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Monday, 12 May 2008

Tim 4 Ollie and Adam 0

copyright EPA

This is an image of victims of the cyclone in Burma, visual evidence of those who have died, those whose deaths the Burmese junta is trying to conceal. They point to the venality of a regime, that rather than save lives, wants to bury the evidence. Like everybody, I have seen lots of pictures of victims of disaster and war. but images like this one don't cease to move me. These figures are almost doll-like in their deathly poses. Their clothes have colour, there is hardly any trauma evident on the bodies, and a whisper of what they once were remains on their masked faces. At the same time, their positions are so removed of life, it seems as though they are hovering in a deathly limbo.

Which leads on to UNCONCERNED BUT NOT INDIFFERENT by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. This piece ran on the Foto8 site and also appeared in the BJP. It describes the South African double act's experience of being judges on this year's World Press Photo.

"Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.

The twelve strong Jury must endure a barrage of photographic clich├ęs over a period of seven days and nights, in order to locate one single image, the World Press Photo of the year. There are also prizes for photographs in a variety of categories, but it is this single image that gets the real attention. How do twelve people reach a consensus? And what criteria could possibly be used to nominate just one image?

First we were assembled into a windowless room in Amsterdam, squeezed between a digital projector and a coffee machine, and sworn to secrecy. We are six photographers specializing in war, nature, sports, editorial and art photography, plus five photo editors and a curator.

The World Press Photo awards have been running for over 5 decades and in that time a clear procedure has evolved. It is a highly disciplined, mathematical system designed by psychologists to elicit consensus from a group of diverse, opinionated individuals. The total number of images had already been reduced to17,000 the previous week by the first round jury. Most of the pornography and pictures of domestic cats had been removed. Our job was to reduce that number to one. Each of us clasped a voting button in the half darkness, and as the images flashed across the screen we voted anonymously to keep it in the competition or “to kill it”. As we progressed the long serving secretary and master of ceremonies, Stephen Mayes, announced in dry tones the results of each round of votes, a stream of IN’s and OUT’s, occasionally elaborating, “birds of paradise IN, snakes OUT, suicide bomb IN, dead children OUT, women with acid burns IN, Chairman Mao impersonator OUT, Guantanamo Bay detainee IN, sumo wrestles OUT…” The mechanism used for voting, nine buttons connected to a central computer display was originally developed for a Dutch TV game show."

Broomberg and Chanarin go on to critique photojournalistic representations of war - "Do we even need to be producing these images any more? Do we need to be looking at them? We have enough of an image archive within our heads to be able to conjure up a representation of any manner of pleasure or horror. Does the photographic image even have a role to play any more?"

I know what they mean, but I think we do need to produce images such as the Burma cyclone victims picture - Broomberg and Chanarin question the relevance of photojournalism and cite the US media's censorship of images of American dead as an example of its current irrelevance - I think this censorship (which goes hand in hand with UK censorship of images of Iraqi/Afghan dead) shows how necessary it is for images of the dead, on all sides to be shown. Not everyone has the archive of images Broomberg and Chanarin have in their heads - not everyone has their images as heavily censored as those in the UK or US.

I also sympathise with the judging procedure of the World Press Photo, but isn't that a bit of a bears-shitting-in-the-woods criticism of a contest where they knew they would have to look at 81,000 images in a short period of time. And imagine how boring it could have been if all the stories had been of the "aftermath" nature proposed by Chanarin and Bloomberg. A week of powerpoint presentations of warzone typologies, museum exhibits and arbitrary archives! Ooo-eer, no thank you missus!

The other thing they say is that representations of war in photography remain the same - you can see pictures that mirror Goya's etchings of the Horrors of War. Why haven't the images changed? Possibly because the essential realities of war haven't changed, just as people haven't changed, in the last few hundred years, or even the last few tens of thousands of years - just because we've got ipods doesn't make us any different - as Roger Ballen so helpfully points out in his long-term projects from South Africa.

Tim Hetherington provides a response to Broomberg and Chanarin in By Any Means Necessary.
Hetherington won this year's World Press Photo of the Year, but really should be best known for his work in Liberia - long-term work made in difficult and dangerous circumstances, work that fully realises Hetherington's commitment and understanding of the complexity of representing poverty and war as an outsider.

"Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin," writes Hetherington, "begin their critique of contemporary photojournalism by referring to a quote by Bertolt Brecht in which he claims, without providing any basis, that photojournalism contributes almost nothing to our understanding of the world. In fact, he goes further, claiming that photographs are actually a 'weapon against truth'. Let us ignore, for a moment, the fact that photographs have been used as evidence in every war crimes trial since Nuremberg. Let us ignore the fact that photography has infiltrated almost every aspect of popular culture and private life – what Brecht dismisses as the 'bourgouisie'. If photographs do not reflect something of an objective truth, then nothing does, and we are left with an endlessly subjective, nihilistic understanding of the world."

"I’m not interested in playing the ‘concerned’ moral crusader by ramming violent images in people’s faces," he concludes, "but that doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t have access to them. Images don’t need ‘intelligent’ aesthetics to convey their message - again, think of the Falling Man – but they can benefit from them. Like advertising, visual journalism employs many strategies to communicate. In Yemen, I recently saw fly-posters of what appear to be dead Palestinian children. It’s the sort of thing that would be distasteful on streets of the UK and yet they are manifestly accepted in Yemen. These images highlight the plight of Palestine and inculcate anti-western sentiments. Similarly, images of starving Ethiopians were instrumental in focusing world attention, gathering funds and mobilising the international relief effort there in the 1980s. The fact is, images of pain and suffering make people uncomfortable and sometimes inspire them to action. We try to ignore them and we fail. And then we secretly look at them on the internet."

You can see both Tim's and Adam and Ollie's work at...

Tim Hetherington - www.mentalpicture.org

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin - www.choppedliver.info

And how come the Mao impersonator didn't win anything! No wonder Broomberg and Chanarin are pissed off.


Stan B. said...

There's no doubt that the profusion of photographs (of all sorts in every genre) have dulled the impact of images that were once considered shocking. That said, it is also quite evident how much administrations worldwide still fear the power of those images to inform, incite and galvanize- hence the wartime censorship.

When people finally get sick and fed up of seeing those images, they may just get around to doing what's necessary to stop the actual events that cause them. Even if that only means withdrawing their most passive support. Lord knows it did just that during Viet Nam when images of impromptu assassinations, burned children and slaughtered peasants in ravines did more to motivate an already image weary citizenry than a thousand demonstrations combined...

colin pantall said...

Absolutely, Stan, and I have sympathy for Broomberg and Chanarin and the repeated viewings of photographic cliches they must have endured. Photographers shoot the same things in the same way (be it photojournalism or art or documentary or whatever) - it doesn't take much to show what is supposed to be a cliche in a new way. Paul Graham's book features every cliche of American suburbia but it is put together so elegantly, it amounts to something new.

Ultimately, though, not everyone can do this and why should they be expected to. In which case, as you say, far better the printing of the cliched, repeated image than no printing at all.