|Written by Colin Jacobson|
|04 Mar 2010|
Welcome to the first in a series of controlled rants by MOG (Miserable Old Git) that will continue until such a time as the Esteemed Editor enters left, shrieking, “Enough of this negative nonsense!”.
In the last two weeks, MOG has been suffering from fits of frothing rage brought on by the arrival of the redesigned Observer magazine, or anti-magazine as he prefers to call it. It’s bad enough to promote lifestyle journalism to the very front and centre of the publication but, in the latest edition (28 February), there’s not one even half-decent image that can pass as photojournalism. This rejection of any semblance of visual storytelling betrays a long tradition at the Observer, a newspaper that once gave Don McCullin his first photographic assignments. In the bin, says MOG!
Kind friends and family, concerned about my mental and physical welfare after such a traumatic experience, have persuaded me to write-off print magazines and explore the phenomenon known as the web. There, I am reliably told, I can find the new, vibrant face of photojournalism.
Where better to start than the World Press Photo site, an organisation that is, after all, at the very forefront of international photojournalism. At the outset, I am struck by certain anomalies arising from the generic title of this worthy institution, for which I have great respect (after all, they were foolhardy enough to invite me to be chair of the jury on two occasions back in the primordial mists of the 1980’s).
Titles, of course, can send out confusing messages. Having been in academia for some years now, I have acquired the annoyingly provocative habit of indulging in what is often called “deconstruction” but may equally pass as nit-picking. “World Press Photo”: the “World”, the “Press” and especially the “Photo” are self-explanatory but what, exactly, is meant, these days, by “Press Photo” ?
To my uncomplicated mind, “Press Photo” carries the strong implication that the work in question is designed to appear “in the Press”. So when I look at the overall winner of the 2009 Contest, a long, wide shot of a Tehran rooftop scene with three or so tiny figures, I can immediately agree it is a fine, atmospheric image but my prosaic ex-picture editor’s mind immediately starts to grind into action, asking, “How will this picture work ‘on the page’”? Call me old-fashioned (“neanderthal” growls the editor) but isn’t it reasonable to assume that the appropriate place to see the image that goes on to win the world’s most prestigious photojournalism competition is actually on the front pages of the world’s press? The problem is, this perfectly successful picture would just not read on an average newspaper front page; it would need a Guardian-type centre spread or magazine double page display to do it justice. Or is it really meant to be a framed print on a gallery wall? I rather think that those who guide the destiny of WPPh would not be unhappy if this were to happen.
It’s reasonable to push the point: how many of the pictures celebrated on the WPPh website have actually been published in the press prior to appearing in the competition? If this annual choice of photography largely precludes the possibility of achieving widespread coverage in the mainstream media, isn’t it potentially self-defeating? The results may please insiders and reinforce the growing move towards a more conceptual form of photojournalism but will do little to spread the message to a wider audience. Of course, thousands of people go to see the WPPh exhibitions all over the world but this is not press coverage in any real sense but rather photojournalism extracted from its natural context and put on the wall. There’s a danger that we will end up with a pointless parade of photojournalists as visual peacocks, displaying their beautiful feathers to each other in a secret garden.
WPPh can legitimately argue that it’s not their fault if the newspapers and magazines ignore the kinds of quality images that are entered year after year in their competition but if the jury offer up an image of such visual subtlety that few newspapers can accommodate it, where’s this supposed to go if not on the internet and the gallery wall? Isn’t it the function of the press to reach a large general audience and not a relatively focused or specialist audience of internet addicts? Few of the ordinary public will not have the time, patience or interest to switch between print and electronic media in search of the images they are not presently getting. Personally, I learnt about photojournalism by tearing photographs out of print publications and sticking them on the wall. How many “readers” actually print out images they come across on the web?
The winning picture was, I understand, extracted and elevated from a longer picture story; the photographer, Pietro Masturzo, did not enter it in the competition as a single image. To my admittedly cynical mind, this smacks of judicial compromise; being unable to agree on any of the individual photographs submitted, the jury went back to the stories to find a candidate, I surmise. If I am right, this is a curious situation. Clearly, the photographer did not intend it to be considered as a stand alone image but as part of his overall story. Slipping back into pedagogic mode, I always try to emphasise to students that they must be in charge of their own visual storytelling and be very clear about their aims and intentions as photojournalists. In this case, the jury seems to have made an editorial decision on Masturzo’s behalf, which must have come as a complete surprise to him.
Nevertheless, I was glad to read Kate Edwards, Picture Editor of Guardian Weekend magazine and one of this year’s jurors, commenting, “We were looking for an image that drew you in, took you deeper, made you think more – not just showing what we already know but something that asks more of us”. This re-enforces something I have been rabbiting on about for years, namely that a very “good” photograph can be very bad journalism if it merely tells us about things with which we are already very familiar. But who is this “you”, who is this “us”? Is it the general reader or a relatively small group of those in the know? The winning photograph is certainly appropriate for the story the photographer was trying to tell but by limiting its media potential to the internet and the gallery, with perhaps minimal magazine inclusion, does it fulfil the aims and objectives implied by the title, World Press Photo?
Undoubtedly, going back a decade or more, many of the winning pictures tended to be simplistic in their visual approach (I hold my hands up here as someone who presided over the choices that in retrospect appear quite unchallenging). So we can applaud these efforts to encourage a different kind of visual language but at what cost? It seems that many photojournalists no longer shoot for the general press but for the internet, for multi-media and, in some cases, even, solely to enter competitions. It has been said that in New York, the barren weeks in early January when nothing much seems to happen are sometimes referred to a “competition time”, as agencies and photographers prepare their entries for WPPh and the US Pictures of the Year competition (POY).
Incidentally, I remain bemused by WPPh’s willingness to distribute a mass of winning images to the outside world on their website with very minimal captions. As an ersatz educator, I spend much time and energy trying to persuade photojournalism students that context is all, that a photograph is incomplete without its supporting text. So it is dispiriting to come across a particularly bloody picture of a murdered young member of a drugs gang with the minimal caption: “Medellin’s drug gangs: youngster lies dead in the street, Colombia, 27 September”. In this context, without any real background to the story, the photograph comes across as a gratuitous point-and shoot, in your face image and we have no way of gauging if there is more to it than meets the eye. To put it in basic terms, we get the “where” and the “when” but we are sorely ignorant of the “who”, the “what” and the “why”. Perhaps these old-fashioned narrative terms are considered irrelevant in the contemporary melting pot as a fusion takes place between art and photojournalism.
The rather disgusting pictures in General News Stories of a man being stoned to death in Somalia raise some interesting ethical matters. Obviously, there was collaboration between the photographer, Farah Abdl Warsameh, and those carrying out this gruesome death sentence and without wanting to sound frivolous, the last thing on the unfortunate victim’s mind would have been a request for model release (though it could be an interesting debate as to whether those about to die can legitimately claim rights over their image). What we can deduce is that a photographer who is prepared to document such a horrible event must have a peculiarly strong stomach.
The problem with these stoning pictures is that once again, unlike the jury, we are left in the dark as to the background. Is the photographer a brave witness appealing to the court of world opinion, trying to bring this practice to the world’s attention? Or is it just a shock-horror scoop?
Now, I don’t subscribe to the school of “Why don’t you ever show the happy side of life?”, a question frequently launched at WPPh. However, a quick attempt at content analysis of the Winners’ gallery for Spot News, General News, People in the News and Contemporary Issues reveals the following:
13 images of dead bodies.
4 human beings alive but covered in blood.
8 civilians rushing away or being rushed away from danger.
7 demonstrators looking very angry or determined.
Is this kind of visual overkill “appropriate” storytelling for our times? Does it help to make sense of how we live now? I rather dread waiting for next year’s results when we see what emerges from the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.
Exhausted by his internet experience, MOG is now inviting readers of this blog to join him in a campaign for the eradication of repetitive photojournalism (CREEP). The mission statement is to encourage contemporary photojournalists to pledge to avoid predictable visual situations. Among suggested subjects generally embargoed might be:
• Women in black weeping over their dead menfolk.
• Terrified civilians running away from trouble in a crouching position.
• Posed groups of defiant rebels waving Kalashnikovs or rocket launchers, giving the victory sign.
• Soldiers on the frontline, arms at the ready, looking meaningfully at the enemy.
• Soldiers leaping out of helicopters, primed for action.
• Anyone taking, smoking or injecting drugs.
• Hell’s Angels posing with macho motorbikes.
• Frenzied music audiences screaming at rock bands.
• Skate boarders silhouetted against a brooding sky.
MOG is trying hard to get into an interactive mode and would welcome all ideas on other visual subject matter that should be added to the embargo. This could all get quite enjoyable.