This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.3, Spring 2013.
As a young man, Don McCullin, the doyen of war photography, said he wanted “to make sure that when they [the public] look at my pictures on a Sunday morning after breakfast, it’s going to hit them hard.” Where are we now, then? The images in the media are more horrific than ever. The blows are undoubtedly getting heavier, but we consume horror with our tea and toast. If photojournalism is a means to an end, the end being to motivate an audience to act, that end is no longer being realised.
The media has warped our notion of truth. Televisions blast staged ‘reality’ shows and images are photoshopped to falsified perfection. In a world where we are constantly exposed to untruths and surrounded by fake images that seem hyper-real, our search for the genuine is more complicated than ever.
In such an environment, the impact of conflict photojournalism has diminished significantly and the role of the photojournalist is laden with new problems. Vietnam was the last armed conflict where journalists had unfettered and uncensored access and because the images published generated hostility towards the conflict, securing journalistic freedom on the ground has proved challenging ever since. Now their military hosts have more control of photographers’ movements and thus their reportage.
Photojournalists are then faced with the moral dilemma of intervention. How much pain and suffering can they witness, without intervening? The 2013 documentary McCullin shows a man haunted by what he has seen and battling with what he could have done to prevent it. McCullin did, on occasion, intervene to help the injured. James Nachtwey could not remain inactive during the 1998 riots in Indonesia. His desperate pleas to save a life were ignored, and he witnessed a man butchered by a machete-wielding mob. Capturing the moment on camera, with aesthetic considerations, Nachtwey brought the brutality to our attention. Despite being horrified by the image, I feel defeated by the brutality. It gives me an overwhelming feeling that nothing can be done. This feeling is not inaccurate – Nachtwey was, indeed, unable to do anything.
Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer prize-winning image of a starving toddler stalked by a vulture during the Sudan famine caused uproar. Carter chased the vulture away and left the scene after the photograph was taken, but was not able to answer questions from the public about the girl’s fate. They attacked him for not saving her and instead acting as voyeur to her starvation. Soon after, he committed suicide, leaving a note that included the following statement: ‘I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.’ The photojournalist is there, not to interfere, but document. But at what point does the passivity of the profession become immoral?
Once the images reach the hands of newspaper editors, pages are designed to steer readers towards a particular interpretation. Media coverage of the Rwandan genocide inferred that the killings were random, chaotic and the situation hopeless. Bombarded by pictures of machetes and spears, the public were encouraged to believe it was tribal hatred, rather than a state-sponsored genocide. Killing with such barbaric weapons involves an inhuman detachment from the action and, in turn, the prevalence of this imagery left the Western world feeling detached from the conflict. Rwanda was depicted as a madhouse, where nothing could be done by the West. Meanwhile, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans were killed in the genocide that engulfed the country. The cries for help were ignored. Had the mass killings been accurately portrayed in the media, might the public have been mobilised to act?
Artistic photography can be more effective in giving the viewer a participatory role. John Torgonvik’s Intended Consequences is a series of portrait studies of women raped during the Rwandan genocide next to the children begotten by the crime. For many of the women, this was their first opportunity to speak out, previously silenced by the shame of having children with the very militiamen responsible for the death of their families. The horror of the story is embodied, though the images themselves specifically do not showcase the violence they allude to. To gain a better understanding of suffering through photography, we need to investigate the individuals not the acts.
In a society centered on the self, seeing the anguish of an individual holds our attention captive. The war photography that has endured is often based around the experience of one, rather than hundreds. The most prominent example of this is The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa, where war is manifested in one soldier’s demise. The depiction of the soldier as he falls to his death, brought to his knees by war, is more powerful than a scene of hundreds of butchered bodies. It is the very solitude of this man, dying for the supposed betterment of his country that evokes in the audience the very same questions Capa must have struggled with as a war photographer.
Images of piled bodies and severed heads leave a lasting impression of finality and futility, where the brutality has been administered and nothing can be done. Such impersonal accounts leave the audience unable to give the photographed an identity and to relate. Danger lies in images that allow the audience to believe it is the country as a whole in disarray; photojournalism cannot be politically motivating if everyone and no one is to blame. We need to know whose hands are bloodstained to prevent blood from being poured. Images of this kind desensitise us. When we are faced with suffering on a large scale without a blameworthy party, we grow immune to its horrors.
Melanie Friend’s Homes and Gardens: Documenting the Invisible investigated the domestic interiors where violent abuse took place in the prelude to the war in Kosovo when the area was effectively a police state under the Milosevic regime. The exhibition was accompanied by a soundtrack of mainly Albanian testimonies. By representing their domestic lives, the victims were given an identity beyond their suffering and empowered rather than condemned as injured. An eerie image depicts a plastic chair in an orchard in the shadow of an apple tree; it suggests absence and consequence rather than immediacy and cause. The emotional growth of the victims is stunted, but the fruit continues to flourish.
In the Western world, death remains a taboo; it is not something we are faced with day to day. Gone is the Victorian era where the casket was marched through the street; the ordeal of death is personal rather than communal. When someone dies it is usually alone in a hospital. As we are not accustomed to death on a wide scale, viewing it can arouse feelings of discomfort. Melanie Friend’s work creates a connection to the victims, not through death, but through living. We can see their homes – where they lived before the violence and where they continued to try and live their lives.
The media need to reflect on the struggles faced by those living lives affected by conflict before moving onto the next crisis of war. Rapid movement of media coverage from one to the next leaves us ignorant of lasting damage, which only adds to a feeling of detachment from the victims. We can only grasp what suffering looks like, rather than what it feels like. If photographic essays such as Friend’s and Torgonvik’s were more prominent in the media, we would feel like participants, rather than spectators. By giving the victims the chance to represent themselves through the photographs and accompanying interviews, we feel that we are interacting with the suffering and find ourselves a step closer to acting.
Photojournalism in the digital age of mass reproduction needs to be accompanied by a context, whether it is a spoken interview or the written word. The very nature of photojournalism necessitates explanation. In many circumstances, for an audience to understand what an image means, it needs to be presented with all the information. To paraphrase Susan Sontag – to photograph is to frame and to frame is to exclude. Although pictures and writing give very different accounts of human experience, words are needed to validate a photographic account. Depending on an individual’s political standpoint, they will interpret scenes of violence differently. Much is lacking in celluloid depictions of slaughtered souls; the perpetrators and the social context of the killings need explanation.
The lack of written accompaniment to the recent images of the Syria published in The Sunday Times was shocking. The victims of Assad’s chemical weapons were plastered all over our newspapers and televisions. There was little explanation of the political situation and thus public opinion sided with the rebel cause, as patently intended by the BBC and national newspapers. A photograph that lacks badly needed written context is a liability, not an asset, in the treadmill of information dissemination. An image provides persuasive power, but it is the information carried in a caption that gives it profile.
The proliferation of such images is progressively hindering the emotive power of successive generations of photojournalists. Photography can both create and shrivel sympathy. As with everything else, war has become ‘mediatique’ – that is to say, shaped by and for the media that reproduce it. Today’s photojournalism is similarly affected by media-related concerns. The wake of digital globalisation brings with it the ability to access photographs, videos and information from around the world at any hour. Citizen journalism poses a threat to traditional photojournalism; anybody can now act as witness. The prevalence of mobile phones has lessened the need for photojournalists with professional equipment. Certain photojournalists have implemented this in their work. Michael Christopher Brown’s recent project on Libya documented his experiences using the same tool used to start the uprising – the smartphone. A very modern circularity.
The photojournalist profession is fraught with mental, financial and creative challenges. The world has changed dramatically in the past twenty years and, as with many creative industries, photojournalism is suffering. It has ceased to be a politically motivating medium and the media is to blame. The daily blitzkrieg of raw and brutal images depicting death and violence on a grand scale allows us to consume suffering, rather than involve ourselves in any meaningful way. Reportage should begin with the individual and the coherent domestic contexts of Jonathan Torgovnik’s and Melanie Friend’s work are all the more powerful for giving victims representation. Suffering should never be a spectacle and this is what it has become.
Words by Grace Pilkington
Banner Image: A boy stands on an airplane in the Christian Mpoko refugee camp on February 20, 2014 during sunset, in Bangui, Central African Republic. Interim President Samba Panza has vowed to ‘go to war’ on the anti-balaka, who claim to seek vengeance for atrocities committed by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka, which temporarily seized power in March last year. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)