Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? It’s a Photojournalist!

When the photojournalist James Nachtwey was given the Dresden Prize in 2012, Win Wenders, who handed him the prize, went out of his way to construct Nachtwey as an individual conscience, acting and witnessing on our behalf. [Lily Rothman, “Wim Wenders Presents the Dresden Peace Prize to James Nachtwey,” Time Magazine, February 20, 2012].

[Aside: This is the same Wim Wenders who today is an apologist for Israel’s war crimes and a committed supporter of the racist, colonial and genocidal Zionist project.]

The act of photographing is a very lonely job,” Wenders argued. “You are mostly left to your own devices, especially when war is raging around you or hunger and death are haunting the land” [Lily Rothman, “Wim Wenders Presents the Dresden Peace Prize to James Nachtwey,” Time Magazine, February 20, 2012]. That may be true, but what is always left unasked is what put him in that war, at the moment, in the first place? The war photographer, in Wenders’ evocative description, roams the world of suffering alone. “But these photographs here all have one thing in common,” Wenders went on, “an ‘attitude,’ a point of view, the photographer’s awareness…of standing where he is for others, of seeing on behalf of others, of exposing himself, and of giving testimony, for others” [Lily Rothman, “Wim Wenders Presents the Dresden Peace Prize to James Nachtwey,” Time Magazine, February 20, 2012]. Wenders constructs Nachtwey as an individual, Messiah-like figure–alone, bearing witness, giving testimony, standing in on behalf of others, exposing himself to risk, and suffering on our behalf. 

He never mentions Nachtwey’s employment of over thirty years with Time magazine, one of America’s most nationalist and patriotic publications that almost always closely echoes US political and military power priorities. We are to imagine that he works outside of the publication’s ideologies, preferences, editorial directions, and politics. Nachtwey has invested considerable time and effort in constructing a particular idea of himself. “I am a witness,” his website page declares. “The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”  

Ironically, Nachtwey has never spoken a word against the war-making and lifeworld-destroying juggernaut of his own country–perhaps the world’s most militarily aggressive nation–and its relentless use of violence, war, invasions, occupations, torture, renditions, drone strikes, and indefinite detentions. Inexplicably, James Nachtwey’s “anger” has never compelled him to speak out against US militarism, wars, invasions, torture programs, drone wars, or indefinite detention. Yet, despite decades covering US wars in the Middle East, Nachtwey has not considered the millions killed and the millions displaced from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria as worthy of his “sense of outrage at violence, aggression and the unacceptable deprivation of fundamental human rights.” 

Nachtwey’s work has tracked closely with US political and strategic interests. He has been a contract photographer for Time magazine–a publication that has long had a close and near propagandistic relationship with US political power–seems to have been lost to most people. Like many other photojournalists, the limits of Nachtwey’s humanist concerns seem to be determined by US imperial priorities. It has been with great embarrassment, if not with outright shame, that I have watched my photojournalism colleagues gleefully parrot the discourses of the US war machine, white-wash genocidal violence, and collude in the erasure of the millions killed in the service of US arrogance.

But Nachtwey is not unique; manufacturing the idea of the lone crusader, the sole Western Messianic figure out in the world to document its horrors as an appeal to our “better selves,” to act as the clarion call for intervention and salvation of the blighted other, is a role most journalists love to play. They are merely a variation of the many who yearn to become part of Teju Cole’s “white saviour industrial complex.” [Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex”, The Atlantic, March 21, 2012]. The image of the journalist as a “hero and myth-maker” is constructed by remaining silent about their clients, employment, assignments, concern for markets, political commitments, ideologies, and personal career interests. [Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004].

Christopher Breu referred to such disavowals as “avatar fetishism,” one of the “central ideologies of our time in the spaces of the global North that have shifted towards the information, financial, affective and service economies” [Christopher Breu, Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics, University of Minnesota Press, 2014:51]. Avatar fetishism allows us to disavow “the social labor of production but the everyday life in our ostensibly postindustrial era…in psychoanalytic terms, this process…is akin to the construction of an ideal self or an idea ego” [Christopher Breu, Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics, University of Minnesota Press, 2014:51]. We believe that the ideal ego is not influenced or defined by the limits and demands of its material relations to economic and political interests. 

This “reverence” of the individual makes it difficult to understand the work and seriously analyze it. Without seeing the broader context by placing the journalist’s work into the political economy of the moment, we end up misreading and misinterpreting the work itself. This insistent disavowal, this erasure of the institutional and political-economic conditions for the production of journalistic and photojournalistic works, is how liberal Western media and its “gatekeepers” create other myths; independence; commitment to free speech; ethical integrity; objectivity; dissent against power. The image of the journalist as “hero and myth-maker” is constructed by remaining silent about editorial, market, political, ideological, and career interests that powerfully influence what is considered “a story,” the perspective through which it is covered, edited, and published, and the arguments that are allowed to appear in it.

Remember that Leica advertisement and the hagiographic re-telling of the myth of Robert Capa? Robert Capa died while accompanying a colonial army in South East Asia, carrying out the orders of a colonial regime in France bent on maintaining its stranglehold over other people. Henry Luce, the editor for the publication that sent Robert Capa to walk alongside French colonial forces in Indochina, had close ties to the American and French political establishment and had pledged his support for the French colonial occupation of Indochina. He was no ordinary editor, and nor was Life a typical magazine.

The New York Times pointed out the “remarkable extent during the peak of his total involvement with his magazines–Time, Fortune, Life and Sports Illustrated–the judgments and opinions that printed reflected the focus of Mr. Luce’s views and these encompassed virtually every facet of human endeavor.” [Alden, Whitman, “Henry R. Luce, Creator of Time-Life Magazine Empire, Dies in Phoenix at 68,” New York Times, March 1, 1967].

And Luce insisted that the French war in Vietnam only get favorable coverage. Luce decided what was covered and how his publications covered it. He was a staunch believer in American exceptionalism, a defender of big business and “free enterprise,” an enemy of organized labor, and a believer in confronting Communism everywhere. 

Robert Capa died while producing pure propaganda photos in support of an European colonial army of conquest, torture and genocide.

Some of the most famous writers and photojournalists of our time worked for his publications. It is irresponsible to look at these works–whether journalistic or photographic–as if they have no relation to the editorial priorities and prejudices of the men who ran the publication. And their allegiance and affiliation to broader discourses and ideologies of colonialism, Western supremacy, southern backwardness, and so on. Photojournalists are exceptionally skilled at veiling their associations to corporate publishing interests, recasting their work as professionals commissioned by corporate media houses as “advocates,” “witnesses,” “observers,” “storytellers,” or “interpreters.” 

The journalists and photojournalist is always only spoken about as an individual, a “sovereign subject” standing outside her history and society, politics, ideology, professional affiliations and responsibilities, personal ambitions, and market concerns [Jennifer Good and Paul Lowe, Understanding Photojournalism, Routledge, 2017:6–10].

Entirely missing from their self-descriptions is the fact that photojournalists work for magazines and newspapers, they receive assignments and story ideas from editors, they look to have their project published and can often only do so by paying close attention to what is “in the news” or what crisis are “emerging” and hence are of interests to editors and publishers. Recent hagiographies written by photojournalists perpetuate this myth, casting themselves as crusaders for justice, carriers of the West’s moral conscience, giving “voice to the voiceless,” or some other such untenable banality [ For example, see works such as Lyndsay Addario, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, Penguin Books, 2016; Deborah Copaken Kogan, Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, Random House, 2002; Lauren Walsh, Conversations on Conflict Photography, Routledge, 2020].

Yet, none will acknowledge that they are often assigned, commissioned, directed, guided, and edited towards where to look, what to cover, what angles to seek on a story. The construction of the photojournalists as a “sovereign subject,” one driven purely based on personal emotional, ethical, and moral concerns, and who remains above banal and crass matters such as sales, markets, publishing opportunities, awards is a complete fantasy. A war photograph isn’t simply a picture of a “fact,” but a representation of a particular politics. This politics is almost always veiled and deflected when it comes to speaking about photojournalism.

Editors, curators, festival organizers, prize committees, book publishers, and even critics rarely reveal, acknowledge, or critically analyze a reporters’ institutional relationships and commitments. The industry re-casts individuals employed or contracted by corporate publications as individual artists and sole witnesses to suffering. By disavowing a journalists’ material complicities, we misunderstand the nature and objective of the work produced.

We end up imagining that the only relationship that matters is between the individual who creates the work (reporter, photographer) and the audience that receives it. But this is not how things work. Reporters and photojournalists do not create works independent and unconcerned by the demands, priorities, ideologies, and requirements of their employer or the preferences and ideologies of the publications where she is hoping to have her work published. 

By not placing these material relations at the center of our analysis of photojournalism or reportage work, we stand to misunderstand and misinterpret the work. Worse, we stand to garland it with our fantasies, mythologies, and ideologies. This is mirrored by the writing and representational practices of visual media critics, curators, academics, and intellectuals who unthinkingly reify the photograph and analyze it as if it stands outside its means and methods of production commissioning, dissemination, and narration. Even some of the most influential books about photography, photojournalism, and society barely mention the political economy surrounding a photographer’s work and photographs. 

Even writers and critics like Susan Sontag and Ariella Azoulay reify the photograph and speak only of the photographer who produced it and the individual who viewed it. They imagine the photograph as an object that stands for what it depicts and elide corporate profits, political agendas, consumer preferences, market surveys, and photographer’s career desires that may have played a more significant role in framing it. Many assume that a photographer/journalist stands outside their social, economic, career, and political worlds. They believe they are individual moral consciences, not a product of their society, social norms, personal desires, and political prejudices. 

It is common, for example, to find photojournalists working alongside NGOs and from within their compounds. Many later “sell” the work produced as journalism. Photojournalists have been particularly guilty of this laundering their collaborations with humanitarian and international development NGOs as reportage. It led Paul Melcher of the Black Star photo agency to lament, “More and more of the documentary photography we see these days comes from NGOs, rather than the editorial press…And because these organizations operate in the poor, war, and disease-stricken areas of Africa, that is what we see from NGOs.

As international photojournalism from the editorial press continues to dwindle, NGO photojournalism may soon be all we see of Africa” [ Paul Melcher, “Please, No More Pictures of Dying Africans,” Black Star Rising, October 21, 2009].

These “masterful material relations” matter.