World Press Photo And The Numbness of Repetition: Stephen Mayes Speaks

Stephen Mayes, World Press Photo Secretary for six years, gave a widely noted keynote address at this year’s event in Amsterdam. In what can only be described as a strange coincidence, he echoed sentiments I had written about back in the summer of 2008 that photojournalism today has become repetitive and conventional.  To quote from my earlier post:

There is another underlying reason why photojournalism is dying, and that we are still not prepared to confront.  The reason is that most photographers and photojournalists are purveyors of cliches and repetitive, predictable stories.  Mental asylums, prostitutes in third world countries, drug addicts in third world countries, the homeless, street kids, dying HIV/AIDS patients in Africa, polluted cities, Latin American migration pathways, KKK, burqa/taliban/fanatics in Islamic countries, China pollution, China growth, China mingyons, China modern, China rich, India AIDS etc. etc.  One could create a Chinese menu of a couple of pages to represent a belief amongst photojournalists that photojournalism is about pathos and emotions, and that there are some ‘subjects’ that are what it does. We have lost our love of the story.  We are no longer telling interesting stories.  In fact it could be argued that photojournalism today is basically middle class voyuerism.  It carries with it the stifling and infantile morality of a middle brow suburban family and attempts to deliver ‘shock’ stories to titillate them into watching. Or it just reduces to historical and charter-tour cliches stories that could be rich, complex and eye-opening.

In a strikingly similar vein you can hear the far more experienced and articulate Stephen Mayes speaking at the World Press Photo awards this year.  You can hear an audio recording of his talk.

I was particularly struck by his comments that reflected much of my thinking on this issue.  As he says in his talk (as scribed by Jens Haas from the Notes From Nowhere blog) :

The overwhelming impression from the vast volume of images is that photojournalism (as a format for interpreting the world) is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than at World Press Photo where every year the winners stimulate a slew of copyists (in style and content). It’s easy to understand why when we consider that the last twenty years has seen an explosion in the numbers of professional photojournalists and a collapse of the traditional markets. As more photographers compete for less page space, a lot of work ends up in competitions as the only outlet – and as the largest, World Press Photo gets more than its fair share.

Every year, the jury is astonished by the repetition of subjects and the lack of variety in the coverage. From the infinity of human experience the list of subjects covered by the entrants would fill a single page, and (excluding sports as a specialist area) could be reduced even to three lines:

– The disposed and the powerless
– The exotic
– Anywhere but home (the American election would be one of the exceptions to this rule.)…

This is the general view, the blurred impression of 470,214 images and of course there are many exceptions. But meanwhile hospitals and the sick (and especially mental hospitals), the afflicted, the poor, the injured are photographed way in excess of their actual numbers. And I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House. As one juror said this year, “90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.”…

– Over represented: commercial sex, suffering black folk, Muslim women in veils, same sex couples kissing, holding hands
– Under represented: middle class, affluent drug users, real sex, personal sex, black culture and expanded vision of black life outside Africa.

I encourage you to listen to his entire talk.

I recently raised this issue in a workshop I held in Dubai for young photographers just starting out on their careers or thinking about pursuing photojournalism as a career. Too many too quickly confine their ideas about ‘subjects’ and ‘focus’ to the conventional arenas of photojournalism as they know and understand it. Few were able to jump to the realization that photojournalism is also about story telling, and that there are so many stories that are just not being told! And all too often they chose subject based around pathos and emotions. Few could think of ideas that were built around a new set of objectives for example to provoke thought and make an argument. None thought about stories from within their own lives, or their own social spaces in the UAE.

There is a whole new world of photography. Its greatest change is not in the technologies that we are being told will save us – not in multimedia, not audio sound recordings or any such, but in the fact that we can now do our own stories, new stories, and take them out to the world without first having to get the approval of an editor, a curator or a jury. And with this liberty comes the possibility of re-inventing what photojournalism is, and how we go about telling stories, and of course, the stories we tell.

So lets begin.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.


Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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