By Zarina Holmes & Salina Christmas
On 23 November 2010, Amnesty International invited a panel of critics and photographers – Jessica Crombie, Colin Jacobson, Marcus Bleasdale, Susan Schulman, Finbarr O’Reilly and Sean O’Hagan – to discuss the topic “Does the camera ever lie?”.
From left: Colin Jacobson, Marcus Bleasdale, Susan Schulman, Finbarr O'Reilly and Sean O'Hagan
It might have seemed like a title discussed during a first-year photojournalism module at university. It felt so in the beginning, but in the end, the audience left with the understanding that merely looking at images without understanding the context underlying them is not enough.
What we learned from the event is that the camera tells multiple truths. It takes a skilled visual journalist to explain a complex story in a few frames.
This ran counter to the recent suggestions that photojournalism is dying. True, the shift in platforms and the emergence of disruptive technology threw the old business model into disarray. But it is not the end of the craft. Neither has photography lost its persuasive power.
Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale cited an example where a show he organised in Switzerland on the dire gold mining condition in northeastern Congo caused the corporations to withdraw their supports. The pit of the mine was excavated over nine months by hand.
Photography is still a credible agent of change.
News photographs are difficult to “see”
On the photojournalism website Artforum, photography critic Susie Lindfield noted: “Looking at photojournalism images is especially difficult today because we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence.
“Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent.”
It was Robert Capa’s ‘staged’ “The Falling Soldier” that kicked off the debate chaired by The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan.
A great set up. Photo © Robert Capa/Magnum Photos. 1936.
Below are soundbites from the event:
The panel’s views:
The panelists: Jessica Crombie (WaterAid), Colin Jacobson (Editor, Reportage; Senior Lecturer, University of Westminster), Marcus Bleasdale (Photographer, VII), Susan Schulman (Photographer, Video journalist), Finbarr O’Reilly (Photographer, Reuters), Sean O’Hagan (The Guardian).
On a photographer’s role
Finbarr O’Reilly: Photographers go to places like Afghanistan and get embedded to keep flow of information coming, and to document major political developments of our time. There are restrictions mostly around identifying wounded or troops killed in combats. We agree not to identify soldiers until families are notified.
Susan Schulman: A photographer composed a frame deliberately. It’s the spirit that he/she needs to capture.
Marcus Bleasdale: I will never set anything up. Ever.
The photographer’s presence influences the story
Finbarr O’Reilly: The photographs are supposed to project a professional image for the military. For example [he shows slide of US Army waking up from sleep in the desert], the troop is not supposed to be featured wearing white socks in photographs. You tailor your story to what you need. However you try not to get the guys into trouble.
Jessica Crombie: NGOs have little time to tell their stories, so they need to simplify to get people to engage by using various modes of communications.
Colin Jacobson: Journalists have to simplify as well and rely on text caption to tell a story. This means each stage is removed from the original context. For example, Robert Capa; the photo [of the Spanish soldier] turns him into a famous photographer because it is iconic. However, icons do get conflated.
Marcus Bleasdale: The photographer’s presence in the village is already affecting the usual environment. We try to create a collection of images that create a reality.
Susan Schulman: Humanitarian images can be static and not reflecting a complex situation [Schulmann shows slides of the changing situations in eastern Congo and events she documented over an extensive period]. To avoid misrepresentation, only put forward what you want to be seen.
Sean O’Hagan: Reportage is not valued anymore.
“Photo illustration” is not necessarily a lie
Colin Jacobson: Setting up and arranging the photograph is commonplace. A reflected reality is also set up, such as reflective photography. We can’t condemn that to the dustbin of history. It feels genuine and helps illustrate the story. For example, Eugene Smith‘s arranged composition of Japanese lady and her daughter who was the victim of mercury poisoning [Smith’s informant insisted on being photographed in the bath holding her daughter, because, she said, that was one of her ways of interacting with the girl].
Set up but effective. Photo © W Eugene Smith. 1972.
Image-makers should avoid lying; bad habits get interwoven into photography. For example, Dorothea Lange‘s “Migrant Mother” photo was used as a US Farm Security Administration (FSA) propaganda.
It is about whose vision you trust in the end. A set-up image is “photo illustration”. It can represent reality and authentic, but in a stylistic way.
Finbarr O’Reilly: I will set up something that looks visually pleasing.
Cropped to tell a story, on behalf of the FSA. Photo © Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, US. 1936.
On the World Press Photo and that “stoning sentence” image in Somalia
Colin Jacobson: World Press Photo [Warning: graphic images of stoning] abdicated responsibility by featuring photo of a stoning without context or background information. Was that a press call? How did the photographer get there? How do we relate to it if we can’t understand the event? I feel it’s wrong.
Most images are accompanied by the best of information. Upon seeing an image, we should ask, what does it mean? How does it have meaning for me?
Sean O’Hagan: It’s morally disturbing to photograph someone who is about to die.
Captioning your photos are crucial
Finbarr O’Reilly: Wire news like Reuters use pictures obtained legally off the internet. Captions tend to be respected by editorial. They tend to use wire pictures with captions.
Marcus Bleasdale: Insist that the caption is used word per word. I hand over 60 rolls of film, now this is what I want to say. Any change of wording, refer to the photographer. The editor must come to him first [for information].
Apply human values in storytelling
Marcus Bleasdale: I don’t see the value in showing horrific pictures in Congo. I am showing death. I don’t need to show a bullet in the middle of the head to do that [Bleasdale shows a picture he took of an eight-month old African baby who died of malaria being washed by her mother before the burial. It conveys love and tenderness, and is intended to get the viewer to empathise with the subject].
Finbarr O’Reilly: Photographers use their points of view to move people.
Multimedia provides a new narrative structure
Marcus Bleasdale: A new platform for photography will give us new context. Whilst we worry about context, we worry about images taken out of context. With multimedia, it is hard to take them out of context.