Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin begin their critique of contemporary photojournalism by referring to a quote by Bertolt Brecht in which he claims, without providing any basis, that photojournalism contributes almost nothing to our understanding of the world. In fact, he goes further, claiming that photographs are actually a ‘weapon against truth’. Let us ignore, for a moment, the fact that photographs have been used as evidence in every war crimes trial since Nuremberg. Let us ignore the fact that photography has infiltrated almost every aspect of popular culture and private life – what Brecht dismisses as the ‘bourgouisie’. If photographs do not reflect something of an objective truth, then nothing does, and we are left with an endlessly subjective, nihilistic understanding of the world.
Images, both still and moving, are proliferating around the world in ways that are difficult for us to keep pace with. Satellite broadcasters, websites and wire agencies, like AP, wield huge power and influence through the dissemination of images. Consequently, event-based news images – both still and moving, amateur and professional – are the primary vocabulary by which humanity interprets itself. Photojournalism as a genre that once found its voice through the print medium now finds itself in a brave new world of images.
It’s apparent that many photographers also find it difficult to adapt to this evolving landscape of visual journalism. Some look backwards to familiar territory and try to find exposure through books and galleries. Others find a niche with heavily stylised black-and-white images that continue to rework traditional photojournalism. Many have found themselves in financial difficulties and see their work being used as illustration. And it’s not over yet: video cameras are being developed that will permit single frames to be ‘lifted’ from footage so that can then be printed out as a still image. Their resolution will be equal to what many contemporary digital cameras can achieve. Like digital cameras, the evolution of technology will be embraced by masses of people around the world who will continue to flood it with images. The screen is taking over from the page. So where does this leave the photograph? It’s a predicament the World Press Photo competition has yet to face. In the age beyond the photograph, the unfounded musings of Brecht may have a place in intellectual and artistic discussions, but they have little bearing on the actual mechanics of the image world.
While technology is changing this world, it is story-telling and a focus on what lies outside of ourselves that continues to move us. Images have power as cultural resources and political icons. I use both the still and moving image to tell stories that connect people. Images are aesthetic in nature and, while that it important to me, it is not my primary concern. Last October I photographed and filmed the moments after a US soldier was killed in Afghanistan, including the reaction of members of his unit, many of whom broke down on seeing his body. Two days earlier, I had photographed and filmed the aftermath of a US helicopter attack that left civilians dead and wounded. The work is part of a continuing project about a specific platoon of US soldiers. Despite the controversial nature of these images, I’ve never had to show my work to the US military, I have never been censored, and I have not been barred from returning to the same unit.
The relevance and meaning of an image is often derived from context and circulation, as well as its content. The moving images of this work first aired on American television to an estimated audience of 22 million. Different editions of Vanity Fair magazine, with a combined readership of around 1.5 million, ran an article using the photographs, although it seems that more people saw them on the web. Both pieces generated enormous interest in the US and abroad. CNN later made a five-minute TV piece of the still images combined with an interview that ran intermittently over three days. The writer and I subsequently took part in numerous national and local radio interviews. People were shocked to learn that US soldiers were involved in close quarter fighting that was reminiscent of Vietnam.
I’m interested in how we all carry an image-library in our heads that we can cross reference to create layers of meaning. I believe the visual strategy I employed in Afghanistan of alluding to Vietnam worked in this respect for a predominantly US audience. While working on this story, I was constantly reminded of images that I’d seen from Vietnam. During one radio interview, a caller even used his experiences of fighting in Korea to make political points about then and now. With the US election approaching, it was a timely reminder for a US audience of what the war in Afghanistan actually looks like.
After distributing the work widely, I entered a 12-image series from the project into the General News category of the World Press Photo competition. A lot of people saw these Afghan images before the prize came along, no doubt including some of the judges. They helped focus people’s attention on the story and created a dialogue about the war. The story found a wide and disparate audience, primarily among people who have never heard of World Press Photo. This audience probably doesn’t care if photojournalism is dead or if art photography is too conceptual. The fact that the story was so widely discussed demonstrates, for me, the relevance of what I do.
I work predominantly on long-term projects, and I use multiple images to avoid de-contextualization. It is therefore ironic that a single image of mine won this year’s World Press Photo of the Year. This image will unavoidably be claimed by commentators to support their personal viewpoints. In the US, my images were criticised by the left wing as being too sympathetic to the military, as well as by the right wing as being ‘unpatriotic’. One blog even suggested that the soldiers should be killing journalists instead of the Taliban. People read what they want into images, and to some extent the World Press Photo jury is no different. Broomberg and Chanarin wrote that Stanley Greene’s excellent image of a Chadian battle plan reveals ‘a real insight into the low-tech horror of the genocide’. Yes, perhaps. But there is also room for images that directly record actual instances of violence, depicting real people rather than objects. The kind of images that Stanley has focused much of his professional life on making.
Photographs that draw on inanimate scenes for their meaning are championed by the school of ‘Late’ photography. The conceit is that TV has helped to make event-based photography redundant, so that photographers are forced into a retrospective commentary, visiting places forensically after the ‘event’ to draw conclusions about history. Established by photographers like Richard Misrach and Sophie Ristelheuber , the ‘Late’ school offers a powerful visual strategy that is very much in vogue. This strategy solves a false problem though. Not only are still and moving images both necessary, they complement one another. This is not a zero sum game. Our visual experience of 9-11 would obviously be incomplete without the horrifying television images of the planes hitting the twin towers. But who can remove the still image of the Falling Man from their mind? While a retrospective way of thinking is certainly valid, where would memory be without our ability to record world events as they happen? With the passage of time, the lynching photos collected by James Allen [Without Sanctuary, published by Twin Palms in 2000] have become devastating cultural icons. It would be arrogant to suggest we can know which images will become important with time, just as it is absurd to judge who will find an image relevant, or pretend to know what someone may find thought-provoking.
I remember a 2004 World Press Photo taken in Aceh province, Indonesia, of family members standing around a man who had been tied to a tree and had his throat cut. I remember being shocked by the fact that this photograph had come from an area that was under Indonesian martial law. It was a rare image that reinforced the war crime accusation of the targeting of civilians by government forces. Now that was an insight into low-tech killing. Is this the type of image that people refer to when they say they’re saddened that war continues to feature so prominently in World Press Photo? Is this a photographer who casts the world in the same mould over and over again? It appears to me that it’s the world that casts itself in this role. I’d be saddened if we ended up sweeping such powerful images under the carpet in order to make ourselves feel better. While many ‘smart’ photographers are not confronted emotionally with their work, neither do they confront the viewer. Instead, all they risk is the possibility of poor print sales if they don’t get it right.
I’m well aware that witnessing and imaging the world as it happens is problematic. I lived in Liberia for a number of years and am familiar with the ethical dilemmas inherent in representing the ‘other’. I can’t say I was always successful, but certain images I made do constitute a unique record from that time. During the Liberian civil war in 2003, I was the only photographer to live with rebels who were advancing on the capital. I was embedded and uncensored. My TV colleague and I broke this story both on worldwide TV and in print. I don’t know if Western picture editors or audiences find the images particularly revealing. But Liberians do. In them they recognise specific people who bear real responsibility for the war. Judging by their reactions, they are happy that someone recorded these events for posterity.
I’m not interested in playing the ‘concerned’ moral crusader by ramming violent images in people’s faces, but that doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t have access to them. Images don’t need ‘intelligent’ aesthetics to convey their message – again, think of the Falling Man – but they can benefit from them. Like advertising, visual journalism employs many strategies to communicate. In Yemen, I recently saw fly-posters of what appear to be dead Palestinian children. It’s the sort of thing that would be distasteful on streets of the UK and yet they are manifestly accepted in Yemen. These images highlight the plight of Palestine and inculcate anti-western sentiments. Similarly, images of starving Ethiopians were instrumental in focusing world attention, gathering funds and mobilising the international relief effort there in the 1980s. The fact is, images of pain and suffering make people uncomfortable and sometimes inspire them to action. We try to ignore them and we fail. And then we secretly look at them on the internet.