So, here is a Masterclass in photojournalism, particularly for European photojournalists producing works on immigration, refugees and Africa. It is a Masterclass in how not to work as a photographer / photojournalist working on stories of immigration, refugees and the European fear of ‘the Other’.
This article – written by some hack writer and with an epistemology embedded deep inside the brain trust of NGO-think – is perhaps the single finest learning tool I have come across in a very long time. And I am not just saying that.
This is an article about immigrants, about Africa and her poverty, about ‘women’s empowerment’, about European assistance to help African women ‘develop’ and become ’empowered’, about populist ideas of ‘humanity’ and what not. It is a cliche-ridden piece around which one could construct an entire Graduate School seminar.
And here is why this is a Masterclass.
Point One: The perspective, and POV of the piece of ‘the human’. Specifically, it is the individual. This is typical of how typical photojournalists want to work – you focus on an empathetic subject, you find a ‘good victim’, and you place yourself as the mediator / medium through which their stories will be bought to the White European world. Mind you, this latter point is critical – so many ‘concerned’ photographers are entirely beholden to the view that the core audience, the critical agency of action and ideas, lies in the European markets. Of course, they are inadvertently acknowledging that their idea of ‘agency’ happens to be the paying pages of an European publication. They have no interest in the agency of the very people they are documenting. They are ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, and hence silencing the local communities and erasing their agency. These photojournalists come to serve what Allan Sekula has called ‘liberal ideology’s false humanism, while denying the fact that information too has been mobilised.’ (Steichen At War, by Allan Sekula). The individual as the starting point permits a downgrading of the structural, and also absolves the photojournalist from broader inquiry, and from making critical connections between economics, and politics, and how these create realities within which people operate and surive and thrive. Or die.
Two: An European NGO is highlighted as entering the fray, and helping ‘the women’. Its always the women. The White man’s generosity and concern, his love of ‘the women’ move to have him act to help these hapless mothers. So the NGO – we are told that “Yayi has just returned from Morocco, where she received an award from a Swiss NGO, Crans-Montana Forum, for her work in the community.” But what is this organisation that we are talking about? That is not looked at. But a simple search of their website reveals it to be a forum and ‘action group’ comprised of the views and perspectives of some the most rigid, fanatical, fascist, imperialist and neoliberal European political leaders of the last 40 yeas! The Crans-Montana Forum boasts that it is “Committed to a more Humane and Impartial World” and encourages international cooperation and overall growth.” i.e. embedded in this faux humanist language is that fascist word ‘growth’. The forum boasts participation and ‘encouragement’ from such ‘luminaries’ as Peres, Holbrook, Chernomyrdin, Rabin, A. Juppe, and many many more – a veritable list of powerful, elite, political and establishment figures who. This forum apparently gave a few ‘dimes’ to Yahi. But here is the catch…
Three: Right there, all over the article, is simple and direct evidence of how the causes of the loss of Senegal’s sons lie firmly in the trade policies that the EU has ‘won’ from collaborative Senegalese governments. That is, the reason why millions are leaving Senegal and heading to European shores – shores that are now highly militarised and brutal, is because of Europe’s desperate hunger for fish, and the trade arrangements that have destroyed the livelihoods of millions. These unjust, unequal and insane trade agreements, ones that the EU can impose onto weaker nations, are the single largest driver of immigrants heading towards the very militarised borders where they eventually are imprisoned, tortured, brutalised or killed. Its right there in the article e.g.
“According to the World Bank, only one in five people work full time in Senegal and 20 percent of the country’s five million labour force is jobless.
“There is no work for young people any more. You can imagine how they see things. They say: our sea has been sold,” says Yayi referring to overfishing practised by industrial trawlers from Europe, China and Japan.
Although President Macky Sall criticised these practices when he came to power in 2012 and briefly put a stop to it, new fishing agreements have been signed between the Senegalese government and the EU for the 2014-2019 period.
It enables the EU to fish for 14,000 tonnes of fish a year in Senegalese waters in exchange for 15 million euros ($16.75 million) in compensation.”
These criminally unjust and exploitative trade deals are destroying local economies and undermining local governance. And if you think this is a ‘sovereign’ arrangement between a Senegalese government and the EU, then you are again wrong. Deeply indebted states like Senegal are beholden to International Financial Institutions and unable to make critical social and political policy decisions without prioritising the interests of the lenders. This is a simple fact that has been documented repeated by the likes of Wendy Brown, Saskia Sassen, Joseph Steiglitz and even Jeffery Sachs who has come around to seeing the connections after many decades faltering around in racist ‘development model’ theories.
Four: The very NGOs that give tiny handouts to selected ‘good Senegalese’ individuals, are also the forum made up of the power elite that maintain and sustain global capitalism, global trade arrangements, global economic ideologies and the movement of global profits and raw resources (fish, in this case), entirely towards Europe. Anyone claiming that ‘colonialism’ is dead ignores the fact that colonialism wasn’t just about military of administrative control. It was also very much about economic networks, social control, ideologies and power arrangements. Much of those arrangements have survived the test of ‘independence’, as documented well by the likes of Laura Ann Stolar and others.
It is now the height of irresponsibility and frankly racist disregard that photojournalists can continue to produce ‘human’ stories about immigrants and refugees, but never be moved to speak out against the policies of their own countries – whether it is war, or trade or other, that are creating these massive waves of people fleeing death and starvation. It is the height of cowardice that photojournalists are unable to connect the dots, desperate as they are to sell their shoddy wares to shoddy publications – publications that are a core part of the nationalist and corporate capitalist infrastructure and have an interest in hiding these connections, while standing on podiums speaking lyrically about ‘human suffering’ and ‘justice’. It is inexplicable that these vividly obvious inter-connections are not the focus of more projects, more writings and more photographs by photojournalists, who still seem to insist on waiting on the ‘death side’ of the story to make their banal pictures.
Institutions like World Press Photo, and other European ‘journalism’ groups, seem to encourage these simplistic and limited narratives by awarded these simplistic and limited narratives. Not just that, but publications like the New York Times, and major photo agencies like Magnum, collaborate in the obfuscation of these issues by producing ‘fabulous’ multi-media pieces that use a language and framing that hides these connections, that refuse to face our agency in this suffering, and worse, refuse to hold our political leaders accountable for our continued role in the suffering of the millions. We seem to think that they are ‘starving’ and ‘fleeing’ from ‘there’ because we are all so beautiful and everyone wants to come live in our pretty garden cities. And yet we fail to see that the garden is grown over the blood of the very people we are not imprisoning, torturing and killing.
This is a Masterclass in photojournalism. No, it isn’t about how your images should look more like those of Alex Majoli or Steve McCurry. It is about how you need to learn to think, and to make connections. It is about how you need to reject these narratives that create ’empathy’ and work through ‘pathos’. It is about producing works that do not fit the pages of a mainstream publications, that do not succumb to the false seductions of photo awards. Today, we are no longer absolved from our responsibility as citizens and as responsible individuals. These connections, these deprivations, our role in global suffering and as the main cause of human suffering, is right there for all to see. It is shocking to me that European photojournalists continue to work as if they are apart, in a bubble, unrelated to very horrors they head out to document.
This little, useless article, is a brilliant study on how we are encouraged to frame suffering, and how are told to make invisible the causes. The same people who are the beneficiaries of unjust trade and repressive economic arrangements, are the ones giving out crumbs to suffering ‘African’s while garlanding themselves as ‘humanitarian’ and ‘concerned’ labels.
The trillions in profits and wealth that flow to Europe, and the hundreds of millions of deaths and displacements that are imposed on Africa and other regions, are intimately connected. To pretend not to speak about this, to pretend that it does not exist, to practice a concerned craft in ignorance, to encourage that ignorance for the sake of a photo essay publication, or a chance to ‘dance’ with a photo editor, is shameful and frankly, beneath contempt.
These are not new revelations. In 2005 Le Monde Diplomatique wrote the following about European trade agreements and so-called ‘climate refugees’ in Bangladesh:
“THE hamlet of Baro Ari in the Khulna region of southwest Bangladesh is lost in the reaches of the Ganges. It is difficult to find, and yet globalisation has already arrived there, along with its unique market opportunity, shrimps and prawns. Local bigwigs opened the dykes of polders in 2000, flooding with salt water land that belonged to poor farmers. With the connivance of a corrupt police force, they then transformed the drowned land into lucrative crustacean farms.”
Our work isn’t just photographs. Our work speaks to truths that cost people lives. Our work isn’t just a career. It has consequences for the living because our work creates the narratives that can justify war, collude in death, or resist it. Too many young photojournalists and most all ‘famous’ photojournalists seem not to understand how they and their works can be easily ‘weaponised’, and gleefully gloat and brag about their images despite the political and military exploitation of theses images to serve death and destruction.
This article is a Masterclass. Read it again. See how it is done. See how we must, at all costs, start to do it differently.