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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Do Mind That

picture by Colin Pantall - Remembering the 77 terror attack with Frank 'Whatever he Might Have Done' Gardner victim of terror attack, and they're coming coming to get you terror, terror, terrorist attack terror, Pakistan, Saudi, Afghanistan, burqa, everybody talk about pop terror, MI5 will save us all

The opposite of Never Mind That is Do Mind That! This is where the photographer, often in collaboration with charities and fund-raising NGOs, does show us the misery, horror and misfortune in great detail, again and again and again.

The important thing here is to get the message across that things are really, really miserable and awful. More often than not the pictures become indistinguishable from each other and we are left with generic misery that could happen almost anyplace that it could happen.

One place you get a lot of misery is Africa. I know this because I've seen a lot of pictures from Africa and the situation is really bad, the entire continent a blacked out Heart of Darkness where plague, famine, disease and warfare are endemic and death stalks the earth.

Often the Do Mind That pictures will be linked in a before/after kind of sequence showing exactly what can be done if you provide money to build schools, buy mosquito nets or provide running water for the hell-on-earth that is Ethiopia/Somalia/Sudan/Biafra/Sierra Leone or wherever the current war/famine/massacre happens to be taking place.

There are photographers like Tim Hetherington, Guy Tillims, Roger Ballen, Marcus Bleasdale, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin who assure us that this is not entirely the case and that the situation is more complex than depicted, but I'm not too sure they're right if only because their work is simply overwhelmed and beaten back by the portrayal of the continent as the Nine Circles of Dante's Inferno.

And if the word terror is ever invoked, best mind that as well, because you can be sure the end of the world is becoming nigher by the second.


Stan B. said...

Screwed if ya do, screwed if ya don't. Of course, I'll always side with the do mind that crowd- no matter how similar the results. Hell, tell me large format, color suburban photos haven't been getting a bit long in the tooth- since the eighties.

The thing we need more of is context- particularly with the African suffering cliches! Recently heard, believe it was on NPR, a piece on those notorious bad guy Somali pirates- the ones taking over ships of all kinds who happen to pass along and hold them for ransom. One very bad lot! Turns out these guys were all fishermen previously. Being that they're living in a powerless, failed state, countries have been taking advantage by dumping toxic (incl radioactive) waste off their shores, while yet other foreigners have dredged their remaining fish clean with their industrial sized nets. So what do fisherman do in a country robbed of its one remaining resource, a country awash in foreign arms?

Photography's great at depicting symptoms, not so good at explaining causes and aftermath. And you have the usual names of those who try and go beyond the immediate moment: Salgado, Norfolk, Meiselas, Fazal Sheikh. From the presentation standpoint, you have people like Benjamin Chesterton at Duckrabbit putting together audio slide shows, and trying to get those native to the immediate area the equipment to document themselves. Then there are those that just sit and whine about how it's all so tired and played like a 70's eight track and yet offer no suggestions or alternatives, let alone solutions.

They're the most played of the whole lot.

Anonymous said...

Not too sure what you mean by that second to last paragraph. You seem to be complaining about one-dimensional depictions of suffering, yet you say that those who are attempting to show the more complex realities aren't "right."

Or maybe you're being sarcastic and I'm completely misreading you?

Anonymous said...

Hi Stan and Anonymous - I think Hetherington et al are right, that there are subtleties that we should look at - but the trouble is we are weighed down with images that overwhelm us with their moving simplicity.

I mention in the posting the continent of Africa being blacked out - this was a visual device used in a UK fund-raising TV event called Comic Relief. The stories they had were moving and heartbreaking but the implication that diseases such as malaria were only apparent in Africa (hence the blacked out continent) was inaccurate if not dishonest to say the least.

But 15 million people probably saw that programme, whilst Hetherington et al get a much, much smaller audience. They can't compete in other words.