Oh Dear…Did I Just Shoot Myself In The Foot? Or The Chicago Sun-Times Arrives Where We Argued It Would

For the last few years some of the most influential voices in photojournalism have spent their time making a strong argument for the revolutionary possibilities of phone photography, and iPhone™ photography in particular. Some have referred to it as an entirely new way of experiencing the world, others have spoken about it as a new form a photography – quantum photography, and other ‘famous’ photographers have criticized those who have been arguing against the trend of using such software as Instagram™ and Hipstamatic™ – tools available for phone photography.  And others who repeatedly argued that today … everyone is a photographer.

On the other side, magazines and editors have repeated featured and celebrated the increasing use of the iPhone™ to produce serious photojournalism works. Some have called for us to accept an entirely new economics of the iPhone based photography approach. There was all the excitement about the use of an iPhone™ image on the cover of Time Magazine going so far as to argue:

If there was still any debate about whether serious photojournalism can take place in the context of camera phones and cutesy retro filters, it’s over now.

There were repeatedly publications of the work of the photojournalist Ben Lowy (see two examples here, and here ), and the work of Michael Christopher-Brown’s iPhone™ images even making into the haloed pages of National Geographic magazine – that holy grail of anyone pursuing serious photography and photojournalism. And the front page of the New York Times.

So it was with some surprise that the decision by the Chicago Sun-Times to fire its entire photography deparment and train their writers to use of devices like the iPhone to produce visual content for the newspaper. was met with anger, and confusion.

But, wasn’t this the very argument that we all, in our single-minded enthusiasm for celebrating the new ‘toys’ of photojournalism been making all along i.e that today everyone is a photography, that the iPhone™ simply changes the rules of the game, and hence allows everyone and anyone to be a visual artist of note?

And if so, then why the surprise, outrage and anger?

Given that the mainstream debate on the future of photojournalism obsessively focused on the possibilities of the new ‘toys’, while all the while avoiding any serious discussion of the fundamentals of the craft, and the need to argue for them and defend them, should it them come as a surprise that the owners and management of the Chicago Sun-Times, a privately owned corporate newspaper, should think the same? As a Facebook post announced to the Chicago Sun-Times staff:

Sun-Times reporters begin mandatory training today on “iPhone photography basics” following elimination of the paper’s entire photography staff. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be working with all editorial employees to train and outfit you as much as possible to produce the content we need,” managing editor Craig Newman tells staffers in a memo.

And why not, for after all, few if anyone had bothered to argue otherwise.

In fact, none of the major newspapers that reported this event actually wrote anything in defence of the photography department, or even the important of a professional photojournalism staff. The New York Times simply asked Do Newspapers Need Photographers? – a piece that read more as an eulogy than an argument for the craft. The Poynter Institute did not really say anything at all. The President of the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) was however outraged, but this is the same NPPA that has long recognized the changing landscape, and continues to offer courses that train the ‘multi-skilled’ journalism that is demanded of members of the industry. That is, where writers have to be videographers and multi-media talents as well.

Perhaps the most vocal argument in defence of the need for the professional photojournalist however was made by Alex Garcia of The Chicago Tribune. In a post called The Idiocy Of Eliminating A Photo Staff he argued that:

The reason why this is bad management and not smart Machiavellian management is because although you’ve saved your bottom line, you’ve exposed your naked disregard for your customers.

The photographers they fired were not button-pushers, they were journalists and trusted members of their communities.

Some of them were deeply connected to areas of Chicago in ways that a freshly minted multimedia journalism graduate from New York will never be.

Garcia went on to make a number of strong arguments in defence of a photojournalism staff – the experience and connection to the community, the ability to use their experiences to find new stories, the difficulty of reporters carrying out reporting and searching for images to illustrate them and others. But I could not help but feel that none of these arguments hold water in a new media landscape that is defined my markets, profits and sales. That is, we continue to misunderstand the modern day raison d’etre of the newspaper.

This was vividly revealed by Russel Baker, in a piece he wrote in for The New York Review of Books back in 2007 – title Goodbye To The Newspaper?, pointed out that people were:

…alarmed about the breakdown of understanding between owners and working journalists and about the loss of common purpose that once united them. This has come about, he said, because the functions that were once the realm of strong publishers have been taken over by Wall Street money managers. The breakdown at the top began some forty years ago when local owners began selling their papers to corporations. As the nature of markets changed, power shifted from the corporations to investment funds, which make money by investing other people’s money in ways that make it multiply. It became hard to say anymore who or what a newspaper owner was. Owners ceased to be “identifiable human beings,” as Carroll put it. Sometimes the owner, who had once had a name—Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, John Knight of Knight Ridder newspapers, Barry Bingham, of the Louisville Courier-Journal—became an it. Sometimes it seemed to be a room full of market researchers trolling the world by computer for profitable investment opportunities. Sometimes it was a fund manager with neither experience nor interest in journalism.

And this is precisely what the Chicago Sun-Times is – an investment. Their owners never really speak about the traditional ethics and demands of journalism, but about investments, markets, digital platforms, brand, and consumer access. When the Chicago Sun-Times was sold to the private investment group, the new leader Timothy Knight – of Newsday mind you! – argued that:

This isn’t a newspaper acquisition. This is the creation of a technologically-enabled content company. The platform, the brands that the Sun-Times has across Chicagoland are outstanding and unmatched.

So whereas I appreciate Alex Garcia’s defense of a photojournalism staff, I feel that it is yet another voice screaming in the wrong direction. In fact, I can’t help but feel that the relative silence of the photojournalism industry, and particularly of its ‘monumental’ and most influential voices, is a mark of a realistic surrender to the inevitability of a privatized, profit-driven media culture and values. That it isn’t about the story, or the relationship, or even the commitment to investigate and doggedly pursue, but largely about entertainment, novelty and perusal – the factors that seem to drive the quick-flip mode of operating in digital media itself.

As Ben Lowy. one of the ‘great’ names in photojournalism argued, that he chose to shoot with the iPhone™ because:

…it produced images in a visual style that people weren’t used to seeing. That is important to me. There is so much information out there these days, and its very hard to capture the attention of a – for the most part – apathetic public. By showing important images of a war or social issue to people using a unique aesthetic, I believe I can capture their attention and shine a light on some of these stories.

That is – what matters are ‘eye-balls’, that classic measuring yard-stick of the corporate advertiser. In fact, one can see from the long, and ‘respectable’ list of arguments in favor of the ‘eye-ball’, photojournalism’s finest have in fact moved on from arguing on behalf of the classical values and ideals of photojournalism.

There are few, if any, who remain foolish enough to make an argument that goes something like this:

It is the very people who have been asked to represent photojournalism, who have been the quickest to abandon it. From photo editors at major publications, heads of photojournalism agencies, and even the major photojournalists themselves. Instead, everyone has simply been chasing the money, grabbing at any work that they can get paid for, while offering all sorts of intellectual, philosophical and technological justifications to mask their behavior of sheer capitulation and suggest that it is in response to a ‘revolution’. But unfortunately there is no revolution. Photojournalism is still hard work, and still done by those who dedicate themselves to something other than the bottom line, and ideals other than technical coolness. Merely taking pictures, however ‘filtered’, does not make one a photojournalist.

And you can’t pretend there is a revolution by speaking to a closed audience i.e other photographers or photojournalists. In the end, our responsibility is to the general public, and to the society. We claim the title of photojournalists not because we own DSLRs, but because somewhere deep within lies a conviction of public service, social engagement and responsibility, and a desire to undo wrongs, reveal oppressions, challenge power, question injustice and stand alongside the oppressed. These fundamental principals are sacrosanct, and today, more than ever, they need repeating, Particularly by those who claim to speak for the craft.

Will someone please stand up and speak up for what really matters. Anyone…

Actually, that was me in a post titled How Not To Speak About Photojournalism Or Did Anyone Notice We Are Still Human? and frankly it does all sound rather hopeless, out-dated and pointless. Even I realized as I finished writing that piece that it was more about what I respect and admire, and not a realistic judgement of the way the industry was inevitably heading. It was just me refusing to….go gently into that good night.

It is clear that no one will stand up and speak….back to their editors, to their owners or to their investors. Most have in fact already moved on towards battles easier to fight – around filters, aesthetics, applications and technology tools. And it may all be a bit too late at this stage – most of the media industry now lies in the hands of a few corporations, and a large group of ‘investors’ looking to utilize any trick, gimmic, novelty and fad to just get users to ‘click through’ and help bring in the advertising dollars. And bowing to this imperative is perhaps the only justification for photojournalism remaining relevant in mainstream news media industry – do you bring in the bucks? So frankly, there may not even be anyone to speak back to – the people now making the editorial decisions are not the editors that we once knew. They are the technocrats, the marketeers, the business planners, the marketing departments and much else.

There is an element of the disingenuous in the various statements of support, and outrage about the Chicago Sun-Times decision to lay off most of its photojournalism staff. A photojournalism community that has been obsessed with chasing the amatuers simply to remain relevant, and by its own judgement, cutting edge and innovative, should not be surprised when businesses use its own arguments against it. Mind you, it isn’t as if I am unaware that the real drivers behind these changes in the industry are financial and profit-driven, and that there is no room for arguments that focus on quality, commitment, relationships and depth. But when you have ‘seen’ the future, why be surprised when it finally arrives? When our entire dialogue has centered around technology, technical innovations, technical trends and fads – all of which apparently make any joe the creator of ‘an experience’, or ‘a photographer’, why even defend the concept of ‘professional photojournalist’.

Today there are plenty of publications, including the New York Times, that rely heavily on freelancers, paying them often as little as $200 / day, and gladly publishing works that can largely be described as ordinary, and non-descript. But good enough. ANd this may be the final mantra of the news business – is it good enough? I would argue – and I may well be in the minority here, that yes, reporters with iPhones™ is going to prove good enough, and that the incremental value of conventional photojournalism professionals may just not be worth all that much. I also realize that this is today a rather easy argument to make since it simply confirms the inevitable.

In the end, this post is about what our role in this fiasco has been. And I think that it has been a significant one. We professional photojournalists have also contributed to the script that is playing out all across the landscape of American media. We have contributed to the rather stunted debate that has prevailed in the last many years about photojournalism and its future direction. We have helped sharpen the very sword that now sits across our throats. And though I may still believe in the classical characteristics of photojournalism- quality, commitment, relationships and depth, are the true measures of photojournalism, and though in my heart I am offended and disgusted by the decision of the Chicago Sun-Times, I have to admit that I am not surprised by their choice.

In the end though I still believe that all this is not inevitable. That even if there are no real editors, or newspaper owners who value serious photojournalists, there is still the market. That is, we can still speak to an audience and argue for the importance of serious photojournalism. And this is what my principal argument here is: that it is we, the photojournalists, who have surrendered the field to the technocrats and the technologists. That we, as we speak to the world, seem to have abandoned our responsibility to also educate, and argue to the world for the meaning, idea and importance of serious photojournalism. As I said in an earlier post that what…

…underpins my dismay at the ease with which so many important voices of photojournalism have succumbed to a ‘techno-centric’ understanding of the changes taking place in the field, and use this techno-centricity to offer predictions about the future of the field of photojournalism. Most all of them speak to explain the digital revolution, the meaning of Instagram, the possibilities of images on the Internet and other such useless stuff, while remaining silent about the continued need for journalistic integrity, and the responsibilities of speaking truth to power, or acting as witness against injustice.

They have consistently failed to fight for the things that need to be fought for – professionalism, ethics of the craft, dedication to the pursuit of a story, and a commitment to fundamental journalistic engagement, and replaced it with TED-talk like techno-obsessive pronouncements most of which are outdated by the time they are even made. There are many who will gobble this nonsense up and walk away feeling that they have gained something. Or perhaps they will be relieved that they too have been absolved of their responsibility to the craft they once claimed to belong to.

What we have today are a lot of voices with an upside-down understanding of what is taking place around us – instead of explaining how the new tools and technologies should be used to produce journalistic work that remains true to its ideals and ethics, we have major voices in the industry telling us how the ethics and ideals of journalism / photojournalism must simply surrender to the conveniences and capabilities of the new technology. Perhaps worse, they are busily conflating a set of consumer market priorities as suitable substitutes for professional responsibilities.

We may have lost the corporations, but we have not lost the market. We speak, educate and inspire those who purchase the newspapers that the investors run. A community that understands the value and importance of serious photojournalism – its methods, commitments, and value, will demand this from those selling it their news products. Visual and journalistic literacy remains one of the great challenges and opportunities of our age of massive and ubiquitous media. It is absolutely critical that our leading practitioners of the craft step out of their self-imposed fascination with merely products, and speak out on behalf of what makes us different, valuable and dare i say…indispensable.

There are a number of people trying new things to create serious, independent, and investigative journalism. Glenn Greewald, coincidently, made a strong argument for this just today. Photojournalism too has spread its wings out towards Empases, Kickstarter and even independently organized self-funding efforts such as Rob Hornstra’s The Sochi Project. Perhaps we can go further – perhaps the classical methods of photojournalism – for example those taught at schools such as the ICP in New York, or the Missouri School of Photojournalism, need to  be revised, and modified.

Perhaps we have to leave behind these earlier approaches, and explore others than can meet the imperatives of the new economic age of news media. Certainly the Europeans remains far ahead of the American’s in exploring new approaches to photography and new methods of story-telling, By stepped away from the old models – chronological, linear, sequential story building approach, photographers can build an argument for a more creative, conceptual and individual approach to stories and create value by differentiating themselves from the structure and form of the written story. None of this is new of course. It is merely to remind us – and those who educate the new generation, from the Eddie Adams workshop to the Missouri Photo Workshop and others, that we may now just have to leave behind standards set by the lines of Eugene Smith. I hear people say Blasphemy!, but it is time for new ideas, not merely new toys. Finland’s Helsinki School and other institutes like it are pushing the limits of what can be done with photography, including new ways of constructing stories. Its worth an exploration. There is no doubt that American photojournalists remain married to a very traditional form of story telling and photojournalistic ethics. Its time to think anew.

It is time to stop talking to ourselves, and start speaking to the world. It is time to stop sitting in a closed circle commiserating our fates, and realize that we have the power to influence it too. It may seem Utopian, but I refuse to simply stop speaking out on behalf of the ideals I believe remain central to this entire enterprise. And though I have largely stepped away from the news world in reaction to their insistence on producing the banal, simplistic and easy, I remain committed to the importance of photojournalism as a tool of insight, awareness and understanding.

Will anyone stand up and make that argument?

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.