caption: © Brent Stirton, A young Aids affected child in the home of his HIV+ drug addicted mother in their poverty stricken village on the first day of school, Donetsk, Ukraine, 1 September 2011.

I know, I know… what can I possibly have to say about this that I haven’t before? Not much. Ethics in photojournalism has been such a recurrent theme at Nihil that I hesitated before sharing this reflection. At the end of the day, I felt some “new” considerations could be taken because of Brent Stirton‘s series about AIDS in Ukraine and that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

The amazement started when I came across the photograph bellow. I had a hard time believing what my eyes were seeing. Who is this person and why is she featured in a photograph “like this”? First and foremost, there is a personal connection here, for this sort of septicemia-like wounds have been recurrent in my nightmares for years, though I don’t remember ever seeing them (in presence or in a photograph), prior to this. On the other hand, I don’t believe the shivering effect this image has one me is particularly connected to that. I imagine most observers are equally shocked and/or repulsed. So what is different in Stirton’s photographs about Aids in Ukraine?

© Brent Stirton, POLTAVA, UKRAINE – AUGUST 12 2005: Tanya, 29, is a sex-worker and drug user who is HIV+. She has an eleven year old son and lives with 5 other sex workers in a small apartment in a poor neighbourhood. She used to weigh 100 kilograms but has wasted away to nothing. She has severe septicemia on her legs and a rampant addiction. Tanya tells that sometimes in the past wealthy men would seek her out for sex as part of a bizarre “Russian roulette with Aids” scenario, where they would have unprotected sex and dice with the odds of contracting HIV.

My guess is the captions are the difference. They “read” like information and that “sounds” like journalism. What Stirton’s images make evident to me is that the ethical part of shock photojournalism exists only in a virtual world, outside the picture frame. So why the photographs? Why try to picture atrocity if photography is more successful at alienating than approximating viewers from the subjects framed?

In The Execution Portrait, Ariella Azoulay indicates three characteristics “of the conventional atrocity photo”:

The first relates to that which is seen in the photograph: an intentional crossing of a certain threshold of the intact body which has been trespassed by various degrees of harm, possibly even becoming a dead body. The second is related to the matter in which the atrocity image is made public, accompanied by a mediating text emphasizing that the event portrayed is extraordinary, and the material scandalous, a journalistic scoop or a sign of moral degradation. The third characteristic is related to the generation of horror described in the photograph; it lacks the typical features of the “inevitable price,” shows superfluity, and cries out that this is something that could have – even should have – been prevented following international law, society’s moral norms or the nature of the regime. Hence, an atrocity image is commonly identified as “leaking” to the public sphere through agents who thus wish to warn of deviation from routine “operational” activity, and not as a photograph that expresses the essence of this same “operational” activity. 

Everything inside Stirton’s frames is problematic. Conventional portraits with neat colorful backgrounds are presented side-by-side with portraits of people in their death beds, next to portraits of women performing sex work, people injecting drugs, etc. It’s a strategy that makes everything seem surreal and unbearable. It’s pure sensationalism; disgusting! Being so, it’s no surprise that his photographs are frequently awarded in competitions such as world press photo and others alike. 

Here and there, as I was reading an interview with Stirton, I sensed he was aware of his wrongdoings. For instances, when asked about how he dealt with the danger if his profession, his answer indicated that being a frontline photojournalist is very much about ego. The interviewer (George Miscamble) then asks him if that realization had come “with age and experience”, to which Stirton gives the following answer:

The proving grounds that you have when you are younger change when you acquire some character as a journalist. You realize, “All right, I’d like to be in Syria making heroic images,” but you look at how many people die from natural causes every year, and then you work out how many die from disease, if you just look at something like malaria, there are five million kids, just kids, dying every year. In conflict zones, those numbers are far smaller. So when you really look at what the issues truly are in the world, you have to be careful not to run towards sensation. And I would never want to detract from the courage of the journalists covering classic conflict, but there are many conflicts in the world, and many of them are completely undercovered. I feel like we should pay more attention to this stuff. The proving grounds for journalists are quite traditional, and we need to move past that, because there is so much stuff that maybe is really more important and it’s just not spoken about. The causes and effects of conflicts are often completely unexamined. And more and more, in a world of diminishing resources, where you will be competitive over water, oil, sustainable land, the ability to grow food, all the classics are going to get tighter and tighter and tighter.

Stirton’s discourse replicates that of any conflict photojournalist, where priorities sound well established: the most important thing is to be a witness to the world’s tragedies; the second most important thing is to photograph them; the third most important thing is to show them. It might sound simple, but this is the triangle. On the other hand, I tend to see this sort of work precisely as a question of ego. Another common feature in a photojournalist’s discourse in to subtly brag about his/her bravery, mentioning the difficult conditions of the work, the dead threats received, the vests wore to protect themselves from bullets, etc. 

In order to articulate some arguments, in relation to these particular series of photographs, I feel illustration is needed (though I question my own choice). Otherwise, I’d like to make clear that the reproduction of these images does not serve the purpose of informing the public about life in Ukraine. 

  1. 1 Let’s start with the two photographs depicting scenes of sex performed by sex workers. The one on the left, where the woman, Maria, lies beneath the man, is the only blurry photograph in the series. Maybe a reference to Antoine d’Agata’s work? Again, the problem with the photographer choosing to stay on top, assuming the role of the client. The one one the right repeats the same point of view; it exposes the woman’s identity but protects the men’s. She’s already a victim, is that it? What the hell goes through a photographer’s mind when he/she chooses to make such a statement? Is he unaware? And how can he not see that using the expression “these girls” only confirms that he is using this woman, not even naming her, robbing her of dignity (possibly paying her as well)?
  1. 2 Mothers and sons, gratuitous nudity and exploitation of intimate relations and fragility. I’m almost lost for words regarding these photographs, in the sense that I can’t justify their existence. Regarding the photograph on the left, besides the fact that it gratuitously exposes this man’s condition (nothing revealing comes out of another photograph of another junkie sticking another needle into his/her body), it suggests we make a moral judgement on the mother by making her represent that exact feeling towards her son: she sits passively and looks at him reprovingly. Are we supposed to do the same? About the photograph on the right, I think its purpose might again be to induce the viewer into mimicking the subjects actions, meaning: feeling for him the same sort of empathy he shows towards his mother. Is that it? Does she need to be naked in order to represent this? Who gave consent? Did she knew the image of her naked body would be seen by millions of people?
  1. 3 Repetition done to exhaustion, eliminating singularities. Any of these photographs, on its own, would be bad enough, but the three put together manage to highlight something else: the photographer’s inability to edit. As I see it, these photographs aim at representing God’s love for all, thus the insistence the view from above, the anonymous compassionate hands, the suffering look and the “relevance” of the tattoos.


It’s not my goal to make critics just for the sake of it. Sometimes I write in order to articulate arguments and consolidate my thoughts, sometimes as a way to work through darker feelings, as is the case here. I wish I hadn’t seen this work, but once it happens this is my place of haven. As I looked at Stirton’s photographs, I kept feeling sicker and sicker, but nothing accentuated me feeling alienated and dislocated like reading an article on The Guardian, where the writer Natalia Antonova writes about one award-winning image (below). Antonova starts by saying that at first glance the image looks like a portrait of an athlete (shock). She then tells us about the “Ukraine horror fatigue”, meaning: how a stereotype about Ukraine and sex work is being promoted ad nauseam. Finally, she makes her point: she thinks the portrait is dignifying. There is “something Nietzschean about the photograph”, she says (?):

What impresses me most about the photo is the defiance and dignity on display. Here is a woman posing in a pair of flowery underpants that have been washed so many times that the flowers have long since wilted and turned grey, and yet you can tell from her expression that she won’t take any shit from you for being who she is. She’s bruised and no doubt experiencing the kind of suffering no human being should have to endure, but asks for neither pity nor forgiveness.


© Brent Stirton, KRYVYI RIG, UKRAINE, AUGUST 2011: Maria, a drug addict and sex worker, entertains a client in a room she rents in a house from an old lady, Kryvyi Rig, Ukraine, 28 August 2011. Maria uses drugs on a daily basis and sees many men every week but remains HIV negative. She claims she need the money to support herself, her habit and her 9 year old daughter.

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