Christopher Morris, ‘Shut up, stop thinking for yourself and kneel before the almighty war photographer’s pictures’. Rafiqui., ‘Err, maybe not tonight Chris’.Written by duckrabbit
I’m posting his comment in full below as well as a response from Asim Rafiqui, who recieved The Aftermath grant in 2009. Its worth pointing out that its simply not true that duckrabbit criticized the media for printing stories about Tim Hetherington or Chris Hondros.
Year after year, decade after decade photographers have documented war. Rarely are they in the news, rarely do they become the story. For a generation now they have provided a glimpse into humankind at it’s worse. They have done so at great personal sacrifice, they have set out to do this work for a multitude of personal reasons.
Armchair photojournalists can sit back and criticize the motives, they can find many faults with the industry, that on rare occasion, speak about men and women who risk everything to document history.
This is not sports photography, nor fashion photography, not your average form of photojournalism. This is photography that requires the photographer to face the fact that when he leaves for his assignment, there is the chance that the will not come home. With the added stress of knowing that he may be maimed for life.
How many of you do that when you pack your camera bags to go off to work?
I say leave them alone. If someone wants to do a story on them, if someone wants to write a book or make a movie about them. Then so bit it.
Talk to Jaoa Silva, laid up in a hospital. Talk to him about sacrifice. Criticize him with your pompous accusations. Criticize the media that wrote stories about Hetheringon and Chris. You think that is fair, you do the real injustice to them. They bled to death in some foreign shit hole. Doing what they loved. Leave them alone. Admire their pictures and their courage. Stop judging them and the ones that want to write about them.
Do you think the photographers that put themselves out there on the extreme edge of society do it so they can get a write up in the media about themselves? For this… all of you are totally wrong.
Asim Rafiqui, who was the recipient of The Aftermath grant in 2009 (please note the first version of this text was not meant for publication, this is an amended version) :
What is perhaps most difficult to keep apart whenever such a discussion comes up is the person from the issue. too often people will attempt to shut up discussion and criticism by offering individuals as examples, as if somehow any one photojournalist’s experience or career can stand for, or represent the various institutions,personal and professional motivations and other factors that define the field of photojournalism and journalism. The use of such ‘martyrs’ as a way to shut up dissent or criticism is of course a classic strategy, used not just by those writing comments here, but even by major governments around the world. This is the great willy horton strategy used by George Bush to silence his opponents, to grab the higher moral ground, to sow the seeds of fear while exploiting the not-so-below-the-surface prejudice against the other. And hence it seems that even here, as we attempt to understand the senseless risks that photographers and journalists often choose to and others times feel compelled by pressures personal and professional to confront, and the meaning and value of the outcomes, there are those who insist that we cannot do so.
There is something ironic, if not hypocritical, about a self proclaimed journalist asking others not to criticize, not to examine, not to question and not to investigate. our proclaimed ethics do not seem to apply to us.
Some of our esteemed colleagues want us seems to want us to wallow in the foundational myths of photojournalism and just not ask any questions. A photojournalist asks that we not turn the critical eye and mind to ourselves. This is not a tenable situation, and certainly not one that even our journalist colleagues would advocate. They want things to be as they are. They want us to, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to accept the myth that war photographers are individual moral crusaders out to act as witnesses to man’s inhumanity to man. Yes, that they are a group of veritable Mother Theresas with zoom lenses, the moral conscience of our modernity, who selflessly step out there into the danger zone bringing back for us documents of history. This is good enough because some people parley this myth for various reasons. They do not want us to ask the hard questions that may reveal something to us about the futility and pointlessness of war zone work, the sheer propaganda that is the outcome of embedded photography, the simplistic, near voyeuristic focus of their obsession with violence, blood and the spectacle of the murder, the staggering silence that such photographers offers about the ‘other’, their general indifference to the real implications and the real victims of the war, the strong relationship war photography has with the economics of newspaper sales, the well documented and discussed fact that war is addictive for no other reason that it gives our work attention and the attention is addictive.
Hundreds of journalists have died in America’s wars alone. We as Americans have a special responsibility to ask the questions. As the two reuters cameramen (and many civilians) were gunned down in cold blood by american military helicopter pilots we were moved to ask not just about the hideousness of that act, but also about the role of the photographer and the risks involved. But it seems that the recent death of Hondros and Hetherington are being used as an excuse to not only beatify them as saints, but to also silence any attempt to challenge the presumptions, motivation, exploitation and intent of what they thought they must do while working as war reporters. So we are now told that we must not ask any questions. We must only sit back and let paeans to ‘martyrs’ remain paeans to ‘martyrs’. This is especially biting when it comes from an esteemed photojournalist colleague who is arguing that an industry and the practice of its practitioners not be challenged or questioned, that this is not our job. A journalist asks that there be no self criticism, self examination, or debate. He asks for acquiescence, for mindless repetition and acceptance of the works and intent of those in the power to say so. He asks for nothing to change. That we only bow in front of the empty platitudes.
It is a sign of our craft that very few reflective works have been written that expose the myths of war reporting, and the motivations of those who pursue it. There are some works that in fact tear apart the silly mythology that war reporters are simply messianic figures placing themselves at the cross of history to save our souls. Chris Hedges’, no armchair reporters, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning or even the disturbing A Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So and brilliant explorations of the many human motivations that go to inform the drive and needs of war reporters. kagan’s shutterbabe: adventures in love and war also touched on some troubling questions in this regard. but perhaps most importantly, these books reminded us that men and women are moved to action, and to addiction, to report war for reasons that are far from noble, moral and self sacrificial. Perhaps there are some who are such elevated individuals, but that even within them we would be wrong to erase human needs and desire for attention, success, greed, mimicry, or a simple desperate need to be ‘where the action is’ simply in the hope that it will make their work relevant. We as reporters are at times some of these things, at times all of these things, and at times none of them.
I can’t accept that, for if we are not willing to open a discussion about the methods and meaning of this craft now as so many of our colleagues lie in cemeteries and hospitals, then when should we open a debate about it? We are being told that we should not challenge, we should not question. they want us to be a peanut gallery of mindless morons clapping away to the foolish interpretations and representations of what passes for the job of the war photographer. His arguments are simply hysteria and emotional blackmail, exploiting the conditions of his friends who may be lying in hospitals from injuries, as a means to curtail a discussion of whether it was a ‘sacrifice’ or professional and irresponsibility that got him there.
There are many individual experiences of war reportage, and even if we grant the messianic impulses of some individuals, including perhaps this critic, we will still have to discuss the rest of us mere mortals and our place in this craft and how we can produce works that are something more than voyeurism and sensationalism. that is, how can we produce reportage that informs, educates, and elevates itself to a genuine understanding of the many political, social, human and historical forces that go to make something we can call history.
We have a right to question because we are in the field and many are wondering what the hell we are doing there and at what risk. The strongest questions are coming not from armchair journalists, but actually working ones. And often these questions come in the form of walking away from conflict photography itself once its futility and its meaninglessness becomes apparent. There are many who have walked away, and I would argue, many more who have walked away at the realization of the futility and foolishness of it. And others who have walked away because they have realized that the frontline is the wrong place to tell the stories of a war, and the real documentation of it that can later be called history. Many have walked away to create war reportage from new and more insightful vantage points. That the heat of battle is not necessarily the best reporting place. This is something which greats like Philip Jones Griffith and Don Mccullin realized as well. We need to provoke a meaningful discussion and not indulge in diatribes meant to shut us up. Of course all this has been lost in the recent celebrations of war photography, and the continued depiction of the war reporter as hero. this myth creation was examined well in works such as Knightley’s The First Casualty; The War Correspondent As Hero And Myth-Maker From The Crimea To Kosovo. the latter work also reveals the myriad of commercial, corporate, profiteering and propagandist forces that inform the motivations of so many, and of so much that passes for war reportage and photography.
All this of course we cannot discuss as photojournalists. we must remain quiet.
This debate started with a criticism of a new grant. It veered as if often the case these days of any criticism of anything to do with photojournalism, towards the defense of the personal and the individual. We have to go back to the original intent. I think that the founders of the Aftermath grant have attempted to engage in the discussion and not simply scream that we should shut up. It is from such an attitude that we can hope to grow as practitioners and as an industry. One of the strengths of the Aftermath grant was that it attempted to create a new dialogue on war reportage and has been determined to pusue that argument. Iwrite this in a rush, so all gaps of logic and argument are mine and I accept that. But I just wanted to say that asking us to not question is absolutely the wrong response, and the most irresponsible one.
I will end by simply pointing out that my greatest regret is that no editors ever participate in these dialogues. They remain the gatekeepers of the craft and yet remain so distant, so silent. As photojournalists we produce work for them, and are frequently driven to produce work that we believe they want from us, and yet there are absent here. Oh well.