Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue

the plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics – along with its strength and weakness – of contemporary Western journalism. When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging; an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously concerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant. But are such events events only when they are show through the eyes of the decent reporter? Must we inevitably forget the complex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence? Is there to be no remarking of the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric?

Edward Said on George Orwell, “Tourism
Among The Dogs”, Reflections On Exile, Page 97

This is an essay about photography and photojournalism. It will, for the most part, not sound like an essay about photojournalism but I ask for your patience and a moment of close reading.

I write it because some of you have asked that I elaborate on my concerns and discuss the underlying issues that bother me about how photographers cover ‘the other’, particularly the African and Asiatic other. Most recently I wrote a criticism of the work of photographer Marco Vernaschi and his attempts to say something about the issue of child sacrifice in Uganda. I was disappointed with his approach and in fact argued that it not only damaged his ability to tell us the story, but also his ability to inspire us to help do something about it.


I have frequently written about and questioned the very ethics of the industry that we work in – see How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide, and Staying Faithful To The Totality Of Experience Or New Frontiers In Photography, and Creating Tempests In A Teapot Or What Else Can A Photo Editor To Do and Only Interesting If Its Madness to suggest a few. There are longer discussions with colleagues in pieces like To See Or Hear An Haitian Once The Party Has Died Down or even the long-winded What Ails Photojournalism Part I & Part II & Part III & Part IV (Hey, I said it was long-winded!!) For the most part these essays are self questioning discussions, as much dialogues with myself as they are discussions with peers.

This morning while working on an entirely different set of writings, something occurred to me. I realized that I have never really explained my concerns with a concrete idea of what inspires them. And frankly I suspect this is because there are no concrete ideas but just a broad set of personal values and prejudices.

Let me begin by something that the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a woman whose words and ideas have had a tremendous influence on me, said in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education.

She argued that there are three capacities ‘…essential to the cultivation of humanity in today’s world.’ And what are these three capacities? From Page 9 & 10 of Cultivating Humanity they are:

  1. To have ‘…the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions – for living what, following Socrates, we may call “the examined life.”‘

  2. To develop ‘…the ability to see [oneself] not simply as citizens of some local regions or groups but also and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern.’

  3. To possess ‘…a narrative imagination…[i.e.] the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.’

Why does this matter?

It matters because it is this cultivation that allows a photographer to enter regions of the world that have historically been denied an equal humanity, and produce works that inform, illuminate and inspire rather than exploit, repress and marginalize.
We still live in a world that denies peoples of the so-called ‘Third World’ their voice in their own fates and lives, and classical photojournalism (photographers and photo editors) has very much been part of this process. It is a fallacy if not an outright naive delusion to believe that issues of imbalances of power, wealth, justice, economic dependency, and even social hierarchy no longer exist just because we declared the world and its nations ‘liberated’. These hierarchies of power are every where to be seen, our hands in its maintenance and manipulation as plain as day. If there is war in Africa, it is not only because Africans only know how to conduct war, but that there remain political, economic and imperial interest that encourage these wars through treaties, arms sales and geo-political machinations that ensure that our ‘interests’ in the region are protected and enhanced. Lets not forget the Cold War was certainly not very cold for Africans who died in the millions to sustain it.

A cultivation of a narrative imagination is essential for moving past documenting pathos and helplessness, to see past victims and dependents, and see the humanity and individual autonomy of even the most seemingly desperate of peoples. This for me is the next great adventure in photojournalism. A sustained, humane voice that brings ‘the other’ into our lives as an equal to ourselves, with ideas and aspirations, and solutions and agency, inviting us to collaborate, and not begging us to save.

The cultivation of a narrative imagination then offers a clue to where to begin and produce a new generation of works of photography and journalism; complex, engaged, and communicative of another’s experiences, challenges and agency. It enables us to ask a whole new set of questions about societies and worlds we may have previously taken for granted. It offers a chance to create works that are in fact collaborative – an idea that is frequently scorned upon by our craft. And finally, works that can create bridges between us here and them there, helping us see how we relate, and more importantly how we can collaborate and participate.

There is just too much repetition and mimicry in photojournalism. Even Stephen Mayes of World Press Photo and the VII agency was forced to admit it, and I had already stated it some months earlier. In a piece I wrote called The Limits Of Photojournalism And Things More Worthwhile I wrote that:

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 examined 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’ neighborhoods 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.

And what is insidious about these formulas is their determined erasure of the voices of the those represented. We must not forget that representing the other as ‘helpless’ or ‘hopeless’ is a choice that ignores their agency and individual autonomy. It matters not that they are in a refugee camp, or a slum in a metropolis.

It is in the end about the difference between simply documenting preconceived ideas and prepared stories, thereby allowing technique to overcome discovery, or to confronting the subject as a complete voice and finding the ‘narrative imagination’ to collaborate and produce the story such that it offers genuine insights and elaborations while never transgressing human dignity and compassion.

Helen Epstein, captured this in a recent piece called Cruel Ethiopia she wrote for the New York Review Of Books on the state of humanitarian aid and Ethiopia where despite a rapidly rising aid budget,hunger continues to grow. The following lines struck a chord:

There is no simple solution to this crisis, but as the Ethiopia expert Siegfried Pausewang has long argued, only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront such issues as security of land tenure, the onerous rural tax regime, political favoritism, the low prices offered by party-run cooperatives, and compensation for those whose tiny land parcels can no longer support them. However, there are no independent organizations or other forums in which peasants can openly discuss these issues, air grievances, or advocate for their rights. Under the CSO law such forums are unlikely
to emerge.

Helen Epstein,Cruel Ethiopia’, New York Review of Books 20th April 2010

The subject of our attention are silenced if not completely dehumanized. And it is a silencing that we as photographers are very familiar with. Particularly as more and more of us find ways of working with NGOs and humanitarian organizations that use photographers, and ‘concerned’ photography, to argue for the necessity of their services, and the need for donor funding. Here it is ‘concerned’ photography at the service of a humanitarian organization’s organizational and administrative agenda and goes a long way towards silencing, if not completely erasing, the ‘subjects’ as people and as fundamental.

Too many photojournalists and photo editors assume that the only posture to adopt towards stories of famine, disease, social pathologies, poverty etc. is the one of a ‘messiah’ – a messenger and savior ‘revealing’ the sufferings of others and thereby turning the ‘spotlight’ of change and rescue towards the lives of the helpless. Too many assume that simply ‘documenting’ is enough, paying scant attention to how their method, approach, posture and representation in fact do precisely the opposite of drawing attention and initiating action. Too many avoid speaking of the fact that the need to ‘package’ a story to fit into the  requirements of a daily or weekly publication is what drives how they produce the story, and the need to give the publication meaning and relevance (sales and advertising) determines how much they garland it with sweeping moral and humanitarian intentions.

This was brutally evident in a ‘defense’ of photojournalism written by Eliane Laffont – a piece of writing so mired in its self-congratulatory convictions that I still do not quite know how best to confront it. But it carried within the very issues of power and social hierarchy that I am talking about; we document, we reveal and we save. The ‘heroes of our age’ are god-like figures, veritable messiahs, that trawl the dark spaces of the world to save it from itself, for otherwise there would be chaos, madness and anarchy. We edit, we publish, we photograph and hence we give voice and meaning to the lives of ‘others. That a terribly simplistic causality – picture made, people saved, was on offer in this piece is not even worth commenting about since it can’t even be supported by even the more specious of facts. A photograph taken in 1968 may have ‘shocked’ America at the real politics and callous political calculations that lie beneath the constructions of her ‘purity’ and ‘honor’, but it could not stop a war that lasted until 1975 and saw many more millions die.

To say nothing of the sheer hubris, arrogance and simple hideousness of a statement that erases the sacrifices, deaths, struggles, and sheer human determination of the millions of Vietnamese who actually fought, and died in that war and defeated the United States of America on her own terns. No Ms. Laffont, it was not a picture that moved us ‘good’ people to stop the war. It was something far simpler. It was courage, determination, sacrifice, belief, the undying thirst for liberation and dignity, and unimaginable suffering and horror of nearly three and a half million dead (that is 3,500,000 if you can imagine it!) Asiatic people – a people you still refuse to ‘see’ and ‘accept’ as agents of their own destiny and equal to your idea of yourself, that ended this war.

Perhaps along with a narrative imagination, humility too would go a long way. But that is a different topic.

Too many editors and photojournalists exacerbate the divide between us, civilized and polished, here, and them, barbaric and pathetic, there and offer no bridge, no path, across this divide to where the viewer can take action. Too many erase the other, completely wiping away the fact that genuine change and the most effective transformations, are being planned and executed in the very nations we think we are ‘saving’. Too much is then left to ‘charity’ – an act of considerable irresponsibility that sees a complex social, political, economic and human problems as merely an issue of ‘money’ and one where our role is merely to ‘give’, and not to ask, intervene, question and act.

This posture has to change for it veils within it the possession of power over the subject, and the ability to contort their lives into the story we seek. It reflects, without admitting, the advantage we posses in just being there to ‘document’ their lives and ‘tell’ their stories as we see fit. It simply leaves them as objects of our actions, and rarely allows for their worlds, voices, insights and ideas to intervene into ours. One just has to look at the depiction of the Afghans, or the Iraqis, two people whose lives have been turned upside down because of our ‘involvement’ in their worlds and yet remain largely unknown, unheard, and unseen even when we try to know, hear and see them. And when we do ‘see’ them, they are revealed to us as isolated pathologies, with social and cultural deviances that are in some fashion used to further justify our ‘presence’ (an euphemism for occupation) of their lands and lives. Or worse, their apparent barbarism e.g the now tiresomely hypocritical calls for the liberation of Afghani women that are used to deflect criticism and silence moral outrage at our own barbarism e.g the mass killings and institutionalized torture of civilians.

This is a dead-end.

In a world suffuse with images and magazines drawing in sophisticated advertising and punditry, such images are of course rarely if ever seen, and no more effective than simply getting the reader to turn the page quicker. This is not about ‘compassion fatigue’, a completely specious phenomenon concocted by mainstream journalism editors to explain their own fatigue with a story once its novelty has worn off, but about a sense of hopelessness and inaction induced in the viewer. The fact remains that if you simply offer me the option of ‘charity’ and suggest a middle-man with his hand sticking out where that ‘charity’ can be deposited, I will walk away because I will become convinced that I am being fleeced.

The world is far more sophisticated, more complex and more interesting than this. Even Africa.

We often seem to forget that when we walk into ‘The Third World’ we walk into a region with a history – and a very specific kind of history too, which left a very specific set of scars and pathologies on the people of the regions. And that continues to play itself out even today. Nowhere is this history more absent than in stories about the Congo, or Chad for example where many a tentacle from ‘us’ to ‘them’ is carefully excised in the depictions of the conflicts there.

There is no point skirting this issue; the impact of colonialism, and anti-colonial nationalism has deeply damaged nations, and continues to affect their societies, cultures and politics today. This is not to ascertain blame but to reveal a reality that is largely missing when it comes to reportage about Africa in particular. We seem to forget that not only are most of Africa’s nations relatively recent concoctions, but that we (and here I speak as a member of The West) continue to remain engaged and continue influence issues in the region.

But let me use Edward Said again to elaborate, as he so cogently and simply did in an essay from his work Reflections On Exile:

There was, however, a continuing colonial presence of Western powers in various parts of Africa and Asia, many of whose territories had largely attained independence in the period around WWII. Thus ‘the colonized’  was not a historical group that had won national sovereignty and was therefore disbanded, but a category that included the inhabitants of newly independent states as well as subject peoples in adjacent territories still settled by Europeans. Racism remained an important force with murderous effects in ugly colonial wars and rigidly unyielding politics. The experience of being colonized therefore signified a great deal to regions and peoples of the world whose experience as dependents, subalterns, and subjects of the West did not end – to paraphrase from Fanon – when the last white policemen left and the last European flag came down. To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency,under-development, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achievements in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level but who remained victims of their past on another.

Around the colonized there has grown a whole vocabulary of phrases, each in its own way reinforcing the dreadful secondariness of people who, in V.S. Naipaul’s derisive characterization, are condemned only to use a telephone, never to invent it. Thus the status of colonized people has been fixed in zones of dependency and peripherality, stigmatized in the designation of underdeveloped, less-developed, developing states, ruled by a superior, developed, or metropolitan colonized who was theoretically posited as a categorically antithetical overlord.…Thus to be one of the colonized is potentially to be a great many different, but inferior, things, in many different places, at many different times.

Edward Said, ‘Representing The Colonized:Anthropology’s Interlocutors’,

Reflections On Exile, Page 294 & 295

Dependency. Peripherality. Underdevelopment. Inferior.

These continuities of history, continuities to which we in the West have a deep involvement and influence, define so many of the ‘rampages’ we reveal the African and Asians when the rampage. To understand the meaning of this history, and its role in the telling of stories of today, is where a narrative imagination comes into play. This is not about making excuses, it is about being complete, honest and clear. To ‘disconnect’ and package a ‘rampage’ as a ‘rampage’ is a construction and a determined effort to disconnect the continuities of history, society, and politics that informs it. By avoiding these disconnections we can begin to move away from representing ‘the other’ as a pathology, as a ’cause celebre’ and reveal them as autonomous, individual human beings confronting forces of political and social upheaval and doing so in the face of vast obstacles and challenges.

But before I am accused of naivety let me state that I am aware that these continuities are uncomfortable, and that most if not all publications and editor abhor them. I faced this reality when writer Malcolm Garcia and I tried to present our work from Haiti to American publications. What offended the sensibilities of the editors the most was that we implicated the USA and France in the violence and chaos that was unfolding in the country in the aftermath of the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They wanted isolation, pathology and ‘rampaging’ Haitian and black people. They couldn’t accept complexity and a reality that suggested that we are involved, that we have ‘interests’ and that we are something other than a force of ‘moral’ good and ‘prophetic’ honor there.

Photojournalism (photographers and photo editors) has been oddly immune to transformations that have affected other fields. The subaltern has spoken, in a language of his/her own, and can finally be heard. An entire literature has broken through from world’s previously silent. New histories are being revealed, and counter narratives to debilitating colonial histories being offered. The voice of the marginalized now reside alongside those once considered the ‘canon’ and do so by integration and expanding out understanding of our own pluralist heritage and history. In American alone the voices of women, African Americans, the indigenous and so many others can no longer be ignored and have enhanced and illuminated our understanding of ourselves and the experiences of history.

My personal experiences with the Oglala-Sioux tribe in the USA and their continued struggle to articulate their history, their deep sense of being wronged by America, and their struggle to find new honor and dignity were humbling experiences. And yet they continue to be documented as drug addicts, alcoholics and marginalized losers, without the least effort to place their marginalization in the context of a broader American political and paranoid policy that has left them where they are. There is a reason why there are no public bus services in a reservation. Dare we ask why?

The changes that have taken place in so many other fields seem largely absent from the craft of mainstream photojournalism which still remains largely about silencing the other, and reconstructing their worlds and lives as defined by pathos, victimhood and hopelessness. Photographers still transgress into the worlds ‘other’ with an impunity and indifference that can leave one shocked if not outright dismayed. They return with stories right out the works of Joseph Conrad, revealing the ‘darkest’ Africa, the direst of Asiatic ‘despotisms’. And unlike other fields – literature, arts, politics, there seem to be few if any Aime Cesaire’s in photography i.e. counter voices that challenge these simplistic representations. And if they are, then they fail to make it to the pages of our finest magazines or the podium of our finest awards.

As a result too many young photographers and photo editors continue to mimic the narrative structures absorbed from a previous generation of photographic masters of Europe and USA. Too many rush to adopt the aesthetics – both visual and narrative that they see on the pages of magazines, in exhibitions or being celebrated in Amsterdam.

And before someone misunderstands what I am saying, I will say that this is not about where you come from. It’s about how you think. This is not about being an European or Anglo-Saxon vs. being indigenous as if somehow only the local can have the ‘right’ or appropriate knowledge and willingness of complex engagement. The phenomenon we as photographers and photo editors document are secular, and worldly. They are available, through compassion and engagement, available to all. I reject the belief that only the indigenous can document the indigenous or some other such exclusivist idea.

This was amply evident during a workshop I and Sara Terry taught in Ajmer, India in 2009  where a group of young American students, most all in India for the first time, were able to produce some beautiful, human, complex and compassionate stories. And they did so only because we discussed and prioritized producing such stories. Ironically in a recent workshop in India composed of only Indian students, I had to struggle to get them to not return to conventional subject matter (poverty, mental asylums, etc.) and to think beyond the formalism of the craft that they had imbibed by studying too many weekly American magazines.

No, this is not about who you are or where you come from. It is always only about how you think and what ideas, readings, insights and sensitivities that allow you to think in new and compelling ways.

I wish that I could have been more articulate, but I hope that this is a start. I will probably re-write this piece, correct pointless digressions, and silly mistakes. I write this from the road where I am continuing my work on India – a project that was in fact inspired by a desire to produce a new kind of work, and photograph in a new kind of way. I can’t say that I will succeed, as I can’t say that this essay will elaborate, but I can definitely say that I am trying.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

The Most Dangerous Nation

The obsession with things ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ and ‘Al Qaeda” has been turned into a veritable multi-billion dollar industry and this despite the very little concrete and independently verified evidence to suppor the many claims of underground ‘Islamic/Al Qaeda’ cells and networks. Details »

New York City Experiments

I arrive in New York in a few days to try out a new experiment. It has been a few years in the making, and it has taken a few months of find funding for it. But now it is ready to be performed. The Polis Project‘s first Un/Do-Photography workshop will start in New  York on November 13th, 2019. And it represents the latest version of a practice of photographic teaching that I have been working on since 2013 when I first tried a new pedagogic practice at CounterFoto in Dhaka, Bangladesh. These workshops are unique because they are less about the practice, craft and mechanics of operating photography technology and primarily about deconstructing social, political and economic assumptions and myths that underlie so much of today’s mainstream photojournalism and photography practice. The Polis Project Un/Do-Photography workshops specifically engage the students on questions of Eurocentrism, imperialism/colonialism, capitalism, commodity fetishism, femo/homo-nationalism, the ‘gaze’ and power, the myths of Western liberalism, technology utopianism, humanitarian racism among other topics. Our goal, unlike any other workshop out there, is to produce critically aware, and intellectually outspoken photographers producing complex, multimedia projects that refuse the easy comforts of mainstream corporate owned media, and pursue complex projects that challenge us to see deeper and clearly. 


Details »

The First Un / Do-Photography Workshop Announced

We at The Polis Project are conducting our first ‘Decolonise Photography’ workshop in New York, from 19th to 23rd November, 2019.

You can learn more about them by going to the link shown above, or here

The workshops are open to all. And they are completely free. 

Over the course of five intensive days of presentations, seminars, discussion groups and project design sessions, participants will be encouraged to think about some of the most critical questions facing our communities. Less a workshop about aesthetics or the technology of the camera, this workshop instead concentrates on developing ways of thinking, researching and designing complex and multi-layer projects that reveal social, political, economic, corporate and other structural factors that create inequality, injustice, repression and violence. In sum, we will work to design and develop visual media projects that do justice to the lived realities, struggles and collective resistance of our most marginalised and silenced communities. 

Join us.

American The Beautiful And The Dreams of Pakistani Liberals

We have become accustomed to certain ways of seeing and speaking about the world. The Pakistani liberal – a caste that has been educated and nurtured on Western educational, political and cultural ideologies absorbed during years abroad at college, or careers, and through popular Western visual and literary media (fiction, non-fiction books), offers a particularly stark lesson in how certain forms of speaking, expressing and justifying arguments remain unchanged by thought, critical inquiry or self-doubt. The thoughtless regurgitation of American / European universalism, exceptionalism, and social sophistication  – all of which mind you are as much myths as anything, is an excellent example of this.

Details »

A Man In The Sun

This is an essay without reason. It emerges as a result of recent discussions with a friend and colleague about decolonialisation–what it means, how does it apply to various areas of human knowledge, and what can it mean for photography. Actually, this essay without reason emerges as a result of discussions at The Polis Project as we design a “Decolonise Photography” workshop series. Our discussions have led us to think about what new and different ways of seeing and doing could emerge in a documentary and photographic practice that recognises that “…the target of epistemic de-colonisation is the hidden complicity between the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality,” and is based on a need to learn to “unlearn” [See Walter Mignolo, Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality, Cultural Studies, Volume 21, 2007].

Details »


How Not To Critique A Photographer

Image Manipulation: A Manipulated And Confusing Debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 13.04.10

Photojournalists are once again being asked to offer perspectives and opinions on the apparently growing problem of image manipulation, staging and ‘truth’ in photography. The New York Times Lens Blog ran a piece a few days ago inviting a group of highly experienced photojournalists to speak about the issue. I say ‘apparent’ because there is obviously no objective way of measuring the suspicion that photographers today are more guilty of manipulating their images than photojournalists in the past. It may be a lot easier to carry out post-processing manipulations in Photoshop today, but that hardly confirms the fact that photographers did not do this in the past.

Anyone who has closely studied the works of one of the greatest photojournalists ever, Eugene Smith, would know well that image manipulation and staging were critical parts of his method. A number of his most famous and iconic images were either staged, had elements removed and added to them, or heavily processed in the darkroom to a degree that the final image had no resemblance to the negative. It has been argued that Eugene Smith got away with all this because he was Eugene Smith. As Cosgrove argues:

The sort of tinkering Smith engaged in with that one, iconic Schweitzer photograph might be frowned upon today. Any contemporary photojournalist who admitted to such behaviour would probably be excoriated by his or her peers, as well as by the general public.

W. Eugene Smith, on the other hand, has largely escaped such censure for one reason, and one reason only: he was W. Eugene Smith, and for better or worse, when it comes to aesthetics — and even, to some extent, when it comes to ethics — genius has always played by, and been judged by, a different set of rules than those that govern the rest of us.

One of the icons of the craft, and most likely, many more, engaged in what we would call ‘authorship’ – the right of the photographer to tell a story. In fact, of all the photographers invited to offer their opinion in this New York Times Lens Blog discussion, on Donald Weber gets right down to it, and demands that the photographer’s authorship be considered as something real, meaningful and important. He argues that:

Today, there are no limits, so our struggle is to liberate our reliance on technical capabilities and place our faith in the voice of the story and the author.

There can be no one way of doing anything, and a code of ethics should not hinder the aims of photography. In fact, it must work to liberate the story from stultifying confines, and help the photojournalist to engage an audience. How do we begin the transformation?

Weber can see that what is being argued and demanded can only lead to the erasure of the photographer as a voice, a point-of-voice and a creative. What is being asked is that photojournalists reduce themselves to simply button pushers on location, attempting to capture to the nearest degree possible, all the colour values, situational reality, and immediately unfolding event, as it happened at the moment of pressing the shutter. That their only role is recording the obvious, and that they are closest to the ‘truth’ when they are entirely absent intellectually, creatively, and visibly i.e. not influencing the situation around them. Such a posture of course is the mythical and imagined ideal of photojournalism. I call it mythical because most of the people who argue for it ignore the fundamental fact that even what is being recorded / documented / photographed, is based on human choice, prioritisation and opinion. That is, you cannot erase the human from behind the machine. Who asked the photographer to be at the location? Why did the photographer press the shutter when she did? What compelled her to aim it towards a certain group vs. another group? Why was even that particular unfolding situation important? In the end, authorship imposes itself on any form of documentary and editorial work.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

What I want to point out here in this post is the fact that these discussions, opinions, statements and arguments, lack a structure and a discipline. Photographers are speaking about a number of different things, and referring to a number of different situations and problems and calling all of them ‘manipulation. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the entire discussion ignores or avoids perhaps one of the most important influences that leads to manipulations and staging – the role of the editor in setting expectations and the struggle to delivery work to those expectations.

We can get a grasp of the different arenas of manipulation if we look at the entire production chain of photojournalism. We have to do this because photographers, and photojournalism work, is part of a chain of activities, and does not stand alone, and apart. To understand the way it is produced, and the issues of manipulation or staging that may be adopted at times, we have to place it in its industry and see the photographers and their responses from this wider perspective.There are four key and distinct forms of image manipulation that we have to deal with, and often argue about. It is critical to be clear which of these forms are the focus of our concern, and to make sure that we are not conflating one form with the other.

Why is this important? Well, first, because these are interrelated and influence each other. For example, a certain form of post-processing manipulation e.g. darkness a bombardment cloud, or cropping an edge of an image to make it more relevant to the editor, can be driven by a photographers need to make the image fit the editorial mandate.

At a very high level, a rather simple framework would allow us to define it as follows:

  1. The Issue Itself: Here I include editorial selection of stories to cover, stories to not cover, perspectives to show, and those to ignore, what to highlight and what to downplay. photojournalists do not work independent of editorial direction and discussion. many work alongside writers and closely with editors who advise them on what they are looking for. with growing influence of corporate and advertising money, and collaborations with the government, this area is a critical arena of manipulation and determines what photojournalists cover and what they ignore.
  2. Execution: Here I am referring to photographers staging and arranging photos, influencing the situation to get a photo they need, hiring people to perform a situation and then claim it for real, goading or encouraging people at the scene to create a situation that will get them the picture, or placing or setting up situations or objects to get the necessary images.
  3. Post-Processing: This is the most obvious – the use of post-processing image tools to conduct image editing, colour correction, erasing / adding of elements and so on.
  4. Publishing / Editing: This is the process where once the work in the field is done, editors and writers and photographers begin the process of editing, selecting, arranging, captioning, layouts and placements inside articles such that their meaning and idea is defined and determined.

Our discussions to date, as reflected again in this recent New York Times dialogue, focus on Execution and Post-Processing arenas. Editorial and Publishing manipulations are rarely if ever discussed. Stanley Greene talks mostly about 2 & 3. So does Santiago Lyon, McNally talks largely about 2, so does Sim Chi Yin and Darcy Padilla. In fact, categories 2 and 3 are the ones most everyone will talk about and discuss, to the exclusion of 1 and 4. Everyone argues that what is missing is some sort of bizarre ‘ethical’ standard, an honor code among professionals that would apparently go a long way towards reducing these ‘breaches. This is very much like the argument against doping in sports – it focuses on the athletes, demands greater ‘ethical’ standards, but ignores the fundamental market and profit pressures that are placed on the individuals and teams, and which often compel people to do whatever it takes to win. And which often provide the chemists, doctors, physiotherapists and other technicians to help enable the doping. Because winning is all that really matters in the end and in photography, getting the image is all that matters and to do this requires the involvement and collaboration of many people. Not the least, that of the editor.

It is only if we broaden the discussion that we can begin to understand not just why photojournalists may make unethical choices, but also what the impact and relevance of these choices are. It is critical to discuss the entire cycle because editorial demands, expectations, discussions, and decisions, play a powerful role in what a photographer does on the ground, and how s/he goes about getting the images that are necessary. I am not suggesting that editors compel photographers to manipulate – though that has been known to happen, but what I am arguing is that photographers face pressure and can be influenced by these pressures to manipulate things.

And there are times when that pressure comes from the growing demands of 24/7 media, the high stakes game of advertisement dollars and the need to be ‘first to the scene’, and the cut-throat nature of the craft where just ‘getting the picture’ is the only demand – ethical or otherwise, being placed on the photojournalist. These pressures come before the photographer even steps into the field, and we have to consider their role in how photographers end up working. We are in a world where more of us are being asked to do more, for less – less time, less money, less publishing space, and less voice. With more and more competition – from professionals and amateurs, and fewer and fewer assignments that allow a photographer the time and patience to produce necessary work, we should not be surprised that people will cut corner, make adjustments, set things up, just simply to get the job done. This is not a justification for manipulation, but simply to point out that we should not be so ‘shocked’ and certainly not be naive about the fact that the industry has increasingly veered towards

In fact, it is with some amusement that I read Michele McNally’s rather thoughtlessly offered comment – given that the New York Times has always used embedded photojournalism which is definitely perhaps one of the most egregious examples of Execution Manipulation, and passed it off as ‘truth’, that:

There are many societies where photographers work without accepted ethical guidelines, but with a long history of producing propaganda disguised as “news.”

Indeed, it would appear that the USA is right there among these ‘societies’ though I suspect she is not referring to her own country, or even to her own publication which has repeatedly crossed ‘ethical’ guidelines in its coverage of America’s wars, or Israel’s occupation and even its cheerleading of the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But we will not get into all that in this post as I have frequently written on that issue in previous posts. By not being aware of the complete cycle of photojournalism, McNally not only ignores her publication’s own ethical breaches, but she entirely leaves out the role of editors in creating these breaches in the first place.

What is striking about the framework outlined above is this: that it is easy for people to understand the necessity of choices and points-of-view when it comes to Issue Selection and Publishing / Editing, but not when it comes to Execution and Post-Processing. But given that a

My Struggles With Masculinity

It’s fascinating to see the return of so many mid- 18th century Orientalist troupes and obsessions : this bizarre and needling determination to categorize and then – as if the categories created are genuine and natural, to analyze. The French are of course persistent and unrepentant Orientalists, and the more educated the worse. And so this gaze that first categorizes – ‘Arab masculinity’, and then pretends to analyze it.

What is ‘Arab masculinity’? Need we ask? Dare we ask where this object of study even comes from? Is it even real? Is there a unique Arab conception and manifestation of ‘masculinity’? Do a dozen stylized, fashion-shoot type set-up images of men who happen to be Arab provide enough material to explain not only the category, but its real existence? Do these men live in cages, isolated from the world and its influences? Do they experience whatever we may think are pure ‘Arab’ experiences, and not any spilling across geographical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and physical boundaries? An ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’, and damn is s/he is anything but a pure representation of an easily isolated and studied species.

And what of the claim of reversals ie the female looking at the male as a change from the male gaze on the female? Is this even a thing? Is this not a discursive distraction from the fundamental question of power which yet again is not addressed directly? The Orientalist gaze was a possessive gaze, and a dispossessing one. It possessed the power to represent, and define, and dispossessed the subject of voice and history.

And so, when Marianne Roux of On Orient describes this work as:

“Mectoub is fascinating because of this unveiling, made possible because the photographer is both female and a foreigner. It plunges us deep into our representations and overturns them. Scarlett Coten holds up these copies for us to see, Homo Orientalis specimens of the new generation, in an unfiltered way, just as they are.”

…one is left feeling a little quesy at the crassly familiar phrasing and erasing. The use of words such as ‘unveiling’ or ‘Homo Orientalis’ are in amateurish poor taste, but the suggestion ‘in an unfiltered way…’ a profoundly troubling reminder of classical Orientalisms conviction of simply offering facts unaffected by power, politics, prejudice or personal ambition.

Arab masculinity. African masculinity. (I wrote about this in an earlier post:


Gender. We construct categories but then forget that we constructed them. Foucault can scream till hell freezes over, but in a decade where Orientalism’s reductive and debilitating simplicities are back in style, I must say that I am not surprised that this body of work is taken unquestioningly seriously, but am also disappointed that it is.

We need to question Coten’s constructions, despite the claims to overturn representations, and see the ways in which they belong to a long tradition of colonial photography that wants to capture individuals, sans individual histories and social, cultural, intellectual and psychological interconnections, and offer them up as general representations of a unique, manufactured category. Today more than ever – with travel, education, the internet, magazines, television and big-screen media, social media and more, it is untenable to argue or justify the existence of isolated and insulated social ‘categories’.

In a world that is as integrated, inter-connected, and intermingled as it ever was, where influences from around the globe and the digital globe, from travel, from readings, from relationships, from education and knowledge, from experiences that transcend a local culture or geography and then influence the construction of the self, ideas of identity, style, voice, intellectual development and even emotional expressions, its near impossible to speak of ‘Arab masculinity’. But of course, when it comes to ‘Arab’ – as the Orientalists once did and now as we are once again reaching for these debilitating categories and reductive generalizations, these ideas are being given new currency by European institutions if not European / Western photographers. If it’s not the ‘hijab’, or ‘women’s liberation’ or other some such tiresome and idiotic arena of focus, it’s simply a continuation of the use of gender and sexuality to cage and label. It is an act of cultural and intellectual violence to castrate these subjects from their many relationships and broad influences, and pen them into a construction that suggests that they represent something entirely ‘Arab’ – whatever that is, and something entirely ‘masculine’, whatever that is too.

Note: Hester Keijser reminded me that I need to differentiate the way this project was depicted by the Oskar Barnack Award committee and the goals and intentions of the photographer. She is correct to point out that institutions can run away with the work and give it an entirely new voice. She also pointed out that Coten herself has a difficult and complex relationship with this work, one that she continues to work through. I respect the photographer’s perspective and would love to have a discussion. My comments above are based on the public statements about this work, both from the Oskar Barnack announcement and from Coten’s own website. I look forward to, and hope, that Coten will some day pen a concise and clear argument, where she isn’t  afraid to express her process but also her doubts and self-questioning, as we all do about the works we pursue. The convention of ‘bombast’ and ‘confidence’ required of photographers, where they speak of their works without ever revealing their own struggles and self-questioning, has to end.