A Stubborn Refusal

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 4.14.59 pmMy continued disdain dismissal of most all photojournalists working on ‘immigration’ stories begins with this simple fact outlined in this excellent article titled The Story Behind The Stories, where author Rodney Benson argues that:

The complexity of the international causes of migration cannot be easily expressed as a melodrama. And mentioning them is ideologically sensitive: it suggests there could be something wrong about an economic system that most politicians — and journalists — take for granted. From the early 1970s to the mid-2000s — a time of neoliberal globalisation and bloody conflicts in Central America manipulated by the US — immigration stories that mentioned international causes fell from 30% to 12% in leading US papers. To their credit, French newspapers in the 2000s, just as in the 1970s, mentioned the global angle in 33% of their immigration news stories, mostly because of the greater prominence of anti-globalisation sentiment in French intellectual and political culture. Yet, too often, both French and US media fail to give the full picture on immigration. Their focus on emotion, and on individual stories, diverts attention from the fundamental political issues, and leaves the way open for the simplistic “solutions” advocated by the far right.

Photojournalism, and photojournalist’s, focus on ‘human’ stories, pathos and emotional angles, is not an innocent act. It is not a human act. In fact, it is very much an attempt to distract us from understanding the larger economic and profit arrangements that dehumanise and destroy lives. By doing ‘individual’ stories, or ‘human interest’ stories that attempt to 1) pull at heartstrings, 2) manipulate us towards pity and 3) reduce gross human structural suffering to individual pathos, photojournalists become propagandists for the status quo. Editors love to constrain us into these status quo stories. They love setting boundaries of thought and discussion. And a photograph is perhaps the most powerful tool for this because without context & text – something so many editors insist on controlling, it has no meaning or knowledge, but is merely a fact.

We need new story-telling epistemologies! We need to destroy the structure of emotion-manipulating ‘human interest’ stories, and create a structure of politically engaged and discursive works.

I have written this before and far more directly. In a post where I analysed and critiqued Marcus Bleasdale’s work from the DRC I argued that:

Photojournalists working with simplistic models of the world – European individual / corporate saviors for African ‘barbarians’ susceptible to horrible acts of violence, simply undermine their own ideals and attempts to ‘effect change’ because they never show us the actual factors that could achieve the change in the first place.They also fail to understand how they surrender themselves to structures of corporate globalization when they mindlessly veil the profit-seeking goals of a pharmaceutical company, or a manufacturer of technology products, with their images of ‘victims’ that are suitably numb, and visibly shown as helpless and ‘in waiting’. The same applies to photojournalists who thoughtlessly trap themselves into the world view of an international aid organization, forgetting that these too have their own agendas and goals, and that there is little room in their operational world view for a more serious and worldly engagement with the issues they claim to be addressing. Both these approaches are horribly incomplete, and near bigoted in their assumption that it is the ‘outside Westerner’ who will come and save. Both erase the local, reject the intelligence, insight and experience of the very people they have come to ‘save’. Both approaches in fact impost, and oppress the very communities they claim they are helping. They both also indulge in the obfuscations that veil our deep connections – economic, political and historical, to the pathologies and suffering being highlighted in our advertising and media campaigns. Photographers who thoughtlessly join such institutions, and whose work simply acts as a vehicle to further the marketing messages of such organizations, are not really engaged in ‘advocacy’ or ‘effecting change’. They are merely engaged in public relations work.

and further that…

Few if any photographers working on humanitarian works argue for a fundamental questioning of our political and economic structures that are complicit in the violence, suffering, injustice or brutality they document and reveal. Many of our ‘awareness’ building efforts totter right at the moment when the photojournalist is confronted with a difficult and direct question about what is to be done – the answer usually ends up being no more than ‘be aware’ or ‘give to a NGO’ and be done with it. And this last-minute failure of the imagination has a lot to do with the three issues I tried to elaborate on in the previous posts – the erasure of the agency of the other, the dependence on the idealized image and role of the NGO/aid organization and the assumption of the neutrality of the reporter/journalist which in fact mirrors the assumption of the neutrality of the nation. These presumptions – near Hollywood caricatures in their simplicity, prevent photographers from going past the Western institutional agents, and exploring the genuine economic and political and social drivers of issues.

What it also does it that it blinds us to the underlying structural issues that create the problems we are so concerned about. Time and again we see photojournalists ‘speaking out’ on behalf of the rights of illegal immigrants crossing into the USA from Mexico, but rarely do we find one who will connect the dots that read NAFTA, the devastation of the rural economies of Mexico, the creation of a vast labor pool or underpaid and surplus labor that this agreement ‘created’ and that now serves the sweatshops there. Many will talk about ‘climate refugees’ in Bangladesh, but never make the connection between international fishery trade agreements, intentional water salination and mass displacement of farmers to open up lands for shrimp farms. Many will speak out against child labor, but few will ever step out and connect the economic policies of a state and their close relationship to structural adjustments programs supported by the IMF and the World Bank that cut social welfare spending, and forced families to have to send their children to sweatshops. Many will speak out against environmental degradation of Tunisian farm lands, but say nothing about the massive tourist developments that serve the holiday needs of millions of European tourists, and for whose swimming pools entire rivers had to be re-directed, and entire villages cleared.

I will obviously have to keep writing.

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