Listening Only To Those We Recognise As Us

Lewis Bush of the Disphotic blog asks:

Why is a documentary on a foreign war correspondent, who had the choice to pack up and leave but decided to stay, and died as a consequences, considered more important, compelling or appealing than a documentary about a resident who had no choice but stay and die? Is it some how more tragic, the loss of life more poignant, for that fact that the deaths of Hondros and Hetherington, and so many others, appear so completely unnecessary? Even in our cynical age is there still some latent appeal in that old romantic idea of dying for a cause and what are the implications of this in an atmosphere that seems to be becoming increasingly dangerous for journalists? Profoundly disturbing ones I think.

He steps into a debate that has not-quite-raged within the community of photojournalists because apparently they are all too busy discussing Instagram or the latest Hipstamatic film-type or some other such ‘innovation’. Lewis Bush is speaking about recent announcements about documentary films about Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two photojournalists who were killed during the recent Libya war. But the fact remains that our consumer / media saturated societies needs people like itself to help it make sense of the world. It needs the ‘white’ interlocutor to not only protect us from the diversity of perspectives and seemingly incomprehensible views of ‘the other’, but to also assure us that all is well in the world because someone like ‘us’ is out there reporting on it, and telling us how to think and respond to it. 

This desperate need for interlocutors was once again on display in Jeremy Scahill’s acclaimed new film Dirty Wars where it was difficult to tell if the film was about the regions and the stories, or about this swashbuckling young American reporter braving the barbarisms of the world around us. As David Mizner, in a review of the film for Jacobin Magazine, wrote:

Yet the victims shown n in the film never become more than victims. Scahill is the star here. In what seems to be an effort to attract a wide mainstream audience, the filmmakers turn Dirty Wars into a thriller featuring Scahill’s efforts to uncover the truth about the secret military force doing much of the dirtiest work in the War on Terror.

Scahill is certainly star material. With his palpable intensity and toughness, he comes across not just as a war correspondent but as a warrior correspondent. In an age of Pentagon stenographers and liberal ironists, the oppositional and earnest Scahill stands out in flattering relief. And unlike lefty key-tappers (like me), he’s seen war up close. Furthermore, the choice to put him center-stage is artistically reasonable in that it ties the film together. But it deprives victims of airtime in which they could have become what they deserve to be: stars of their own stories. Whatever Scahill’s considerable achievements, these wars aren’tabout him. I’m surprised he allowed himself to become the film’s hero. (Emphasis mine)

I have written about this fear of ‘the other’ voice and the West’s need for interlocutors in an earlier post called Photojournalism, Advocacy and Eurocentrism: Part 1 – There is No Other But Us  where I discuss the New York Times reporter Ben Ehrenreich response to being asked in an interview / discussion why the West continued to need for a ‘Jewish narrator’ when it comes to speaking about the Palestinians in the USA. Ehrenreich’s response is worth repeating as he said:

I’m glad you asked that question, and yeah, it’s super-problematic. It’s a specific instance of a bigger problem, that black and brown people’s stories can generally only be told in this society via the authority of a white narrator, that we–white people, in this case of Jewish ancestry–are tasked with the representation of black and brown and in this case Palestinian people, who in this dynamic are stuck in the passive role of being represented and are not allowed to interpret their own realities. So certainly we are complicit, and I don’t see any way out of that complicity except to use what privilege I have to tell stories that tear holes in the broader narratives which allow this arrangement to continue. And to do so with scrupulous attention to my own role in it, to the power differentials at play. (My emphasis)

But for Lewis, this need to produce stories about the story-tellers and not the subjects of the story itself, points to a deeper malaise. As he argues:

Hetherington and Hondoros were both great journalists who did important work, and like with any death there is a need to remember and mourn. However I single these two out as an unfortunate example of a wider tendency, something I criticised in a post on the polarised perception of journalists, and particularly it seems photojournalists. A tendency on the part of many in the industry and those waiting on it’s borderlands to be allowed entry. A tendency to canonise, rather than question journalists, their motivations, and our reactions to them. It often strikes me as somehow disturbing that when journalists are killed those charged with announcing or commemorating their deaths often seem to employ a distant, slightly reverential patter similar to that used by officials of the military when reporting casualties in action.

In fact, this desperation to canonize was discussed by me and Duckrabbit’s Benjamin Chesterton in a series of email exchanges nearly two years ago, when in response to Christopher Morris’ anger at our questioning the canonization of precisely Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros I wrote that:

Some of our esteemed colleagues want us seems to want us to wallow in the foundational myths of photojournalism and just not ask any questions. A photojournalist (Morris) asks that we not turn the critical eye and mind to ourselves. This is not a tenable situation, and certainly not one that even our journalist colleagues would advocate. He want things to be as they are. He want us to, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to accept the myth that war photographers are individual moral crusaders out to act as witnesses to man’s inhumanity to man. Yes, that they are a group of veritable Mother Theresas with zoom lenses, the moral conscience of our modernity, who selflessly step out there into the danger zone bringing back for us documents of history. This is good enough because some people parley this myth for various reasons. They do not want us to ask the hard questions that may reveal something to us about the futility and pointlessness of war zone work, the sheer propaganda that is the outcome of embedded photography, the simplistic, near voyeuristic focus of their obsession with violence, blood and the spectacle of the murder, the staggering silence that such photographers offers about the ‘other’, their general indifference to the real implications and the real victims of the war, the strong relationship war photography has with the economics of newspaper sales, the well documented and discussed fact that war is addictive for no other reason that it gives our work attention and the attention is addictive.

Many journalists have died in America’s wars alone. We as Americans have a special responsibility to ask the questions. As the two Reuters cameramen (and many civilians) were gunned down in cold blood by american military helicopter pilots we were moved to ask not just about the hideousness of that act, but also about the role of the photographer and the risks involved. But it seems that the recent death of Hondros and Hetherington are being used as an excuse to not only beatify them as saints, but to also silence any attempt to challenge the presumptions, motivation, exploitation and intent of what they thought they must do while working as war reporters. So we are now told that we must not ask any questions. We must only sit back and let paeans to ‘martyrs’ remain paeans to ‘martyrs’. This is especially biting when it comes from an esteemed photojournalist colleague who is arguing that an industry and the practice of its practitioners not be challenged or questioned, that this is not our job. A journalist asks that there be no self-criticism, self-examination, or debate.  He asks for acquiescence, for mindless repetition and acceptance of the works and intent of those in the power to say so.  He asks for nothing to change. That we only bow in front of the empty platitudes.

Hagiography is easy because they are designed to numb the mind, and to avoid critical thought. Few human endeavours are caked with the myths of martyrdom as photojournalism, and photojournalists not only love it, but exploit it to its fullest extent. As I argued in a post called The False Eye: Photojournalism, War Photography And The Myopia Of Criticism:

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 sociopolitical 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 lose much of what is important in any document of history.

I will end this with a quote from a fine piece that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review. Titled When A War Zone Is  Home it celebrates the life and work of an unknown Pakistani reporter Arif Ali who had to make a living – not as a lifestyle choice – as a correspondent in some of the most violent areas in Pakistan. AS Kathy Gilsinan writes:

So Arif was a freelancer who tried to make it, albeit in the modest sense of earning enough, through a job he liked and was good at, to keep his family fed. Arif had not chosen a vocation called “war correspondent,” and he hadn’t sought out violence to bear witness to. Indeed, his decision this year to return to Kabul wrenched him. But a grim truth of the higher media profile Afghanistan has earned through its war is that there are now better job opportunities for reporters there.

As we make these movies about our carefully selected heroes, as we celebrate the lives of young men like us who chose to go to conflict zones and suffered the consequence that thousands of others around them faced, we should consider why we do so. What are these movies really about, particularly when they are distant, as removed, from the stories these young photographers went to cover. Perhaps we would be more forgiving if it weren’t for the stark contrast between the extensive focus and deification of these young American men, and the near absolute silence, dismissal and ignorance of the thousands of Libyans, Iraqis, Afghanis and others that these journalists claim to be trying to reveal, and yet are the first that we as a society, erase. Why are those stories not as compelling or interesting? Why is a young Libyan life, or a lost Iraqi one, just not worth the effort? Are these movies, ostensibly about brave and sacrificed lives, little more than mirrors we hold up to ourselves so that we can admire ourselves?

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