João Pina and an idea of respect…

I came into this video when it was already 30 minutes in. I recognized the photographer but didn’t know about the series and for a couple of minutes I thought he was joking and this was some kind of absurd take on ethical photojournalism. After five minutes I realized it was for real. I went back to listen to the entire monologue and found myself a little bit sick. It’s not like what he does is awful, ugly, grotesque or inhuman, but regarding ethics and respect, there are certainly things to be discussed. The biggest problem lies in his discourse… really problematic. And to be honest, this happens most of the time: how could artworks survive 1 hour monologues with zero contradictory? Another thing that happens most of the time is that after hearing an author talk about his/her work a thought comes into my mind: why don’t they just keep quiet and let the images “do their thing”? Why do people try to explain art???

There are no english subtitles for the monologue so I’ll make this short and focus on a brief episode and the questions it arises. Leading up to that moment, Pina had made clear that he doesn’t believe his work can attest for some sort of major truth, but he does look for some rawness in the process of capturing images. He also points to the fact that he likes to consider the boundaries of photography and its ethical framing. Let me just add, before advancing into the situation per se, that he also made clear that in dramatic situations he often drops his camera and decides not to photograph or, instead, he shifts the lens to his colleagues and to the way they go about their jobs. I’ll insist, in his defense, that he uses the word “disgusting” to qualify the attitude some of his colleagues have when confronted with tragic situations. So what constitutes a tragedy? What would make one not photograph? In this monologue, at about minute 34, he clearly states that one needs to have boundaries and that it’s easy to disrespect people with the excuse that a certain image is going to tell the truth. I find this to be a very important thought!

Pina is a photojournalist and although some of his work is closer to a documentary approach, he often works on assignment. On this particular photograph (below), in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Pina was accompanying the transformations Brazil was witnessing in order to host the 2016 Olympic Games. His approach was to focus on the lack of basic living conditions and lack of security for the Rio people. On the occasion of observing this woman (a 7th months pregnant woman who had been executed), he tells us how he did something he frequently does: he went for the most frontal approach to the scenario. At about minute 38, Pina accounts that he had little time to do the picture (the firemen were about to take the body), so he did three frames, “frontal and grotesque”, in his words. He also states (and I’m sorry to keep referring to his words, but I want to be as objective as possible) that being a photojournalist and witnessing violent events, he can’t but photograph. The next step is taken in the editing room, where he thinks about what is and is not publishable.

© João Pina, from the project Gangland, 2016.

He then goes on to speak about how rarely this image was published and how he kept sending the photograph, in the context of the project Gangland, and it kept being rejected because of being “too brutal”. I confess it makes me sick (again) to listen to the way he describes the conversation with a certain editor of a portuguese magazine regarding the publication of this image: apparently he challenged the editor of the magazine to publish the photograph – “You don’t have the courage” – to which the editor replied – “Why wouldn’t I?” That moment, when the author and the editor are playing their teenager roles, is when the life of that woman is mostly disrespected. Her human dimension just disappears, and she becomes just another center spot in a black and white photograph. Finally, his argument for deciding to publish this image is that the “woman deserves”, that image deserves to be published in order to illustrate the absurd of that situation… the monologue itself ends with this frame and Pina telling it might be the most important photograph he ever shot. He never once mentions the woman’s name. Does he even know it?

As I think he, as so many other authors, end up using the victims in their photographs, I am aware I’m also using Pina here, as an example. My problem is not particularly with his discourse or his work, but with the photojournalistic method. Is it really contributing to a more enlightened society? Are these images of atrocity really telling a story that we need to see illustrated in such a way? What is the ethical frame for this sort of personal work? Photojournalists travel the world in order to help tell the truth, capture images with informative content. Those images have a context. I see no problem in them revising that work and edit it into bigger projects, books, exhibitions, but should an image like this, of this dead woman, be treated the same? Does the respect for the victim survive the repetition? Is this individual not transformed into a mere sign once she appears framed into a wall, framed into a slideshow, framed inside magazine pages?

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