Photojournalism: Living with Questions and Tensions
27 Mar 08
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s essay on the WPP jury process (“Unconcerned but not Indifferent”) is a provocative insight to a previously little-understood process, and is laced with important observations on the function and status of photojournalism.
To date, the debate on Foto8 has been focused on the contention (now seemingly reconciled) surrounding how the jury treated the single photo of a Thai prostitute. However, what their observation disclosed was not a problem with that particular photograph but the hypocritical way in which some images received more jury scrutiny than others.
Why ask about the photographer’s relation to her subject in this image – whether she had consent from the subject – but not pose the same questions to a host of other practitioners? For example, were Benjamin Lowy’s winning Iraq detainee images similarly grilled? And what about earlier winning images, such as (Nick) Ut Cong Huynh’s now iconic photo of the Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack that won the 1972 competition? Consent is an important issue in so far as it is one way of addressing the need to avoid (in Martha Rosler’s words) “revictimizing the victims” who are being photographed, but if the demand for consent was universally applied what images would we get to see and how many circumstances would go undisclosed? Is an individual relationship more important than collective understanding?
Broomberg and Chanarin’s assessment of the World Press Photo jury process was not the first public disclosure of these practices. At the WPP 50th anniversary celebrations in 2005, former jury member and secretary Adriaan Monshouwer gave a talk entitled “Winner Takes All” that reviewed previous decisions in light of his personal experience.1 According to Monshouwer the jury tended to operate within an established range of options:
“The jury has basically two sets of values to judge press photography: values related to the visual arts (dealing primarily with the visual elements – the aesthetics – of the photograph) and journalistic values that focus on the content. Does the picture have a clear structure and a strong composition? Is the cropping and use of colour adequate? Does it have any stopping power, is the eye being seduced by beauty or any other visual quality? And on the journalistic side: is the message clear and relevant? Does it come across? For some the visual quality is more important than the journalistic importance, for others it is just the other way around.”
Whether or not the juxtaposition of journalism and visual arts covers the full range of considerations, it demonstrates how different and competing priorities are at work. Monshouwer’s talk also revealed how (in his words) “the corrupting mechanisms of the real world” were to be found in the jury process:
“I was also taken aback when I realised that there was more at play than photographic and journalistic values. And that is probably inevitable, because the whole process of commissioning pictures, taking (or giving permission to take) and selecting photographs, and finally deciding to publish them or not is a combination of ethics and aesthetics, journalism and photography, mixed with morals, politics and last but not least masculine powerplay. And the same intertwined set of values and forces is at work when we judge and award photographs.”
A woman cries outside the Zmirli Hospital, where the dead and wounded had been taken after a massacre in Bentalha, Algiers, Algeria, 23 September 1997. World Press Photo of the Year 1997 © Hocine/Agence France-Presse. .
For Monshouwer, these tensions in the jury process had a direct impact on the final decisions:
“Over the years it becomes more and more clear that the jury – selecting the Photo of the Year – is less and less concerned picking ‘the best’ images (whatever that may be), but uses the Photo of the Year as a platform to make a statement. A statement about the human condition, developments in photography, censorship or any other subject, that is strong enough to appeal to a majority amongst the jury.”
What this earlier insight, allied with Broomberg and Chanarin’s account, shows is that photojournalism suffers a near permanent condition of anxiety and crisis, a condition which is a product of the nature of photojournalism and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Indeed, if this condition was to vanish then photojournalism and those who respond to it would have lost the capacity to engage the very challenges Broomberg and Chanarin’s essay poses.
If – as Leo Hsu argues on Foto8– “photojournalism must continue to be an ‘event gathering machine’ in some sense” – or at least a technology that raises issues – it is always going to be riddled with tensions. Think about how often one hears a photojournalist say that they are merely recording the scene before them, yet they are driven to do so by a concern to bear witness, thereby trying to conjoin an ethos that is both disengaged from politics but committed to ethics. (Consider, for example, the recent and excellent multimedia production by Reuters entitled “Bearing Witness: Five Years of the Iraq War,” 2008, at http://iraq.reuters.com/) We can highlight these tensions in any number of questions. How can a process of mediation avoid partisanship? Given the impossibility of objectivity, can legitimacy be created? Is the humanitarian focus of ‘concerned photography’ up to the challenge of modern conflict and late-modern inequality? And can these tensions be negotiated in a commercial world coping with an economy of indifference amongst Northern media consumers?
We also see these tensions in the WPP jury process, where some charged with making the decisions were worried about the way some photographs are constructed, yet Tim Hetherington’s winner was praised by others for being “painterly” (which, Monshouwer notes, was exactly the same observation made about the 1997 winner, Hocine’s photo of an Algerian woman after the massacre at Bentalha). In the end, a process in which 81,000 photos is reduced to 17,000 in a week on the way to selecting a single winner of the main prize is inevitably going to be over-determined and itself riddled with tensions. So we have a technological craft that is unavoidably comprised of tensions being judged in a process which inescapably magnifies those same conceptual conflicts.
We shouldn’t wish those contradictions away, because in the spaces they create lays the possibility for political engagement with the events, issues and subjects being portrayed. Christoph Bangert’s photo of the German army practice target in Afghanistan, rightly highlighted by Broomberg and Chanarin, is both literal and conceptual – much like the Hetherington winner in fact. Both of them deserved awards, both require contextual understanding, and both are read as signifying something more than what appears in the frame. Perhaps then the problem, in so far as we can identity a single problem, lies in loading a single still image with the status of the real? If that is the case, perhaps it’s a problem that is concerned with the circulation, reading and valuation of photographs in and out of context, rather than a problem with the photographs per se? And perhaps that is a question we should continually debate but avoid answering with a single conclusion?
David Campbell is Professor of Cultural and Political Geography at Durham University.
1 Adriaan Monshouwer, “Winner Takes All: Behind the Scenes at WPP, the Largest Global Photojournalism Contest,” World Press Photo Award Days, 24 April 2005, mimeo.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin – Unconcerned but not Indifferent.
David Campbell serves as an Associate Director of the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (http://www.dur.ac.uk/dcaps/ ), was co-curator of Imaging Famine (www.imaging-famine.org ) and has recently completed a research project for the AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative (http://asci.ssrc.org/ ) on “The Visual Economy of HIV/AIDS.” He is currently working on a new book that is concerned with how the dominant pictorial representations of atrocity, famine, and war are produced in the global image economy.