t a contradiction in terminology)

The currency of the photojournalist must be at an all time low, the media message is something that has become increasingly more controlled, mediated, subverted than ever before.

Those early second Gulf-War images coming from the night sky over Baghdad, that grainy footage of a dystopian firework display, observed from a privileged platform should have been the marker, and perhaps it is yet, that denoted the finality of any sense of vérité. ‘Clinical’, a term transmitted in almost all of the news casts to describe the ‘devastating accuracy’ of the cruise missiles, launched from either the relative safety of the Persian Gulf, or the absolute safety of somewhere in Kansas. ‘Our boys’ were safe, and almost as critically important there wasn’t a drop of blood on the screens. The audience, both on the ground in Iraq and on their sofas ‘back home’ were in a state of awe and wonder. Ironic perhaps that General Electric (GE) merged with NBC a year after the start of the second Gulf war. CBS had been, until 2000, owned by Westinghouse – sold later to Viacom. Both GE and Westinghouse are major suppliers to the American armed forces, and in particular the cruise missile program(me) that was at the core of the devastation. Interestingly Fox News was the only industrially independent media operator at the time.

The audience was later treated to the spectacle of the ‘joyous’ liberation of Iraq; those scenes in Firdos Square, and were amused to see the inhabitants shake their shoes at the fallen statue of their erstwhile leader. Still no blood. No children screaming in the streets, no mothers wailing at the loss of their loved ones. No more pictures of the ghostly Kurdish villages that were gassed by Sadam. The appeal of these images are that they are homogenized for the six o’clock news, before the watershed and in between the adverts – not the other way round. ‘Mission accomplished’?

Who then can we turn to find that veracity, that authorial integrity that delivers an unexpurgated truth to the viewer? In an age when the camera is now omnipresent, as the pen never was, carried by both soldier and civilian alike? Perhaps it is they, those who pay the price, who might shoulder the weight of expectation, what was once the burden of the photojournalist? Embedded photographers are ‘cleansed’ as part of the process of integration with their hosts. Bloomberg and Chanarin exposed that complicity adroitly in their “The day nobody died” as does perhaps Simon Norfolk’s distancing ‘Chronotopia”. What we lack in an age where the professional photojournalist, whose patina of fine art is delicately burnished with photoshop, is a sense of the ‘real’, a sense of authority. And where that now appears to come from is from an unlikely, albeit the most credible, of sources.

The twin revolution of media accessibility and interconnectedness has conflated to provide a counter to the primacy of the media in western culture. That news channels and news-print have become part of the same corporate entity and collude in the most part with governments, the audience becomes increasingly devoid of compassion and excitement. As the ‘spectacle’ becomes more and more predictable, the viewer seems either to switch off, a danger to the capitalist media machine, or to become inured to its narrative. Allowing the notion of another voice, however that is created, isn’t part of the dialectic conjured by the moguls in corporate media land.

The soldier has always had an unwritten understanding that along with the job of war, along with concomitant risk to life or limb come the spoils of war. And in the fog of war, soldiers, who may have no political or economic bias whatsoever do what they have always done. The images from Abu Ghraib have a reality about them that many of the manufactured, edited, mediated constructions may never be able to match. Ill-structured, poorly composed and exposed, the validity of these images hold more evidential truth than any number of ‘Getty’ images on the six o’clock news, or the front page of the USA Today. That they evidence something that the corporate world would rather not have exposed is, by their standards unfortunate, and there has been plenty said that they have been ‘doctored’ or ‘manipulated’ and that they are therefore corrupt. However, they represent though an ‘other’ reality to the increasingly impotent press, whose prime motivation is now no longer the truth but readership, the commodification of their audience to their advertiser. That the press media’s principle competitor is the virtual world, whose multiplicity of viewing options have considerably diluted the advertising dollar in any case, already diluted the currency of the single image narrative strength is an irony they know only too well. There may be reasons that Al Jazeera decided to enter the media world, initially to present an ‘other’ view, increasingly it is being viewed itself by the insurgency as an ‘other’. The conversation lacks a balancing discriminatory voice. Of the millions of Iraqi images taken on mobile phones and digital cameras hardly any become part of the mainstream ‘story’. So little of what the spectator is shown has that authenticity that is part of the meta of the Abu Ghraib imagery.

The professed natural revulsion of these images are a curious turn of events; that the ‘liberators’ of a nation from tyranny should then photograph their own tyrannization of their captives is presented in a sense of the failure of the system to control both the dissemination of those images (after all no-one profited by them apparently) but also by the apparent lack of probity reflecting on the state as a deliverer of all that is good. However when the images are those of an enemy performing heinous deeds to an equally powerless and vanquished people, the notion of the West is to both confer authenticity to the authorship and a sense of ‘rightness’ that these images are shown. The images taken by Japanese soldiers at the time of the slaughter of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians in the old Chinese capital Nanking in December 1937, are seen now as evidence; as representational testimony. The ritual bayoneting of civilians, said to be ‘live practice’ and the beheading of captives ‘for fun’ are fundamentally more difficult to view than the shit strewn captives walking along the Abu Ghraib prison corridors. Nevertheless society, seemingly, holding one more credibly than another, is able to accept the veracity of one over the other.

Similarly the re-birth of, for example Baghdad or Kabul is shown through a lens less darkly lit; uplifting imagery of locals involved in their own destiny, not as pawns but spawning the reemergence of a nation liberated by the greatness of democracy, of capitalism. Like Russia after the fall of communism, with unbridled capitalism and the emergence of the largest cluster of billionaires on the planet – overtaken now perhaps by China’s own capitalist uprising, a country that has a long history of media control and manipulation and is now finding ways to manipulate western media overtly and covertly.

It is easy to demonize the USA – perhaps rightly so – but the West is complicit, the UK and others have been implicated in ‘extraordinary rendition’, in the training of subversive elements that have gone on to counter the revolution they were invited to attempt to overthrow. The USA didn’t invent these practices, they have been in common practice since war began, the difference today is not only the message, but how the media has become part of the message; who owns it, who controls it and disseminates it. It is surely not by chance that PR graduates are now holding the offices of power? The armed forces are the instruments of the state enterprise – we live in a capitalist state and the needs of the state will prevail.

The paradoxical aggrandizing of the professional photojournalist’s imagery onto the exhibition wall seems almost to be an admission of failure. Norfolk’s beautiful images of the distant battlefield compare vividly with the Burrows’ epic shots from Vietnam. The post-modern narrative of reflective consideration, of inviting the spectator to join the discourse with the photographer/author and compose a chronicle rather than be informed by an account of the contemporary; seemingly distancing the recorder from any need of partial thought or statement. And if this is so, what is the point? Is it the point that Bloomberg and Chanarin made, that there is no point? That the media itself has been so corrupted that to provide imagery into that machine is to deny authority? To deny integrity?

Images on an exhibition wall, or in a book, both give weight to the gravitas of the intent of the photojournalist as artist, and the pretension and ambition of them at the same time. Considering the work of An-My Lê and her work “Series 29: Palms” which has the benefit of not attempting to depict war as a fact, but utilizing fiction as a means to engage, in a post modern dialectic, to incorporate the spectator into the narrative outcome, obfuscating the need to draw a line – whether red or not – between right or otherwise, versus, for example, Hahn’s “Incinerating corpses in the old market, Dresden 25 February 1945’ alongside Rodger’s “Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp, April 1945”; twin images of nameless cadavers geographically not that far apart, on different sides in a war and depicted as the victims. The difference is of course that Lê’s work is a considered piece, thoughtfully processed and crafted. A construction. Whereas Hahn’s, crafted nevertheless, sets out to illuminate how the architects of a retribution disassociated with the resultant effects could be depicted, was never thought to be about how it might be presented in a white cube. Lê saw her work engaging with an audience at an intellectual level, to construct a discourse, whereas Hahn wanted to show what the allies were doing to his own people, to engage at a visceral level. Hahn wanted to preach, Lê was though unlikely to do so, but if so then it would surely be to a dwindling converted?

Ahead of a visit to “Current Conflicts” a study day tomorrow I wanted to record my understanding and thoughts on photojournalism, informed by my studies so far, this essay and conversations with journalists in the front-line. I shall come back to this after the study visit to compare and contrast.

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3 thoughts on “Photojournalism – some thoughts from the home front

  1. Brilliant writing John. One of the aspects I was unaware of was how those who provide the means for war also now control what,s written and shown about it. I look forward to hearing more about the Exhibition visit.

    • Glad you liked it Catherine. The exhibition was a not what I thought it would be, so my thoughts are going to go along a different track. Hope you enjoyed Arles.

  2. Pingback: Current Conflicts | John Umney - Documentary

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