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.

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