I came across two thought-provoking image series one day last week. Each one was technically superb, the result of painstaking work by talented and committed photographers. Both dealt with difficult and contentious issues, of (sexual) exploitation, rural isolation and social marginalization. Both were ‘documentary’ projects, made by photojournalists. However one was ‘fact’ but presented as ‘fiction’, the other ‘fiction’ but presented as ‘fact’.
Daniella Zalcman, in Mashable, presents obviously ‘manipulated’ images of members of Canada’s indigenous populations in her project ‘Lost Generations‘. These are striking double-exposures, in muted tones, that explore the experience and consequences of forcible assimilation into Canadian culture that affected many indigenous children.
“In the 1840s, the Canadian government established the Indian Residential School system, a network of church-run boarding schools created to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the dominant culture of Canada.
The children who attended these facilities — coming from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities — were punished for speaking their native languages or observing indigenous traditions. They were routinely physically and sexually abused, both by the teachers who ran the schools and by older students who had typically been assaulted themselves. In some extreme instances, students were subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization by teachers and school administrators.
The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.”
Zalcman describes her underlying idea:
I paired individuals with sites where residential schools once stood, government documents that enforced strategic assimilation and places where First Nations peoples now struggle to persevere. Each double exposure contains an echo of trauma, which lingers even during the healing process, as languages and traditions return.
The result is a series of intriguing multi-layered images that tease and provoke the viewer.
Multiple exposure images are interesting. You may record one layer with deliberate intent and accuracy, and then a second layer, again with great precision, but the ‘third layer’ – that amalgam of both – is where the alchemy occurs, and where the power resides.
In contemplating these complex visual creations, and through their multi-layered metaphors, the viewer is forced to confront the shape-shifting reality of the subject’s lives. These are lives rooted in trauma, yet in these images those pictured confront that knowledge head-on, bound irrevocably to it by reference to place or text, but in that ‘third layer’ of ‘fiction’ living and growing beyond the narrow confines of that experience. The result is cathartic for the subject, and I personally find them to be profoundly moving, and inspiring.
“……….captures a unique view of prostitution happening in urban and rural roadside locations along Spain’s Meditarranean coast in The Waiting Game……….
………Knowing that these women would likely not want their photos taken for obvious reasons, Salvans cleverly disguised himself as a surveyor, accompanied by an assistant carrying a surveyor’s pole. He managed to get some fascinating shots, ones that present these women in a much larger context. We see quiet moments of waiting, unaware of what these women may have just experienced or of what’s to come.” (quote from article by Amanda Gorence)
Salvans’ images are quite beautiful, the Mediterranean light is allowed to dominate and the sense of heat and space is beautifully wrought. My disquiet however comes from the ‘fiction’ they present.
Image @ Txema Salvans
The question they raise for me is: are these really prostitutes?
The photographer doesn’t know for sure, he never asked them, so all he’s doing is guessing. I could produce the same images and say these women are “…ikea chair testers…” or “…women waiting for taxi to go to a party…” or “…researchers looking at Post-Industrial Society Structural Change and Service Sector Employment in Spain…“ and dare you to contradict me. The problem is that IF these women were actually doing any of the things I mentioned, to call them “prostitutes” could have consequences for them that did not exist before that label was arbitrarily applied to them.
Cameras work both ways. They reveal two sides. We have no idea who the women in front of the camera are, nor what they are doing. But we certainly know what the man was doing.
Where is the fiction? I think it is everywhere in this work. In fact its foundation is a fiction too:
…..the women ‘saw’ a man dressed up and assumed he was a surveyor, but he was actually a ‘photographer’.
…..the photographer ‘saw’ a woman dressed up and assumed she was a prostitute, but she could have been anything.
Without the voice of the subject, the only ‘truth’ this represents is the photographer’s, and his is a somewhat disingenuous voice.
The wider, and potentially troubling implication of this work, is that women anywhere, dressed similarly and in a quiet roadside location, can be legitimate subjects for speculation and assumption about their profession and social status; and there may follow undesirable consequences. That makes me distinctly uncomfortable.
Simply presenting the work as a thematic series and leaving the ‘assumptions’ about the subject’s presence and profession to the viewer would have been far more appropriate. In doing so it would more accurately reflect the reality of the situation, ‘turning the tables’ in a sense, raising questions about the viewer’s experience and knowledge, and allowing THEIR interpretation to create the ‘reality’ that these images may represent. And that ‘reality’ may only be a ‘fiction’ in their mind. Without the labels already guessed at and applied by the author, the women can be whatever the viewer wants them to be.
And it’s worth remembering that when not in these locations, and defined simply by geography, these women are I would ‘guess’, something else: friend, mother, daughter, sister, lover, cook, driver, cleaner, lawyer, physicist.
Labeling them, as the photographer has done, has I feel reduced the impact of this work. Labeling anyone, in the absence of their own voice and description of self, can be potentially damaging.
Comment by TOM JANVIER, DENE SULINÉ from Daniella Zalcman’s ‘Lost Generations’
Daniella Zalcman hits the ethical nail bang on the head when she says:
But one of the many problems with images depicting drug use, alcoholism and poverty is that they can do more to shame and stigmatize the subjects than shed light on the sources of their suffering. In an attempt to overcome that challenge, I created multiple-exposure portraits to look at the causes, rather than the effects.
These are two powerful and visually impressive bodies of work, but the way in which each ‘story’ is presented in a ‘journalistic’ sense is profoundly different.
Curiously given the rules* of, for example, the World Press Photo competition, Zalcman’s images would I presume be ineligible for entry due to their ‘manipulation’, but Salvans images would be perfectly acceptable. Given that the WPP aims to promote and celebrate “visual storytelling” maybe I’m not the only one who finds this rather surprising?
For 60 years already, World Press Photo has encouraged the highest standards in photojournalism. The resulting archive is not only a record of more than half a century of human history, but a showcase of successive styles in visual storytelling.
Which begs the question: what is more ‘honest’ – to manipulate your images to present a visual fiction but one that is constructed from layers rooted firmly in ‘fact’, or leave your images untouched but manipulate the mind of your viewers and their consideration of the subject, by means of captions woven from assumption?
‘The camera never lies’, so the old saying goes, and I guess it’s true, we are more likely to be ‘misled’ by the hands that hold it.
* See here, WPP Competition 2014, Rule 15: “The content of the image must not be altered….” and Rule 16: “Only single-frame images will be accepted.”
Scotland’s been in the news a fair bit prior to, during and subsequent to the recent General Election. For many people Scotland conjures up images of mountains, rain, and more rain. I read a comment made by one ‘southern’ voter, obviously terrified of any Frankensteinian conjoining of SNP and Labour, who remarked that “the SNP should stay in Scotland and sort out their own wet and miserable country”. And they’re right. We get a lot of rain. My home town of Fort William is one of the wettest places in the UK, and gets on average 2000mm per annum and some spots to the north-west of the town can see at least 4500mm in an average year.
That’s wet. Very very very wet.
And miserable? Oh yes, misery too, lots and lots of misery. A great deal of misery in fact.
One year I recall it started raining at the end of July and there wasn’t a single period of 24 hours that it didn’t rain for 104 days. I was able to tell when the summer ended and winter began though, because the rain got a lot colder. You learn these tricks whilst still a small child, going to primary school in shorts, welly-boots and duffle coat. These ‘climate-control’ garments kept some of the worst of the weather from soaking you, but created a red ring around the wearer’s thigh from the dripping wet lower edge of the duffle coat, and lower down at shin height, a matching red ring created by the chafing from the top edge of the welly boot. In really bad weather, endless days of wet, these rings became scar-tissue, flaky and scabby.
So yes, rain, lots of it, and seasonally varying from warm, to cold. After that it gets into sleet, hail and snow. All of which are, in varying degrees, miserable. And cold. Painful even, especially with the hail. Hail is my favourite. It’s like being sandblasted, but with cold, hard sand. It can hurt your eyeballs. That’s if you actually open your eyes, which many people try to avoid at all costs, which has its downsides of course. But I like hail because it bounces off. Rain doesn’t do that. Little tricks you learn when small, that stand you in good stead later in life.
So I thought I’d try to show you just how awful it can be in Scotland when it’s wet. And cold. And sleety. And miserable. To get the full effect of these images you might want to pour cold water into your underpants and leave the window open whilst you peruse them, so you really feel the wind-chill. (Just make sure an adult is present though).
So here we go: a selection of gloomy, claggy, misty and utterly miserably murky weather. Or as we say up here with great fondness, ‘dreich’ (definition)
I hope this gives you a sense of the utter misery we must endure. And I suppose you’ll have to ask yourself “who the hell would want to live in this desperate place?”.
So there you go, a glimpse of the utter hellishness that is the Scottish Highlands in the rain. Gloomy, wet, horrible murky and pretty hard to cope with. I know I know, I can hear your thoughts….“who the hell would want to live in a place like that?”.
Well someone’s got to. So spare a thought for us as you bask in all that sunshine, think of these endless grey skies and all the cascading rain that pours forth from them, that we must endure. And the cold. And of course, the misery.
Some fine, thought-provoking pieces of writing gave me respite from the election hoo-ha last week. That doesn’t mean however that what I’m writing here will make much sense. It sort-of makes sense to me, and hopefully you’ll get my drift. It’s fueled somewhat by a growing sense of unease and disquiet.
“Just because a photo looks like photojournalism, doesn’t mean it’s Photojournalism.
Photojournalism the ethic, the genre, the act of reportage through story and images, has been hijacked under the guise of “photojournalism” the style — where the style denotes “truth,” objectivity, righteousness, infallibility, etc. At what point did the act of making images subvert the idea of what Photojournalism is and should be?
This is not an argument for pushing aesthetics and technique out the window. Technique is integral to image-making (obviously), but it should service the story first and foremost; the type of image being produced should never dictate the story.”
Weber argues for more than a simple ‘journalistic’ exploration of a situation, for an approach that takes authors towards a more in-depth understanding of WHY an event has occurred, not simply recording the superficial aspects of that event. It is possible Weber argues, to record an event with clinical precision and technique yet fail to accurately portray the ‘story’, the ‘feeling’ and the ’emotion’ of being witness to it. Instead, by situating the work in some wider ‘artistic’ and thus ‘interpretive’ context a more emotive response can be elicited from the viewer, giving perhaps a greater understanding of the situation. This approach needing a more creative, but seemingly reductive aesthetic, yet demanding above all else, integrity in authorship.
He cites the work of Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok and their book EuroMaidan:
“Most of the images that came from the EuroMaidan protest, however, were not real. Not much of what I read or saw in the media was an honest reaction to the realities of central Kiev.
The work that rose above was work that had intent and authorship. Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok with their book EuroMaidan made an intensely personal and genuine document of the revolt, which didn’t capture the event so much as the feeling, the tactile response to revolution — an authentic look inside what a protest really is. Protest is for cameras, but “protest” is real.”
Art imitating life? Why not?
In what at first glance may not seem in any way related, Sam Gregory WITNESS Program Director explores the use of execution videos and photographs by the likes of ISIS and our complicity in perpetuating that terror and humiliation of these acts by sharing them on social media. In ‘Images of Horror: Whose Roles and What Responsibilities?’ Gregory asks, what do we do with these barbaric visual statements? Preserve as evidence is one thing, consign to digital “evidence lockers” for future use:
“Footage that shows human rights violations is often graphic and uncomfortable, sometimes re-victimizing and is frequently subject to being arbitrarily or correctly removed either by administrators or concerted take-down attacks by outside actors (a relatively common problem on many social media spaces). When we analyzed the playlists of citizen video that have been shared on the Human Rights Channel (which is hosted on YouTube), we found that of the almost 6,000 videos showing rights violations that we have shared, almost 5% are now missing. This could mean they were deleted, removed or made private.
One idea that has been circulating is that of a digital “evidence locker.” The “evidence locker” would make sure that powerful but offensive citizen media related to human rights is downloaded and saved. This would be done in a way that preserves metadata and other important video information, so that it can potentially be used in future prosecutions and investigations by NGOs and human rights actors even if it is rapidly deleted on a social platform.”
But the crucial question raised by Gregory is this:
“There are few images circulating online from the violence in Central African Republic or rural Democratic Republic of Congo — should this make the crises in these countries any less newsworthy or actionable than the ceaselessly documented violence of Syria? And, on human rights issues that are systemic, for example, the pervasive discrimination in terms of access to education for Roma in Europe, it’s hard to find a visual summation or sight-bite. On an ongoing issue like domestic violence against women it’s rare we have such a clarion image to crystallize an issue in the public consciousness as emerged in September 2014 in the US, with video showing a prominent American football player knocking out his fiancé in an elevator and dragging her out.
So as much as we celebrate the possibilities of accountability in a “cameras everywhere” world, we also must recognize the dangers of what this drives us to watch, share, prioritize and also what is excluded.”
I was struck by Gregory’s reference to “what is excluded”. The images that DON’T exist. Posing the valid question – how do we get anywhere near representing that which is not visible? Weber provides a good clue, with his compelling ‘art as journalism’ argument.
But can ‘art’ be ‘journalism’? Can we trust it to accurately portray, inform and comment?
I’d say, why not. If we trust the authors, surely we can trust the work they produce?
Certainly we trust the work of writers, as ‘correspondents’. Sometimes they use sound recorders to obtain spoken narrative, ‘word cameras’ that gather what can often be irrefutable ‘evidence’, but often they simply interpret events through the lens of other’s experiences and express that in their own words for their audience: good journalists striving to provide an ‘objective’ distillation of complex situations and events. Integrity is the key. It’s really all about trust, we trust them to tell us the ‘story’, and through that we are able to obtain greater understanding.
Could we ‘trust’ an ‘artist’ to create work that explores, albeit of necessity indirectly, situations such as Gregory refers to, ones that are off the popular radar for lack of compelling visual ‘evidence’? War artists do just that.
War artists distill events for us, an art tradition with a long history, trying through artistic interpretation to convey the boredom, excitement, mundaneness and horror of conflict. No one complains that, for example, the work of Peter Howson, who was the official War Artist in Bosnia, is ‘inaccurate’ or ‘faked’. For me Howson’s Bosnia work is visceral and haunting, and the ‘backstory’ of the way the experience of being there affected Howson himself on a deeply personal level is testament to the integrity with which he interpreted for us what he witnessed:
On his appointment as the official artist of the Bosnian war, The Times newspaper wrote that Peter Howson’s ‘often violent images’ paired with his ability to ‘invest ordinary men and women with heroic dignity’, made him an obvious choice to chronicle the catastrophe in Bosnia.
Peter’s magnificent response to this challenge marked an important development in his art – in particular – his more vibrant pallet. The resulting images are astounding historical documents: representing the deep and ingrained impact that the scenes in Bosnia had on Peter – deeply affecting the nature of his art and his personal life. Peter has described his time as an artist in Bosnia as being wrought with difficulty.
His mind was often driven blank with fear and he struggled to gain any sense of the imagination necessary to make the harrowing images relatable to an audience back home. Moreover, Peter’s priority in his art was to search for humanity in the hellish scenes of his trip – something he has admitted to have been searching for in his work ever since.
The resulting body of works display a deep sense of Peter’s reactions to the garish and undignified depravity of the war. The images display an often frantic and surreal interpretation of scenes in which the harsh brutality of suffering, poverty and violence have robbed the landscape of its inherent calm. In this series of works, Peter has conveyed not only the climate of fear felt in Bosnia at this time but also a demonstration of his own personally harrowing experience of the Bosnian war; which resonates from each image individually.
Bosnia, 1994, @Peter Howson/Imperial War Museum
Now consider this: the cellphone video of the alleged assault which Gregory refers to, is of such low quality as to be….well…. almost ‘painterly’ yet it is hailed as a “clarion image”. It would appear that it’s not so much about the ultimate image quality, as the ‘story’ and insight provided by that image. The myriad uses of photography as ‘currency’ is evolving, faster it seems than the critics and academics’ understanding can keep pace with, to a point where iPhone images, often lacking absolute quality, may often capture in their (relatively) low-resolution frame a compelling (and some may judge more honest) and immediately virally-accessible portrayal of events. But the challenge, of course, is to verify the integrity of the author.
‘Photojournalism’, as Weber points out, leans heavily on technical proficiency and may also demand from practitioners (unreasonable) objectivity, to be, as far as possible, untainted by personal involvement.
“Why do we adhere to notions of objectivity in photography? Especially when it crushes creative storytelling from those that hold the camera? Photographers choose where their frame goes. They selectively choose what the audience will see, will believe. Right off the bat, any individual image is deceptive, because there is no peripheral vision. Peripheries provide the greater context. Storytellers may be interested in the periphery, but technical image makers (and the news feeds they keep buzzing) are not.”
But art in contrast benefits from the emotional involvement of the artist, and by challenging them, through the prism of that anguish challenging we viewers too.
“I hadn’t realized that scholarship and reportage of black migration was so scant, because the story was always so present in my own life—we lived in Milwaukee and spoke in Southern accents. Yet when viewing the exhibit now, something becomes viscerally clear to me that I hadn’t considered when I first saw these paintings together 20 years ago at MoMA. History, reportage, and craft merge in Lawrence’s work, making it dynamic and urgently present. We see, through the eyes of a 23-year-old man who is wise beyond his years, the political order and cultural chaos of the 20th-century black experience, which itself reshaped America and its politics indelibly.”
But crucial to this work, is the artist, and the nourishment and education of the artistic vision:
In telling this history, “One-Way Ticket” underscores the importance of teaching artists. The professional class of writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance made itself accessible to the ravaged neighborhood’s poor and working-class youth. Savage and her contemporaries were as much activists as they were working artists, in that they recognized the importance of creating a kind of cultural infrastructure to support black artists, and by extension a rich black consciousness.
Yet it’s Tyehimba Jess’s poem, “Another man done…”, in response to panel 22, that bridges past and present. The panel’s caption reads, “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.” Jess appropriates the caption, repeating it in continuous loop, spilling and bleeding each declaration of the year from when the series debuted till today. More than 40 years after black migration ended, as we witness an unconscionable number of black men and women die at the hands of law enforcement, as protests, “riots,” and uprisings overtake the Northern American cities to which our families fled, the warmth of Northern suns still proves harsh.
I don’t subscribe one bit to the ‘photography is dead’ argument I’ve heard bandied about online in recent years. It’s far from dead. It’s alive, vibrant and evolving, and positively wriggling with excitement to be freed from our stultifying adherence to the past and our memory of what it used to be and what it used to do. What I personally feel it’s doing is simply placing more pressing demands upon us to better utilize its power, be freer and more creative with its potential, and more artistically inclined in the ways we interpret the passing events of history we witness, and the truth is that many struggle with that onerous burden.
For the last three years I’ve been External Examiner for a natural history photography degree course in a flagship UK University, and I have seen breathtaking work. Truly astonishing, highly original and insightful photographic storytelling. I have been intellectually and visually challenged in the best possible way. And the majority of this work is coming from young people, and that heartens me. They have embraced the tools: digital & analog, bits & bytes and words & paper, to explore issues in such innovative ways that I doubt many of the mainstream media’s editorial gatekeepers would even consider looking at it, never mind publishing it. But it’s not work that is all style and no substance, a considerable amount of it tackles pressing environmental issues, issues that will directly impact society, and indirectly affect our economy in significant ways. What these young people have gained is education, from tutors confident in their ability to support and nourish their potential, and enable risk-taking and the rewards that follow. More than at any time we need to ensure access to education for young people in the photographic arts.
Weber is right, we have fantastic tools at our disposal now – to create and share with, and we need to celebrate artistic innovation and integrity, pursue and champion work that challenges us intellectually, takes us out of our ‘photojournalistic’ comfort zone in the ways it more obliquely presents stories to us.
To finish, consider this. The work we agonize over now, the ISIS video frame-grabs of James Foley, the blurry images of Saudi beheadings, the stark execution images from many parts of Africa and many more conflict areas I could mention, is work that is perhaps destined, by the passage of time and relegation to the footnotes of ‘history’, to be merely illustrations. Such as these on www.executedtoday.com:
Is this an abhorrent use of such images, or a fitting way to commemorate those whose lives have been so cruelly taken? Are these simply crude analog “evidence lockers” that Gregory talks of, and preferable to these events simply being forgotten? Or can we do better? You decide.
Coincidentally, in the wake of the General Election, and wrestling with the same feelings of disquiet and unease as me, Lewis Bush published this this morning: ‘Five More Years to Fight’,
” Loathe as I am to admit it, my sense of what art is and how it should be used has been in great part a product of spending almost all my formative years under a succession of governments I profoundly disagreed with, from the neo-Thatcherism of Blair to the austerity of Cameron. Once again I think we need to call for an ‘art of austerity’ to counter this ‘age of austerity’.
Whatever else happens over the next five years I hope other photographers and artists will recognise and embrace the power they possess, however slight it might be, to draw attention to injustices and challenge official narratives. Drop all this artistic self-referentialism, this pathetic pandering to ingrowing cliques of curators and critics. This stuff is beyond irrelevant. Speak to the people who have a power to shape more than just your career. Art is a voice, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but it should always be raging.”
That, fellow photographers is the hand you’ve been dealt. Play it. Wisely, creatively, but above all with integrity.
This animated short film by Iain Gardner is beautifully done, thought-provoking and moving. Make some time for this. I watched with my 6 year old, he loved it and was intrigued and said “Daddy, souls they never die, do they?”
I’m not a fan of the term ‘Ruin Porn’. I like my ruins to have their story, preferably the real story of what went on in them, why it all went wrong and what the consequences were for those who lived there; then, and now.
I was in Sardinia a few years ago and visited the ruins of an abandoned mine at Montevecchio, on the south-west coast of the island. This area has been mined since Roman times but in 1842 modern industrial mining commenced, for silver and zinc. The area became rich, with more than 3000 people living in the mining village. Sadly mining came to a halt in the early 1990’s.
Today, many of the mine buildings are crumbling, and the village depopulated. Nearby on the coast a resort, Colonia Marina di Funtanazza, provided a holiday retreat for the children of the miners of the area, but it has met with a similar fate, sitting forlorn and unused. Its swimming pool is dilapidated, the once smart walls now merely husks.
But the local municipalities have utilized European funds and are fighting to preserve their archaeological heritage, many of the buildings have been restored, there is excellent interpretation and a thriving tourism industry which has gained EDEN status (European Destination of Excellence). We stayed in b&b’s that are members of the excellent local agritourismo network, usually working farms, and by doing so ensuring our money went directly into the local economy.
Our built heritage is extremely valuable, working heritage particularly so. It reminds us what the labours of our forebears created, and celebrates their investment in the future. The future we inherited.