There is a uncomfortable relationship between winning awards and doing journalism. Or photojournalism. Personally, I find it odd that reporters and photographers are so keen to ‘pick up’ awards, to walk down red-carpets, to accept trinkets that are apparently there to mark their ‘achievements’. It begs the question: what is the journalist’s or photojournalist’s achievement? How does one measure that in fact? Well, clearly in photojournalism, the achievement is always merely aesthetic. The works are never measured for their political, social, cultural or intellectual impact. Never. We are merely happy to pick up awards because the pictures were nice. Its all quite insular, self-congratulatory, and in complete contradiction of the public rhetoric of the craft, and the moral grandstanding that so many writers and photographers spew in social media and interviews.
There is also a lack of acknowledgement of the bias of awards, and the close, overt, distorting relationship awards and prizes have with institutions of corporate, and political power. That is, winning an award whereas often seen as celebrating the individual’s work, should also be seen as a sign of the corporate and political interests celebrating their escape from criticism and questioning. For example, when an institution awards a photographer who covered the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and does so in the midst of an American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and without ever even mentioning this ironic reality, we know that these awards are not only confirming the photographer’s achievement, but they are also confirming certain selected, and imposed, political, social and cultural silences.
Awards are political statements. Journalists and Photographers who receive awards seem not to be aware of this. They see awards as isolated from ideology, propaganda and social silences. The challenge for us is to see into these silences, and evasions. The challenge for us is to not become blinded by our narcissism, and convinced that awards are about us, and our achievement. We have to begin to question what the awards are doing, and what they are not revealing. That is, if power – corporate, political, cultural, begins to celebrate you, you are better off questioning whether your work is really that interesting and worthwhile.
Diaz understands this. Perhaps when he accepted it, he indulged in the moment. But he knows that his work isn’t about the awards. And he knows that people will like you until…that moment when you finally say something in defence of the weak, and in dissent of the powerful. He knows that for so long as you disturb nothing, upset no one, question nothing, and dissent against the mind-numbing lies and obfuscations of power, you will be celebrated, you will be dined and wined, you will be the talk of the town, you will be made to feel a hero.
But as soon as you do, you will be spit on. Or worse, quietly marginalised because even spitting on you in public will draw people’s attention to you. As Teju Cole has said in defence of Diaz
Junot ain’t here for your shit, Edwidge ain’t here for your shit. And those of us who are serious about writing are always going to emulate them, are always going to find ways of uncovering the rot in the body politic, at personal or collective cost. And we’re going to smuggle in that right to intervene on the wings of some fine writing. Awards will be given, awards will be taken away. That’s just how it be.
That is indeed how it will be. We photo-Journalists (I will be writing this word in this hyphenated form from now on to remind us that it is journalism that is at the core of what we do, not the mere taking of aesthetic photos) however would do well by not pretending towards celebrity-hood, or feeling smug as our feet touch the red-carpet. In fact, we should be worried if we find that we have the spotlight on us – it isn’t what you think, but simply the search light of a prison tower.