…Since 1945, the decolonization of Asia and Africa, plus the sharply accentuated political consciousness of the non-European world everywhere, has affected the world of knowledge just as much as it has affected the politics of the world-system. One major such difference, today and indeed for some thirty years now at least, is that the “Eurocentrism” of social science has been under attack, severe attack. The attack is of course fundamentally justified, and there is no question that, if social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage which has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary world.
(I Wallerstein, Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science New Left Review, Issue 226, November-December 1997
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: And Other Essays, Page 294
The characters in the game would be based on people in the field: doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers. NGOs would be involved in the game’s design so that the user is educated as well as entertained. These organizations could also benefit from revenues generated by the players, which could aid real world projects in specific places.
The photojournalist will hopefully be the link between the aid/NGO world and the people who are impacted by the conflict. They will be able to go behind rebel lines to see the use of child soldiers and to report on the violence, displacement, and desperate health situation. In this way, the photojournalist will be the eyes for the game “world.”
(The photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale, talking about his new video game venture Zero Hour: Congo, described as ‘…an immersive game based on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo’)
Marcus Bleasdale is perhaps amongst the world’s most well known photojournalists. His near twelve year work on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has won him international recognition, awards from most all photojournalism competition of note and various foundation grants. A member of the famous VII photo agency, he represents for many, the finest in the tradition of concerned photography. Marcus has dedicated the better part of his career to the conflict in the DRC, and has extended his work with an extensive set of engagements with both human rights organizations, international media and international bodies such as the United Nations. As he describes it himself, his aim has been to make people:
…see the consequences of our actions and of our need to consume. This war [in the DRC] is all about natural resources, natural resources that no Congolese uses. If we did not demand Gold, Coltan, Cassiterite then this would not be happening. We must increasingly see the links between our behavior in the developed world and wars in the developing world and accept the responsibility we all have in creating the conflict and accept the responsibility we all have in trying to make it stop. As a photographer I feel I can supply the tools to the people who have the power to make that happen.
It was because of such a commitment that he was recently selected to participate in the Magnum Foundation / Open Society Institute’s ‘Photography Expanded: Rethinking Engagement And Impact’ conference. According to the official statement of the conference, it was designed to:
…explore how to use technology and new media to expand the reach of [a photojournalist's] images in order to maximize their impact and help effect social change.
Marcus Bleasdale, in collaboration with the British digital games developer nDreams, is producing a video game called Zero Hour: Congo. His reasoning, offered in an interview on the Photography Expanded conference website, is that:
Grassroots users of electronic products (smart phones, tablets, laptops, cameras, and game consoles) are largely unaware that they are involved [in the DRC conflict because of their use of electronics equipment that relies on raw materials from the DRC]. Developing a game that could entertain and at the same time guide people to increased awareness seemed to be the right direction to follow. We increasingly see youth today not engaging in mainstream news. If they are not coming to traditional platforms for information, I figured I would bring mainstream news to them.
In the same interview, when asked how he intended to ‘…connect that audience to ongoing advocacy or conversations about what’s happening in DRC?’ Marcus replied:
The characters in the game would be based on people in the field: doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers. NGOs would be involved in the game’s design so that the user is educated as well as entertained.
Further adding that the ‘character’ of the journalist / photojournalist will be to act as:
…the link between the aid/NGO world and the people who are impacted by the conflict. They will be able to go behind rebel lines to see the use of child soldiers and to report on the violence, displacement, and desperate health situation. In this way, the photojournalist will be the eyes for the game “world.”
Photography Expanded wants to be at the cutting edge of photography, technology and advocacy, exploring ways in which new media and the creative possibilities offered by the medium can help photographers gain wider audiences, and more effective strategies for achieving change in society. And Marcus Bleasdale’s idea for a video game that educates a younger generation about the connection between their consumer habits and the forces that fuel the war appeared, was featured during the conference as an example of some of the most interesting thinking in this regard.
Suffice it to say, all this provoked a lot of questions and concerns, and gave rise to this rather long and detailed exploration of the assumptions and ideas that underpin the idea and how they fail to reflect the world that we today operate it. There were many problematic statements here and I think many of us may already know what is to follow. Regardless, this is a critique of a world view in general that seems to continue to influence how we work as photojournalists ie. how we frame our stories, how we see the world, and how we perceive our place in it.
I believe that it is an important critique and though people may disagree with the specifics of my criticism I hope that they can at least understand the need to engage in it. The photojournalism industry – its editors, photographers, curators, critics and hangers-on, seem very reluctant to allow serious and important issues of method, structure, assumptions and intellectual frameworks to be discussed in open and honest exchange. There is an obsessive focus on technology, technical innovation and aesthetics of the digital darkroom, but a near complete silence about the fundamental intellectual and structural platforms informing it. I believe this silence comes from simply being unaware of the need to examine some of the social, cultural, and power assumptions that underpin Western photojournalism. As a photographer working from outside this self-affirming world, these assumptions are perhaps more obvious to me and the short-comings of the entrenched methods more visible.
This is a small attempt to provoke this conversation.
Let me begin by quickly pointing out that there are are a number of questionable idea behind a video game as advocacy approach. I want to dispense with a few that came immediately to mind because I will not be concentrating on addressing the, but merely listing them here for consideration. For example:
Whether a game based on a rather cartoonish world-view – doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers, can be expected to transform real world behavior of a younger generation of European / Western technology product users who will clearly not be exposed to the real issues driving the conflict, nor the complexities of Congolese history, politics, colonial legacies and the myriads of ethnic, political and other conflicts that are key drivers of the conflict?
How a product that can only be used on the very technologies the photographer claims are fueling the conflict – coltan and other such minerals, expected to then argue for a reduction in the use of such technologies? What happens if the game is a runaway success, and the sales of game consoles, hand-held devices, and associated accessories goes through the roof? Pity the Congolese then!
Why we, despite there being absolutely no evidence of a causal link between video game playing and social behavioral change, believe that this is even something worth considering? On what basis is this even being attempted when it is not even clear that it has any ability to raise awareness? Violent video games are played by kids all over the world, and yet we do not believe that this reduces their opposition to war or violence.
How can we expect a virtual world experience that actually disconnects the users from the real world – a feature that may be one of the reasons why people love video games in the first place, to translate itself into a greater awareness of perhaps one of the most intractable conflicts in modern history?
- Would a private corporation investing hundreds of thousands of dollars n the design, development, testing, production, and marketing of this game commit itself to the priorities of social change, or to the priorities of turning a profit? And what happens when there is a severe conflict of interest between those two ends?
These are some of the unanswered question and unverified assumptions behind this idea which on the surface appeared very cutting edge and innovative. I am sure that there are more, but this is what came to mind immediately. And even if I accept that all this would be effective – that people could learn by playing a video game, and change their consumerist behavior as a result, there were other, perhaps more serious, problems.
For what lies behind this entire idea, and the markets it was aimed at, was a deep Euro-centric prejudice about not only how to speak about the world, but whom to speak to.This model continues to influence how we as photographers and photojournalists go about attempting to change the pathologies we witness, and how we speak about the subjects we assume the right to speak for.
I spell out some of my concerns in more detail in the following sections as it is the main concern of this essay.
Western photojournalism remain deeply trapped in an Euro-centric worldview. This rather limited way of seeing and understanding the world not only limits the kinds of stories that are produced, but more seriously, cripple the photographer’s understanding of her role, her ability to affect social change, and the kinds of advocacy campaigns she engages in.
The first of these issues- the limited kinds of stories produced, and the rather limited issues and topics photojournalists tend to focus on, was addressed in at least two earlier posts – see Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue and The Limits of Photojournalism And Things More Worthwhile.
In this post I want to address the second of the two concerns – the Euro-centric world view of Western photojournalists producing works about the world outside their Western markets, and some of the unspoken assumptions that underpin their attempts at social change and advocacy.
But what do I mean by an Euro-centric world view? Specifically, the set of assumptions that:
The European / Western actor in the field (whether a NGOs, aid organizations or individual) are the most meaningful if not the only interesting and effective actors, and that local activists, organizations, and other actors are simply marginal, if not completely irrelevant.
The attention and ‘awareness’ of the European / Western audience in the photographer’s markets is what really matters as far as genuine acts of advocacy and pressure for social change action is concerned
The Western journalist is a neutral ‘eye’ to the world, unaffected by bias of her history, political understanding, and the structure and priorities of the media industry she works within.
The world is ‘looked down’ from the heights of a civilized European cultural and political space, where the assumption of the right to intervene and act on the lives of ‘the other’ is a given.
Now, before people get all upset and start accusing me of reverse bigotry and what have you, let me clarify something before I continue. Euro-centricity is not about ethnicity, but about a world view. It does not refer to the white-man so to speak, but to a certain way of seeing. For example, there are many Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani photographers who are extremely Euro-centric in the way they document and produce their works – the assumptions about their society, culture, its history, agency and the actions required or even the issues identified reflect a deep affinity and absorption of ‘a distant’ eye. They have become accustomed – through education, life experiences, market sales possibilities and other influences, to seeing their own world through the eyes and agency of The West. So this is not about ethnicity, or being an indigenous photographer, but about a certain way of looking at the world, and understanding how it operates, that I wish to discuss. As an aside, I believe that one of the best archive of Pakistani photographs belongs to a German photographer who has spent the last 15 years working in the country.
This Euro-centricity carries within it a number of ideas that are hang-overs from an earlier world. But in an industry which remains very reluctant to build a culture of critical, and intellectual thought, the presumptions and prejudices continue to color so much of today’s photojournalism. It could be argued that it has only gotten worse in the post-9/11 world, where an entire host of orientalist and bigoted ideas about a large swath of humanity began to become mainstream journalistic, political and cultural currency. (For example, see some of my recent critiques of works features on Time Magazines and its LightBox photography blog site here, here and here). Rather than progress with the times, and arrive into a more inter-connected, articulate, and egalitarian world, photojournalists remain determined to ignore modernity and its developments and continue to document societies in way that echo works from twenty, or thirty years earlier.
Mainstream photojournalism appears to be immune to some of the radical changes that have affected so many other fields of human creativity and inquiry. I had argued in my post Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue :
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 silenced. New histories are being revealed, and counter narratives to debilitating colonial histories being offered. The voice of the [previously] 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.
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, victim hood 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 … 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.
Some clarifications are in order. I realize that these questions will provoke people, and I will do my best to be specific in order to avoid confusion and encourage an engagement with this essay rather than a rejection and simply refutation:
First, I will be using the terms ‘Europe’ and ‘Western’ not as spatial categories, but more as a set of cultural, historical and political assumptions. The term ‘Western’ refers to Europe and North America. My use of the term ‘photojournalist’ refers to documentary photographers, news photographers and other photographers working on issues of social and human concern.
Second, this is not in defense of some alternative -centrism. I am not advocating the supplanting of an Euro-centric world view with an Afrocentric or Islamocentric or some other equally invalid, ethnically particularist perspective.
Third: This is also not a criticism of individual European / Western photographers, but a criticism of a series of prejudices, assumptions and perspectives that inform the work of photographers from across the globe. European and American photojournalists continue to dominate the industry in terms of creativity, courage, determination, ambition and financial and publishing support. It is about a way of seeing and understanding the world that remains deeply colored by some specific attitudes, presumptions and imaginations. There is no doubt that Western photojournalist remain at the peak of the craft (though an argument can be made that the Bangladeshis have really raised the bar, but that is a different post!) , and that their works, perspectives and methods influence photographers around the globe.
No one can deny that Western photojournalists are frequently emulated. It is the well-justified global influence of the European / Western photojournalist that compels me to speak about their work, and the ideas that inform and define it because they are now seriously crippling a more nuanced, intelligent and creative engagement with societies that have previously been dependent, dispossessed and distanced by narratives about their history, agency and capacity.
This post – broken up into five parts – will focus on these key areas:
Part 1: There Is No Other But Us: I begin by looking at how the very people photojournalists claim to be speaking on behalf of are missing from their works and appear only as victims. There is a long legacy for such erasures, and I attempt to highlight this.
Part 2: Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy! Here I discuss the long held assumption that NGOs, international aid and humanitarian organizations are neutral, apolitical and doers only of good. Their influence – political and other, within the regions they work is now coming under critical scrutiny and criticism and this has yet to make it to the photojournalism world.
Part 3: A World Really Small: Here I examine at how the European / Western consumer / audience becomes the principal focus of all advocacy appeals, and how issues that would matter to this market become the goal of advocacy. This has disastrous consequences for the people photojournalists are trying to help, but also reduces all advocacy to nice sound bites, and charity give aways, exacerbating the situation on the ground and avoiding the harder, more complicated work required.
Part 4: Witness To The World: In this piece I look at the continued depiction of the photojournalist as ‘eyes to the world’ and carrying about her work without political, economic and cultural baggage. It questions the assumption that journalism is a neutral, eye-witness only craft, and tries to highlight how journalists are complicit in power relationships and political hierarchies.
Part 5: The Burden Of Proof: Here I summarize my previous pieces and discuss the constant pressure photojournalism feels to justify its existence by having to indulge in advocacy, and socially conscious actions.
Part 1 will follow in a few days. In the mean time I hope that this introduction is provocative enough to get us to start to think about some of these issues.