Some years ago I was having a discussion with a friend about going to visit animals in enclosed spaces and as my friend was arguing for his position, he stated: how else can I see them? Somehow, I’ve never forgotten his argument, so maybe there’s something to it. At fist, it seems just a very desperate thing to say, in the sense that in our better days we can all agree that our (human) caprices shouldn’t justify anything. We can all be curious about very different things, but that doesn’t mean we go out and appropriate them, take over them, own them… unless we’re sociopaths like Donald Trump. We can all live very decent lives without seeing whales, sharks, rhinos and whatnot.
I have friends who visit zoos, who go to dolphins’ and seals’ shows, who take their kids to animal circus, etc., but one thing we don’t do is discuss these issues and that is mainly because I’m unable to. I tend to don’t understand where they’re coming from, why they think they have the right to do that and be passive observers (so they think) or active accomplices of an overall attitude that endorses race superiority. And that is probably the core of the problem. On the other side, when one in unaware of his/her part in the big picture, well… it’s complicated.
But let me come back to the idea that ‘we should be able to see’. Seeing and knowledge are very different things that often come hand in hand. One can be willing to witness things he/she knows of but hasn’t been able to experience before, but the idea that ‘seeing is believing’ seems to suggest that media like photography are untrustworthy. Of course it can also mean a variety of other different things, but what interests me is this very paradigmatic feature of photography: if on the one hand its materiality can be very objective, on the other hand its field of interpretation is all about subjectivity. Surprise or habit seem to play a very important role when disentangling what is and is not “worth” photographing (or seeing for that matter).
Last Thursday, when a group of terrorists killed more than a dozen people in Barcelona, the country’s authorities issued a statement asking people not to share videos and images of the attacks on social media. Doing this, their main aim was to prevent the killers, still on the run, to access information that could help them escape. But isn’t there (or shouldn’t there be) a deeper purpose behind this advice?
As I went looking for information on the Portuguese media about what had just happened in Barcelona, I was surprised to see that they were airing unedited videos from the actual killing. To be more specific, they were showing videos from cellphones that people had made while on the same time, apparently, trying to escape the scene or make sense of what had happened. Those unedited videos showed the worst: the victims, deprived of their dignity, seconds after being killed. Every time this happens I’m chocked and I think it’s a good think that it doesn’t become an habit. But the main reason why this doesn’t become an habit is not because I’m somehow more enlightened but, instead, because I don’t expose myself to this sort of imagery. If the media doesn’t follow their own code of ethics, it falls on the observer to do so. If the media doesn’t respect the victims, we, as observers, need to do so.
I’m aware sometimes it’s difficult to discern what is and is not informative content, but this is not one of those cases. The unedited and uncritical screening of the massacre is just wrong and it’s wrong for all the cases. No exception.
A few days earlier, when a young white supremacist attacked left-wing protesters in Charlottesville, in Virginia, killing Heather Heyer and injuring a lot more people, the western media had a very different approach. We know the attack is overall condemned, but the images tell a very different story. Would our media really air interviews with jihadists letting them promote their points of view on why we, westerners, should die? So why air interviews where white supremacists “explain” why they think every non-white person should be erased from the planet? What do we really need to see in order to know it exists? And what are the consequences of that sort of visibility?
Following the events in Virginia, Charlie Rose invited Vice to comment on their reportage “Race and Terror“, in which reporter Elle Reeve went behind the scenes with white nationalist leaders. What Charlie Rose seems to attempt, at one point, is to discuss the consequences of the exposure given by Vice, although that discussion doesn’t really unfold. Watching Vice doc we understand the reporter and editor(s) are very conscious to avoid glorifying their subjects but what is it about that doc that we need to see to believe?
Sometimes we have to criticize with no solution in sight. Sometimes we have to promote change because the contrary just doesn’t fit our ethical frame. It’s not an easy thing to do when, in a social context, an artist’s work is expected to promote change, have “real” impact. In Renzo Martens‘ documentary Episode III. Enjoy Poverty (2008) the author sets out to explore the idea of poverty as a natural resource and as a possible commodity. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an article entitled Porn Poverty: The Emancipatory Power of Enjoy Poverty, author Sofia Gallarate describes the artwork as a critic of “the western mass media’s obsession with images of poverty and the misery of so called ‘Third World’ countries, exploring how that precise system of production creates economic and social inequality.” As I see it, Martens essay is a brilliant work: sharp, committed, sometimes chaotic, sometimes difficult to watch, but never does Martens forget he is very much part of the system he questions; never does he try to make it easier on him or on us. There’s no way out of this structure, meaning: there’s no way we aren’t all compromised, guilty, hurt by this never ending violence.
The documentary raises particularly relevant questions towards the responsibility of the photographic medium in the relations between power structures. On that note, it succeeds in giving us some of the most complex examples for an ethical debate. For instances, one of the episodes showed in the first 20 minutes of the film depicts viewers in an exhibition in Kinshasa regarding black and white photographs or plantation workers. When Martens starts to interview the public, we rapidly see how things are going to unfold, because the paradox is right in front of us: although the photographs represent the struggle of the poor men who worked in the plantations, the public connects to the images in a romantic way, almost nostalgic. They are contemplating. They say: they’re beautiful! But are they? When Martens asks a woman if she thinks the people in the photographs are rich or poor, she pauses, then she realizes what he is trying to imply and answers with an heavy conscious: “poor”.
As Gallarate writes, “[a]ccording to Martens, documentary and photographs do not only work as a medium that exploits poverty to create profit, they can also transform it into a possible artistic and fetishized subject which comes from the saturation of those images within the western media.” As every Nihilsentimentalgia follower knows by now, this hypocrisy and exploitation of the other’s differences through photography is something that interests me a lot. I think this dilemma highlights two major things: 1) that human nature is profoundly complex (see for example how Martens is able to relate and empathize to the people he interviews, but at the same time he never ceases to distance himself from his role as a producer of content; 2) that image workers (photographers, film-makers, etc) cannot avoid beautifying everything, thus flattening that complexity.
But here too Martens does it differently, for the way he exploits the camera’s relation to suffering is so inherently critical (I remembered Lars Von Trier‘s The five obstructions), that one sees precisely how superficial photographies can be. In an interview with Joe Penney, published on Africa is a Country, Martens explains the phenomena:
“(…)Episode III, doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad. On the one hand it gives some critique within the film, oh, media might be bad, it exploits you, take possession of the means of production; on the other hand I, the guy in the film, does exactly the same thing, or maybe not exactly but pretty much exactly the same thing and in the end then just leaves. So the critique of the film is not so much in the action that the guy Renzo undertakes in the film, the critique of the film is the film as a whole, it’s the duplication, it’s the copy in a way of existing power relationships. And I think, this is on the one hand an artistic strategy that is well rehearsed in many other art pieces over the last century. You know in the old days a painting of a swimming pool would represent a swimming pool, it would represent an outside phenomena. Now, since a long time, a painting of a swimming pool deals with the fact that it is a painting of a swimming pool. It is more a painting of a swimming pool than just a swimming pool. And I think this film works like that. Most documentary films critique, or reveal or show some outside phenomena, like oh this is bad, or this is good, or this is tragic or what have you. In this film, it is not the subject that is tragic, like poverty in Africa, it is the very way that the film deals with the subject that is as tragic. So that’s why it’s a piece of art, because it deals with its own presence, it deals with its own terms and conditions, it’s not a referential piece. Its autoreferential.
Being from a country that has a complex colonial history and, consequently, an endemic problem in addressing that very same question, I can understand Martens’ perspective too well, particularly when he says that it is impossible for him to be an agent of change. How can we forget where we came from? How can we forget our inheritance? As Martens says: “(…) I’m also defined by the education I have, by the racism and the feeling of agency that I’ve grown up with […] I am a representative of a world which allows people to die of hunger on one hand and allows other people to be terribly rich.”
As is expected, both Penney and Gallarate bring Sontag to the debate and evoke the idea of the aesthetization of suffering. We’ve talk about it often here: the idea of inauthentic beauty, of making something neat, harmonious, pleasurable, from something that is profoundly violent an unethical. There’s another crucial moment right in the middle of the film, when Martens asks one of the European photojournalist he is accompanying (and just after we see them photographing dead bodies): “Who is the owner of these pictures?” The following dialogue unfolds:
Photographer: I am the owner. I can use them if I want to make a vernissage, or a book. Not with any money … how do you say? Martens: You don’t have to pay for that. Yes. And the people that are on the pictures. The people you have photographed … are they the owners of the pictures, too, or not?
P: No. M: You are the owner. And the people on the pictures they own nothing?
P: No, because I took the pictures… M: You took the pictures…
P: So I’m the photographer, the author of the picture. M: But they organized everything that is on the picture. You just came and made the picture. They have organize everything.
P: What do you mean “organized?”? M: Well the situation that you made the picture of, they made the situation.
P: But not due to me … M: No, not because of you…
P: No, yeah, sure. But, it’s me that made of that situation a picture… M: Right.
P: There is thousands of situations here. But it’s me. I choose the one that I think will make a good picture. And that makes that picture mine. M: OK.
As Gallarate concludes, evoking Benjamin‘s The Author as Producer, “Renzo Martens acts more as a producer of a political discourse rather than as a defender of the Congolese people.” But is his production unethical? I think the clear answer is “NO“. Although it may be difficult for the viewer to sit and watch Martens convincing Congolese photographers (who work on photographing celebrations such as weddings) how to photograph extreme suffering, exploiting the kids’ exposed ribs, truth is the image of a poor African child “starving to death” has long been a commodity – don’t we all remember Kevin Carter’s controversial image of the vulture and the little Sudanese girl that wan him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994? Martens argues that the Congolese should take advantage of their situation and instead of letting outsiders come and photograph their really, take the matter in their own hands and put a price on that poverty. Chocking? Of course it is, but a conversation between him and an MSF doctor reveals how tricky the subject is. Gallarte resumes the situation:
“The scene develops and the artist walks with the two photographers to a Médecins sans Frontier temporary hospital, where they plan to talk with the director and ask for the permission to let the two young men photograph their patients. It is precisely here that the provocation, as well as the controversy of Martens’ work reaches its peak; the MSF’s doctor refuses his proposal, stating that the idea of permitting photography for commercial purposes is legitimately unacceptable.”
The doctor also says that the difference between these photographers going into the hospital and taking pictures and letting a western photojournalist do the same is that the latter has the purpose to produce news, not “to exhibit suffering”. And this is the central argument of Martens’ film: does the media agents have such good intentions or are they actually exploiting their pain?
Warning: most of the links have extremely violent imagery.
I gave myself a task: to look at photographs of violent events for a period of more or less a month and to chose a photograph per day (which wasn’t manageable after all). I realized from this experience that I haven’t really been looking at photographs of violence for quite some time, so it was chocking, at the point of making me very sick and vomit. I also realized that not only the violent imagery I was acquainted to was too mediated (to the point of being censured), but also that the most gruesome events don’t even get exposure, as if that sort of violence was too much for us. And it is, sites such as http://warisacrime.org/uncensored, or http://www.genocideinsyria.org easily prove it.
But do we conscientiously chose to forget these events? I guess so, otherwise capitalism would go down, because the only way we can live with the knowledge of such violent acts is to develop our critical thought about the world, which has inevitable consequences on the choices we make, what and how we consume.
Because I am involved in the education of visual culture, photography in particular, I try to reflect upon these issues with my students. However, I realized I have been going about it the wrong way, for when it comes to photographs of current events, I only have been looking at the work of professional photojournalists, who I now consider not to be succeeding at their jobs. It’s not necessarily their fault, but the media enterprises, who apply censorship on a daily basis. I know this has to be debated in a more serious and profound manner, but for now I’ll just add a few bullet-points:
I don’t consider photojournalism an art, as I don’t consider most of the so called artistic expressions to be examples of art. I’m not using the term “art” here as a qualification. The point is that art, as I see it, is not about communication or the illustration of an idea, but rather about an expression that escapes linguistic discourses and aims at an internal “reception” of it – experience, abstraction, imagination, etc, etc, etc.
Having said this, the aesthetic parameters should not be the most important thing in photojournalism. As I see it, an ethical approach to the documenting of events should.
As it happens, professional photographers seam to be unable to fulfill this task. “Professional hazard” one might say, for they cannot avoid to “beautify reality” (as Sontag would put it). Apparently, citizens everywhere are stepping into their shoes and giving us proofs of the violence happening all around the world.
While doing this exercise I came across some hardcore sites dedicated to showcasing gruesome photographs, most of which I won’t even mention here. But one is worth mentioning: Best Gore, whose statement goes like this:
Why This Website Is Important
Best Gore is a reality news website which reports on real life events which are of the interest to the public. Best Gore was founded on the fundamental principle that freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right of the public to be informed are fundamental and necessary conditions for the realization of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of all human rights in a democratic society.
History demonstrates that censorship is mostly used by those who detest freedom and progress, simply to stop truths or ideas emerging. This is inexcusable.
Harm to freedom of expression caused by censorship of content just because some may deem it blasphemous, obscene or morals-corrupting would be devastating and should be of utmost concern to all people of conscience.
Supporters of censorship and human rights violations need to be exposed for petty tyrants that they are, and dealt with accordingly. And this is where Best Gore steps in as the website has played a pivotal role in exposing lies which were declared as official truths by the mainstream media, exposed countless cases of police brutality, governments sanctioned terrorism, war profiteering, fear mongering and other unsavory activities which enslave the people in injustice.
Why It Is Important to Communicate Uncensored Information Published on Best Gore to the Public
By self censoring yourself to the content on Best Gore, you are censoring your self to the truth. In any situation, if you feel like you can’t, won’t, shouldn’t or are not allowed to look at something, you open the door to allowing someone else to tell you what happened.
By not seeing things for yourself, you are opening the door to being lied to and persuaded in one direction or the other. No matter how brutal, hard, sad, offensive, immoral, obscene or [fill in the blank] something is to look at, only by seeing it with your own eyes can you make up your own opinion on the matter and see truth.
When you bring yourself to look at the real violence in the world, it kicks your ass into realty because referring back to what I said earlier, everything I just said could be a lie.
Although the imagery displayed in their site is unbearable to watch, I do agree with the statement. The problems start when news get mixed up with gossip. Although most of us would agree with the importance of knowing about the gruesome attacks of Boko Haram (for example) and some of us think it is important to be visually exposed to such violence, car crashes and similar accidents add absolutely nothing to our awareness and conscious perspective about the world. So why should one level the importance of a motorcycle crash with thenews of a young Nigerian woman who had her heart removed by “ritualists in the area”?
The free press is a cornerstone of democratic regimes precisely because it supposedly makes it possible for people to have their own opinion about things. Some of the most important events in the world today are not even being photographed or, if they are, what reaches us is politically approved imagery. We see the pictures from the mass grave found in Palmyra in March, containing 42 bodies of mostly children, women and old men, but where are the graves from the killings of the Russian and US bombings? Where are the graves sponsored by the so-called western world?
One could say that violence only generates violence, and that those who defend themselves through violence tend to act as inhumanly as those who initially perpetrated the violence (the destruction of ISIS is just a recent example), but what about our right to resist the undercover violence that is everywhere, before it gets bloodier? When in a democratic regime, should we just abide by the rules, in the name of the institutionalized normalcy? For me the answer is a clear no.
The violence perpetrated by the so-called democratic regimes is still hard to document. For example, since the beginning of the year, everywhere in Europe there have been neo-nazi demonstrations and counter-demonstrations (anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia, you name it) but the photographic registers fail to document the violence that is perpetrated by the police forces, who too often protect the nationalist parades and imprison those who get in their way. Photographs of police beating and arresting civilians don’t really portrait the violence of such an act.
Fact is that I am also contributing to the hypocrisy of the seemingly peaceful environment in which our governments try to make us believe. All the extremely violent imagery that I saw during this task was left out of the post. It’s just too gruesome and hard to watch. I believe most people won’t be able to keep their eyes open while facing such reality.
What I concluded was that no professional photographer is publishing the extreme violence that is happening all around the world. And why is that? Because it is unimaginable? Simply because it is impossible to be there to witness it? Are the killers documenting their acts with their cameras and cellphones? Are they publishing those images in social media and we just don’t want to share it? Is the non recognition of an image of a thing the same thins as the non admittance of such an event? If we erase the proves, can we forget that moment? If we share the proofs of those violent acts are we endorsing and promoting it?
This “exercise” made me think about my choices. For instances, before this I had never looked at ISIS propaganda. I even rejected writing down their name, as if naming it was a validation that I didn’t want to commit to. But why did I chose to do it? After this, I have no doubt that the answer is related with my denial of that reality. I also thought I couldn’t handle watching a decapitation, and feared once I did, another step towards the relativization of evil could be taken.
I’m still in denial when it comes to videos showcasing violence. I never watch them. Are the photographs less competent in “telling the truth”? I think not at all! For instances, the still of a decapitation or the beheaded bodies are horrific, chocking, and they make you vomit, but how could they not? Such imagery surely doesn’t provoke the sort of crocodile tears that Salgado’s photographs do, because we are not talking about art, or the making of the beautiful, but about the significance of violence and how its visual documentation is important in the leveling of humanity.
February, 24th, 2016
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March, 22nd, 2016
Handout for Reuters. Injured people are seen at the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the two bomb attacks in Brussels that killed dozens of people, a news agency affiliated with the group said.
Inspired by the echos of the migrant crisis in his home country, hungarian photographer Norbert Baska has made a fashion shoot called “Der Migrant” with models in luxurious clothes posing as refugees in fake camp set-ups with barbed wire. ‘Lovely‘, some say. ‘What’s the problem‘, others ask. But the majority of us will immediately recognize it as being essentially wrong. So why?
Baska’s response to the (apparently surprising) critic reaction of his colleagues:
I hoped people would realize that the situation is very complex and see that they are taking stands based on partial or biased information. I do not understand how people can take a clear stand (pro or con) while we are flooded with contradictory information through the media, so no one has extensive knowledge of the situation as a whole. This is exactly what we wanted to picture: you see a suffering woman, who is also beautiful and despite her situation, has some high quality pieces of outfit and a smartphone.
The shooting is not intended to glamourize this clearly bad situation, but rather… to draw the attention to the problem and make people think about it…
Why shouldn’t Baska glamourize such reality? If for some the answer is very clear, as a photography teacher I frequently testify to its complexity. For very different reasons, this generation has a very particular sense of ethics and not much respect for human values; they struggle to identify what’s wrong with “the Baska approach”. I’d rather not go back to Sontag’s idea of ‘inauthentic beauty’, which she used to describe Salgado’s work, but the truth is that the concept immediately came to my mind.
Baska’s statement that he didn’t want to glamourize, rather wanted to dignify, has no truth to it. Either he was aware that he was taking advantage of a harsh reality to move the spotlight on him, or he has just ignorant. Either way, it was a bad call. In general, there’s nothing wrong with choosing current events as themes for commercial work, but if you want to create fictions that are so closely related to reality, you’ll have to play by social reality rules and so, if you want to talk about a situation that involves the death of people fleeing the war, it’s not a good idea to make a composition that puts together in the same image this sort of symbols: Chanel, barbed wire, eastern looking model, luxurious clothes and cellphones.
It’s disrespectful in so many ways. 1) the migrant crisis has created several situations that deal with our collective unconscious, and the barbed wire being used in Hungary plays a big part on it. Women, men and children concentrated in one place, asking for help with barbed wire on the horizon will always arise the memory of World War II;
2) Chanel cellphones are products of a society that is ruled by capitalism, precisely the same society that is more concerned with the markets than with building a more just and equal way of living for us all. When you put a girl leaning on barbed wire taking a selfie with a Chanel cellphone, what it the subtitle? Syrian girl takes selfie à la modedes westerners to see if she can fit in their society???;
3) And what about the joke with the sandwich? How can one understand such nonsense? Is it: Look at me, I’m hungry but still I’m not really going to eat it all because I want to keep my figure so that you can all love my body? Or: Look at me, I’m a refugee and I’m hungry but still I’m a sex bomb and I’ll let you take a peek under my skirt?
After a lot of controversy, here’s Baska’s team official notice: We have experienced a lot of negative feedback since the publication of our photo series Der Migrant, although more and more people recognize the true message behind the pictures and agree with it […] Considering the heated emotions and because, despite our intentions, many unfortunately consider the pictures offending, we have decided to remove the series from our website.
As usual, a local subject on the world news for all the wrong reasons. This photograph, taken yesterday, is traveling the world, as if it added or stated something new. It belongs to Hugo Correia and depicts his coworker Patricia Melo, from AFP, instants before being hit by a police officer, amidst demonstrations related to the General Strike.
Although reading this image may seem immediate, I can assure you it is not. It highlights severe gaps in the Portuguese media, namely the fact that they are incapable of giving a truthful account of events. It has always been the case. One could think, I did, that being their relation to the truth so superficial and watching their colleagues’ work being blocked (another photojournalist was beaten by the police), they would make an effort to tell the story and trace the line of events, but that’s not really the case. We lack good journalism, people who do it for the right reasons and want to pass on information to their pairs, who want to share their knowledge and in that process give people the necessary tools to fight injustice and oppression.
Censorship has taken over and it seems that this image is going to mark the moment the country is made aware of it and decides to keep his mouth shut and eyes closed. Unfortunately we seem to have nowhere to go but to be throw in the streets to fight the most cowardly side of this oppressive state: the police. It’s a shame, we’re going to meet the oppressor’s wishes, because that’s what the state wants, and it will inevitably happen.
Are “forced labor camps” being created here, in the middle of the European Union, as the Hungarian daily newspaper Népszava wrote? Are unemployed people from remote villages being housed in worker camps on large construction sites? No one has to work against his will, but everyone who does show up for work is paid the legal minimum wage, says Karoly Papp, the state secretary in the Interior Ministry in charge of the program.
Orbán’s concept of moral renewal and economic rehabilitation for Hungary has several tenets: Those without work are to be given work; those who are already working should work more in the future, but without being paid more; in the interest of the country’s “stability,” those who hold political power today should be allowed to remain in office for as long as possible; and those who once had power and did not use it for the benefit of the people should now be punished.
Where is the country headed under this government? “I don’t believe that Hungary is on the path to a dictatorship, although this is perhaps what Orbán would like,” says the professor. “But our people tend to be somewhat relaxed, and our greatest contribution to European culture was probably the operetta. What is now taking shape here is an operetta dictatorship.”
It isn’t necessary to smell fascism behind every bush, says Heller [Agnes Heller]. “The worst thing is that the checks and balances are being eliminated in this country, and that the rule of the yes-men has begun.” In fact, she adds, now dissidents are even being treated as criminals.
The Hungarian authorities are investigating Heller and some of her philosopher friends, known as the “Heller gang,” for alleged embezzlement of research funds. But Heller, sitting in her apartment high above Guttenberg Square, laughs off the accusation.
What is most troubling to Heller, who survived both the horrific regime of the Hungarian version of the Nazi Party and the communists, is the disquieting feeling that the clique now running Hungary does so without “responsibility” — and without a sense of the “danger that violence could erupt.” “Orbán is extremely sure of himself,” says Heller. “It’s a typical characteristic of dictators.”
Full article “The Goulash Archipelago: EU Remains Silent as Hungary Veers Off Course” can be found in Spiegel
“The economic crisis in Greece has sparked riots and violent reactions. Massive protests broke out against severe government spending cuts aimed at saving the country from economic collapse. Thousands of people march through central Athens protesting government plans to impose new spending cuts to save the country from bankruptcy. The protesters chanted in the streets as squads of riot police with stun grenades, tear gas and arrests attempt to enforce discipline.”