A Photographer Confronts His World
Sitting this morning in Lahore I am dreaming of Africa, of borders, and of other things that distract.
Ben Rawlence’s book Radio Congo: Signals of Hope From Africa’s Deadliest War arrived in the mail today. I had met Ben in New York some weeks ago at a dinner sponsored by the Open Society Institute. Ben is an Open Society Fellow this year and working on a new book about life in the Dadaab refugee camp in Somali. While speaking to him I mentioned that I was now living in Kigali, Rwanda, and was soon on my way to shoot a short assignment in Eastern Congo. Ben graciously offered to send me a copy of this work – a personal journey to the fabled city of Manono in Eastern Congo. The journey by foot, bike, and boat becomes a meditation on the history of the region, colonialism, the post-colonial dreams and the nightmares that replaced them, and about a new world emerging from a history that looks chaotic, but has its own trajectory and logic.
I am enjoying this new series that Al-Jazeera is running – Artscape: The New African Photographers. Its not just it is a sheer pleasure to hear new and different voices in photography – the European and American obsession with a few handful of the same old voices, largely selected by bored editors from agencies such as Magnun, VII or Noor etc, becoming quite tiresome and banal. It was simply lovely to hear Osodi talk about his work, about how he began it, and how he sees and understands the issues that he is trying to represent.
Photojournalism remains a deeply subjective craft – the act, the craft, the technique, the entire business enterprise (from stories selected, assigned, produced, photographed, published, produced, awarded etc.) relies on a series of subjective choices and prioritization. That is, photojournalism, much like any journalism, is fundamentally a human act of exploration, investigation, articulation, documentation, explanation, argumentation, and presentation (not necessarily in that order) and carries within it, as in all human enterprises, a series of human choices, selections, eliminations and and prioritization. And hence, carries within it the fundamental characteristics of all human and humanistic knowledge and endeavors, and that as Edward Said argued:, we can:.
…acquire philosophy and knowledge, it is true, but the basic unsatisfactory fallibility of the human mind persists nonetheless. So there is always something radically incomplete, insufficient, provisional, and arguable about humanistic knowledge that…gives the whole idea of humanism a tragic flaw that is constitutive to it and cannot be removed.
(Said, Edward Humanism And Democratic Criticism, Page 11-12)
Every serious, responsible photojournalist who steps into the world to report and say something about it works to mitigate the problem of human fallibility by proceeding with a determination to report issue fairly, and to document and communicate their findings honestly, comprehensively and ethically. That is, the only thing that allows us to take any photojournalism project seriously is the belief that the reporter has carried out her task with a dedication to these principles. It is also one of the reasons why mainstream news outlets remain so critical to the process – they offer the reputation and trust that allows us to take any reporting from the field seriously.
Ironically, this is the one aspect of photojournalism that news photography and photojournalism contests do not focus on. In fact, there is a near absolute focus on the aesthetics of an image, and little or no focus on evaluating the veracity, accuracy, reliability, and rigor of a photojournalism story. Most of the controversies that emerge during the photo competition season tend to center around issues of aesthetics, as when a number of people voiced concern that Paul Hansen’s World Press Photo competition winning image was over manipulated or adjusted differently for the competition than from when it first ran in the newspaper. Each year, at the end of the major photojournalism competition season, we see a whole host of these complaints and concerns being expressed, with many people expressing outrage at the level of image processing, and adjustment in various winning images. In fact, the only reason an ethics controversy occurred this year was because of a group of bloggers and researchers directly and indirectly invovled with the story produced by Paolo Pellegrin cried foul. Details »
In his book Humanism and Democratic Criticism Edward Said writes about a writer’s congress convened in New York by The Nation magazine. The congress organizers left open the question of who was a writer and why he or she was qualified to attend. As Said tells it, literally hundreds of people turned up at the event, crowding up the room to ‘…almost to the ceiling.’ Soon a debate ensued about the definition of a writer in order to help select members to a writers union and to determine who could vote in the congress. I let Said’s word tell us what followed:
Not much occured in the way of reduced and manageable numbers: the hearteningly large mass of people simply remained immense and unwieldly since it was quite clear that everyone who came as a writer…stayed on as a writer…
I remember clearly that at one point someone sensibly suggested that we should adopt what is said to be the Soviet position on defining a writer, that is, a writer is someone who says that he or she is a writer. And I think that is where matters seem to have rested…
And so there we have it – a writer is someone who says that he or she is a writer. In a world with near ubiquitous access to a computer, the Internet, language and grammar, practically everyone is a writer and can string together a series of sentences to justify that claim. But Edward Said offers this anecdote to build his argument that in fact, not everyone is a writer / intellectual (in his original piece, he conflates those two). and though never offers a clear set of criteria, there follows a paragraph that I believe captures his argument for the need for a differentiation. He argues that:
To answer the question of why, in this and other similar contexts [on discussing why people, despite massive repression, continue to fight] individuals and groups prefer writing and speaking to silence, is equivalent to specifying what the intellectual and writer confront in the public sphere. What I mean is that the existence of individuals or groups seeking social justice and economic equality, who understand that freedom must include the right to a whole range of choices affording cultural, political, intellectual, and economic development…will lead one to a desire for articulation as opposed to silence. This is the functional idiom of the writer / intellectual vocation. The intellectual therefore stands in a position to make possible and further the formulation of these expectations and wishes.
What is striking about this argument is its focus on the individual’s sense of responsibility. The fact that Said places at center stage a set of human aspirations and ideals – equality, freedom, and justice, to differentiate those who have the tools and technology to write, and those who are writers. And I would argue, that it is such a set of human aspirations and ideals that raises one from being merely a photographer, to being a photojournalist. Details »
I started to write because I could not find a writer.
Or at least that is how I have explained this shift from simply making photographers, to producing works that now rely as much on writing as they do on making images. My three years of work in India, The Idea of India, and the recent work in Pakistan, Justice in Pakistan, are a result of a longing to add complexity and depth to my works. After hoping for years to meet – fortuitously or intentionally, someone who would put into fabulous text the ideas I was trying to capture through images, I realized that I may never find the kind of collaborator that so many others I know have some how found. Details »
Writing hagiography is I suppose the easiest, most reactionary thing to do. Supported by the myth of Magnum, a myth that may once have had some weight, but today relies largely on recycled cliches about the agency’s role and impact, the writer can just easily close thought, avoid analysis. And this is what is offered to us here in a piece in The Independent called ‘Young Magnum: The Hotshots Ready To Take Their Place In History’. Though remains unclear to me why any of these four photographers are the ‘hot shots’ they are labelled to be – probably only because they are Magnum nominees and that associated guarantees your seriousness and lavish praise. Be that as it may, – these are subjective opinions, what really confuses me is the consistent presentation of photography and photographers by depoliticizing their work by de-contextualizing it. Details »
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