An artist at work: here’s what no hypocrisy looks like

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”.

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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.” 

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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?

WPP 2017 (our worst or Ozbilici’s iconic photograph)

© Burhan Özbilici, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş shouts after shooting Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey.
© Burhan Özbilici, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş shouts after shooting Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey.

Most of us will agree on one thing: this year’s WWP winning photograph is not their typical choice. But that’s it! The consequences of this choice are as multilayered as the photograph itself.

One of the first persons to speak openly about why this photograph “should not have won such a prize” was the chairman of the judging panel: Stuart Franklin. In an opinion article, published by The Guardian, Franklin describes the event that is depicted in Burhan Özbilici‘s winning photograph as a murderous spectacle. Franklin adds that this is only the third time a register of an assassination wins the prize. For Franklin, awarding the photograph of a murder poses a moral problem. Sorry, that’s not really what he says. In fact, his words are: It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading.

I don’t like to give in to cynicism, so I’ll hold back my worst self and just say that I smiled when I first heard this. Sorry, Franklin, but the idea that a competition such as WWP should not beautify and promote our worst selves is ludicrous. The only reason why some photographs have traveled the world with the WWP exhibition is because they were made famous at the expense of the dead bodies represented in them. And those lifeless bodies were only seen, contemplated and appreciated because they had an aesthetic dimension, they were beautified and through that transformation evil was made redundant. That, as I see it, poses a moral problem, because it compromises the dignity of the people in them. But Franklin means what he says. Not only does he disagree with the photograph of an assassination being the winner of the year, he also opposes the message it sends out to the world: Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.

I confess his honesty and ingenuity surprise me. And I understand where he comes from. In Franklin’s perspective, the winning photograph should testify to a less visible reality and it should expose, be a call for action, inspire change, so he says.

But let’s go back to that day: 19/12/2016. Özbilici, a Turkish photographer, is attending a press conference by Russian ambassador that was happening in a gallery in Ankara. One should stress that being a photographer in Turkey is to be part of the resistance, for that country’s liberty is long gone. What happened next is history: while the ambassador, Andreï Karlov, was speaking, Mevlüt Mert Altintas, a 22 years old off duty police officer working security for the event, shot him. He shot him 9 times and claimed to be punishing Russia for its intervention in Syria.

Being there, Burhan Özbilici made the decision to photograph and his shots immediately traveled the world. I saw the winning photograph the following day and I remember it clearly. I was extremely surprised, I showed it to my partner and we had a wee chat about it. At the time, what surprised me had nothing to do with the event itself. What astonished me was the contradictions at place, how different forces and dynamics had made it into one picture. Still, to this day, what I think makes this photograph so great is that it is iconic. And being iconic means we’re talking about its aesthetic value. It’s almost as if this photograph should not be understood as photojournalism, for it has too many hidden layers, too many subtleties. Basically, it’s too brilliant to be reduced to its role as proof.

I also remembered wondering how cold blooded the photographer had to have been to compose this image. It’s inevitable, it looks like a performance. It’s the effect of the White Cube: you put something inside a gallery and it becomes art. The reality is quite different. Ozbilici tells us that he felt he just had to do his job. Back in December, on Hyperallergic, Robert Archambeau published an excellent article entitled Aesthetic Interference where he pretty much says it all, so I’ll quote:

I think a large part of my inability to fully process the images from Turkey has to do with a kind of category error. They should, I tell myself, be documents of an atrocity, the kind of images we’re bombarded with all the time, and to which most of us have, perhaps at some cost to our humanity, developed antibodies. We see mediated atrocity every day. We tell ourselves we care, and perhaps we do. But generally we look at the wreckage, the carnage, the suffering faces, and we move on. This time, though, I’m having a hard time moving on, because I don’t just see the images as documents of atrocity. I also see them as aesthetic, and that doesn’t sit easily with the other way of seeing them. Indeed, it feels immoral. It feels wrong.

[…]

In the strange combination of urgent action and an uncanny suspension of motion, they are reminiscent of some of Jeff Wall’s photographs (1984’s “Milk,” for example, or “Dead Troops Talk,” from 1994). Perhaps it is the dramatic nature of the poses — combined with the fact that they’re set against the stark, white background that instantly declares itself an art space — that makes the figures almost seem like an art installation. Perhaps an installation by Maurizio Cattelan, in line with his 2002 wax dummies of police officers, “Frank and Jamie.” If you begin to let yourself see the photos as works by Jeff Wall, they seem to show the calm at the heart of violence. If you begin to look at them as photos of an imaginary Cattelan installation, you start to think of them as meditations on the nature of exhibitions. But if you do either — and I have done both — you might find yourself uncomfortable to the point of queasiness with your own slip into aestheticizing. The atrocity is real. The violence is real. The death is real. And the photos? They’re so good, they almost don’t let you see that. They’re so good they make you feel bad to have shifted your attention from the moral urgency of bloodshed to the composition itself. They’re so good they make you wonder about the cruel indifference of beauty. They’re so beautiful that they lift you from the real to the aesthetic, so true they send you plummeting right back.

There’s nothing we can do about our visual culture and backgrounds, so it’s inevitable that for those familiar with references such as the ones mentioned by Robert Archambeau, this photograph jumps between categories and tends to reject the most obvious one: that which gave it the WWP prize. Where I differ from Archambeau is that I don’t have any remorse. And why is that? It’s complicated, of course, but as I’ve mentioned many times before, I think contemporary photojournalism is condemn to fail. It hasn’t always been like this. Before the wars were televised, before cellphones had cameras, photography held that status of “authentic proof”. Now, the most authentic imagery seems to come from the perpetrators themselves. They photograph their victims as trophies and those images are also good examples of the hatred that rules this era. But they are not conscious photographs, only digital images. In most of the cases, there is no author behind them; that maker is so morally compromised that one could not recognize him authorship. What this era might well do to photography, as an autonomous expression, may actually be what we’ve been waiting for. And maybe Özbilici’s photograph could trigger that debate, because photography is not an automatism, it is not a machine, and there’s always an aesthetic dimension to every image. Maybe if we don’t potentiate that dimension we will just keep talking about realism and objectivity, where instead we should be speaking about fiction and subjectivity.

WPP 2017 (our best)

These are clearly not the most extraordinary photographs from the competition, yet in my opinion they stand out because instead of portraying the worst about humanity (our profound hatred of the Other, our fear of change, our disrespect for nature, the war, the war, the war, the killing, the killing, the killing), they show our best: how we can be extremely good, loving, courageous and creative when we set out to help others. 

Note: being that the WPP is not only a photojournalism competition, but also a display of our darkest moments, it is always controversial. More on that on the following post.

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© Ami Vitale, from the project Pandas Gone Wild (commissioned by National Geographic).

2nd prize stories Nature.

October 2015. As conservation icons go, nothing quite beats the giant panda. Instantly recognizable worldwide and adored by billions, the giant panda is a virtual brand whose resemblance to anything wild is as tenuous as it is rare. Like many endangered species, giant pandas have declined as a growing human population has seized wild lands for human uses.

The Chinese have spent the past quarter of a century perfecting breeding methods, building a captive population and protecting habitat. The giant panda was recently taken off the world endangered species list—a minor miracle, due to the unique efforts of Chinese zoologists and conservationists.

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© Ameer Alhalbi, from the project Rescued From the Rubble.

2nd prize stories Spot News.

April, 2016: A Syrian man evacuates an area following a reported airstrike in the rebel-held neighborhood of Hayy Aqyul in Aleppo. Air strikes on rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo killed at least 14 civilians and wounded more than a dozen others, according to the local civil defense. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime warplanes carried out the airstrikes and gave a toll of 10 dead.

Since 2012, Syria’s northern city of Aleppo has been divided between rebel and regime-held districts, but a devastating regime offensive launched in mid-October saw the rebels ousted from their iconic former stronghold. The army’s victory in Aleppo was marked by heavy shelling which destroyed all established hospitals in the area and much of the city was reduced to a wasteland by air and artillery attacks.

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One photographic register of violence a day… (warning: extremely graphic imagery)

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 the news of a young Nigerian woman who had her heart removed by “ritualists in the area”?

One conclusion that chocked me while trying for this task is the frequency with which news/articles/posts are illustrated with photographs that reference another event. Apparently it doesn’t matter. If the news is about a Kurdish woman being killed at a wedding by the man to whom she was promised (her cousin) apparently any chocking photograph of a dead woman in a pool of blood serves the purpose. If the news if about the finding of a mass grave of Shiite Muslims in Nigeria, why can’t it be illustrated by the photograph of another mass grave with victims from the Boko Haram that was also found in Nigeria? If the news is about civilians being burnt to death in Fallujah in April 2016, why can’t the posts be illustrated with pictures of similar events that happened the year before? And what’s so wrong with mistaking anti-fascist protesters with fascist protesters, after all don’t they dress alike?

I know, it shouldn’t surprise me, for how often do people confuse the purpose of photography with the illustration of an idea? (Here’s another example with no great consequences: while covering the news of the hijack of an Egyptair flight, some sites were accompanying the news with photographs of an anti-hijacking exercise held in China in 2009).

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?

On the 28th of March, in Angola, a group of 17 activists that were imprisoned after getting together to discuss the reading of From Dictatorship to Democracry: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, by Gene Sharp, were sentenced to prison. No violent protests erupted after that, even though they are illegally detained as political prisoners. As I see it, that absence of violence is a sign of their lack of liberty (if ‘to use or not use violence’ is a question, here’s a good article (in english) and a great one (in portuguese).

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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© António Lacerda. ‘Petistas’ (suporters of the PT party) attack a man who supported Dilma’s impeachment. This was published.
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© Fernando Frazão. A member from the Workers’ Union is attacked by a member of the opposite side (defending Dilma’s impeachment). This was not.

February, 25th, 2016

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© Philippe Huguen. An anti-riot policeman throws a tear gas grenade during the dismantling of the refugee camp in Calais.

February, 27th, 2016

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© Eric Hood. Stab victim being treated at a Ku Klux Klan Rally and Counter-Protest in Anaheim, USA.

March, 12th, 2016

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Author not identified. Bodies of Houthi terrorist outside the city, liquidated by the Yemeni Army. Taiz residents and the Popular Resistance Forces rejoicing the triumph.

March, 13th, 2016

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Author not identified. Photograph of two death bodies at Grand-Bassam (Côte d’Ivoire), consequence of an attack by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on a touristic resourt. March, 13th, 2016.

March, 16th, 2016

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© Konstantinos Tsakalidis. Refugees attempt perilous Greece-Macedonia crossing and plea with police to let them continue their march.

March, 22nd, 2016

Injured people are seen at the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels

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.

March, 24th, 2016

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© Hazem Bader. Israeli soldiers, including a combat medic now under investigation for murder, stood near the body of a Palestinian suspect that one of them shot in the head on Thursday in Hebron.

March, 25th, 2016

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Screenshot from new propaganda video. The nine-minute video titled “The Exile of Islam and Brussels Attacks” was released by the Al-Battar Media Foundation and shows Trump’s photo in flames while playing his interview clips about the attack in Brussels.

March, 26th, 2016

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© Glauco Araújo. Protesters setting a Dilma puppet on fire during the Easter-time ritual of the burning of Judas.

March, 27th, 2016

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© AFP/Getty. An injured Pakistani child victim of a suicide blast rests in a hospital in Lahore after a suicide bomber attacked a park thronging with families celebrating Easter killed at least 72 people.

March, 31st, 2016

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© Thomas Samson. French riot police clash with union members and students demonstrating against labour law reforms (El Khomri) close to the Gare de Lyon train station in the French capital Paris on March 31, 2016.

April, 1st, 2016

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Author not identified. Iraqi Army executes ISIS member after asking the users on Instagram whether they should kill him or not.

April, 2nd, 2016

police arrest protestors at the Bourse Memorial as they protest against the calls for a far right-wing demonstration cancelled by Mayor before taking place in Molenbeek Brussels Belgium April 2 2016 EPA OL
© Olivier Hoslet, Belgium policemen arrest protestors at the Bourse Memorial for victims of the terrorist attack, as they protest against the calls for a far right-wing demonstration that was cancelled by Brussels Mayor before taking place in Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium, 02 April 2016. At lease 20 people were arrested at the Bourse Memorial include President of Belgium Human right watch movement amnesty international Lawyer Alexis Deswaef.

April, 5th, 2016

5 abril
Author not identified. Armenian Soldiers Killed by Azerbaijan Forces -Nagorno-Karabakh War.

April, 6th, 2016

A Pakistani migrant threatens to hang himself from a utility pole during a demonstration inside the Moria registration centre on the Greek island of Lesbos
© Giorgos Moutafis.A Pakistani migrant threatens to hang himself from a utility pole during a demonstration inside the Moria registration centre on the Greek island of Lesbos.

April, 8th, 2016

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Author not identified. Iraqi Sunnis children killed by Iraqi army airstrikes on popular market in Fallujah.

April, 10th, 2016

indija-ugunsgreks-664x553
© STR. Indian bystanders carry an injured man after a fireworks explosion and fire at The Puttingal Devi Temple in Paravur.

 

open carefully; this image might shock you

Note: I chose to give the warning I missed to find when I came across the image that I’ll be referring to later on this post: a poor resolution image of the inside of the Bataclan after the tragedy that came to be known as the Paris attacks.

The tragedy took place on a Friday night, the 13th of November. It was a heavy weekend. I couldn’t manage to have an ordinary conversation without feeling I was offending the lives of those who had just been killed, by not addressing the issue. I had a class on Monday morning, teaching Visual Language to 1st year undergraduate students, so I decided to prepare something about the subject to discuss with them.

Going thru the usual news and photo agencies, all the photographs appeared to go around the subject, contrasting to what usually circulates when similar tragedies occur on “far away grounds”: no death bodies, only traces of the violence that had befallen the streets of Paris.

Even in a Portuguese newspaper (Público) a similar phenomenon occurred. It was the Photo Paris weekend, so a lot of photographers were visiting the capital. Público took the opportunity and commissioned Daniel Blaufuks a photographic essay on the events. The result, entitled Paris Toujours, takes the form of an unpretentious diary, filled with nostalgia and melancholy. Blaufuks chooses to address the everydayness, as if that was the mark of what is most authentic about Paris. As if the violence couldn’t penetrate the aesthetic grounds of his photographic language.

Magnum had several photographers on the streets. In different manners, they chose to construct a narrative around the traces of such violence. We see the suffering, the despair, the anguish, but not the violence. Once again, as if the violence was unphotographable. I used to agree with this approach. I used to think most photographs of violence were pornographic and unnecessary. But I changed my mind after the Paris attacks.

An article by Emmanuel Taïeb guided me on such a reflection. I teach students that in photography it is often more important what the photograph doesn’t show. What lives on in our imagination is usually more transformative. So, for instances, if one photograph shows the impact of a bullet instead on the bullet hitting the target, it is more successful, for we are left wondering about the event, what happened before and after, etc.

FRANCE. Paris. 2015.Day after terrorist attack.
© Alex Majoli. FRANCE. Paris. November 14, 2015. The day after the terror attacks. Bullet holes.
FRANCE, Paris, 14112015 The day after the 1311 terror attacks.
© Thomas Dowrzak. FRANCE, Paris, 14/11/2015 The day after the 13/11 terror attacks. Restaurants “Le Petit Cambodge” and “Le Carillon”.

Magnum photographers such as Alex Majoli and Thomas Dworzak did exactly that and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with such approach. The question is: do photographers behave the same way when photographing “at a distance”? Do we discriminate between the death of an European and the death of a non-European? Of course we do. But, once again, there’s nothing tremendously wrong with that, for human beings empathize with what’s more familiar to them. However, we are talking about news agencies, not about a bunch of friends discussion the issue at the neighborhood Cafe.

In the press, whether televised or printed, when a bomb hits the streets of Afghanistan or Iraq we’re immediately showed bodies on the ground, lots of them. Some have cloths over their faces, some don’t. Most reporters don’t care to go around violence, looking for its traces. We saw that just one day before the Paris attacks, with the suicide bombing in Beirut.

As I was preparing for Monday class, I stumbled upon a discussion set around a photograph from inside the Bataclan and the need for such an image to be showed or reserved (here’s the link for the image; not publishing it here, for I’d rather give the option to the viewer – to see or not to see). I found the image profoundly disturbing, though I mistakenly showed it in class and the reaction was close to zero. Knowing how they reacted to it now, I would have chosen to show it, with no reserves. The discussion that followed confirms the arguments I was starting to build to justify the need to share that image.

We all know it, images of violence have attained such a circulation that they are now “part of the landscape”. Not only the photographs have become ordinary, but also the reality they represent. Are we dehumanized for not reacting to such representations? As far as I see it, we are. Photography hasn’t lost the status of proof, of testimony. We are now well aware of the manipulation it often entails, but that doesn’t deny the fact that photojournalists work on documenting reality. So why don’t we care about the bodies covered in blood inside the Bataclan? Do we not care about the photograph and care about the bodies? Thinking about what my students explained to me, for I had to ask them to take me trough their reactions, they don’t really get the concept of the existence of their being a true moment behind the photograph, as if it was all fiction. Not staged or faked, but merely fictional.

So why the need to share such violent imagery? And I go back to Sontag’s idea of “inauthentic beauty”: the need may not exist, but there’s still a reason for it; one shares the image of the Bataclan to avoid beautifying the violence that hit Paris and to be fair in the treatment of events…

≡ The problem is the photograph not what the photograph shows ≡

outro

Susan Sontag died in 2004 and that was a tough year for photography. One difficult to forget. In 2004, the images of Abu Ghraib got out and with them started a revolution in photojournalism. From then on, authenticity, a ‘quality’ so dear to documentary photography, changed hands. Legitimacy and believability were no longer available to the professionals but to civilians who shot everything that moved – from the men paraded around on leashes in Abu Ghraib to the occasional fuck on campus. Soldiers and victims are now the ones holding the power of truth, or so it seems.

On May 23rd 2004, the New York Times published an article by Sontag entitled Regarding the Torture of Others, a reflection on the impact of the Abu Ghraib photos and the role of photograph the so called states-of-exception.

Four years later, in 2008, Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure came out. The documentary revolves around the ‘procedures’ in Abu Ghraib and features soldiers directly involved in the photographs as well as others who portray themselves as passive observers (if there can be such a thing in this situation). Lynndie England, one of the women involved in the tortures and humiliations depicted in the famous Abu Ghraib shots tells us how she used to spend her time, both on and off duty, and we quickly find the why that complements the tale: those actions where made out of boredom and with an entertainment goal, even if she arguments that she was just following the examples given (“that was what we saw”, she says). Ultimately, she justifies her actions saying “I was blinded by being in love with a man”. What an irony.

abuse3 harmansab1

Another female military photographer is featured telling us how she made a photograph of a ‘detainee’ (yes, ‘prisoners’ have rights; ‘detainees’ don’t) that looked like Jesus Christ. In other words, she knows her icons. Apparently, she soon realized what the photographs depicted was wrong and allegedly started to document the tortures not for fun but to show what the USA military where doing, how serious it was.

As we know now, the photographs became the problem, not the events depicted in them, which keep happening in one form or another. Sontag quotes secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld to whom the problem is that soldiers are behaving like tourists «”running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.”» The Photographs act as proofs and because of their permanence they hold the power to question moral superiority, a power that serves to legitimize words. If words used to be enough to account for our own lives, build our narratives, tell our stories, now “to live is to be photographed”, says Sontag. Visual language is what sticks, particularly in the form of photographs and it seems that the further one is from the event represented the easier it is for reality to be replaced by an image of that reality. When I think of Abu Ghraib what immediately comes to mind is the photograph of that hooded man, standing on a box with his arms open. That’s how iconic that image is.

wires2

«Yes, President Bush said in Washington on May 6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But, he went on, he was “equally sorry that people seeing these pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.”» (Sontag, 2004)

Roman Krol, another military featured in Morris documentary, describes what is depicted in some of the photographs or, how I see it, how the society of the spectacle justifies his actions. In his own words: “The yelling was just [pause] it was just for show I believe. To show, the spectators, this would be done to anybody who breaks the rules.” Krol goes on to explain how he thinks the photographs were stupid, there was even a sign saying they weren’t allowed (!), how he never saw a flash, otherwise he would have…

new-toture4 dogs2

Again, the torture isn’t the problem. The existence of the document is. Going back to Sontag’s article, she quotes republican senator Inhofe as saying he was not the only one «”more outraged by the outrage” over the photographs than by what the photographs show.» For Inhofe, the media were responsible for american lives, for they were responsible for spreading the photographs of the events. Sontag kills the argument in an heartbeat:

«There is an answer to this charge, of course. Americans are dying not because of the photographs but because of what the photographs reveal to be happening, happening with the complicity of a chain of command — so Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba implied, and Pfc. Lynndie England said, and (among others) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, suggested, after he saw the Pentagon’s full range of images on May 12. “Some of it has an elaborate nature to it that makes me very suspicious of whether or not others were directing or encouraging,” Senator Graham said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that viewing an uncropped version of one photo showing a stack of naked men in a hallway — a version that revealed how many other soldiers were at the scene, some not even paying attention — contradicted the Pentagon’s assertion that only rogue soldiers were involved. “Somewhere along the line,” Senator Nelson said of the torturers, “they were either told or winked at.” An attorney for Specialist Charles Graner Jr., who is in the picture, has had his client identify the men in the uncropped version; according to The Wall Street Journal, Graner said that four of the men were military intelligence and one a civilian contractor working with military intelligence.»

≡ Salgado, Nachtwey and Sontag: to shoot AND not to shoot, is that the question? ≡

Yesterday, after watching the documentary about the work of Sebastião Salgado I found myself trying to give an answer to the question then asked: does it matter if we cry?

I think it does, the same way I think that actions need to be taken even when consequences are unknown, the same way I think chaos is bound to potentate new meanings. The question then is not if our empathy or agape can generate any good, but if photographs contribute to the sort of empathic feeling that triggers action. When thinking about Salgado’s photographs, I honestly don’t think they do any justice to the idea of the socially engaged photographer. Are his photographs humanistic? Yes, I guess they are, for there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to the work and about his empathy towards his subjects. But does the work account for the lives depicted? For the particular stories? For the social environments? Or does it instead paint such realities in an impressionistic way, blurred and beautified?

ma-31747994-WEB© Sebastião Salgado, Blind Tuareg Human, Mali, 1985.

Caption: With dead eyes worn out by sand storms and chronic infections, this woman from the region of Gondan has arrived at the end of her voyage.

Sontag’s words in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003, Picador) are still, to this day, echoing in my mind when ethics in photography is the question. In chapter V, she criticizes the way the ugly is made beautiful and how pithiness is not what documentary photography should be aiming for: “Pity can entail a moral judgment if, as Aristotle maintains, pity is considered to be the emotion that we owe only to those enduring undeserved misfortune.” (p. 59) There is a sort of perversity in making beautiful pictures out of the disgrace of others, not only because they transform reality into art and thus alienate us from the real human dramas, but also because they can make the viewer feel guilty and ashamed just for thinking the photograph is beautiful. There is guilt, pity and shame involved and guess where this trilogy leads us…

“Photographer-witnesses may think it more correct morally to make the spectacular not spectacular. But the spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood.” (Sontag, 2003, p. 63)

Sontag is also very clear about the role of photography as a document:

“Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” (p. 61)

In an article regarding James Nachtwey’s Photographs of Tuberculosis Crisis in Siberian Prison Colonies, Pete Brook compares Nachtwey to Salgado, describing both as ‘super-photographers’ who “make the ugly beautiful”. But even if Brook acknowledges their work as being able to force itself “into the conscience of millions”, he adds: “For some his [Nachtwey] work is an inspiration for social justice; but for others his work is a sub-conscious default to guilt, despondency and powerlessness to help others less fortunate.

slide1© James Nachtwey, Rwanda, part of Inferno.

Sontag cynically names a new category for ‘super-photographers’ such as Nachtwey and Salgado: “a photographer who specializes in world misery” (p. 61) and then goes on to discuss the ‘inauthenticity of the beautiful’. But let’s go back to the genocide in Rwanda for a while. Both Nachtwey and Salgado have documented the tragedy. In a review of Nachtwey’s book Inferno, he speaks about his willing to be absent as an author, to be a messenger and although that’s just coming from a photojournalist, it’s really naïf. Nachtwey has a style and of course he knows it. Further ahead interviewer

DC: You see yourself primarily as a photojournalist, rather than as an artist. You don’t necessarily want people to think, Oh that’s a beautiful composition, when they see your work.

N: That’s right.

DC: Yet in going through the book, every now and then I’d be startled to find an image beautiful. And then I’d quickly realize I was looking at a nightmare. For example, there’s a photo you took in Rwanda. The first thing I noticed were the big heart-shaped, veined leaves. It’s a nature photo; it could be by Wynn Bullock or Edward Weston or Eliot Porter — that was my first impression. But then I saw a corpse lying face down in the grass under those beautiful big leaves.

N: I don’t think tragic situations are necessarily devoid of beauty. That’s one of the paradoxes of life, and one of the themes of art and literature. And it’s perhaps a way in which images become accessible to people. I try to record moments of beauty between people. I think that you’ll see, running throughout this book, images where people are reaching out to each other, where they’re caressing each other, or making contact in a tender way — expressing human beauty in the midst of suffering. This is what I think gives “Inferno” its underlying hope. I find it uplifting to see people transcending their own agony to reach out to others, and I see it continuously in these situations.

james-nachtwey© James Nachtwey, The massacre at Nyarabuye took place in the grounds of a Catholic Church and school. Hundreds of Tutsis, including many children, were slaughtered at close range, Rwanda, 1994.

Nachtwey’s answer is very unsatisfying for me. In fact, I don’t think he answers the question at all and instead of talking about photographing death he speaks of photographs of love and hope. For those who haven’t seen such tragedies it is important to understand the moment witnessed by the photographer, how he felt death and not how an amount of nameless bodies fits into one picture. There’s a risk of turning people into points and lines inside a frame, instead of naming them. Sontag addresses the issue in the context of Salgado«s work. She says:

the problem is in the pictures themselves, not how and where they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertendy in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.” (p. 62)

[ to be continued … ]

≡ Sebastião Salgado by Wim Winders: does it matter if we cry? ≡

ff445202-c619-45cd-9960-34b01f2e2dec© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

ff445202-c619-45cd-996t0-34b01f2e2dec© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

The Salt of the Earth (‘Le sel de la terre’/’O sal da terra’) is a documentary by WIM WENDERS and JULIANO RIBEIRO SALGADO about the brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Sebastião’s work for the past 40 years or so has shined a light on human condition, as he traveled all over the world witnessing dramatic events, such as global warming, devastation, starvation, war, working conditions and exodus.

In the documentary, in the role of the narrator, Wenders tells how filming a photographer is not like portraying anyone else:

“I learned one thing: having a photographer in front of your camera is very different from filming anybody else. He will not just be there and act like himself, so to speak. No. By profession, he reacts and responds using his weapon of choice, his photo-camera. And then shoots back.”

In the Mongrel Media press kit both directors are interviewed and Juliano, Salgado’s oldest son, is confronted with the alleged ‘inauthentic beauty’ of his father’s work:

Interviewer: Susan Sontag spoke of the “inauthenticity of the beautiful” in Salgado’s work. How do you respond to that?

Juliano: There are two aspects to Sontag’s reproach: the supposed fascination with poverty – or death, in fact – that the photographer felt, and the fact that the subjects are not identified, unlike the photographer, who is revered at their expense. In her critique, Sontag also denounces the cynicism of the media that commission and publish these photographs. I think it’s very unfair to associate Salgado with all that. He would spend several weeks, even several months in countries that were often torn apart, which he was drawn to by his urge to bear testimony. He needs to create a relationship with the person he’s going to photograph, and says that it is the subject who ends up “giving” him the photo. The emotion, the empathy guide him. I think that comes across very well in the film.

87b70cc1-e55d-436b-a91b-c62974884b95© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

5f3a1cca-7745-4873-a22a-0c5617124564© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

Curiously enough, the documentary accentuates the status of Salgado as author, rather than as witness. I see the beauty, not the brutality, nor even the grotesque aspect of that beauty. He has such an accentuated style that it takes over the subjects. The people, the animals, the nature and the events depicted in his photographs aren’t brought to life in film, which could help understand them as part of OUR reality and not only as part of Salgado’s two-dimensional universe. I can understand that the way these pictures got to be known is not entirely his responsibility. Nevertheless, the aspect I always disliked the most is: the prints, namely their tone, contrast and hyper-silver-like quality (even if he is not behind the enlarger or the printer). In the press kit already mentioned, the interviewer also asks Wenders about the beautification of tragedy in Salgado’s work. Wenders’s answer couldn’t be any clearer:

Interviewer: Did you encourage him to comment on his photographs by taking him back to the time and place where they were taken? A Brazilian gold mine, famine in the Sahel, the genocide in Rwanda, and so on. They are, for the most part, tragic images. Did you ever find them “too beautiful”, as some have reproached him?

Wenders: In the “dark room”, we ran through Sebastião’s entire photographic oeuvre, more or less in chronological order, for a good week. It was very difficult for him – and for us too behind the camera – because some of the accounts and journeys are deeply disturbing, and a few are genuinely chilling. Sebastião felt as if he was returning to these places, and for us, these internal journeys «to the heart of darkness» were also overwhelming. Sometimes we’d stop and I had to go out for a walk to get a bit of distance on what I’d just seen and heard. As for the question of whether his photographs are too beautiful, or too aestheticized, I totally disagree with those criticisms. When you photograph poverty and suffering, you have to give a certain dignity to your subject, and avoid slipping into voyeurism. It’s not easy. It can only be achieved on condition that you develop a good rapport with the people in front of the lens, and you really get inside their lives and their situation. Very few photographers manage this.

The majority of them arrive somewhere, fire off a few photographs, and get out. Sebastião doesn’t work like that. He spends time with the people he photographs to understand their situation, he lives with them, he sympathizes with them, and he shares their lives as far as possible. And he feels empathy for them. He does this job for the people, in order to give them a voice. Pictures snapped on the hoof and photographed in a “documentary” style cannot convey the same things. The more you find the right way to convey a situation in a convincing way, the closer you come to a language which corresponds to what you’re illustrating and to the subject in front of you, the more you make a real effort to obtain a “good photo”, and the more you give nobility to your subject and make it stand out. I think that Sebastião offered real dignity to all those people who found themselves in front of his lens. His photographs aren’t about him, but about all those people!

sebastiao salgado-caceria© Sebastião Salgado, Tutsis, Ruanda, 1994/5.

Roughly one hour through the documentary and regarding the Exodus project (1993-1999), we see how Salgado has a special relation to Africa. In 1994 he goes to Ruanda to document the genocide – the massive killing of Tutsis. The image above grabbed my attention. While it stays on screen, Salgado speaks about the enormous amount of death people found along the roads and he claims (my translation): “There and then I understood the magnitude of the catastrophe I was living in. A genocide was underway in that country.

If I cry hearing Saldago’s description of the tragedies he witnessed in Ruanda is not because of his photographs but because he is living proof of such events and our humanity. That is what I admire about Salgado: having a nomadic, adventurous and activist spirit. His photographs can’t account for the conflicts in Ruanda, Mali or Congo. They’re too dynamic, too alive, they don’t fit into photographs without corrupting the nature of the events depicted. I’ll give him that. I may cry, as I often do when I hear about other world events, but how far can this empathic feeling go?

≡ The problem with expectations in the context of documentary photography (Part II) ≡

qiermpo7kpxgttqwphvm© Giovanni Troilo, J. keeps his gun hidden in a box in the woods of Bois du Cazier. This is more secure than keeping them at home since he regularly gets visits from the police., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

fpudamunvpv5hxejln5y© Giovanni Troilo, Gas supply tubes run along the houses built near the steel factories of Charleroi. Before the electric upgrade of the blast furnace, these tubes used to provide the energy needed for this operation., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

It’s the discussion everyone is having in the photography community since the 2015 World Press Photo awards were announced: Giovanni Troilo won the contemporary issues category with a visual essay about the town of Charleroi, in Belgium, entitled “The Dark Heart of Europe“. In the official site, one can read the following description “Charleroi, a town near Brussels, has experienced the collapse of industrial manufacturing, rising unemployment, increasing immigration and outbreak of micro-criminality. The roads, once fresh and neat, appear today desolated and abandoned, industries are closing down, and vegetation grows in the old industrial districts.”

So far so good, but the controversy started once claims arose about the performative nature of the photographs. Apparently, italian photographer Giovanni Troilo staged some of the photos in order to better convey a feeling of decadence of Europe. Having seen the photos, Charleroi’s mayor Paul Magnette sent a letter to  World Press Photo claiming that the award be removed on grounds of the essay not constituting a documentary portrait of Charleroi. Excerpts of such letter are all over the web. At one point Magnette writes:

“He [Giovanni] claims to be doing investigative journalism; a photo essay reflecting a simple reality. But this is far from being the case: the falsified and misleading captions, the travesty of reality, the construction of striking images staged by the photographer are all profoundly dishonest and fail to respect the codes of journalistic ethics. In our opinion, this work does not comply with the objective of the competition.”

cn5i37clib1qzwvnchpk© Giovanni Troilo, Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons, from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

This particular image above is accompanied by a caption saying “Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons”, however the author explains that the photograph was staged with a friend’s car and his cousin inside. His approach is not only questionable because of its theatricality, but mainly because it is dishonest: the captions do not correspond to the reality of the singular and individual daily life in Charleroi, instead they are used in order to apply to a virtual (and apparently universal) idea of what the darkness in Europe looks like.

ygasyk3sx6ajpvklf7rv© Giovanni Troilo, Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons, from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

This image shows  Philippe Genion as an obese and decadent man. The caption reads: “Philippe lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the town.” Not that we needed to read mayor Magnette’s response to understand the inauthenticity of such an image, for it is obviously overstaged and sensationalist, but he adds to the confusion by saying:

“Mr. G. is a prominent figure, earthy and very attached to his region. Far from the image given him by photographer who seems to have wanted to build his image by referring to the ‘neurotic obesity’ mentioned in the introductory text of Giovanni Troilo.”

Journalist Caroline Lallemand (for Le Vif) interviewed belgian photographer Thomas Van Den Driessche about the controversy and at one point he says (my translation):

“Let’s take the example of corpulent man posing in his interior space. The dramatic lighting of the scene and the caption of the photo suggest that this person is a recluse inside his own home to escape violence in his neighborhood. This is actually Philippe Genion, a well-known personality in Charleroi who loves posing topless. He lives in a popular neighborhood, but relatively peaceful. His house is also a wine bar. So we are far from the image referring to the “neurotic obesity” conveyed by the photographer. Philippe Genion has also given several specific details about Troilo’s team mise-en-scène on its Facebook page. He specified that the photographer had clearly told him that he “was not doing a documentary, but a photography project”. For me, it’s another serious deontological mistake to have presented his work in such a way.”

The issue is far from over. Troilo is yet to respond to mayor Magnette’s letter and the World Press Photo jury is expected to explain their position regarding the story at hands. But what is really expected? That photography be a document of reality when we know it to be always subjective? That near-documentary photographs be discredited by their theatricality even though they often present a better visual understanding of a particular social reality? That manipulation be 100% excluded from photojournalist practice, even if the barriers between documentary and photojournalism keep being blurred? Or may it be that our problem concerns not the photographer, not the images, but the man who comes forth as an author? May it be that the core of the problem deals with the overall authority of a man’s words and his authenticity?

evtm9oyflksjfrgnbyje© Giovanni Troilo, The newest and tallest building in Charleroi is the 75-meter-high police station., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

kg75csiwtze5hdgyo25h© Giovanni Troilo, Vadim, a painter who uses live models, creates a work inspired by an existing painting., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

٠ Oh, no!!! Here comes the western man again ٠

nelson

When the New York Times reviewed Jimmy Nelson’s work “Before they pass away” the writer Andrew Katz called his body of work “Portraits of the Authentics“. The concept of authenticity, in the art world, is nothing but a word. It serves the rhetoric of what’s original, genuine, singular, unique, and so on. We got used to hearing things being qualified as authentic not only in relation to the specificities of the work in question (whether it is an original or a copy; a singular work or a multiple; a genuine or a fake), but also in relation to the content of the work itself. The “things” depicted, presented, represented or evoked in the works became also the measure by which we talk about authenticity. But when we use the term in this context we are not so much referring to the rhetoric of authenticity within the artworld, but mainly to the philosophical roots of the word, even if we are not aware of it.

Jimmy Nelson’s work in question is the result of three-and-a-half years spent documenting vanishing cultures. […] Spending up to two weeks with each culture, Nelson would locate, meet, connect with and photograph these “last of the untouched.” After a guide or translator made an initial introduction, Nelson would step in to begin forming a bond and eventually get people to pose—in the jungle, on a mountaintop, in a river. Using the 4×5 plate camera, always in soft light, didn’t just slow him down and focus his concentration; it enabled him to directly confront his subjects. He would always be positioned lower than they were, and they would be seated or standing higher, above him, like icons. Getting them to remain still for a four-to-five-second shutter was a feat in itself. And stripping himself of his own modern-day arrogance and colonialist nature came with time.m

Katz also states that Each location was picked for its geographic remoteness and each tribe selected for its authenticity, rather than its anthropologic vulnerability, but what in the hell is the purpose of this redundancy?

The concept of Authenticity is an existential one. From Kierkegaard to Camus, several philosophers have tried to answer these questions: What does it mean to live an authentic life?; How can one live authentically? Although there are still no answers to this day, as we can see in this NYT piece, it doesn’t stop people from describing something as “authentic”, as though it meant something. It doesn’t. A close reading of the article allows me to pin down a couple of synonyms to Katz’s understanding of “authentic”, namely “untouched” and “pure”. But is there such a thing as an essence or a human nature? Aren’t we over the romantic ideal of the noble savage?

In an article about Nelson’s work for “Africa is a Country”, Zachary Rosen calls his portraits ‘ethnographic’, rather then authentic. He states that in the images, members of various ethnic groups from around the world are depicted to convey the idyllic aesthetic of the lives they supposedly lead in their rustic and isolated environments.

Contrary to what was said in the NYT, here the strength of the portraits allude to another set of adjectives, such as ‘sincerity’ or ‘honesty’, with which we can qualify characters, identities, but not consciousnesses. Also, ‘sincerity’ implies a social contract and social expectations to which the “sincere person” then complies to. Rosen goes on to say that the scenes have been deliberately constructed to capitalize on the photographer’s own vision of these groups. While such images certainly elicit awe and amazement, they can distract us from asking questions about their creation and the nature of their representation.  […]

By looking beyond the photographic frame and taking the social context of this body of work into account, a few observations come to light. The rhetoric Nelson uses to describe his images strongly characterizes the Western fantasy of the noble savage, whose ancient culture, unchanged for thousands of years, has been passed over by evolution. This is achieved by linking the romantic traditional aesthetic captured in the images with repetition, in his interviews and promo materials, of phrases designed to emphasize supposed authenticity such as “flawless human beauty”, “original human art” and “purity of Mankind”. Indeed the morose name of the project, Before They Pass Away, laments the loss of these supposedly untouched cultures.

Rosen also says that Nelson produces artificial images, dressing subjects in traditional attire, stripping them and their environments of objects deemed to be foreign and posing them to his liking. He is in effect, attempting to determine what is authentic as an outsider, denying the dynamic histories of the people he stalks. In fact, if the philosophers of authenticity, namely Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus, agreed on something it was on authenticity being something dynamic that no one could ever possess. Authenticity is a verb: to be authentic, to act authentically; no inanimate object, such as a photograph can be or became authentic, nor can it depict authenticity. In respect to its medium, it can be an original or a copy, but never it can never be authentic for such a quality implies that there is consciousness.

Rosen suggests that the most troubling aspect of Nelson’s work is what it says about ourselves and I must agree. His work has been celebrated, and he has been praised as though he was a modern discoverer, bringing back from his expeditions the sort of objects supposed to capture the spirit of the colonized people. When Nelson stripped these people of their context he takes away their humanity, for he turns them into objects, all looking alike – different from us. Don’t be fooled, this is not naif, but rather a work rooted in bad faith.

The article in “Africa is a Country” leaves the reader with these questions and I shall do that too: What is this strange admiration of authenticity that romantic “tribal” images readily tap into? Do they make us feel more advanced? Do we need to counter the perceived boredom of our “modern” lives with something exotic and different?

٠ Tim Hetherington’s quest for signs of humanity ٠

Untitled-1 copyThe Documentary Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, directed by Sebastian Junger, full str**ming here

٠ Thomas Susanka’s ‘The Rhetorics of Authenticity: Photographic Representations of War’ (II of II) ٠

(continuation. part I here)

capa_life

PROXIMITY AND IMMEDIACY

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 suppon notions of truthfulness and accordance with real-life events.

(…)

The sense of temporal immediacy is created by freeze-framing an instantaneous moment, a certain constellation of people and objects, an unforeseen moment in the combat. The photographer Henri Canier-Bresson referred to this moment famously as the ‘decisive moment’ in photography. The notion of immediacy counters the suspicion of staging with the help of a seemingly spontaneous organization of the image. An imponant aspect of photographic authenticity, according to Elke Grittman, is that the photograph has to establish the impression that its subject was caught in a moment otherwise unobserved; that the subject is unaware of the camera, and his actions, therefore, do not appear to be merely performed for the camera. Perhaps the most famous image of war that creates this impres ion is Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier – despite the heavy debate about the photograph’s authenticity. Apart from subject matter, purely formal devices are often also instrumental in creating a sense of temporal immediacy. First and foremost, this can be achieved by an organic, snap-shot-like composition that reveals its formal logic only upon second glance, as opposed to images that feature a manifest system of organization that overtly reveals their compositionality.

Both spatial proximity and temporal immediacy reflect the notion that the construction of authenticity in war photography is defined by the interaction of form and content. Even though the subject matter intuitively seems to be central to a picture’s potential to appear authentic, it is not merely the subject matter and the fact that it was recorded with a camera that makes an image authentic. Authenticity is always connected to a certain style of depiction, and this style most often aims to create the impression that the picture was taken rather than made. (…) Pictures seem to make a stronger claim to authenticity when they hide the fact that they are constructed images and suggest that they are either unmediated pieces of reality (a window to the world, the captured gaze of the bystander) or the result of a spontaneous, unplanned and seemingly unintentional act of photographing without thinking about how to make the picture look good. In this sense, Volker Wortmann points to the paradox of creating the impression of authenticity by consciously pursuing an aesthetic strategy that tries to suggest that there is no conscious aestheticizing going on in the first place.

KratochvilIraqIraq. Photograph by Antonin Kratochvil

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: DEFICIENT IMAGES AND CHANGE OF PERSPECTIVE

…we can observe two prominent strategies for establishing authenticity. The first is a playful engagement with the mediality of photography. Essentially, these photographs seem to highlight the medium and strike the beholder as unconventional insofar as they work by means of stylistic irritations (mainly with excessive blurring and tilting of the camera). The second strategy is the shift of perspective from that of a bystander to that of an actual agent in war. Both strategies seem to highlight the experience of war and aim at a more emotional appeal, since they try to present a more subjective and impressionist account of wartime events. And in this sense, these are clearly strategies that aim to create the idea of authentic images of war, giving the beholder the impression of being immersed in the conflict, seemingly annulling the distancing effect of medial communication and thereby getting closer to an authentic depiction of war.

(…)in recent war photography, the blur is used more freely as a stylistic effect in order to insinuate movement and action and hence goes along with the notion of immediacy. (…) Another newly observable stylistic irritation is a heightened use of tilting the image. For a long time, the standard for war photography that aimed to hide its mediality was normal human vision.(…) Now, however, photographers present pictures that suspend this rule of balance.(…) The result is vexing images that suggest movement and spontaneity during the process of imagemaking. These images seemingly imply that they were taken rather intuitively, without the photographer stylistically engaging in the act of representation (even though we may note how well-composed these images are, nevertheless). Similar to the blur, the appeal of authenticity of these images lies in the fact that they seemingly eliminate the intentionality of the photographer by transgressing an aesthetic norm.

ChrisMorrisChechenSoldierA Chechen soldier fleeing the destroyed Presidential Palace, 1995. Photograph by Christopher Morris

Both devices, the blur and the tilt, overtly defy the common standards of journalistic photography. But by overtly violating conventional conceptions of ‘objective photography,’ they also counter the suspicion of deception. After all, it is obvious in the era of Photoshop manipulation that flawless images can easily be created. An openly flawed image might strike us as more convincing, as it seemingly (and deceptively) lays its emphasis not on form but on content. But there is also another level on which devices like blurring and tilting seem to authenticate photographs – namely because tilts and blurs usually occur under extreme conditions, such as in combat action, where there may not always be enough time and it may be too dangerous to handle the camera properly. Thus, these photographs place emphasis on the moment at which they were taken and highlight the heat of the battle, underscoring their claim to authentic representation. (…) Through overt play with the medium, photographers employing this strategy aim to achieve authenticity by suggesting spontaneity and unimentionality.

(…)

Indeed, it seems as if the stylistic devices used by war photographers reflect contemporary conceptions of photographic truth – namely that despite its fervent appeal to our sense of authenticity, photography is a highly subjective and personal way of approaching the events of history. This points to a decisive change in the conceptions of photography after the digital tum: namely that photographic authenticity is no longer connected to the objectivity of representation but to the subjectivity of the represented experience.

Excerpts from an article by Thomas Susanka, published in “Paradoxes of Authenticity”, pp.95-113, edited by Julia Straub and published by transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2012

┐ Jason Florio └

© Jason Florio, KNLA – Karen National Liberation Army freedom fighter (left) + KNLA fighter carrying wood (right), from the series Burma, from the project Blackout History

© Jason Florio, Karen Civilians, from the series Burma, from the project Blackout History

© Jason Florio, KNLA – Karen National Liberation Army cook with bamboo water jugs on his back (left) +
KNLA – Karen National Liberation Army fighter (right), from the series Burma, from the project Blackout History

“For 62 years, in what is now the world’s longest ongoing conflict, the ill-fed and ill-equipped people of Karen have been fighting for an independent homeland against the ruling Burmese military government. “The Karen people have been locked in a David-and-Goliath conflict with a powerful authoritarian regime that seeks to push the Karen people off the map. The junta is applying a brutal, systematic policy of murder, rape, forced labor and wholesale destruction of Karen villages,” reports the award-winning photographer.


Working on assignment in the Karen State in 2010, Florio was enamored by the calm resilience of the Karen people, both soldiers and civilians, of who all seem to possess a quiet determination. Florio was so moved by the stoic and serene nature of the Karen people, and horrified by their stories of the human rights violations against them. Self -funded, he decided to return in February 2011, to bring the face of the Karen people and their under reported struggle for survival against the brutal junta, to a wider audience.”

More of Jason’s work here

┐ Johann Rousselot └

© Johann Rousselot, Degage espece de chien. Benghazi, Libye, Mars 2011

© Johann Rousselot, Massacre d’innocents – Liberte – Sois patient Khadafi, tu es en train de creuser ta tombe. Benghazi, Libye, Mars 2011.

© Johann Rousselot, Maintenant je suis un humain libre – La grace de dieu pour les martyrs du 17 fevrier. Benghazi, Libye, Mars 2011.

These photographs from Libya are part of a bigger project, called Colères. Note from the author:

“Portraits réalisés à Benghazi et vers la ligne de front à Brega. Tous les graffitis et slogans ont été trouvés sur les murs de la ville ou à l’intérieur du centre des médias sur la place de la Mahkama à Benghazi. Qui ont donné la direction principale de l’inspiration graphique de cette série.Montages et collages réalisés en post-production.”

NOTE: be advised this video compilation contains some images that are very graphic and may disturb some viewers.
Russelot’s edit is not gratuitously violent, his video also carries interviews and includes a particularly chilling slideshow of personal images found on the cell phone of one of Assad’s bully-boy militiamen.
It is hard to watch these brutal accounts coming out of Syria via personal cell phone and home video clips. Hard because these images are shockingly graphic and unforgiving. And difficult too, because this happened yesterday, it happened today and it will happen again tomorrow – unnoticed or unremarked on by the world at large.
Where fresh hopes of spring turned into a listless summer of dreaming, a darkenning realism is prevalent in autumn it would seem. Not all dictators are equal and not all aspirations for freedom are supported.

More of Johann’s work here

┐ “a terra é de quem a trabalha, os fascistas comem palha” └

yesterday, in Portugal.
some thoughts on what is changing amidst the sort of protests we create here (pt). Also, just for foreigners, a brief description of the events via BBC. I don’t feel like elaborating on what’s happened just now. I’ll come back once my film is processed to share some images. For now a glimpse through the eyes of another:

© D.R.

© Ângelo Lucas/Global Imagens

© Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP

┐ Davide Monteleone – Northern Caucasus └

© David Monteleone, Daghestan, Russia, 2009. Ghimri, during a bull sacrifice

© David Monteleone, Republic of Ingushetia, 2010. Nazran, during a wedding

© David Monteleone, Republic of Chechnya, 2010. Old portrait of Sheik Mansur and Sheik Artzanov

“At first there was the Russian Empire, Saint Petersburg’s splendour, nobles’ dynasties set against commons far and distant, scattered on an unlimited country. Later on came communism’s turn, with its pyramidal hierarchy, its ideology imposed without any discussion for a “superior common good” that revealed itself utopian and elusive. Walls and curtains finally fell down, but renewal’s winds were broken off by the chill of something more indefinite and creeping. Something nobody talks about, but nobody can dispute. A dictatorship replaced by another, worst.

Therefore time passed over counts and masters, hierarchs and politicians, arms of the law and armed arms. And all the past reflects itself in people’s eyes. A population that becomes silent and fierce, strong and proud, persons for whom an endearment never last long, family’s ceremonial is reduced to the least, men and women live suspended in a time space different from that one of the rest of the world. Places where blood has flown too much, where too often it is forbidden to mourn one’s own dead, where screams become mute, and hiding turned into habit. Caucasus’ regions.

The Caucasus is a concentrate of stereotypes as well as surprises. For centuries it has been land of political, religious, military and expansionistic rivalry, cruel struggle between opposing States and also between allied states. Ever since the beginning of the 19th century this region has been part of the tsarist Russian Empire, later absorbed by the Soviet Bloc.

The 1991 radical transformations involving the entire Warsaw Pact coalition, and the storm caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, got new and ancient disputes resurfaced, and in some cases worsen, and revived political and economic aims of supremacy in the area.

This project takes into account the countries in which disputes and struggles are not over yet or only apparently seem concluded, as intermittent fires under the political rhetoric of “normalization” and “pacification”. I began to investigate the daily life of people living in the Northern Caucasus, who are still divided between the claim for independence and the pride for their diversity, economic subordination, the historical-political and mental affiliation, condemned to an eternal geographic position in an oblivion, the elaboration of a new post-soviet identity.”

David’s statement

More of his work here

┐ Direct Action └

© Javier Barbancho

LEADERS of a workers’ union in southern Spain staged a massive raid on two supermarkets on Tuesday, filling at least 30 trolleys with staple foodstuffs to give to the poor.


They gave their entire haul to local ‘food banks’ which supply hampers to families who no longer have any income to be able to feed themselves.


The Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT), or workers’ union of the Andalucía region, staged an uninvited supermarket sweep on Mercadona in Écija (Sevilla) and Carrefour in Arcos de la Frontera (Cádiz).


Their misplaced Robin Hood impression annoyed management at Mercadona, a national firm which is very well known for, and has received great praise for its social responsibility programmes.


All staff are on a minimum net wage of 1,200 euros a month for full-time hours, never work Sundays or bank holidays – except where at least four non-working days are strung together – and some have crèches for children of employees.


Last year alone, the chain created 6,500 new jobs, and it actively seeks to take on employees with mental or physical disabilities, who would otherwise struggle to fend for themselves.


“We resent the fact that we were forced in this way to give to charity, when our own charitable operations close to home are already extremely active and well-developed,” said a representative of Mercadona.


Mayor of Marinaleda (Sevilla), Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, is thought to have been involved in the Mercadona raid.


The regional minister for the interior has given the green light for all parties involved who are found to be arrested and tried.

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.

┐ Ruben Salvadori └

© Ruben Salvadori, Photojournalism Behind the Scenes

Quando se junta a fome à vontade de comer…

Another portray of how dishonest conflict photographs and photojournalism in general can be. While in Jerusalem, Italian Photographer Ruben Salvadori began to take interest in the role of the photographer instead of focusing on the role the usual suspects play.

Not that it adds much to the discussion but one shouldn’t give up on bringing attention to the issue of fallacy within photojournalism.

Found in disinformation

Ruben’s web place here