Monday, 15 September 2014

Who is Innocent and Who is Guilty?



The censorship row over Yunghi Kim's pictures of Hutu refugees had me spluttering my cornflakes over the breakfast table this morning.

In 1994, Kim was in Goma photographing the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were stuck on the volcanic wastelands around the Congoese town with little food, water or shelter. Cholera was rife and they were dying in their thousands.

Amidst all these refugees were those who had been responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda two years earlier. In fact they were refugees as well; not all refugees are nice.

But still, they were people, as were the babies, the women, the children and the men who had played no part in the massacres. Kim didn't consider the crimes of the assassins, she looked at the human suffering those hundreds of thousands of suffering people were going through. She didn't think of who had done the killing, who done the encouraging, who had made the propaganda, or who had played a passive role in the massacres (which would have meant just about everybody over the age of ?). She simply photographed the suffering.

And this month her pictures appeared at Visa Pour L'Image at Perpignan, Kim was accused of 'revisionism' and the pictures were taken down.

This is part of what she said on the Contact Images Facebook page.

With respect to my Rwanda work, I have always been consistent and clear, in my floor talk at my exhibition and in the intro panel and wall captions, I indicated that I was not present for the barbaric and murderous rampage of the genocide that took place. I was responding to cover the humanitarian crisis -- the mass movements of people -- as they fled Rwanda for Goma. As photojournalist, I responded instinctually documenting life on the run, people frightened, burdened with possessions thirsty, hungry and fatigued. Later, along the roads and in the camps when disease took hold, it did so indiscriminately.

Some people thought it was terrible, some thought it justified. Jan Banning ( who knows a thing or two about revisionism and denial of history) thought it was justified. This is what he said on his website.

Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more naïve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s.
In her captions, she also talks muscularly about ‘the deadliest crisis in modern history’; we are left in the dark about when ‘modern history’ begins but surely, the refugee crisis at the end (and in the aftermath) of WW2 in Central and Eastern Europe was deadlier. And now that I come to talk about WW2: it would shed light on Kim’s captions, if we consider an exhibition of photos of Germans having fled East Prussia or Sudetenland in 1944-46 with captions that would not mention their fate being related to the Second World War and, certainly in the case of the Sudeten Germans, without touching upon their massive support for the nazis just a few years earlier?
I don't know. I think I'm a bit with Kim and bit with Banning on this one, but ultimately the question is who is guilty and who is innocent? And historically where does innocence end and guilt begin? Even in times as seemingly clear cut as Nazi Germany or genocidal Rwanda, shouldn't compassion and a non-comparative morality be used, however difficult that may be. If we don't do that then we end up in a place where all that exists is vengeance and hatred, where everything is black and white and there is simply right and wrong and no in-between. And considering that pretty much everybody is collectively guilty of something, that is an ugly place to be in. 
So, perhaps Kim was naive or clumsy in her wording, but does that mean that the hundreds of thousands of innocent people (including a great many who were not directly involved in the killing) who were stuck on those Goma rocks didn't deserve some compassion and caring? Or is to show that just to show emotion and somehow be incompatible with informing the audience as Banning suggests (strangely, I've always felt that what made Banning's comfort women so powerful is the anger,grief and sorrow they convey as well as the dignity). Where does innocence end and guilt begin?
More on continuing campaigns for justice by Indonesian Comfort Women here.
...and this from Jan Banning on continued Japanese denial of war crimes.



7 comments:

john W MacPherson said...

I was spluttering too, but into my pre-vote porridge.

I'm sort-of in the same camp as you re a conclusion about this. But the issue that I have been mulling over is the ethical question: if it is not ok to fundamentally alter images, then is it acceptable to fundamentally re-edit the captions attached to images at the time they were taken? (I'm not talking about simple error correction, names, etc, but altering the actual tenor of the caption, changing the understanding/interpretation of what is being portrayed as described at the point of first editing/distribution).

I watched the Rwandan situation unfold in the news, and tried to disentangle the propaganda from the facts and it took a few years and reading Gourevitch and Kapucinski amongst others to get a real sense of the sheer horror and political machinations that had occurred, who did what, when and how, and crucially who was complicit either by commission or omission, and the price that the Rwandan people, particularly Tutsis paid for that. If Kim was in the midst of the aftermath of such a major crisis, before the advent of social media and constant information streams, I'm not sure how she was expected to have such an expansive view of the politics of the situation on the ground. She saw what she saw.

The luxury of hindsight may mean that Kim's captions today seem naïve and lacking in political awareness. But to my mind there is something valuable in having those captions, written in the moment, that *may* reveals the narrow perspective of those who were actually on the ground there. (assuming they were not propagandists but responding honestly to the situation they saw unfold, however naïve that might now seem).

Now that may or may not be the case here, but (for me) to be more certain would require me to read all the captions, figure out the dates her images were taken and captioned and reference those images/captions to news reports of the time and the accepted understanding of what was happening, and then make some judgment about what the photographer might or might not have known.

So I guess my main issue with Banning's piece is his comment:

"Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more naïve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s."

Which seems to imply that with the luxury of time and the astonishing clarity of hindsight, the captions should be amended to reflect Kim's/our greater understanding of the conflict, and the culpability of some of the participants. It may be the case that those captions in NYT LENS Blog are in fact 'new' captions that DO reflect Kim's limited and totally naïve understanding of the situation. But if they are not, and are 'the words of the moment' - the original captions, then perhaps it is more honest to leave them intact. I honestly don't know the answer to that conundrum.

I'm not sure who is right here, but it has made me think a lot today about the integrity of the image, as a window to history, as encompassing the caption as an integral and important part of that perspective.

I think if nothing else this an important debate to have as it is hugely important (ref metadata and captions and our legacy for the future).

john W MacPherson said...

Wanted to post this with the previous comment but the html limit prevented me:


As an aside and slightly related re the issue of 'perspective' and what it may tell us about events, I recently traced the provenance of an image I have in my possession, of a public lynching in Samoa, which may (or may not) have been taken by a relative of mine around 1870. There is a caption on the back of the image, but what is interesting is the differing perspectives offered of the event by the different countries newspapers of the day, the Australian paper describing the lynching as a "brutal outrage" whilst the Samoa Times describes the events leading up to and including the lynching thus: “Everything from the commencement of the meeting till the burial was conducted with the utmost order.”

Link: http://www.duckrabbit.info/2014/06/metadata-time-and-the-story-of-our-pasts/

colin pantall said...

Thanks John - really interesting comments, especially about changing your captions after the fact - which can sometimes be done to suit the changing politics.

I think with regards to Rwanda, Kim should have been very aware of the broad brushstrokes and horror of what happened - the question for me, is should she still have that compassionate photographer approach despite that? I don't know. I'd like to think it's a good thing.

I think it's interesting that Banning is posting his critique because he is so involved with serial denial of horrific war crimes (actually isn't a lot of photography involved in that). I think that makes it all very difficult - but interesting.

Perhaps these things simply can't be untangled?

john W MacPherson said...

I think you're right about the difficulty of untangling all of this.

I take your point about the need to be "aware of the broad brushstrokes and horror of what happened". And it may be that she was aware, broadly, I can't imagine Kim would be there without at least some understanding, but thats not the same as being fully appraised of the absolute facts that were subsequently established. A photographer was there during that exodus, that was Kim, she saw what she saw, did what she did, and wrote the captions.

But from my reading of the situation (afterwards) trying to sort out the perpetrators from the innocent amongst those fleeing Rwanda would have been nigh on impossible. Certainly at a political level it was possible to say 'amongst these refugees are also perpetrators of genocide' but as Kim points out there was great reluctance to even use the G word publicly, and in fact it was deliberately played down.

That the images exist is the critical aspect. Analysis in many respects occurs later with the scrutiny of political, social and legal experts, as it should; as it's only then that we can see the broad canvas of events but with a forensic understanding. But it should prompt not only scrutiny of events, but scrutiny of our understanding and portrayal of such events too.

Personally, I think that rather than the knee-jerk reaction by Visa this issue could have been a brilliant starting point for the kind of discussion there SHOULD be on that platform. It should be centre-stage and hotly debated, and not squirreled away on here being conducted between two spluttery breakfasters! FFS if Visa cant countenance such an important and timely discussion what the hell are they about?

Jan Banning said...

@Colin Pantall:
“Jan Banning …who knows a thing or two about revisionism and denial of history”: not sure what you mean, but you are right: I studied history and am well aware of other attempts to manipulate the interpretion of historical events.

As for “ultimately the question is who is guilty and who is innocent? And historically where does innocence end and guilt begin?” and “does that mean that the hundreds of thousands of innocent people (including a great many who were not directly involved in the killing) who were stuck on those Goma rocks didn't deserve some compassion and caring?”: that is absolutely not the question in this discussion. It is not about whether these people deserved help or not. The discussion is about the responsibility of a reporter or journalist.

@ john W MacPherson:
“if it is not ok to fundamentally alter images, then is it acceptable to fundamentally re-edit the captions attached to images at the time they were taken?” Unless an exhibition is about the public perception at the time the photos were taken, why not? This is very different from manipulating images.

And even if it were about the public perception at the time: you mention the ‘luxury of hindsight.’ Now I also remember watching the Rwandan situation unfold in 1994 and I do not share your experience that “it took a few years and reading Gourevitch and Kapucinski amongst others to get a real sense of the sheer horror and political machinations that had occurred.” There were intense discussions (a.o. in the NGO world) at the time, and for those who wanted to be informed (and I was surely not a specialist), many details may have been murky but the overall picture was quite clear in 1994: there had been a genocide and many of the perpetrators – plus an unclear number of others – fled the consequences.

I agree with Colin in that “I think with regards to Rwanda, Kim should have been very aware of the broad brushstrokes and horror of what happened”, but I am convinced Kim was. But I don’t think that is enough: as someone who takes on the responsibility of informing the world, you also need to understand the context, the background. A true journalist should be well informed of the situation from which the refugee crisis evolved; if not, she can be easily manipulated by parties with specific interests to photograph one thing and in one place and not (in) another. Simply being on the spot and making emotionally charged photographs without understanding the situation is not enough for a photo journalist.
And once the photos are made, a (photo) journalist IMHO has the obligation to give adequate information (after all, that is what the media are for) and relevant context in the captions.

So, finally: this discussion is not about “the integrity of the image” (that is an another – not altogether uninteresting – matter): it is about the captions (and the introductory text) – about the context in words, which lends direction to our perception of the photos.

colin pantall said...

Hi Jan When I say you know about denial, that's connected to Japan and your comfort women work where there is an attempt at revision and denial - not by you might I add.

I think context is vital and is notable by its absence, but at the same time I also understand where Kim is coming from.

But connected to that is culpability and how something fits into a wider historical acknowledgement. If you're charitable, then you can give Kim a bit of leeway because the facts and the culpability of Rwanda were very broadly known.

You mentioned the Nazis and the Second World War - it's a curse of a war because the enemy is just so evil. But does that mean we shouldn't examine other war crimes that took place. A few years back, my daughter recently did a school project on what their family did in the war. One great grandparent had been a navigator on bombing raids that flew over Dresden. He knew what he had done and he lived with it to his dying day.

There's a really great looking photobook on Japan and the people who suffered from the American bombing raids in WWII -

http://reminders-project.org/rps/silenthistoriessaleen/

But here there are different questions going on - and they broadly connect to your work. The book looks fantastic (and I'll post on it when I get it), but, but, there are a lot of buts in there.

john W MacPherson said...

Thanks for commenting Jan.

Yes, I watched what was unfolding as you did. But my full understanding of the roles of the participants, as I remarked "by commission or omission" came later. Yes I was horrified by events at the time, but the complicity of politicians and others took time to be revealed (certainly to me).

I guess my concern - in the broadest sense - is with the integrity of the history of the captions. Not the actual content of the captions themselves (which is NOT to dismiss their importance). What I mean is that when they were written, no-one questioned them (otherwise I presume they would have been changed long before now), and the images ran in various publications with those descriptions, and if Kim was telling the truth of her understanding of the situation (why would she not, however naive that may appear now) then all I am saying is that these captions may have some historical value.

But the passage of time offers us the opportunity to look again at both the images, and the captions, and in a new light. To my mind (in some cases, perhaps many cases, but not all) to actually rewrite the captions is to lose that historical perspective that shows what prevailing opinion might have been at the moment those images were made - the 'accepted wisdom' of the day. That is hugely important in a historical sense.

We would not think to erase the captions from the rear of an old faded printed b&w image to better 'intepret' the events of 100 years ago, that's unacceptable, and in a sense the same applies (to my mind) to modern imagery. By all means amend inaccuracies and errors, but actual revisionist interpretations of the caption content that may only have been possible by the passage of time and the clarity of hindsight seems to me somehow unethical.

Better I feel to leave the old captions, but add to them as an annotation the new interpretation or understanding, which might not be the last interpretation of some events, as more information is released and new perspectives are offered in years to come.

And also vexing me is why Visa did not use this an opportunity to discuss the issue of captions, revisionist views of history through images, and the importance of metadata - Visa is one of THE platforms that such debates should be had and I'm astonished that an opportunity to do so was allowed to slip away.

I wrote a piece some months ago which might give some insight to where I'm coming from on this issue (ref historical understanding, metadata stripping from images by online services etc):

http://www.duckrabbit.info/2013/04/henry-carter-the-divisive-moment/

But I end that article with a quote from Blake Andrews, from a piece he has written where he notes in his final paragraph, condemning the short-sighted actions of many social media sites:
“The only thing that matters is here and now, and screw any historical understanding. The unwritten corollary is that as things age they become less important. In the Twitterverse anything older than 3h is considered irrelevant.”
I'm not arguing for anything here but the integrity of historical understanding through photographs, and the significant role that accurate image captions can play in that.

Thanks for continuing the discussion, I appreciate your time in doing so, I think it's a valuable debate, and a shame it's not one that is more widely considered.

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