Everyday, I wake up, hear the news, see some photographic registers of the previous events in Ukraine, get nauseated, shed a few tears and then re-fuel the level of frustration. It’s masochism, but I can’t avoid it. My irritation regarding what photography has been doing in relation to this particular war has been escalating to such a point that I need to try and make sense of it. Today, one particular image (the one above, a photograph by Mikhail Palinchak featured on the cover of New York Magazine) was the tipping point.
For years I’ve been discussing the idea that photojournalism is dead, just waiting for its funeral, but people tend to just look at me as if I was crazy. That’s fine, it’s not a crusade of mine or anything like that, just another reflection of my take on photography’s ontological violence. The other day, discussing the role photography has been playing in this war, a friend tried to reason me to accept the need for photojournalism, arguing for the need for “news” to be legitimized by regulated institutions (media networks, agencies, etc.). It’s a simple argument, with which most of us could agree – at least in theory -, but of course I have to question the meaning of “news”, the roots of that “legitimacy” and, you know, once we start to question that, we inevitably find that the code of ethics that would guarantee those institutions the exemption from foreign interests, are corrupted or simply not there at all.
Since the internet went global and smartphones became a must-have commodity, information has been under a profound turmoil. The immediacy with which people see, capture and publish what they’ve been witness to makes things very confusing, as if the mechanisms of mediation used by media networks and their propagandistic agendas were finally exposed. As if the lack of mediation could provide some truth and objectivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immediacy is not a guarantee for objectivity, for a whole lot of reasons, but what is really important here is to remind ourselves that there is no objectivity and photography is not a mechanism exempt of subjectivity. It is always a matter os perspective and representation. A frame, a cut in reality, a sense of self. Furthermore, if you find yourself in the midst of photojournalists, you’ll find that there’s a sense of egotism that can be nauseating (patting each other’s backs, praising braveness, marveling at apparatus, etc.).
Never have we seen so many photographs of war in such a short period of time. In The Rhetorics of Authenticity: Photographic Representations of War, Thomas Susanka ventures into the ontological and discursive strategies with which photography, particularly in war contexts, conveys notions of truthfulness and authenticity. In the essay, he states:
With regard to war photography, we can isolate several major criteria of authenticity that have prevailed over the course of the last 60 years. Most prominent is the impression of spatial proximity and temporal immediacy with respect to the events depicted. Photographs satisfying these criteria create the impression that they were taken right at a particular spot at a significant moment in time and thereby support notions of truthfulness and accordance with real-life events.
He then goes on to point what he calls stylistic options chosen by photographers in these contexts to simulate truthfulness, namely: shooting mainly at eye-level, creating the “illusion of an unmediated glance at reality”; focal lengths that simulate proximity to the events, also evoking “a field of view similar to that of the human eye”; capturing moments that seem “otherwise unobserved”, meaning, not staged, not performed for the camera, “to create the impression that the picture was taken rather than made“. Susanka argues that photographs of war try to convey the idea that there is no aesthetic strategy and what matters most is the simulacrum of a single core subject: reality. However, what we’re seeing now is something different. It’s not that the specifics of war photography have changed, it’s just that its value has a commodity did. The frenzy of this media coverage guarantees that. If there was ever a sense of pudency in romanticizing war (and I don’t think there was), that is over now. Is it a matter of taste, of ethics, of modesty, of humanity?
The sort of photographs I’ve been watching can be put into four categories: proof of destruction; portraits of suffering; war trophies; and then something else I can’t find a name for, but will describe as photographs without context (contemporary photography maybe?).
Proof of destruction has been provided by different sources. Either photojournalists – commissioned or independent – who are in the country; citizens with their cameras or smartphones; satellite imagery; drone imagery, etc. They show overwhelming destruction, that mostly attest the effects of any and every war: the annihilation of human life (homes, work places, leisure grounds and every other sign of human life). Darkness everywhere, traces of heavy artillery, red on black, brown on grey, fires, blocks of cement… also real time videos of bombardments, with their traumatic sounds and their overwhelming flashes. Night falling upon the day, everyday, death and darkness everywhere. Having said this, this is not an anti-recipe for disaster, in regards to photographic ethics. Photojournalists often choose to depict human figures in the middle of such destruction, as if a human figure needed to be there to represent all human lives destructed. Photojournalists are obviously professionals, so a serious of aesthetic notions are internalized and automatically projected, often gaining momentum by emphasizing tensions, placing elements within the frame to further accentuate the inhumanity of any war, even if it sometimes reads as sensationalism. Of course, some professional photographers, risking their lives, are working towards their future, building an archive of destruction. We’ll obviously see a bunch of photobooks coming out of this war in the nest few years.
Portraits of suffering is probably the category I struggle with the most. Can’t fucking understand people doing this over and over again. How many photographs of crying children inside trains and buses do you need to shoot? How many fucking portraits of people in despair? How many fucking photographs exploiting these people’s suffering? Some photographers argue they make these portraits because people consent or they actually ask to be portrayed. But, see, there’s a code of ethics that states photojournalists should not exploit people’s suffering. NPPA’s code of ethics makes an exception to this point, stating “only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see”. I think I understand what this means, it has to do with informative value and the potential for these images’ future legal value as proof of evidence, but it’s obviously an opaque dimension, with a huge margin for interpretation. Yes, I know, they’re just doing their work. Fucking put some restraint on your own egos and shoot the ground if you feel the urge to push the shutter. It’s obviously a vicious circle: photographers are overwhelmed by what they see, they feel the need to photograph and publish their sense of anguish, and end up embellish the gruesome nature of that moment. Also, that immediate gesture of making public and reading hundreds, if not thousand of comments, saying those images are beautiful and heartbreaking and thanking them for their work, is enough to legitimize what is being done. We keep seeing this and no one fucking says shit. No one asks these photographers or their editors why they think this is legitimate and necessary…
War trophies is a complex category in the context of war photography. One essay by Hilary Roberts, entitled War Trophy Photographs: Proof or Pornography provides a good introduction to this dimension, reminding us of the historical significance of such photographs. She describes this category as such:
Trophy photographs are generated by photographers of a dominant military power, often without official sanction or the knowledge of those depicted. The initial purpose of such photographs is usually to serve as a form of souvenir. Their subject matter is consistent: the imposition of degradation, cruelty and atrocity on a vanquished enemy, in a manner completely contrary to most established moral codes. The act of taking such photographs has the potential to increase the impact of the atrocity itself and any associated suffering. Trophy photographs are therefore not harmless mementos. They serve as symbols of power, proof of victory, possibly an affirmation of a fighting cause.
Roberts talks extensively about the Abu Ghraib photographs depicting the abuse portrayed by american soldiers, although the image the essay revolves around is an horrific photograph from WWII, depicting the execution of a group of Jewish women in a prepared massed grave on the Eastern Front, in 1941. As I read the essay, I’m reminded of several things, namely the case of Anthony d’Offay’s collecting of photographs of lynchings by Ku Klux Klan, but also images that were engraved in my mind ever since I became acquainted with Joe Sacco‘s graphic novels (Safe Are Gorazde, Footnotes in Gaza, etc.).
Photography’s violent nature is made evident by several means, namely: embellishing atrocity, making it the object of morbid curiosity; accentuating the suffering and humiliation of those portrayed in vulnerable situations; robbing singular individuals of their anonymity, but also of their singularity, by using them as icons and/or symbols. War trophies in this war are already circulating, but we’ll see that more clearly when there’s nothing left to photograph but death. For instances, the work of one portuguese photojournalist – Adriano Miranda – puzzles me to the point of having a very hard time understanding his motivations. Just to illustrate my point, while on commission for a portuguese newspaper, Publico, he covered the funeral of two Ukrainian soldiers, shot in lviv, by Russian soldiers. One of the photographs shows a woman crying over a coffin. It’s probably a mother, crying for her son. There’s nothing new here, meaning we’ve seen plenty of coverage of funerals, in the most varied circumstances, and I can never understand this being done. What code of ethics can be called forth to justify this? Is there a”overriding and justifiable need to see”? Of couse not. Is it just more exploitation of the suffering of others?
Compared to what other news outlets are publishing, Miranda’s photographs are quite soft, mostly depicting suffering and grief, as many others are doing. The war diary has become a trend, so Miranda is also writing personal notes, accounting for his own suffering and anguish as witness to this war. Anyway, this is what media outlets are doing, turning everything into commodities, trying to compete with social media. Is it just a matter of bad taste or overall lack of ethics? Photographs by Wally Skalij, published in the Los Angeles Times go a bit further regarding that exploitation of people’s suffering in the context of funerals. And then the images of mass graves and the dilema they entail. Yes, maybe in this case there’s need for proof, with legal value, but still I struggle to understand how these photographs are made. Could the photographer maybe adopt a more respectful position in relation to these lifeless bodies? Would that distance not make sufficient proof of evidence? Do we need to see the dragging, the hanging legs and arms? Maybe these are all stupid questions. War is hell, everyone will say, as if signs of humanity cannot endure the anger, the frustration, the suffering, the revolt, the grief, the trauma that springs by the second, every second the war endures.
Nauseated already, I’ll try to get to the end of this…
Finally, photographs without context is a vague category describing how contemporary photography fits in this war, portraits being its first sub-category. The featured image in this post could be an example. Mikhail Palinchak, being an Ukrainian documentary and street photography, has been sharing his work daily, portraying life in war times. What’s wrong with it? Well, nothing. It’s just a matter of taste and I don’t like it. I have that right, you see? People keep telling me I should maybe refrain from being my own usual critic self, but I don’t see any reason for that. I’ve been criticizing photographs in most war contexts, and I’ll make no exception here. Never have I seen so many documentary photographers working in war contexts, making compositions “as usual”, meaning creating visual narratives and composing beautiful imagery. I ask myself why I dislike that so much, and what I concluded is that it has to do with something I also dislike in contemporary photography, namely the out-of-context strategy, or the blazé effect, alienating everything (subjects and objects), leveling everything to the same meaningless category, appropriating everything and everyone as sings of lost agency. The strategies or stylistic qualities are different here. There’s no need for evoking truthfulness by means of spatial proximity (angles, focal lengths, etc.) or temporal immediacy (blurry images, etc.) – as Susanka suggested -, instead what we’re seeing is the use of sharp contrasts as a sort of window into an alternate reality that, under the circumstances, looks surreal. The use of flash is important in this category, accentuating furthermore the idea of blazé – alienation, lost of agency, etc.
As I was reading Peter Lamborn Wilson‘s The New Nihilism, the other day, I felt stimulated by his proposals on how to deal with the despair that comes from thinking we’re facing the end of times. The essay is not worth resuming. It’s short and clear enough to be read in a breath, but I’m reminded of it now because of how it ends and I’ll quote: (…) it seems to me that the essential thing is not to collapse into mere apathy. Depression we may have to accept, impotent rage we may have to accept, revolutionary pessimism we may have to accept. But as e.e. cummings (anarchist poet) said, there is some shit we will not take, lest we simply become the enemy by default. Can’t go on, must go on. Cultivate rosebuds, even selfish pleasures, as long as a few birds & flowers still remain. Even love may not be impossible…
Thomas Susanka, The Rhetorics of Authenticity: Photographic Representations of War, in Paradoxes of Authenticity (2012), pp. 95-114. London: transcript Verlag.
Hilary Roberts, War Trophy Photographs: Proof or Pornography?, in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crises (2012), pp. 201-208. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Peter Lamborn Wilson, O Novo Niilismo, 2022. Lisboa: O Barco Bêbado.