Afghan Woman © Lana Slezic

Afghan Woman ©Lana Slezic

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s discussion of their experience as World Press Photo jurists (free registration required) is fascinating and significant.  Besides offering a view on what happens behind World Press Photo’s closed doors, it’s a very thoughtful exploration of what it means to go “a step too far” over the lines defining photojournalism.  It’s a good read and there have been some important comments.  I urge you to read both the piece and the responses.

The “step too far” refers not only to what it means (and does not mean) for a picture to be “staged”, but also to how the ethical relationship between a photographer and a subject sits in relation to the prevailing ethical and practical norms of photojournalism; it refers to the relationship between new pictures and older references and clichés; and it refers to what photojournalism can and cannot be expected to do.

Broomberg and Chanarin frame their piece in terms of photojournalism as art. Not in the sense of gallery walls and aesthetic appreciation, but in terms of engagement with the world and the communication of experience, of making sense of things and conveying that sense.  The title “Unconcerned but not Indifferent” is the epitaph of one of the greatest anti-art artists, Man Ray , who happened to work often in photography, and who sought to engage the eye, the heart, and the mind by inventing and reinventing mediums and visual language.

The lines over which “steps too far” may be taken have changed over time, and as they’ve changed, the old maps of photojournalism and photography have been redrawn. New lines are necessarily blurred and ambiguous as what’s possible is carved out of what’s desirable and what can be imagined, leading to what’s done.  Photojournalism has never not been in crisis, it’s just that the crisis takes so many shapes and these shapes change over time as well.  The fact that Broomberg and Chanarin , photographers who, if I recall from their talk at the HOST Gallery , do not identify themselves as “photojournalists” were invited to judge World Press is itself evidence of how the lines are changing.

Another (perhaps related) signal of how photojournalism is changing is the number of series among the World Press winners that use repetition as a rhetorical strategy.  Have a look at Erik Refner’s pictures of the Copenhagen Marathon finish line (Sports Feature 1st prize stories), Jean Revillard’s immigrants’ huts (Contemporary Issues: 1st prize stories),  Vanessa Winship’s rural school girls , Turkey (Portraits: 1st prize stories), Benjamin Lowy’s Iraqi detainees (Portraits: 2d prize stories), and Lana Slezic’s Afghan Women (Portraits: 3d prize stories). I’m sure there have been World Press winners in the past using this technique, but I was struck by the number awarded in this year’s contest.

All five of these groups struck me as being particularly successful uses of repetition.  The repeating format draws attention to what makes each image or subject unique at the same time as it argues for scale. It breaks away from lineal photo story telling (and from relational layout storytelling) but it also demands attention towards its cohesion in a way that a group of portraits not utilizing repetition could not.  These pictures also demand that they be considered as a group in a way that individual images can be pulled out of more lineal picture stories.  I will be surprised if a picture from a group of images in a repeating group wins Picture of the Year anytime soon.

Repetition is not new to photography. Walker Evans’ subway pictures (and Luc Delahaye’s after him) exploit repetition; Evans was also interested in photo studio portraits and groups of repeating images.  Richard Avedon stripped away context, shooting his subjects in front of plain white backdrops, creating a repetitious effect.  The S-21 archives of Cambodian prisoners display to strong effect by forcing visitors to focus on both particularity and scale at the same time.  The M2 Magnum book is all groups of pictures deploying repetition, the most explicit being Donovan Wylie’s Maze pictures.  There is a kind of analytical detachment to the use of repetition as a strategy, a systematic charting of difference in a controlled frame.  Wasn’t this the point of Eadward Muybridge’s motion experiments?

The accomplishment of Andy Warhol , another anti-art artist, was not only to produce repeating images of soup cans as art, but to echo the mass production process in his own production process, not only to make pictures that looked like they were made by a machine, but to make pictures like a machine would make them.  What’s especially remarkable about pictures like Winship’s and Slezic’s, and Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train pictures, however, is that unlike Warhol’s, they have a warmth to them, that emotion builds through repetition. ( Not always the case in photography: see Bernd and Hilla Becher)

In World Press, repetition draws attention to the way that the story is the unit. Picture stories have always been units but the way that a story or essay is edited is very different than how a group based on repetition is edited. They call on viewers to look at them in different ways, they draw attention to the photographers’  terms, and they are explicitly making arguments to look at both individual and scale.  Repetition pictures at World Press (owing to the acceptance of such work among publications) signals an open door to projects that draw attention to, in Broomberg and Chanarin’s words, “something slightly more intelligent, more reflective and more analytical about our world, the world of images and about the place where these two worlds collide.” 

Yet in order for journalism to do its work, photojournalism must continue to be an “event gathering machine” in some sense.  This tension will no doubt keep photojournalism in crisis for some time.