_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg


Spread from _IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg by Mishka Henner

Since it’s invention, photography’s status has been contested, it’s precise nature unclear. Never before though have we been able to legitimately feel so unsure about what we mean when we talk about a photograph. This uncertainty in part forms the basis for a new series of books by the artist Mishka Henner. To call these ‘photobooks’ would be apparently inaccurate, but is in fact quite apt. Each book presents the raw data of a historic photograph as text, turning what might be a familiar, apparently straightforward image into reams of alpha-numeric data. The first volume, memorably titled _IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg is a paperback about the thickness of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, each of its near eight hundred pages filled with code, a typical syntax of which reads ‘t¶×Wsæëhe.‡¶Í®ö:Û?IüÇó^¥¿’.

Included as a separate print in the back of the book is a reproduction of the photograph to which this mass of code refers. In it five soldiers, trudging wearily along a diagonal of duckboards, look towards the camera. They are crossing a large pool of muddy water, in which are reflected the surrounding tree trunks, the shattered remains of a forest. The men are likely to have been posed or have at least been asked to pause for a moment on the march towards their distant rest, however the last man in the group hasn’t followed the instruction and has shimmered into an indistinct blur. The location is Chateau Wood, Belgium and the date is 29th October 1917, in the midst of the third battle of Ypres.

Henner’s choice of this particular photograph is not injudicious. Its photographer, Frank Hurley, was something of a controversial figure in his own day, one who like Henner was not averse to taking photographs to pieces in order to see how they work, and how they work on us. Marooned with Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition at the start of the First World War, Hurley joined the Australian Imperial Force on his return in 1917 and arrived in France in August of that year. Commissioned as a honourary captain and charged with photographing the conflict for the official Australian war record, he quickly found himself frustrated by the inability of the then rudimentary photographic technology to show the true nature of this immeasurably destructive war. In his journal Hurley complained that ‘everything is on such a vast scale. The figures are scattered, the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke, shells will not burst where required. It might as well be a rehearsal in a paddock’.

Hurley’s answer to this problem was to stage shots and even to create composites, sometimes blending several negatives into a single larger photograph. What resulted was a series of remarkable images, sweeping panoramas reminiscent of nineteenth century paintings, which arguably did a far better job of capturing the verisimilitude of a war fought for the first time on every spatial plane, from the cold air above, to the thick mud of the trenches, and the tunnels below. Hurley’s practices however quickly brought him into conflict with Charles Bean, the head of the Australian photography unit, a traditionalist and an empiricist, who believed in the importance of an unmanipulated record of the war. For Bean, Hurley’s photographs were dangerous fakes which threatened to undermine the documentary efforts of his unit. Frustrated by Bean’s interventions, Hurley left France and the Western Front for the Middle East about a month after the Chateau Wood photograph was taken

Hurely’s Chateau Wood was not a composite, but the history that surrounds it reveals that in 1917 many of the same dilemmas troubled the users of photography that continue to trouble them today. Questions about the relationship between surface appearances and deeper truths, about how we mediate or alter experiences when we record them in photographs, and about how photographs come to shape our understanding of the world. These questions are however now far more complex. In 1917, whatever its other ambiguities, the photograph could at least be said to be a physical trace of something, the cumbersome glass plates bearing the direct touch of the same waves of light which had first touched on Hurley’s subjects, before radiating back towards his camera lens.

By contrast, physicality is not the native state of the digital photograph of the present, nor even is visibility. The natural state of the digital image is in fact the reams of code contained in the many pages of Henner’s book, and in this sense it is more than apt to describe this textual volume as a photobook. The digital image is something latent which must be brought into existence each and every time we wish to view it by the natives of an electronic ecosystem which we have constructed but are unable to navigate. At our demand these algorithms or image engines speed read through these huge books of code, translating them for a moment into something we can understand, and recognise as a photograph, before dematerialising again when we click and close the window. Like any process of translation, this one can be subjective, and different translators are want to word passages and phrases differently.

_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg is about photography then, and what a photograph now exactly is, but Henner’s book is also more basically about knowledge and information, and the states in which information resides. What was once a privileged commodity which offered to provide answers to many of the world’s problems is today something which we all generate in quantities which are difficult to comprehend. Technologies like photography, which once offered to reveal the inner workings and complexities of the universe, now do as much as to obscure these things behind cataracts of useless information, torrents which seem to become more severe with every passing year. In our search for knowledge we have created a system of entropy masquerading as information, where every action, even those aimed at making sense of this confusion, seems just to add irresistibly to it

Algorithms, Data and the Endangered Photojournalist


Newsroom of the New York Times, 1942

Last week I outlined some of the interesting things that are going on in journalism with the increasing use of algorithms to mine data, detect interesting trends and even to write entire articles. At the moment there isn’t much discussion or anxiety about this trend, perhaps partly because the technology is so new to our field and past examples suggests it’ll take a while to make itself really felt. It took the best part of two decades for algorithmic trading to really take off in finance, one of the few areas to date where these technologies have really transformed working practices, but now the industry has been completely changed by it. As I noted last week journalism might be next, but what about photojournalism?

James Kotecki of Automated Insights suggests that those nervous about an algorithmic future should ‘get a job they can’t automate’. Given the nature of our work as photographers we might think that we’re in a pretty good position in that regard, and certainly for now we are probably the furthest from being impacted by these sorts of technologies. Algorithms are best suited to making use of certain types of data, and photographs (and video) are still notoriously difficult things for algorithms to deal with and extract useful insights from. Google’s attempts to teach algorithms to caption photographs demonstrates this. What they’ve achieved is pretty remarkable, but it’s still far from what a human can do. Still, the precedent is there so perhaps photo editors if no one else should beware.

As photographers we also might feel pretty safe knowing that in the end our job involves physical as well as mental work, it involves going out into the world, encountering and interacting with people, telling stories, all things that it’s hard to imagine an algorithm taking away from us. All true, and all reassuring, but also rooted in an old model of what photojournalism is, and this might be the major thing we’re overlooking.

What so-called disruptive technologies like algorithms do so effectively is to destroy those old ways of working and thinking and something, and usher in new ones. Algorithms might struggle to take over many of the tasks performed by photojournalists right now, but as I noted last week there growing use might see a change in the very notion of journalism, a shift which might in turn better suit the algorithms and might put human journalists at a greater professional disadvantage. Realistically such a profound shift, if it occurs, is probably still a fair distance off, and honestly I don’t think the impact is going to be so negative, but I think it’s an interesting thought that this sort of technology might change the nature of our work even more profoundly than the advent of technologies like digital imaging and the internet.

Another possibility which is perhaps more likely is that we might be more likely to see is the rise of algorithmic journalism exacerbating existing trends which are already seen as undermining traditional photojournalism. Citizen journalism for example, and particularly citizen produced images and video of news events, might become far more appealing to mainstream news outlets if it were possible to set an algorithm to the task of sifting through the available images for the best examples, and even cross checking those images with other sources to confirm their veracity (an important task given the Instagram debacle highlighted here a few weeks ago). The ability to quickly mine high quality, accurate non-professional images might thereby further erode the appeal of, and market for, professional photojournalism.

The idea of algorithms checking sources sounds far-fetched but there are companies like Newzulu who already make it their business to offer similar services, only for now using people to do the hard work of verifying material before it is sold on to a news organisations. Given the right advances and the right impetus it isn’t so hard to see algorithms taking on this sort of role, and again the possible increases in speed, accuracy and efficiency would make them hard to resist. I’ve mentioned before the Visual Media Reasoning software package under the development by DARPA to perform similar functions in a military context, and such technologies have a way of eventually make it to the open market (including most obviously the technology that’s allowing you to read this post). Add the rather more achievable goals of an algorithm being able to automatically caption, edit and upload photographs, and it seems likely algorithms are going to take over at least some of the workload. Whether these advances when they come prove positive and free people up for more creative, interesting tasks (as proponents suggest they will) or whether they put people out of work (as detractors fear) will remain to be seen.

Thinking in the longer term we might be looking at a major shift in what we think of as journalism, and photojournalism. For a while now the trend in photojournalism has seemed to be away from simply producing good photographs, which after all is something that so many people can do now. Increasingly the thing that seems to set the best apart from the rest is the ability to think creatively and bring sophisticated and appropriate visual and conceptual strategies to their topics. Returning to the idea of ‘getting a job they can’t automate’, perhaps this really creative side of photojournalism will become increasingly important as the less creative arenas fall to algorithms. We’re already seeing this to some extent in written journalism). To make an even more extreme prediction, perhaps as photographs, video and the cameras that produce them become ever more ubiquitous, the need to send a photojournalist to location to document a subject might start to seem ever more archaic and cost ineffective.

Foggy as the future might be what’s been demonstrated time and time again is that what people can do, an algorithms can often do just as well. When you look at the way industries like finance have changed, from rooms of yelling brokers to a few server racks, the way is pretty clear. The brokers didn’t believe their jobs could be replaced by algorithms, because they thought they were a special type of professional. Creative, specialist, intuitive. They were also wrong. Anyone who thinks photojournalism is particularly different, should maybe start to think again.

Algorithms, Data and the Endangered Journalist


Trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, 1963

Since writing a piece back in March about the possible intersections of photography and big data practices, the topic of ever smarter algorithms and their potential impact on our lives has remained constantly in my mind. It’s easy to see this topic as very abstract one without much practical grounding, but almost everywhere I look I see clues about how important this is going to become in the coming years for all of us, almost regardless of our occupations. Lately I’ve been thinking in particular about how the automation of data and image production and interpretation might come to further affect the field of journalism, for better and for worse.

I say ‘further affect’ because despite the commonly held belief that creative industries like journalism are immune from what Keynes termed ‘technological unemployment’ there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. There is no doubt that algorithms already are making substantial inroads into journalism. Unsurprisingly this has mostly occurred in the most statistic and data heavy areas of journalism, and in those where writing is arguably least creative. The best known example is probably Quakebot, developed in 2012 to write generic stories based on recent earthquakes for the LA Times, using data gleaned directly from the US Geological Survey.

These quake articles are hardly exciting reads, but algorithms producing prosaic articles for public consumption are clearly a stepping stones to algorithms producing much more complex, engaging writing. Increasingly business and sports articles are being generated by algorithms, which again show no great flair for journalistic creativity but do show a step up in sophistication from generic reports about recent quakes. Meanwhile companies like Automated Insights are developing algorithms which have a much more sophisticated grasp of narrative and how to turn piles of raw data into a report a human might actually want to take some time over reading.

The increasing sophistication of algorithms is giving rise to some fascinating debates about the extent to which an algorithm can be said to display creativity, or whether this is a category which is exclusive to the human brain. Some of these debates are demonstrating just how subjective the idea of ‘creativity’ can be, and how dependent it can be on perception. People played an algorithmically composed symphony have sometimes been held rapt or reduced to tears by the genius of it, but some of the same people then react dismissively to that same piece on discovering it wasn’t composed by a human but by a string of code. It’s all sounds a bit sci-fi but this opens up interesting question about how prejudices might shape our relationship with algorithmically generated material.

Moving back to journalism, what many people seem to be asking is are these journalistic algorithms a blip, or are they the future? I can see plenty of arguments for the latter answer and not many for the former. As in other fields that have been enormously disrupted by the advent of algorithms, their increasing suitability to journalism seems inevitable if only because of the economics  of the industry. Falling revenues, shrinking budgets and margins and corners cut or shaved where-ever possible are the reality of much modern journalism. In such an environment why would you hire a human journalism or an editor if an algorithm could do the same job?

That’s particularly true when talking about time critical assignments, where an algorithm might be able to produce a finished story in the time it takes a journalist just to sit down. Quakebot for example is reportedly able to have an article finished about a tremor almost at the time that the earthquake itself is ending , and similarly provided a steady flow of real time stats some sports algorithms are able to file a finished story on a game as the final whistle blows. In an industry where employers place more and more emphasis on efficiency, and audiences expect news to be ever more timely, the shift towards greater use of algorithms to write articles seems inevitable.

It’s not all doom though, and I think it’s possible to detect great benefits resulting from the advent of algorithms, even for journalists (at least those that survive). With growth of data journalism and the common reliance on crowd-sourcing in order to filter and interpret the massive data sets that news outlets are increasingly turning to as part of their investigative works, an increase in automation is obviously appealing. Some even argue that algorithms would be an advantage because the lack the inherent biases of journalists, maybe a slightly unconvincing claim that understates the extent to which algorithms can inherit the biases of their programmers, and the extent to which certain biases are appealing to some news outlets (which in turn opens up the slightly scary idea that journalistic algorithms might one day be programmed to reflect the biases of their readership).

Any competition between human and algorithmic journalists would also pose another interesting question. For now algorithms are being constructed to match existing human modes and practices of journalism, but there is the possibility that as they become more widespread our notion of what journalism is might change accordingly. We might see a divergence of journalism, as human writers are increasingly corralled into the more creative corners of writing and algorithms take on the majority of the day to day, relatively uncreative reporting. Or there might be a blending of the two, with algorithms assisting the choices journalists make, for example guiding editorial priorities based on reader responses, or helping a writer to generate those perfect click-bait headline that even reputable news organisations seem to increasingly chase.

In short I think all the clues suggest a profound and fascinating change is coming to the industry. Journalists can either do what many brokers did and try to ignore what is looming, or they can recognise it now and start to think about these change can be made to work for, and alongside them. In the follow up this piece to be published next week I’m going to take a closer look at photojournalism, a practice which for now might think itself almost completely immune from many of these innovations, but which I think will find in the coming years that it is as prone to disruptive technological change as any other.

Blurred Borders: On Mixing Conflict and Fiction


Instagram photograph purporting to show the firing of a BM-21 Grad
multiple rocket launcher by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, from VV.

My recent writing on Instagram and the potential power of photography as advocacy has led me to revisit a particularly unresolved project of mine. The work, named VV, has never seen the light of day simply because I couldn’t find a way to publish the work that seemed responsible. Disphotic’s recent exposure of an Instagram account which purported to be the work of a Senegalese migrant (but which was in fact a marketing campaign) led me to subsequently argue that the value of advocacy or attention raising for a topic like migration is partly linked to the means by which you try to raise that attention. An irresponsible campaign like the fake migrant account, I argued, might do enough damage to undo any benefit that might have been derived from it, and this was much the same problem that I faced with my project VV.

Another things that brought me back to VV was recently being asked to write about Karl Burke’s work Harvest of Death 2.0 for the British Journal of Photography. For this work Burke takes screen-shots of deaths in a video game, and then re-photographs these screen-shots using the collodion wet plate process, producing images reminiscent of the early battlefield photography produced by the likes of Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner during the Crimean War and American Civil War. Burke cleverly manages to sidestep some of the ethical dilemmas of such an approach through his use of a historic process, which means that even if these photographs were to be taken at face value, the vintage of the events they appear to depict defuses some of the more dangerous confusion that could potentially result.

Like Burke I have been interested for some time in the way the mass media, and particularly entertainment media, shape public attitudes towards violence, and in particular inter-state violence. Because conflict between states is invariably carried out through the proxy of their citizens, in democracies these conflicts require a relatively high level of public support. How this is manufactured is of great interest to me. In 2012 I explored this in a project by juxtaposing fetishistic ‘official’ photographs of Vietnam era weaponry with photographs of the violent wounds caused by those very same weapons. These were two sets of photographs, produced by the same institution, but given very different public exposure for obvious reasons. Combining them seemed to me to reunite two sides of a coin. This project became part of an exhibition I co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte and which explored the wider role of media in the Vietnam War.

These were ideas I wanted to explore further, and development of VV actually began in the autumn of 2013, before the start of the conflict in Ukraine. However the invasion of Crimea seemed to me to give the project additional purpose. I was intrigued by the way this opening episode of the conflict had been so extensively recorded on Instagram. Many Crimean residents took photographs of themselves with the invading Russian soldiers, and these photographs were widely republished in the media. Few of those republishing these images picked up in the ambiguities that many of them held, just tending to assume that they demonstrated that the Crimean people were quite happy to be occupied, when some of these photographs suggested very much otherwise.

VV was meant to blend some of these disparate ideas. Ideas about the subjectivities of the photography, the assumptions we make about images based on the context we find them in, and the prejudices and expectations we harbour about particular subjects. I used Instagram to photograph a fictionalised narrative set in the context of the war in Ukraine. The series of photographs I created recounted in fragmented form the life and death of a fighter on the pro-Russian side, showing the war from his perspective first as a civilian surrounded by escalating violence, then as a new recruit to the conflict, through a battle and finally to his implied death.

One key detail though was that these images were arguably not really photographs at all. Like Burke would later and quite independently do, I had been photographing a computer screen as I played my way through a video game. Years earlier I had come across a prominent case where a British television channel had accidental aired video filmed in a computer game, treating it as genuine film footage of an IRA attack on a British helicopter (viewable here, with the video game footage starting at 0.36). Given how far computer graphics had improved in the intervening years (and assuming tolerance for accepting bad quality photography as evidence had increased as well) I was interested to see if such a thing could be repeated on purpose.

The pixelation and interpolation introduced by a mid-range camera phone proved perfect at covering the details that might give a video game scene away as such, and the added effects of Instagram completed the effect when occasionally needed. The final photographs fooled most people I showed them to (including a class of my students, several editors and an experienced war photographer). I quickly realised that people were generally willing to accept what I showed them at face value, and that relatively few questioned the contents or the images or how I had come across this remarkable account. Those few photographs people expressed misgivings about were easily discarded, leaving a set of photographs so blurred, grainy, pixelated and saturated that it was hard to find enough clues in them to make the judgement that they were fake.

At the same time I tried to make sure my subterfuge was laden with clues that would give away what was taking place to anyone who really cared to check. My protagonist shared his name with a prominent Russian folk hero renowned for his treacherous behaviour in the service of the Russian state. With the help of a Russian speaking friend I replaced place names and other nouns in the narrative with incongruous Russian words intended to hint at the idea of trickery, manipulation, media, imagery and propaganda. Even the Russian name of the project implied a double meaning, suggesting both a war of nebulous enemies, and a war of uncertain and untrustworthy images.

VV did everything I wanted it to, but to just release the work and see what happened seemed dangerous at a time when there was so much misinformation around the conflict. It was all too easy to imagine an image like the one above being seized on by either side in the conflict as evidence of the other’s indiscriminate conduct. This problem only became more acute after the downing of flight MH17, and the ensuing battle to apportion blame, one waged in part with photographs. After more than a year of searching for an anwser I just couldn’t find a solution to this problem and so I shelved the project. David Campbell made the interesting point that being a journalist is not so much about where you draw your salary from, but also from the set of ethics and practices you ascribe to, and what you will and won’t do. As the discussion around the Instagram migrant reveals, we all live by a different code of ethics and for some jobbing journalists (and marketeers) this ethical benchmark falls much lower than for others who sometimes don’t even carry a press card.

I desperately wanted to produce a project that would have the same reach as the Instagram Migrant account has had. I wanted to show people how dangerous and deceptive the photographs they encountered online could be, and I wanted to equip people with a set of basic critical tools they could employ when approaching images (a project I’m still working on, and which at least might still see the light of day). But I could find no way to publish this work in a way that I could live with. And so the answer was simple, I simply didn’t.

Bad Marketing, Worse Journalism: A Follow Up on the ‘Instagram Migrant’



Now the dust has somewhat settled since this blog revealed a widely shared Instagram account purporting to belong to a Sengalese migrant was faked, I thought it would be good to return and extract some more salient points from the whole affair. I think this is important because those news outlets that have reported this story so far have done only that, they have reported the same set of facts (and some incorrect ones) but have not taken the time to dig deeper and question the problems this story highlights, or examine their own complicity in these problems.

First to flesh out what we have learnt since I published my original piece. We now know the rationale behind the fake account, it was createdto promote a Spanish photography festival which this year has the theme of travel. The festival hired a Spanish production company called Volga and a Barcelona based studio to create a mixture of stills and videos that would act as an advert for the festival and promote some debate about the role of photography in contemporary society.

On the one hand, mission accomplished for the marketers, this was a good example of (nearly) viral advertising which might have spread much further than it did if it hadn’t been debunked when it was. I had several discussions with my collaborator Amin Musa about how long to wait before publishing about it, but in the end decided to publish sooner rather than later in part because I thought it was a good idea to try and check the spread of the account before too many people saw and believed it. So yeah, good marketing, but in my view also irresponsible, exploitative and cynical marketing, which as I discussed in my original piece potentially undermines future attempts to highlight the plight of people travelling the dangerous route to Europe.

Those behind the account have already moved into what might be seen as a damage limitation stance in their interviews with major media. ‘”We were shocked to see it published,” Oriol Caba of Volga told Time. Although evidently not so shocked that the company thought twice about featuring a news report which treats the account as genuine on the landing page of their website. Tomas Pena, who took the photographs in and around Barcelona told the Huffington Post’s correction follow-up article that the project was about changing perceptions of migrants. Meanwhile Hagi Toure the Spanish handball player who posed as the migrant in the photographs has changed his Instagram account to private. Perhaps someone at least has learnt something from this.

So what are the important points to take from this affair? First of all that on some level African-European migration and the humanitarian and economic problems which cause it have become a way to advertise stuff, because that was at least part of the aim of this campaign. Perhaps it was also partly to raise awareness, but that opens up another issue in turn because what is as important as drawing public attention to a crisis is the way you do it. The fallout of a particularly strategy can easily do an amount of harm that outweighs whatever good you might claim came from the added focus. It’s difficult to quantify this in any subject, and I’m not arguing that’s what has happened here because it’s simply too early to tell how this will or won’t alter attitudes towards genuine migrants.

This whole saga was interesting to me from the start because for six months in 2014 I worked on a very similar photographic project which looked at the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It used Instagram to peddle a fictional narrative which was intended to draw attention to the basic commonalities between Russians and Ukrainians and to highlight the troublesome role of the media in perpetuating the conflict and some of myths that surround it. This work never saw the light of day because although I thought the point it had to make was an important one I couldn’t find a way to publish it which I felt was responsible and limited the many potentially dangerous of fictionalising a narrative around a current and contested event.

For me another salient point is that this affair makes journalism look pretty sick. Either laziness or overwork means journalists sometimes don’t interrogate sources or check facts as carefully as they should when it comes to sensitive issues, they publish and be damned with an eye more on the clock than on the accuracy, sensitivity or utility of articles. The need for click-bait headlines that will pull in viewers and generate revenue all too often over-rides the need for subtlety or caution in dealing with important topics. I see this first hand sometimes when I submit articles as a freelancer, as a carefully worded title gets rephrased into something designed to better appeal to online grazers, even if that title barely resembles the thrust of the piece beneath. The fact that some journalists are so desperate for cheap and easy click generating content in part explains how a fake campaign like this could even have garnered such attention in the first place.

The author of the original Huffington Post piece defended her article to me pointing out that they ‘didn’t take the photos at face value but rather reported that they were there’ but to me the lack of doubt in the article’s headline says it all. Likewise the follow up pieces by other sites screamed with hyperbolic words like fake, hoax, and but offered little analysis of what this means, sometimes resembling not much more than a cut, paste and reword of existing articles (including the erroneous claim that El Pais broke the story, which they did, but four hours after Disphotic). Amin and I both felt there was a desperate sense in many of these articles (and even in Huffington Post’s follow up article) to claim the scoop as their own, and to bury or not at all reference the original source of the debunking, us. For us it wasn’t so much about the credit, as about what this again says about the rush to publish first and process later, if at all.

All this has added pertinence because what I was originally going to publish yesterday (and which is now going to be published next Monday) was a piece on how algorithms are going to replace print journalists, particularly online. Writing this piece I had half a sense that this was far-fetched, that even if the technology was able to do this perhaps the need for such a change didn’t exist. But this affair has provided me with pretty much all the evidence I need to reason that journalism as we widely know it suffering a rot, and is due a great renewal.

Publish and be Insta-damned: On the ‘Instagram Migrant’


The widespread ownership of camera equipped mobile phones and the rise of social media platforms like Instagram can seem to offer us a direct window into lives very far from our own. Through these portals we can peer into the private world of a celebrity, a president, or even a migrant making the dangerous journey from West Africa to Europe. Yesterday evening saw a burst of online interest in an account apparently belonging to a Senegalese migrant named Abdou Diouf, who had documented his dangerous journey first on foot through the North African Desert and then across the Mediterranean by rowing boat to Spain. However these photographs are very far from what they seem, and all that Abdou Diouf’s account really reveals are the perils of taking social media accounts at face value, as some news outlets like the Huffington Post did.

My friend and colleague Amin Musa encountered Abdou Diouf’s account last week and sensing something wasn’t quite right with the photographs Amin started to dig deeper into them. We later came together to discuss them and we both began to identify a range of inconsistences, from the backgrounds in some of the photographs to the events they purported to depict. Some of these inconsistencies even feel a little like they were left there to be found. ‘Abdou Diouf’ for example is the name of one of Senegal’s better known presidents. Digging through Diouf’s contact list, Amin identified the actual name of the man in the photographs as Hagi Toure, who has his own Instagram page here (a close comparison of this photograph from Toure’s account and this one from Diouf’s offers fairly convincing evidence that they are one and the same).

Many questions emerge out of this account, but two in particular stand out strongly for me. The first is about the motivations of Toure and his collaborators, and the implications of setting up this account at a time when migration into Europe is such a current, controversial, and tragic topic. It’s easy to feel that the intention of this account are basically benign. It seems constructed to engender sympathy for the plight of migrants, putting us into their shoes through a platform we are all familiar with. The recognisable medium and language of Instagram (grain, blur, selfies, et al) makes ‘Abdou Diouf’ feel less like a faceless embodiment of a nebulous crisis, and more like someone we might know, someone who we might follow, someone whose photographs we might even ‘like’. He could be one of our friends, it could even one of us taking that shaky photograph on a raft half way across the pitch black Med.

But does the fact we might sympathise with the motivations behind these photographs make the deception taking place any less problematic? I think not. Because those discovering that the account isn’t genuine may find it contaminates the way they view the topic of migration as a whole, and particularly the way they view those arguing that Europeans need to show greater humanity towards people seeking to travel here. If an account like this is fake, where does that leave other bits of evidence of the hardships and dangers migrants face at home and during their odysseys to Europe? When the subject at hand is as important as this even well intentioned deceptions can be as damaging as the most malign campaigns of disinformation, something I’ve discussed here before.

The second question this account brings to mind is about our readiness to believe the things that what we (and I pointedly include journalists in this) encounter on social media, to accept them at face value and without prolonged scrutiny or consideration. This seems particularly common where what we encounter appears to confirm much of what we already believe, or is something we want to see. The journey depicted here fits has all the hallmarks of the type of stories reported daily in the press, of arduous journeys across deserts, of corrupt people smugglers, of treacherous sea crossings only to be confronted by indifferent police officers and internment. I had for a while been wondering if we would ever see photographs from a migrants perspective, and when I first encountered ‘Abdou Diouf’ I was fascinated. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who looks for news and stories on social media, a reminder to keep in mind the old adage that if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

There is also a much wider issue of the lack of engagement with visual sources online, an unwillingness to submit photographs to even the most cursory examinations. Many people, even those who work regularly with photography, still readily resort to lazy assumptions about what the visual language of photography means without further interrogation (much as many people resort to lazy shorthand ‘facts’ about issues like migration). The belief for example that images of compromised quality like those often shared on Instagram must hold some higher truth value than the consciously constructed images of photojournalists seems strikingly common. Those people and organisations who systematically set aside these assumptions in order to examine photographs without prejudice are precious few, and faced as we are with a glut of imagery it becomes an ever harder act for the rest of us to emulate.

Whether Toure and the others behind these photographs intended to provoke discussion of the plight of migrants, or simply wanted to bask in the glow of an online click storm remains to be seen. ‘Abdou Diouf’ for his part might only be a fiction, but there will be people out there now whose lived experiences echo his story. So much is at stake for these people, and so great is the controversy and division in Europe over their future that we can’t allow viewpoints and decisions about migration to be shaped by works of imagination. Whether as consumers or producers of news we need to look online with an ever more questioning eye, to remember that just as often as photographs can be compelling windows on a world that actually exists, they can all too easily be mirrors of fiction that we each desperately want to believe in.

Update #1 16.30 GMT, August 3rd 2015 – The Huffington Post have just published an update revealing that these photographs were not what they claimed to be, but rather part of a promotional campaign for a photography exhibition with ‘travel’ as it’s theme. ‘…the account was actually set up by a Spanish advertising agency for a photography exhibition, and Toure – an aspiring handball player who lives in Spain – posed for the photos as an actor. Tomás Peña, one of the directors of the project, shot all the photos in and around Barcelona with his iPhone in a single day. He spoke to HuffPost UK and explained he wanted to “change perceptions”.’ To me this poses as many new questions as it answers existing ones, questions which I will write on in the coming days.

Update #2 10.30 GMT, August 4th 2015 – I’ve published a follow up piece here which adds some new information about the reasons for creating the account and questions both the practices of the marketeers involved in making it and the response of many of the journalists who reported it.

Informing for Consent


A patient restrained for the purposes of photography.
Sir James Chricton-Browne, West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, 1869.

Today’s post is a bit of a diversion from some of the topics I’ve been posting on lately, but I want to pick on the discussion taking place online around Chris Arnade’s photographs of commercial sex workers and the decision of the Bronx Documentary Centre (BDC) to include some of these photographs in their Altered Images exhibition. This exhibition features photography which has been staged or otherwise manipulated, and Arnade’s work is felt to qualify for because he sometimes pays his subjects or becomes involved in their lives.

I’m not really interested in taking sides here, I have good and bad things to say about the actions and words of both sides. However the BDC’s judgement about Arnade’s photographs (summed up in this rather unprofessional e-mail to him) has given rise to a pretty interesting discussion around ethics and consent in photojournalism which I’m keen to follow up. Consent is a topic which remains as problematic as that of manipulation for photographers, but one which by contrast is far less often dragged into the open and discussed. A sense of some of the issues in this debate so far can be found here.

Consent is obviously a spectrum of interactions and agreements, from the implied consent of a nod or someone looking directly into your camera as you photograph them, to the more formal consent of a face to face conversation and the signing of a model release. These implicit and explicit forms of consent are often cited as the benchmark for good journalistic practice, this in spite of the fact that both of these forms of consent have their own share of problems and often are more about protecting the journalist than the subject (particularly in case of things like signing model releases).

Some of the discussion about Arnade’s work has also referred to a third form of permission, known as informed consent, which is a much higher benchmark for consent but rather less understood and much less frequently employed by journalists. Informed consent is concept inherited from medicine, where it is defined by idea that a patient should understand as fully as possible the potential implications of an intervention before it is agreed upon and carried out. There are obviously cases where this is not possible, and these cases can sometimes spark major ethical debates for the medical community about how to act in a patient’s best interest.

As ever the benchmark in journalism for informed consent (when it is occasionally sought) seems to be much lower than in other disciplines. Journalists sometimes talk for example about seeking informed consent by ensuring that subjects are in a lucid state of mind before photographing or interviewing, and explaining to them how and where the material they are helping to produce will be published. True informed consent needs to go much further than this, and needs to include having a thorough and frank discussion with a subject about why they are being photographed and what the possible implications and complications of this decision might be.

Easy as the above is to say, seeking truly informed consent in a journalistic setting into something of a minefield, because unlike the relatively closed and confidential system of healthcare, journalism is necessarily open to the world and participates in a two-way flow of information and influence. The implications and impact of a given piece of journalism are very difficult to anticipate. This is even more problematic for anyone working with photography and photojournalism, given that the reality of photography at the moment is that photographers have little ability to control or predict how and where their images might circulate, and how they might be changed or attributed.

I’ve felt for a while that the only way to help a subject reach anything like an informed decision about whether they want to be photographed or not by me is to explain that beyond the implications of whatever project I’m working on, once that image becomes public potentially anything could happen to it. It could be used by anyone, in any context, and that even as the photographer I have relatively little power to stop that. Naturally this thought is pretty terrifying, which is probably why many people avoid having this conversation, it’s a pretty effective way to encourage someone to say no, but leaving the option to say no wide open to subjects is an important part of responsible journalism, and one which often seems to get shut down far too quickly. As photographers we’re often very vocal about our right to photograph, less often do we discuss what is right to photograph.

A big part of informed consent is also the idea that the context where the decision is made should be non-coercive and that there should not be an undue influence over the consenter by the person seeking consent. This is also problematic because there are often uneven dynamics in journalistic relationships, particularly where they involve working with vulnerable groups like those Arnade photographs. That said it would be easy to raise similar concerns about this photograph of a Liberian child soldier by BDC director Mike Kamber. What both of these examples also demonstrate is that it’s very problematic to try and retroactively extract consent (or the lack of it) from a photograph. We know well that photographs show a very incomplete and selective sliver of events, and to read a split second image as revealing of the dynamics and discussions that have taken place around the moment of it’s making is misleading.

I guess my point in recapping these ideas is that journalists seldom live by the high standards they set for others, that consent is often not nearly as clear cut as saying yes or no, and that if we really think we (let alone our subjects)  know how our photographs are going to circulate, or what fires they might touch off in the world, then we need to think again.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #6: Overall Impressions


Markus Brunetti, Facades

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. I’ve also looked at the excellent Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, and rounded up some of the great books I encountered in the various book awards. In this, my final post, I sum up some of my overall impressions of the festival as a first time visitor.

As you can probably judge from my previous five posts, the photography, curation and discussion that I found at Arles was almost all of a very high quality. But what was being displayed and discussed was also photography of a very specific sort. That is the sort of photography which has been practiced more or less constantly since the medium’s invention, the type of photography that involves a person operating a camera, taking photographs of things which are physically in front of them, and then arranging the resulting images into linear sets to be displayed on a gallery wall. And yet few would deny that the excitement of photography lies in the fact it is becoming vastly more than this now, and all those once concrete certainties about meaning, authorship, and even the definition of the medium have broken down.

For the most part I did not find this brave new world represented, or even very often discussed. Even where the work on show had the potential to raise these sorts questions, it felt as if these issues were brushed aside as if they were slightly embarrassing or even a little vulgar. While I wasn’t particularly keen on Markus Brunetti’s Facades series, the composite nature of the work raises interesting questions about the integrity and limits of the digital photograph, questions which were relegated almost to a footnote in the exhibition’s text. Beyond the conceptual conservatism of quite a few of the shows, there was also what felt like the usual preponderance of white, American and European male photographers on display.

There were moments where the festival branched into more innovative and international terrain. The Discovery Award was a notable example but it was equally notable for being an award with a shortlist selected by five independent curators unattached to the festival. Talking to people with a few more years of Arles trips under their belts than me the judgment seems to be more varied. It is hard to get a sense if this is just an off year, or par(r) for the course. This year’s festival is notably marked by a change of festival directorship, and under those circumstances the temptation might be to play it safe rather than take the risk of trying to make a mark or a statement. And yet new director Sam Stourdzé made a very public statement that ‘a festival is not a museum’, a sentiment I fully support but which seems not to have been realised this year.

Looking back I have to acknowledge that I maybe went to the south of France with unrealistic expectations. For successive years before my trip I had heard Arles talked up by friends and colleagues who had been and come back with glowing stories about the festival, and I may have taken these too much to heart. Socially the festival was great, and for some that might be enough. I was hoping though to come away feeling inspired about the possibilities of photography and energised to make new work, but that feeling never quite developed. All the same I’ll certainly be going again next year and it will be interesting to be able to compare the similarities and differences that I find. Here’s hoping that even if we still don’t quite manage to escape the museum, that we at least get a little closer to the exit.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #5: Best of the Books


Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In my last post I looked at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality. For my penultimate post I turn to some of the photobooks I encountered at the festival.

To start off with the Luma Book Award, there was a host of interesting books on show. Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces immediately stands out from the crowded tables, both for it’s simple materials and bold cover, and for the way it wears it’s politics clearly on it’s sleeve. Emulating the grainy CCTV photographs released by the Metropolitan police of looters in the wake of the 2011 London Riots, Mayrit employs the same strategy for the one hundred most powerful political and economic leaders in the City of London. Many of these images are then scrawled with hand written notes revealing the subjects complicity in dodgy dealings and criminal cases. It’s a nice example of the broader trend of great books emerging from Spain at the moment, many with an unashamedly political slant which stands in contrast to the photobook scenes in other countries.

Aptly Mayrit’s book is located right next to Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report which corresponds to the festival exhibition of the same name. Where I felt the exhibition sometimes fell short on revealing the links between tax havens and the world’s problems, the added space and possibilities of the book goes helps to ameliorate this and slightly better reflects the vast complexity of this topic. I still feel that slightly more abstract visual strategies might have been better suited to a topic which is so abstract, but still I would definitely recommend checking this book out.

A diminutive book which caught my eye was Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words, and it’s title and form called to mind Zdnek Tmej’s bleak and brilliant Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. Like many other photographers, Romanaova travelled to Kyiv from her native Russia during the Euromaidan protests to make portraits, but her approach differed in that she asked each of her subjects to think of an object with the same name in Russian and Ukranian, before photographing them with that thing. The resulting book is open to multiple interpretations, whether viewed as a reminder that Russians and Ukranians have more in common than in difference, or perhaps more problematically as a suggestion that Ukranians are underneath it all basically just Russians. The book itself is beautifully fragile, composed of tissue paper and delicate inserts, hardly a thing one can imagine being born in the smoke and fire of Independence Square.

From the Luma Dummy Book Award (disclaimer: I had a book in the shortlist) a few titles caught my eye. First of all the winner, The Jungle Book by Yann Gross is a competently photographed and constructed documentary work which explores the contemporary Amazon. Although I think not ground breaking in topic or execution it’s not hard to see why it won because it’s well made in every respect. Two former students of mine also had work in the shortlist and although I’m clearly biased I recommend checking them both out. Carl Bigmore’s Between Two Mysteries is a great dive into an almost absurd Lynchian vision of America where everything hovers between reality and fiction, while Miriam Stanke’s And the Mountain said to Munzur: You, River of my Tears is a powerful account of the remote and trouble fraught Turkish region of Dersim.

For reasons I’ve sometimes discussed here, I’m generally not keen on books that are overly complex in form or design, but Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery has to be mentioned as a remarkable piece of book construction. Featuring a series of complex paper pop-ups, the portraits within burst off the page in ever more surprising ways. Lastly Mark Duffy’s Vote No.1 is almost the opposite of Cosmic Surgery in that the book construction is ridiculously austere but perfectly suited to the subject matter. Consisting of rephotographs of politician’s portraits as they appear on their campaign posters (complete with unplanned additions like flies and staple holes), the book is a funny jab at the unjustified self-importance and fleeting lifespans of politicians and political hopefuls.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #4: Souvenirs of the Sphinx and North Korea


Wouter Deruytter, Souvenirs of the Sphinx

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In this post I’m looking at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propaganda and Reality.

The first exhibition is fittingly housed at the Arles Museum of Antiquities, a little walk away from the town but also playing host to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs which makes it worth the walk. Curated by Luce Lebart, Souvenirs of the Sphinx draws on the collection of Wouter Deruytter, a photographer who has amassed an extensive collection of photographs and drawings of this ancient monument. Starting with rather fantastical pre-photographic illustrations presumably made by artists who had not seen the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza first hand but only heard them described, the exhibition then traces through the advent of photography and into the modern era, concluding with several of Deruytter’s own photographs of the Sphinx and it’s interior.

What is consistent in the exhibition is  obviously the desire of those who witnessed the Sphinx to make a recording of it, invariably with themselves in the frame. It is maybe not surprising that a monument which had stood impassively in the desert sands for nearly fifty centuries would make an impression, it is like a physical embodiment of history, a structure which wears the damage of time, and is periodically threatened with being engulfed by the sands that surround it. To stand on the Sphinx must have felt like standing on history, and one senses from many of the photographs that the subjects were making one of two statements. Perhaps simply attesting that they were here, and in sense this exhibition is an apt one to visit before or after seeing the Dark Tourism exhibition discussed last week. Or perhaps more complexly in photographing themselves with history these explorers, soldiers and tourists sought in some sense to claim it for their own.

The second small exhibition I want to highlight is Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, which is really one of the few bodies of work I saw during my time in Arles which really made me feel excited about photography. For this piece Wielinga combines her own photographs taken during an extended trip through North Korea with socialist realist propaganda paintings of fierce soldiers, noble workers and idealised Korean landscapes. Digitally manipulating the two together, the result is a perfect mix of painting and photography, one which much like traditional propoganda demands viewers take time and engage in careful investigation to separate truth and fiction from one another.

What I think is particularly clever about the work though is the way that by taking two forms of propaganda (the paintings, and her own photographs, inevitably staged managed by government minders) Wielinga manages in effect to short circuit them both. By revealing the incongruities between these two images she reveals the bizarre fiction that is North Korea’s public image, and hints at the bleak reality that lies just beneath the surface. The work is also being projected in a remarkable venue, a damp husk of an old church, but really the detail of the images is such that they need to be seen printed and viewed close up, and although the multimedia piece on display offers some interesting insight into the production of the work it dosen’t provide the same resolution. The high quality images on Wielinga’s website are a good alternative though for viewers keen to see these images in the detail they demand.