The Limits of Photojournalism

It is perhaps the most interesting, creative and compelling book of photography I have ever read. I have looked and read it over a dozen times in the last 8 years.  Edward Said & Jean Mohr’s ‘After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives’ is perhaps the only example that I know of of a brilliant writer and a sensitive photographer collaborating to produce something remarkably insightful, intelligent and provocative at the same time.

For the first time a writer has worked directly from photographs to produce essays that speak to the deeper, human and ever lasting issues concerning the question of Palestine and the lives of the Palestinians in exile and under occupation.  And has done so without resorting to hysteria or sensationalism. As a book, an endeavour, setting aside its subject, it is a masterpiece of photojournalism that informs and elevates its subject beyond images and words alone.

And similarly, Jean Mohr, a wonderful Swiss photographer I fear is mostly forgotten these days, has traveled beyond the devastated and desperate Palestinian landscapes to excavate the gentle and human rhythms and to reveal the humanity and daily ordinariness of Palestinian’s life.

This is real photojournalism; engaged, creative, insightful, committed, patient, lasting, influential and thought provoking.  It is photojournalism that attempts to contribute to the dialogue about an issue, without seeming desperate to sensationalise or be recognized.  It is photojournalism that goes beyond the personality of the photographer, and instead highlights the lives of the subjects, and issues on hand and the questions that are relevant.  It is real photojournalism, and for the last 8 years, Said/Mohr’s ‘After The Last Sky’ has been my personal measure of how photojournalism should be done.

Anything less is mere picture making.

I met Jean Mohr in Jerusalem in 2003 at an exhibition sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He was one of my earliest influences and inspirations, and in fact my early work on the Sattar Edhi Center in Karachi, Pakistan was inspired by one of his pictures from the same center.  Lets be honest, I set out to imitate him! I was drawn to him because of the complexity of his images that never crossed the line into voyeurism, sensationalism or some desperate attempt to titillate.  In person he was appropriately shy – I seemed to scare him.  I thought I saw his champagne glass shake with fear when I introduced myself to him and said that he had been a major influence on my work! The creative, exciting conversation that i had imaged we would have never materialised.  After a few minutes of clumsy and formal introductions and pleasantries, Jean Mohr was pulled away (or found an excuse to leave?) and I never got a chance to speak to him again.

I have on my shelves a few hundred books of photography and photojournalism.  Most of them large, expensively bound tomes that suggest gravity of intent and purpose.  Serious artists at work.  Only a handful have I poured over in detail, savoring each page, and learning something new from it.  Robert Frank’s “The Americans’ is one that I have come back to again and again.  That is a cliche.  Said/Mohr’s “After The Last Sky’ is in fact not even on my photography book self.  It is instead placed in along my other books.  And that I think is it’s highest achievement.

Said/Morh’s “After The Last Sky’ is the only photography book I know that is filed under ‘Middle East History’, and not under the ‘Photography’ section of any mainstream bookstore.  In fact, that is where I remember finding  my copy – in the ‘Middle East History’ section of the Barnes & Noble store on 555 5th Avenue in Manhattan in 2001.  And that is this book’s greatest achievement – that it has lifted itself away from the shallow and limited value of being just another photo book to being a book about history!

My shelves are laden with these high art tomes of photography.  Most mere decorations.  Clutter.

And so much of today’s photojournalism is mere clutter.  Illustrations really, not illuminations.  We no longer seem to know the difference.  We no longer appear prepared to go beyond the picture and to reveal the more complex political, economic, social and historical issues at stake.  Perhaps worse, there is something rather close to middle class voyeurism in what passes for essential photojournalism.  This is perhaps a little discussed subject when it comes to the field of photojournalism i.e. the class divisions between those who make the pictures and those who become the subjects and how it influences what, who and how we represent.

A brief perusal of the kinds of subject matter that is recognized as ‘photojournalism’ or ‘documentary photography’ reveals this bias;  drug addicts (anywhere), transvestites (anywhere, but especially in Asia), prostitutes (anywhere, but especially in Asia), drugs and drunks in Russia, street children, the mentally ill (like shooting fish in a bowl!), strip clubs/strippers, prisons, the physically handicapped, hungry/pleading Africans, crazy/blood thirsty Africans, exotic ritual/false exotic culture stories that offer us the ‘other’ as primitive etc.  All subjects popular with young photographers, grant committees, and photojournalism education institutes shoving students out towards the ‘downtrodden’ neighbourhoods to find their stories. All about communities that can ‘shock’ middle class sensibilities and offer us a mean to sneer, pity, or simply express remorse.

There have been many discussions and endless arguments about where photojournalism stands today and what ails it.  Few seem prepared to say that it has stagnated, and that its creative energies are being wasted on the purchase of new toys and technology gizmos rather than on the complex and demanding art of constructing and telling new stories from new angles and in new ways.  To the human art of seeing our world for its complexities and attempting to speak about them.

I continue to look for stories that connect us to them, reminding us that their lives and our lives are connected in intricate, obvious ways if we would only bother to look. From Kivu to Khartoum, to speak of African alone, what transpires there is directly connected to what transpires here.

Maybe a new photo reportage on Zimbabwe perhaps that does not fall into the simplistic and easy narratives about a nation misruled by a yet another mad African leader – see again Mamdani on Zimbabwe . Or something on Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis that reveals to us how effective indigenous, small scale programs of prevention and care have been in contrast to the waste and corruption engendered in the multinational/NGO industries involved in the matter – as demonstrated by Helen Epstein in her book ‘The Invisible Cure’.

And maybe that is why Said/Mohr’s work continues to stand out because it is not constrained by the limits of the image, or the need to have a story published in a weekly news magazine, or the preferences of a particular photo editor.  It reveals connections, human, political, social and historical, between its subject and us and does so without cleansing the matter of its uncomfortable realities.

It remains a work liberated from the constraints of the craft, and the media structures that sustain and also constrain it.  Jean Mohr does not like to write, but in the book’s Introduction he reveals the personal, moral and perhaps dissident motivations for his nearly 50 years of work on the lives and displacement of the Palestinians.  He tells of a conversation with ‘… a respected reporter and a perfect connoisseur of the world of photography.’ where this individual asks:

‘And what projects are you working on at the moment?’

‘An exhibition…and…I’m working on the completion of a new book, something very close to my heart.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘The Palestinians’

There was a rather long silence…my friend looked at me with a slightly sad smile, and said ‘Sure, why not! But don’t you think the subject’s a bit dated? Look, I’ve taken photographs of the Palestinians too, especially in the refugee camps…its really sad! But these days, who’s interested in people who eat off the ground with their hands? And then there’s all that terrorism…I’d have thought you’d be better off using your energy and capabilities on something more worthwhile!’ (From After The Last Sky, page 7)

It seems to me today we are all working on ‘something more worthwhile!’ i.e. avoiding works that question our prejudices and misunderstandings, or are just politically impolite and rude, or focus on issues and angles that may reveal new truths and insights to situations considered known.

I simplify; photographers like Jason Ezkenazi, Jon Anderson, Simon Wheatley, Sara Terry to name a few continue to pursue the complex, complicate and demanding.

I am speaking about works that take risks, that reveal independence of thought, and a commitment to confront our seemingly endless need to simplify.  Works that are not constrained by the need for the obvious image, but given flight by the possibilities of what the subject can reveal.  Works that are about teaching us which questions to ask.

I have struggled with these thoughts for every year that I have been working as a professional.  They are guides in my personal journey as a photographer, with all my current works revealing the vast distances I  have yet to travel to reach these ideals.

In the mean time, today, the last day of 2008, I have a copy of ‘After The Last Sky’ in my hands, and a prayer in my heart for the voiceless and forgotten people of Gaza.  As Darwish himself said it best (didn’t he always!)

Where should we go after the last frontiers,

where should the birds fly after the last sky?


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