mapj11_280In an interview with the New York Times, less than a year before his premature death in Libya, Tim Hetherington made a stark pronouncement in relation to the practice of photography: ‘It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.’

Not only is it not enough, but it is sometimes impossible to bear witness; many sufferings are private, such as suicide or rape, or censored, like political disappearances. Our rapidly changing media ecology means that we have arrived at a critical moment in the history of imagemaking and storytelling. The onus is on the new generation of professionals to exceed the limits of the visible and engage in a rigorous examination of the invisible power structures that stratify society, and their pervasive symptoms.

It therefore becomes necessary to confront the likelihood that what we want to photograph is in fact unphotographable. Such an acknowledgement, in a world where images are wolfishly devoured, is an excellent place to start.

Since Henry Fox Talbot first noted in 1844 that the ‘mute testimony’ of the photograph could be ‘evidence of a novel kind’, the visual document has had a lot to answer for. Over a century and a half later, the question of whether a photograph can ever proffer evidence or ‘tell the truth’ may be redundant, yet the desire for it to do so remains fundamental to an ethical practice of any kind.

If today’s photographers are not necessarily capturing the first draft of history – legions of citizen journalists are often there first, broadcasting their Twitpix within seconds – there remains an essential role to fulfill in documenting world events and, crucially, their consequences.

This year’s graduates in MA Photojournalism have travelled widely and reflected deeply in order to do so and I hope you will find their contributions interesting. They have framed bodies if they could, shown us evidence when it could be found, and have sought to document the world in all its beauty and cruelty. Most importantly, each has engaged with what Tim Hetherington identified as the true pursuit for imagemakers today: to aim for ‘authentic representation of things outside of ourselves’.

Max Houghton
Course Leader, MA Photojournalism
Summer 2011

Habeas Corpus is on from 2-4 September at Ambika P3, 35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS.

(image above © Chris Barrett)