WahJnr responds with his usual eloquence and intelligence below. I believe his thoughts are essential reading for all photojournalists.
This is the failure of education, ideology and intellect. This is why the industry fails to attract capital from the outside world. This is why the photographic agencies run by the perpetuators of this ideological paradigm will not be the centre of the revolution that is coming.
When I say revolution, I do not mean technological or some sort of violent overthrow based on the misery of the masses. It is through research and the application of a more self aware ideology where the public are not patronised and engaged instead.
Remove this layer of moral superiority within the ivory towers of the art, gallery, academic, photographic and agency world free from the scrutiny of the public and the audience might start listening….
This is a strong statement but lets ask a few questions:-
1. Do the public know that there is suffering in the world?
2. Do people know disease exists in the world?
3. Do the public believe in the visions of Africa given by the photographic world as fair?
4. Do the public understand that capitalism is not perfect?
5. Do the public know that disease kills the poor more than the rich?
6. Do the public understand that war has some pretty brutal and visceral acts on the edge of human behaviour?
I think the answer to all of these, is a resounding “YES”. Next question is to ask “What value is being added here by photojournalism?”
I took a friend to some shows to see their responses to the work being shown by an aid agency who hired an agency photojournalist. It became apparent that the aid agency was staffed with the white western democratic and my friend just happened to be black western democratic, first generation British, universally educated and a high ranking professional.
What can we say about the emotions of the person I took to the show?
How do we think he felt about a series of images of western aid agencies going into a black community to help those who cannot help themselves? The individual was a first generation african descent professional who cares deeply about his country and personal identity. How did he feel to be surrounded by the audience looking at the images saying “How terrible, we must help these poor people who cannot help themselves”.
The same can be said of my eastern european friend who nearly every time there is a photo story about eastern european people that they see, they are invariably poor and distressed. Is this helping the understanding of a whole demographic dealing with a post communist/pre capitalist history trying to move forward? They reel with anger and rage as all they are doing is enforcing stereotypes or more importantly enforcing the status quo. They make it harder for this person to be seen as an individual. Sure it looks good but is that enough?
Every time I see a portrait of China, it never does anything to promote understanding. They claim to show awareness but of what? That a developing country can sometimes get it wrong during times of industrialisation? Coal is bad for the environment? Large factories are depersonalising? Workers in mass producing factories do not get the luxury of sitting in their photo agency offices looking at negatives and discussing the politics of representation. They need to feed their kids. Do they think the factories in Texas employing cheap labour for profit look any different?
In all of the stories above, just look at trip advisor and the public comments pages. Look at how many people have been to parts of the world that photojournalists have been to and read their world views.
I see many attempts at the agencies to change the way they communicate – using social networking, new formats, new presentational strategies for their photographers but I once had a conversation with a think tank who collaborated with a big name in photojournalist to promote their work on the subject of TB.
“Their way of looking at the world is dead, no matter what they try. The world has moved on”
This is why the industry fails to attract enough private capital to move forward. People out there care. Look at the Haiti response, the Tsunami, a million people marching against the Iraq war in London… people care.
Individualising stories to make a point is one method of provoking the emotive response of giving. That has got conventional and the public are too sophisticated in the internet era to fall for it as much as they used to. Look at the response to the devastation in Pakistan and the response in the world. Rightly and wrongly, people have made up their minds and the scale of giving has been reduced.
Look at the successful work out there… Salgado avoided stereotyping but being so broad as to reveal the structures of globalisation beyond the imagery in his frames. He avoided the usual accusations of colonialism by the depth of his understanding and contextualisation. Paulo Woods’ work in Iran is broad enough to cover many demographics so the public get a bigger picture without suffering. Susan Meiselas, Eugene Richards, Nan Goldin, and Jonas Bendiksen all offer hope in their sensitivity and intelligence but they are the minority.
Photojournalism has fallen in love with itself and it is wondering why the public does not follow. Listen at how photojournalists provide an opinion online over their own work in voice overs and ask “What value does that add to me”. Why has the cult of the individual taken over?
It is simple – the cult of personality works better in a world outside of market scrutiny where capital is allocated by human decision making. Get close to the decision makers and you’ll get aid. Get close to the grant givers and you get funds for your shoot. Make them feel personally guilty and they will be compelled to act and donate grants.
People who are employed to give out grants work on the basis of their decision making ability and can only give to people they know to the best of their ability. An so they should – this is no criticism of them at all. Yet there is no point being a brilliant photojournalist who has just graduated these days as everyone is looking after their own economic interest in order to get close to these grant givers.
In business, this is called “punitive barriers to entry” leading to stress and emotional regret and a massive brain and talent drain as people leave disillusioned. The industry gets smaller. Ask any central banker would they prefer protectionism or competition?
Ask any aspiring photographer on the outside what it is like to get in? Ask them do they trust the decision making of that industry. Look at the demographics high up in those agencies.
There is a rush for the creation of stars online as agencies streamline their product to match their hits recorded on their own websites. This is dangerous as it is no surprise that want-to-be-photojournalists go to an agency site to see how others have become stars, in order to produce work good enough to get in themselves. Is this true? Ask how many talks are given by photographers that are attended by non-photographers.
I look at the protectionism present in the corporate actions of some of these agencies and ask if this matches their high moral standards. I have come across some awful behaviours from organisations presenting themselves on the moral high ground in order to protect their own interests. And I am not trying to be a photographer!
This is suicide.
Are they going to reach new audiences in a significant enough way to help the graduating generation of photographers? Or are they just trying to maximise the income of their own “stars” that will inevitably end up in ever decreasing amounts of social significance as the outside world ask “Why am I looking at this”.
Why would anybody want to fund the continuation of this business model and a dependency culture that incentivises these behaviours? The smart money is going elsewhere because it works better.
It goes all they way back to the headline “shanty towns without context”. Would any of us want to go to the ill, poor and displaced of the world and stare into their lives in order to feel bad about it? Maybe it is these agency photographers who get a buzz out of being around suffering. It is like laughing at someone who trips on a banana skin relishing the fact that is was not me.
I would rather know what is being done, why it happens and the context, context, context… I want to learn something new and see what is being done.
As usual, I stereotype the bad to make an objective structural point effectively. There is a huge amount of greatness out there and the public needs to be engaged. Not just with clever online technologies but with the power of progressive ideas that people can buy into. This can be done but not from within – it has to come from the outside as the industry has had decades to come up with something new and it has not.