Let me get right to the point – Photography curators and editors refuse to acknowledge, examine and critically analyse the fundamental and at times definitive influences that the institutions of production have on the kinds of war photographs that are made, and the perspectives that are adopted in them. There seems to be a collusion between these ‘gatekeepers’ of the craft, to never raise the question about the publications the war photographer was on assignment for, the editorial prejudices of that publication, the proclivities and prejudices of the market into which the particular war photographer was aiming her work at, and the broader political and cultural baggage which the photographer carried with her to the work.

This fact was yet again bought to my attention because of the new exhibition that so many people are talking about – WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY – Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. A piece in the Financial Times replicates the exhibition catalogue’s introductory pages where the curator Anne Wilkes Tucker states that during the process of editing the exhibition…

The photographs came first in the process of shaping this project. More than two thousand images were evaluated in detail before the final edit. Each picture’s capacity to mentally and emotionally engage viewers’ interests and to provoke questions was always paramount. Who made the picture, for what purpose, and from what point of view? When and where? What is the purported subject? What thoughts and feelings does it evoke?

Apparently the editors had discussed the ‘machinery of production’ of a photograph, but from what I can see online and at the museum’s own website, this information was never shared with the audience. The responsibility of ‘anchoring’ an image was once again left to literal, factual captions. Its as if by acknowledging the fact that war photographers have jobs, work within a market, sell to publications, are directed by editors, or are simply looking for fame and attention, we demean the image and hence must never admit to these factors.

There is an attitude of ‘reverence’ for the war photographer, and the conflict photograph. It is an attitude that does not admit to seeing the war photographer as an individual in a market, a business, a politics and a moment in history. It is an attitude that continues to speak of the war photographer in terms spiritual – a moral messenger in fact, and it does this by veiling the more banal, ordinary factors that may have influenced her work, and her decision to produce it. But this attitude of reverence is making it impossible for us to really understand the photographs, and to really gain insights from them. It is making it impossible for us to bring a critical socio-political understanding of the meaning of the photograph, its influences, and its place in time and history. By seeing the war photograph for only what is within the frame itself, by speaking of the war photographer as an ‘individual’, without demanding a larger view of her employment, her assignments, the markets for which she worked, and the general political ideas, ideals and prejudices that influenced her points of view, we loose much of what is important in any document of history.

This is not about negating or rejecting works, or undermining the commitment and brilliance of a photographer. This is not about some post-modernist obfuscation of realities. It is simply about admitting, acknowledging, the institutional structures (corporate, market, political, consumerist, social) within which any human being, producing any product, actually lives and works. We have seen critics like Edmund Wilson do this for our finest symbolist writers, Robert Hughes do it for our finest artists, for example. But for some reason we seem to be afraid of doing it for photojournalism, as if bringing the real world into its analysis would ‘taint’ its pristine, moral superiority and perfection.

By refusing to bring in the real world int the craft of war photography – a craft deeply and closely embedded with the demands of the marketplace from its very inception (see for example John G Morris’ brilliant work Get The Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism – a book that clearly reveals the close collaborations between photographers, editors, publications and the markets) By not acknowledging what is in fact a fact, curators and critics of war photography participate in depoliticizing the photographer, and the photographs she produces by consistently focus only on what is within the frame, and refusing to ask broader questions like:

  • When was this photograph taken or the story produced, and when was it closed?
  • Why was the photograph taken?
  • Whom was she on assignment for?
  • What is the politics of the publication that she is producing work for, or eventually places her work in?
  • How does the politics of the publication affect the editing of the images and the selections?
  • What markets were the images being distributed?
  • What were the larger political ideas and prejudices of that market and how do they inform the photographer?
  • What are the broader socio-political ideas that are carried within the work of the photographer?

There is an entire value chain of production within which a war photographer works. Wars are covered with the goal of selling the images. War are covered because editors send photographers to the battle front. Even independent photographers going out to the front line are constantly aware of the markets into which their images will be placed, whether through their agencies who direct them, or through their own understanding of the marketplace for their products i.e the photographs.

A photographer whose work is repeatedly analyzed by critics is Gilles Peress. His book Telex:Iran remains perhaps one of the most influential, and brilliant, works by a conflict photographer. And yet, whenever this work is discussed most all the critics speak about it in near reverential terms, focus on the brilliance of the photographer, the individuality of the photographer’s vision, and his ability to create insights about the country through his images. Susie Linfield, speaking about Telex:Iran went so far as to say that:

The stark yet crowded photos—of mass demonstrations and funerals, veiled and wary women, drug addicts, beggars, smoky tea shops, ornate mosques, bleak cemeteries, and guns, guns everywhere—are edgy, nervous, weirdly cropped, both confused and confusing…Peress’s images invite the viewer to seek insights outside the frame. Though his pictures are striking, dynamic, skillfully composed, and sometimes even beautiful, they contain a striking humility, reminding us of all they can not show.

It is a brilliant work. Many have discussed it. But what is surprising is that most have never addressed the other crucial element that is in the book – the telexes. The telexes are Gilles Peress’ conversations with his agency in France. They are filled with an individuals attempt to hold on to his individual vision, and balance the need of the markets that are being asked for by the agents trying to sell the work in their home market. Guns, guns guns…what are the editors and publications asking to see about Iran in 1979. Gilles struggles with his, he complains and he complies, as any working photographer should. The telexes are right there in the book, and yet I have never seen any critic, curator or editor examine them for their meaning and their influence on Gilles work. I doubt that a man of Gilles Peress’ intelligence and honesty would deny that he is always aware of the markets. In fact, I suspect that the telexes were placed into the book as a subversive way to make this very point – that there is the individual eye, but that there is this other pressure that one cannot simply erase. Yet, not Susan Sontag or Susie Linfield or others have understood these clues or had the willingness to evaluate them. In practically every review of the work, the telexes are ignored. And yet I cannot help but believe that they tell us something very, very important that we continue to ignore to our own detriment.

Even our finest critics – the much quoted Susan Sontag, Suslie Linfield, Geoff Dyer and others, seem to forget that the photographer was most likely in a conflict zone because she was sent there on assignment, or chose to go there because of her belief in the market and sales possibilities of producing work from that particular zone. I don’t deny that there are individual motivations, but it is clear that they must balance themselves against the needs of the markets and the machinery of production. This is particularly true for staff photographers working for mainstream journalism publications. Fine photographers like James Nachtwey, Moises Saman, Tyler Hicks and so many others are ‘on assignment’ as they go out into the world, and work for a particular publication that has a particular editorial and political ethos into which their work enters, and which their work sustains. (I only mention these photographer as examples – please, no hate mail about how they are wonderful people and how I am a loser, desk bound blogger! I think it takes nothing away from their photography if we understand how and why it was produced. I believe there is no need to veil it behind moral, messianic, spiritual messages or the continued ‘white man burden’ rhetoric.) When they go, when they leave, why they never return, what aspects of a story they show etc. can be better understood if we acknowledge the machinery of production and dissemination within which their (and all other work) is actually done.

Perhaps the most serious failure to understand the broader context of the production of a ‘war’ photograph was the moment when World Press Photo handed its top award to Jodi Bieber’s photograph of the mutilated Afghani woman called Aisha. Here were editors of what is considered the most prestigious ‘journalism’ award in photography, handing over their top prize, to what is known to be a purely propaganda photograph, as the editor at Time magazine himself had to make an excuse to explain it:

The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.

With a title that read ‘What happens when we leave Afghanistan’ – not a question, but a statement of fact, this image was actually not adding to the debate, but making an argument for continued war, and its timing – coming within days of the release of The Afghan Logs, was meant to bend public opinion in support of a war, and to counter the revelations in the Afghan Logs that showed a crass, venal and misguided military adventure gone wrong.

The self-righteousness of the liberal class – one that celebrates murder of many (no tears for women killed in drone attacks or by the NATO machine), while exploiting the suffering of others was on full display. The editor was in fact actually lying in his piece when he claimed that a Taliban commander had mutilated Aisha. If you read the piece you learn that she was in fact a victim of domestic violence at the hands of an abusive husband (he was referred to in the piece as ‘a Talib’ in the piece –  Talib means a seminary student, which is different from ‘ the Taliban’ as in the political military movement! but such nuances were brushed over). I have written extensively about this story here and here.

By erasing the context of production of that image, World Press Photo fell into the trap of celebrating a photo, produced with extreme bias, by a publication shilling for war and which was explicitly meant to help make an argument for continued war in Afghanistan. Critics called it a fine photograph, but did we not miss the actual story? A colossal, shameful failure of the intellect, and journalistic responsibility. One that would never have occurred if they had not erased the machinery of production from the evaluation of the image itself.

It is a fact that at given moment there are some stories that are privileged and others that are ignored. It is a fact that there are powerful political and market based ideas, ideals and prejudices that inform how a particular war is covered, and what angles are chosen to represent it and offer it to the world. In the post-embedded photography world, the only perspective we are allowed in our major wars is the one perspective that the US government and the US military decide for us. The model of the embedded journalist has been mimicked all over the world – in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Russia and elsewhere and it has become near impossible for war photographers and correspondents to hold on to a modicum of independence. Most know this, yet few ever admit it. Some even celebrate it in a bizarre twist to the entire journalism enterprise.

The broader machinery of production of war photography, particularly since 2003 when the US Military’s embedded journalism program was offered in all its mature glory, has become the fundamentally crucial lens through which nearly all modern war photography must be analyzed and understood. We are now faced with a situation where editors at our magazines openly reveal to their close collusion and collaboration with power and governments (see here and here and here and examples of failure of journalism here and ). Was there a more shamefull moment than one where Bill Keller of the New York Times boasting about his paper’s collaboration with the US government when it came to publishing the Wikileaks files? These are just some of the examples. I could speak endlessly about other publications and their politics from personal experiences working with them. The collaborations, the influences, the collusion’s are strong and obvious and yet, we don’t seem to want to evaluate what they mean for the production of the photographs of war.

The influence of market, political and cultural influences on the selection, assignment, production and dessimination of photographs and war photographer is clearly understood by the curators of the exhibition. They understand that an image is ‘read’ and interpreted in many different ways. In a catalogue that they issued it states that:

In the digital age, it is understood that photographs and other forms of information are malleable and are often disseminated to manipulate public opinion as much as to inform. A picture does not change, but how it is perceived changes. We “see” with our brains, and what we think we see is subject to the influence of our political, religious, cultural and personal beliefs and experiences. Often what we see depends on what we expected or sought to find.

The curators of the exhibition know what they are talking about. They seem to discuss the machinery of production of an image. But our dialogue about war photography, and war photographers, remains woefully inadequate, and terrible stuck in its own pretensions. It is time to evaluate photographs not just for what they contain, but for when they were produced, who determined their production, how they were used, and what the social, political and market context was when they were made and when they were published for broader public examination. These remain, for me at least, some of the most interesting and important questions to ask about war photography and war photographers in a world where the line between news and propaganda has become dangerously blurred, and where fewer and fewer corporate / government interests control a larger and larger swath of our media and news outlets.

It is in fact now an act of essential democratic criticism and scepticism to place a war photograph, and the war photographer, in her appropriate context to help understand what the powers that be want us to believe, see, feel and understand, and why. A continued revereance for the war photographer, and the war photograph (as evidence by a slew of hagiographic productions like HBO: Witness that continue to idealize the conflict photographers, decontextualizing and depoliticizing them completely!) continues to mislead us to the nature of this work, and the meaning of its production.

Again, I am not suggesting that all war photography is propaganda, and that all war photographers are involved in producing it. I am highlighting the fact that it is time to move past looking at war photographs as icons and to bring the broader critical eye to their meaning. They are documents of history, but by decontextualizing them from that history (and culture, markets, institutional bias and preferences, and publication markets and reception) we get only a very limited understanding of their meaning and value. When a photojournalist says that she is a ‘witness to history’, it is our responsibility to understand what aspect of ‘history’ she is revealing, and why that particular one alone. We have to know why she stood where she stood, at what moment in an event, and why she chose the angles that she did.

War photography and photojournalism, claiming as it does to be a document of history, and a document of evidence, can never be separated from its time, its means, and its uses. And yet, that is precisely what is done by editors, curators and critics.

Aside: I write this post to provoke a debate, and to provoke a conversation. I have no interest in demeaning of denouncing photographers who are putting their lives at risk to cover conflicts. In fact, what I am asking for is greater honesty and clarity about motives, influences and methods. Ben Lowy, for example, offered an excellent corrective to the ‘reverential’ attitude, and reveal his personal, ego-centric motivations for documenting war. I have great respect for this attitude and in fact it make me respect his work more because now I can read it more honesty)