It has been disheartening to watch the impunity and venality with which the US Government has targeted and attempted to dismantle the operations of Wikileaks, and the lives of all associated. From the hounding of Julian Assange, to the torture and humiliation of Bradley Manning, it has been clear that the US Government is determined to make an example of those who dare challenge its rights to do as it wishes, without oversight or any respect for the law. And the willingness with which major corporations – from financial institutions such as Visa to telecommunications firms eavesdropping on American citizens, have collaborated with illegal and unconstitutional requests from the government, has also been frustrating. I will say nothing about the obsequiousness with which newspapers such as The New York Times, with its herd of mindless stenographers lapping up selected ‘leaks’ given to them by the government, have coddled our politicians, obediently repeating the lies fed to them, and becoming collaborators in illegal wars, and practices such as torture, endless detentions, and the targeted assasinations including that of American citizens.
So it was with some excitement that I read about the formation of The Freedom Of The Press Foundation that will now act as a conduit to independent and watch dog organizations like WikiLeaks, ostensibly bypassing the government’s attempts to cripple them.
The website explains the simple premise:
The Freedom of the Press Foundation is dedicated to helping promote and fund aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government. We accept tax-deductible donations to a variety of journalism organizations dedicated to government transparency and accountability…
…the Freedom of the Press Foundation will also provide support for organizations and individuals that have been unjustly censored or cut off from funding for doing their job as journalists. Given the variety of corporate and government pressures on journalism outlets around the world, the need has never been greater.
Its first, most important beneficiary will be WikiLeaks. The other organizations that they are currently directing funds to are shown on their website. A number of outlets have carried the news of the launch of this endeavor and you can see a few here, and here, and here. It is heartening to know that there are many who still defend the principles of the craft, and are determined to practice them.
For me personally what remains most important about this effort is that it is being attempted. I have been critical of the pusillanimity shown by the community of photojournalists – a community that otherwise loves to talk about its ability to ‘change’ the world, or ‘bear witness’ and yet did not have the backbone to resist, criticize and organize itself to work outside of the ’embedded journalism’ system. The silence, perhaps even excited willingness, with which photographers rushed to put on military uniforms, and adopt ‘toy soldier’ stances on the front line, will for generations to come, remain a low point in the history of the craft.
In a post I wrote called How We Refused To Embed With Britney Spears I mocked this cowardice, and even suggested that there was still time to organize a boycott of the embedded system and start afresh. That it was the only way to regain the credibility that had been lost, and to reposition ourselves as ‘independent’ and ‘critical’ in the eyes of the world. Of course, mine is a small, marginal voice rarely read and never responded to. Perhaps it was the awareness of my small voice that I wrote:
It can be done, it has been done by more and it is the only and the right way to report these wars. But it takes commitment and a willingness to understand why we are ‘reporters’ and ‘photojournalists’ in the first place.
It can still be done.
The newspapers can still come together and finally refuse to participate in the embed program and possibly even pool their financial resources to allay costs. Imagine if tomorrow all reporters simply refused, announced that they were going to arrive independent of military cover and start to work to establish an independent presence inside Iraq and Afghanistan and make the investments to rebuild trust and credibility with them, and with us here in the USA.
We need to rebuild our commitment to journalism and in particular in the eyes and minds of the people who are dying for ‘our protection’ and our supposedly sacrosanct ‘way of life’!
I still imagine such a moment – if not from the main newspaper and magazine contract photographers – those very men and women that so many look to as embodiments of all that is mythical about photojournalism – independent witness, engagement with human rights, voice to the voiceless and what not, then at least from a group of dedicated independent photographers. A group that can make a similar stand, articulate a similar determination to remain outside the circle of willing idiots that today go about illustrating the propaganda our editors wish us to. There are individual photographers who maintain a determined independence, but perhaps its time to bring them together into an organization that can also act as an argument and platform for others.
Confronting power, challenging the structures of control that we have been trapped in, critically analyzing how our traditional frameworks for photo-reportage need to change in a new media environment, evaluating and opening up the political assumptions that have traditionally informed photojournalism and other such difficult questions need to be addressed. Instead, what I find is that our ‘finest and best’ are busy waxing lyrical nonsense about Hipstamatic and the apparently ‘revolutionary’ powers of Instagram!
I even had to suppress a laugh when an erstwhile ‘serious’ voice of photojournalism tried to tell us that it was no longer about ‘documenting’ or ‘evidence’, but about ‘experience, sharing, moment, streaming’ – a veritable reduction of a once proud craft to becoming simply an exercise in a self-centered, narcissistic telecast of our banal obsessions with our little worlds. This is what is now being sold to us by the very people who represent ‘photojournalism’. It’s as if we are desperately chasing ‘relevance’ by trying to stay ahead of fads and trends.
Rather than argue and defend an method, a craft, an approach on the grounds of its intents, value, place in our society, sense of responsibility, and demands of our democracy, we have become simply followers of the new, adopters of ‘the cool’. Toys for boys, and a rush to see who can grab the ‘intellectual’ space of explaining the obvious, trade-marking a phrase or term that we will forget tomorrow. It’s as if we are no longer serious, or embarrased about being seen to be. It’s as if all that matters is that we are cool, hip, in-the-know, at the front of the curve, or constantly in the spotlight. Our voices have become weak, if not completepy silenced, and we are now rushing to be heard anywhere we can, in any form we can.
The debates that take place at photojournalism festivals and forums are singularly depressing. Their determined apolitical nature reminds us of the refusal of photojournalism to take itself seriously, and the ways in which it remains a craft beholden to power and the opinions of others. That none of our ‘great’ photojournalists – from Nachtwey to Anderson, from Towell to Knight, raised their voices in the defense of independent photojournalism, is something I will never quite understand. There is no Laura Poitras it seems when it comes to photojournalism. No individual, determined, contrarian, dissenting voice taking our government to task. Compared to the American photojournalists rush to don military gear, a few European photographers have been more determined to stand apart and work to produce broader, more complex narratives even when confined in the same censored spaces.
In the mean time, the Freedom of The Press Foundation offers some hope that all is not dead in American journalism, and that there are still those determined to confront the current state of affairs and continue to act as voices of dissent, confrontation and questionining. We need to support for no other reason than that someone is still standing there and willing to say ‘enough’. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in his announcement of this initiative:
Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power. Few priorities are more important, in my view, than supporting and enabling any efforts to subvert the ability of the US government and other factions to operate in the dark. It’s particularly vital to undercut the US government’s ability to punish and kill groups that succeed in these transparency efforts.
Amen to that.