Towards A New Europe

dresden richard peter

Totenkopf und Leiche in Uniform in einem Luftschutzkeller,
Dresden nach der Bombardierung vom 13./14. Februar 1945,
Richard Peter (source)

I apologise in advance that this short post has little directly to do with photography, and knowing what I do of the audience of this site I also suspect it will mostly be a case of preaching to the converted. Even so, I feel compelled to write something brief about the referendum on British membership of the European Union to be held this Thursday.

The debate on the British membership is invariably cadged in terms of the future, in terms of what might happen if Britain stays or goes. But underneath that debate Europe’s history stirs restlessly. The Second World War, the Holocaust, have been repeatedly and often problematically invoked in the course of both referendum campaigns, but they are just the rawest of many wounds that Europeans have left on each other. The European Union undoubtedly has its problems, not least with it’s own past, but the value of our relationship with it need to be measured as much in terms of the question of what it has prevented as well as what it costs, what it imposes, and what it has or hasn’t achieved. This continent has experienced seven decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Economic union, cultural exchange, free travel, all have played no small part in our coming closer together and learning to look beyond the arbitrary national boundaries and petty differences which had Europeans killing each other in scores for most of the preceding thousand years.

The great number of people risking what little they have in order to settle here because their own homelands are ravaged by war, oppression or poverty are not a symbol of this continent’s failure, they are on the contrary a testament to its success, evidence of the fact that it remains a beacon for so many in a dark world. Whatever our misgivings about the structures of the European Union, the ideal remains strong and the institutions remain something worth fighting to improve. The European Union maybe isn’t yet the new Europe that many of its people dream of, but the only way it will realise these aspirations is if it’s members remain committed to fighting for it.

The Beat Goes On: Photobook Bristol 2016

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Still from Pulp Fiction (1994)

I’ve just returned from a weekend at Photobook Bristol, an informal congregation of photobook makers, publishers, designers and enthusiasts who gather in the city each year to hear talks, see books, share ideas, inspiration and woes, and to generally just party (it’s a great opportunity to see how photography’s finest perform on the dance floor, it turns out that Danish legend Krass Clements has some serious moves on him). It’s also a great place to catch up with far flung friends, see what they are working on, what get a sense of what work might be next to explode into the photography world. Despite my mounting misgivings about the pseudo-revolutionary hype around them, photobooks clearly remain a capable and relevant platform for disseminating exciting work, and this was really evidenced by the number of important names in photography who were speaking at the event, ranging from Susan Meiselas to Laura el-Tantawy. It is needless to say a rather questionable activity to attempt to judge a huge and international field of publishing based on one festival since all such events have their predilections and prejudices, but I feel I ought to at least attempt to summarise a few of the trends in what was discussed.

Perhaps one of the most notable things, and one which underpins many of the other discussions had over the weekend is that the conflict between form and function remains alive and well. It seems that the photobook remains closely aligned with the exquisite artist’s book much more so than more mass produced forms of trade or consumer book, and that continues to create tensions between the aspirations often held for a book and the reality of what it is able to do. It was interesting to hear discussions taking in different generations of photobook makers (notably a discussion between Susan Miselas and Oliva Arthur chaired by David Solo) where there were noticeable similarities over time but also changes print run, design, form and more, trends towards smaller runs and more complex design. Another interesting talk came from Yumi Goto of Reminders Project where she discussed a series of books published by the organization and some of the approaches and techniques used. Interestingly she referred to the number of copies published of each book not as an edition of say, 45 books, but as 45 editions, a linguistic subtlety which seemed to nicely reflect the fact that photobooks are still often rather unique objects which can incorporate some quite handmade, unique elements even when they reach larger print runs. I saw relatively few books over the weekend which really eschewed a fussy form (whatever happened to print on demand?) and it seems in this ever more competitive world that is less and less an option. On this topic a breath of fresh air came in a talk from designer Ania Nalecka who cautioned photographers against over design or complex design divorced from the meaning of their work.

Another issue often discussed was the question of the photobook’s relevancy and accessibility to wider audiences. There was much discussion of how the book can push beyond the niche of devotees and those wealthy enough to buy what remains essentially a luxury item. This is clearly related to the previous point in some respects, since design remains closely connected to the issue of cost, with more complex designs invariably demanding costlier production processes. There are of course exceptions, Craig Atikinson’s Café Royal Books being the most obvious representative of the alternative model, and Craig marked reaching the landmark of 300+ publications with a talk at the festival. Another interesting talk came from Julian Germain, discussing amongst other things the free citizen produced newspaper the Ashington District Star which he helps to organise and edit. The issue of relevancy and availability is also linked to other issues, for example distribution (a word my spellchecker perhaps rather aptly wanted to change to ‘devotion’). The fantasy of photobooks appearing for sale in supermarkets which I recall being aired at the previous year’s festival remains out of reach, but it remains a worthy aspiration. At the same time there were some interesting talks from a number of people who are comparatively new to photobooks, including an interesting collaboration between Mark Power, poet Daniel Cockrill and designer Dominic Brookman to produce a hybrid book aimed at poetry and photography enthusiasts. It was also a thrill to hear from the veteran Ghanian photographer James Barnor, who has published the first book of his work at the sprightly age of 87. He modestly prefigured his talk by saying he wanted to speak little and leave plenty of time for questions, because if a dinosaur came back to life then he imagined people would have plenty of things they might want to ask it.

Connected to the above, the issue of making out of prints books available in alternative and more accessible formats was also something I often found came up in the conversations between talks. It’s something I’ve always been keen on and have done with a few of my publications which are no longer in print. During the weekend I chatted with a few people about this including with Andrea Copetti of Tipi Bookshop about this and we had an interesting dialogue weighing up the pros and cons of making PDFs of unavailable books available versus offering high resolution videos of the physical books. I came down more on the side of the former, he on the latter, but clearly both have advantages and disadvantages and both succeed and fail at representing the nature of a physical book in different ways. The thing that I think most of the people I discussed this with agreed on was that small, closed editions and artificially unattainable books only really benefit collectors and perhaps sometimes publishers, not photographers and audiences. Solutions are much needed and having better opportunities to see and understand the seminal books which have come before can only benefit the vibrancy of photobook making. Certainly as a teacher there is a list of books both contemporary and classic which I would love to be able to show my students and which I think they would learn much from, but which are unfortunately impossibly rare. To some extent I sense that many of the issues that remain troubling with regards to the photobook stem from that prefix ‘photo’ and some of the most exciting books I saw and heard about over the weekend were those where the photographic element is almost secondary to the book fulfilling some other function, whether as strange documentation, journalistic investigation or something else entirely. I’ll be picking up on some of these titles in more detail on Disphotic very soon. In short the photobook remains alive and well but by no means completely resolved. There remain plenty of rather existential questions about the book that it’s more reflective adherents need to continue to discuss and address.

(Critical transparency: There are so many potential conflicts of interest here – ranging from the fact I’ve at spoken at previous incarnations of Photobook Bristol, to my having written an essay for Cafe Royal Books – that I would hardly know where to start with listing them. Suffice to say that if you that think I’m irredeemably corrupt as a critic then these attempts at disclaimers probably don’t help much, but at least I make an attempt at them.)

The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

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Moses smashing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments
Gustave Dore, 1865

During busy times when it’s a real effort to carve out the time to sit down and write, one of the things that keeps me going are the discussions and commentaries which often follow a new post. As ever it was very interesting reading the many responses to my recent piece on Steve McCurry in which I attempted to argue as I often have done before that manipulation in the post-processing of photography is much less the problem with photojournalism than is inadequate transparency about every stage of the practice. Also problematic I believe is the rigid adherence to largely outdated ideas about what photojournalism is able to do in the face of profound changes in the social and material organisation of the world, changes which are rendering some of the tenets that were once core axioms of the practice less and less viable. Above all I sought to argue as I have before that binary views of complex things are rarely useful, and that for photojournalism to remain relevant it needs to be more willing to look into the grey zone that lies between the modernist ideas of absolute objectivity from which it sprang, and the strand of post-modern thinking which can sometimes seem intended to negate all values as equally worthless and subjective. Since that post accusations that McCurry also staged many of his images have also emerged in a post by Khitij Nagar (Teju Cole also suggested this might be the case but did so without evidence to support it.) These accusation I think can still be framed in much the same way as the issue with McCurry’s manipulation. Staging is less a problem than how apparent it is that this is taking place. Portraits are always staged, and often appear in photojournalistic contexts, but few would take issue with their ability to provide interesting and useful journalistic insights and most would recognise that a form of contract of understanding exists between viewers and photographers that these images are constructed.

The responses to my original piece on McCurry were broadly positive, although of course quite a few of the positive responses were less about the points I was trying to make than perhaps about people with an axe to grind with McCurry jumping on an excuse which allowed them to do so. That particular ‘scandal’ continues, with sites like Petapixel doing their best to fuel it often without providing the analysis which I would say is needed far more than examples of supposed wrongdoing (but then, they do have GIFs). There were inevitably also quite a few negative responses to my arguments, but these were in their own way interesting, useful and sometimes revealing. Some were nuanced and well argued, but others were shot through with uncritical, oft repeated assumptions, and adherence to the type of black and white moral attitudes which I think is a big part of the problem I was discussing. While much debate and discussion rightly centres on the question of manipulations, I want to take a step back here and examine in a far broader sense what underlines much of what I was arguing before. That is what I see as the problem with photojournalists adhering to strict and pre-fabricated moral codes.

Ask its proponents, let alone practitioners, and it becomes clear that photojournalism is widely conceived of as a basically moral enterprise, which is to say a practice driven at some level by a moral agenda. Its origins and subsequent evolution I would say reflect this, lying in the social reform and campaigning photography of early twentieth century photographers like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Alice Seeley. As I discussed last week, what is often called the golden age of photojournalism occurred at the same time as massive ideological conflicts between democratic states, which considered themselves often to be highly moral and socialist and fascist ones, which either had a very different sense of morality or in some cases regarded it as something to be discarded altogether. Photojournalism perhaps naturally flourished in the former environment, where its role could be as something of a social and moral conscience, and where it was largely unrestricted by the type of authoritarian censorship which regards even compliant photography as a potentially unpredictable challenge. It is perhaps wholly unsurprising that the photo essay was pioneered in the highly permissive media climate of Weimar Germany, and Susie Linfield draws interesting contrasts between the Spanish Civil War photography of Robert Capa and the images of photographers working on the pro-Franco side which also illustrates some of these points.

Despite the growing cynicism towards many of the ideas on which it has been founded, photojournalism is still often seen as possessing a basically moral character, its purpose still believed to be to reveal the world, contribute to public discourse, and in doing so perhaps also contribute to the mitigation or resolution of some of humanity’s problems. To accompany that moral agenda, photojournalism has evolved sets of moral codes, which in some contexts have been more or less informal, at other times more very strictly codified. One such set of moral guidelines which frequently come up for discussion in my writing and in the industry more generally are photojournalistic views on manipulation. These rules or guidelines are many and vary from one organisation to another, but across the industry they more or less correlate with general agreement on most key points. It is a code which stipulates that certain behaviours are inherently unacceptable and that others are broadly acceptable, in other words a moral framework rooted in practical photographic concerns. Digital ‘cloning’ of the type that Steve McCurry was accused of engaging in is widely considered to be unacceptable under any circumstances, whereas post-factum conversion of a colour image to black and white is broadly considered to be an acceptable act, in spite of the dramatic effect this can potentially have on the reading of an image. While in most arenas I would never argue that ends justify means, photographic technique might be an exception.

Saying that, I don’t like binaries or black and white arguments, for the obvious reason that they rarely take account for the complexities of the world, rarely illuminate the things to which they refer, and can often indeed complicate what they intended to make simple. Rigid moral codes are problematic for similar reasons, and can often end up handicapping the very people they are intended to empower. The problem of so strictly adhering to pre-set moral frameworks is they essentially prevent those who adhere to them from making their own decisions about the circumstances they face, resorting instead to a set of rules defined by other people who have not necessarily been faced by the same circumstances and moral quandaries. Mandating strict adherence to preformed moral codes in effect produces a caste of moral juveniles, who can’t trust their own judgement but must look to the approval of a higher power, whether spiritual or professional. It is equally true that rigid moral codes intended to be moral and ethical, can under certain circumstances become the very opposite of this, and can harm the very people they are intended to protect. As Ben Chesterton pointed out in an exchange on Twitter, there are circumstances where you might well argue that for a journalist not to manipulate a photograph would be far more unethical than if they left the image unchanged, for example in a situation where an identity might be revealed and in doing so a subject or source might be exposed to harm.

When I talk to students about ethical standards in documentary photography, I try to make it very clear what these moral codes are from the perspective of industry organisations like World Press Photo, or commercial entities like Reuters, how they have come to exist, and what the consequences can be for flouting them. But what I try to also make clear is that relying on someone else’s code without scrutinising it is a bad idea, and that we all instead need to develop our own sense of what is ethically acceptable and not, our red lines across which we will not pass. These industry codes and frameworks can be a good starting point, but they can’t be an end point because for all the attempts to update them they remain cumbersome and rooted in notions about photography which appear stone aged compared to the way the technology and industry operates today. As many have rightly said before, what use is it characterising ethical post-processing practices in terms of traditional darkroom techniques, when ever more of today’s photojournalists have never even set foot in a darkroom? That these guidelines must be constantly updated goes without saying, but on top of that photographers must adapt them into their own moral codes. Doing this does not mean that a photojournalist will not come up against circumstances where those codes do not function, or where they advise behaviour which is clearly not right. The difference I would say is that where these codes are a photojournalists own they are perhaps in a better position to adjust them, evolving them to function better in responses to experiences in the world. This I would say is far more of an essential part of being a good journalist, and just a good person, than is adhering slavishly, if passionately, to someone else’s preset sense of what is right, and what is not.

Trevor Paglen wins Deutsche Börse Prize 2016

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Open Hangar, Cactus Flats, NV, Distance ~ 18 miles, 10:04 a.m
From Limit Telephotography, Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen has won the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography prize, for his exhibition The Octopus, which explores contemporary surveillance and was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 2015. This annual prize rewards a photographer for an exhibition or publication which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe during the preceding year. Each iteration of the shortlist varies greatly, some years which offer a fascinating cross section of diverse directions in photography, to others where it can be quite hard to detect how any of the shortlistees were considered to have met the prize’s admittedly ambitious rationale. Previous incarnations have featured the likes of Walid Raad, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, John Stezaker, Sophie Ristelhuber, Richard Mosse, Paul Graham, Mikhael Subotzky, and Zanele Muholi. This year the shortlisted works ranged from Erik Kessel’s ambitious installation of his moving project Unfinished Father, to Tobias Zielony’s The Citzen, a collaborative project with refugee activists based in Berlin. For me though Laura el Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a self-published photobook on the Egyptian revolution, and Trevor Paglen’s exhibition were always the front runners. My heart hoped that Tantawy’s work would be recognized for its raw power, narrative skill, and continued resonance, my (somewhat cynical) brain on the other hand felt that Paglen would likely be the one to win. Viewing Paglen’s work is a mixed experience for me. His chosen area of investigation, the activities that states get up to when they think their citizens are not looking, are ones which I find important enough to spend a sizeable part of my own time researching them (and many of the issues I am about to discuss are ones I have myself struggled with). What bothers me is that the modes that Paglen chooses to address these worlds seem more often about producing beautiful images than about really explaining or challenging these activities.

Paglen’s work feels like a rather straight form of art documentary, perhaps even indeed it might be considered good old fashioned documentary, an apparent revealing of something which demands to be seen in the age old tradition spanning back to Hine and Riis. In his Limit Telephotography series for example Paglen uses very long lenses to photograph sensitive sites which cannot be more directly approached, sometimes recording subjects which lie a dozen miles or more away, through layers of dust, heat haze and so on. In another series The Other Night Sky he uses long exposure astrophotography to record classified satellites as they pass over head. The resulting photographs in both cases are very beautiful, at times verging on the abstract, and like an abstract image they show almost nothing recognisable at all. We must take his word for it that we are viewing a spy satellite amongst a thousand star trails, and not simply another star, an innocuous civilian satellite or a tumbling piece of space junk. In this respect, and also in his penchant for arcane technical names in his image titles, Paglen’s photographs often remind me of Joan Fontcuberta’s photographic projects. Fontcuberta’s works often take the form of visual practical jokes which drag you in one direction before disclosing that what you are looking at is actually something rather different. In his world what appears at first to be a constellation of stars in a distant reach of space is a moment later revealed to be a cluster of dead insects on his windscreen, as in the series Mu Draconis. I’m not sure how much of a sense of humour Paglen has, but of course this sort of temporal telescoping can be a clever strategy even when the subject is far more serious, and it can be employed to some very thoughtful ends. I think specifically of Sophie Ristelhuber’s Fait, a work which challenges an audience to question what we are being shown, and what exactly the camera is supposed to be revealing in the abstract desert battle spaces of the First Gulf War, where the meaning of scale and distance are obliterated by the cameras lens, whether it is held in the photographer’s hands or mounted in the nose of a guided missile.

Paglen’s photographs are also rather performative, by which I mean the process of making them often feels more interesting than the resulting image or the information they impart. In viewing the Limit Telephotography series for example I find myself wondering of the value (beyond the value of the performance itself) of lugging heavy camera equipment to the top of remote hills when high resolution satellite imagery of these same sites are available to view anytime, anywhere (here for example is Toonpah Test Range Airport, likely the site featured in the photograph above). This of course is not to believe that existing forms of imagery are any more neutral, or necessarily more useful than Paglen’s, and as I know from experience, these types of performances can sometimes be quite effective ways to counter authorities who often fear exactly these types of public spectacle. I suppose what I want is still to have the image before me reveal something I did not know. Part of the problem with that is even if one could reveal these classified sites undistorted by heat haze, or clearly capture a spy satellite as it passes overhead, as has been done by some observers, a photograph tells us little about these things and the world that they belong to. Photographs, particularly single photographs but even sets and series, are incredibly bad at showing the structures, networks, histories, agreements, and more which underlie their subjects. Photographs by dint of their self-contained, enclosed nature, have an unfortunate tendency to appear complete, as if the world depicted within them were as self-contained, self-explanatory, and frankly simple, as the four sides of the photo frame.

Photographs have to be used in clever ways to avoid this tendency, and to remind viewers that is being seen is a small part of a complex set of processes and networks which make up our globalised world. Unfortunately these forms of treatment are often anathema to the sort of laboured, precious presentation that galleries tend to demand that photographs are given (and which may well be an important factor in Deutsche Börse’s collecting rationale, I think an important aspect of this prize and one which is seldom discussed). A useful photograph is not a precious physical object, it is a raw aggregate of data, something waiting to be rendered out in many senses of that phrase. It is phrase in a sentence, a node in a network, a marker on a map. When I view Paglen’s work I see raw material, waiting to have clever things done with it which will say far more about the organisations that interest him than the photographs alone are able to (to some extent this starts to happen in his series on undersea cables, but for me it is only a start). Reworked and deployed in this sort of way I think the work, as well as starting to explain it’s subject much better, would also start to pose a far more direct challenge to these entities. Of course Paglen might not feel that’s his job to do this, which is fair enough, but I consider this to be an essential part of this type of work. Such a challenge is not by any means easy to make, and as I said before I critique Paglen’s work here from a point of common interest since these problems are exactly the same ones which have troubled me about my own work on intelligence gathering. His failings (if you want to call them that) are also my failings, and the failings of a great many other photographers and visual artists working in this area who often remain more heavily weighted towards the role of being an artist than of being a researcher or activist (more thoughts on this soon).

The exception to most of what I’ve said here and by dint of it I think by far the most interesting part of Paglen’s work to date is a completely non-photographic part, indeed it’s a piece which verges on conceptualism for it’s artistic effect. It’s the Autonomy Cube, a Perspex box housing a custom motherboard developed by Jacob Applebaum (until recently a core member of Tor), which acts as an entry point to, and a relay for, the Tor network. Tor acts as a series of relays through which internet connections can be bounced, making it far harder (although by some accounts not impossible) to track the browsing habits and other information of people who use it. Like the wider use of electronic encryption, it has become part of an intriguing reputational battle in the aftermath of the Snowden document leaks, often depicted as an unholy gateway into the dark web and the preferred the tool of child pornographers and criminal hackers seeking to elude the authorities, Tor can just as readily be the means of journalists seeking to avoid surveillance, or ordinary citizens who don’t see why their browsing habits should become corporate property or be collected by dubious government information gathering programs. Intelligence agencies also often deploy the spurious logic that increased use of networks like Tor will require them to use ever more invasive means of information gathering, failing to recognise that it was precisely their development of invasive programs like Prism and Tempora which have led to a growing number of people to employ these technologies. The more relays Tor can call on the stronger the system is, and so by installing this router in a gallery Paglen does finally do something which poses a tangible challenge to the activities of intelligence gathering organizations like the United State’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ, and even more gloriously he implicates the notoriously apolitical art world in the process at the same time (each time I see the autonomy cube installed, as it also is at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, I wonder with glee what gallery wrangles might have taken place before it was agreed to). By the additional step of inviting gallery visitors to connect to the router and exploit its offer of anonymity, Paglen exposes visitors to what previously might have seem mysterious or even taboo, and implicates them in a deeply modern analogue to older forms of civil disobedience. In the digital age, taking hold of our own data, and enforcing our privacy even against our own governments might be considered one of the final truly subversive, and genuinely challenging acts.

Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

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Detail from Situation Room showing classified documents in front of Hillary Clinton.
Pete Souza 2011 (wikipedia)

It’s the most inward form of photography writing to critique another writer’s thoughts, but reading a recent piece by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the work of White House photographer Pete Souza was a reminder that this sort of writing is sometime badly needed. It’s needed in this case less because Jones is a useful or thoughtful critic worthy of consideration but more because The Guardian gives him a platform with such authority that someone, anyone, needs to periodically take him to task over his writing, which vacillates between acerbic hatchet jobs and simpering fan pieces (although it must be said that ever so occasionally he does get it right). In his latest piece Jones fawns over the photographs produced by Souza during Obama’s two terms in office, swallowing the narrative these photographs are intended to transmit without even a moment’s reflection on the circumstances of their production. Even as he praises Souza as a photographer, Jones seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of looking at photographs, which is to always remember the photographer’s role in their creation.

Photographs are not portals on the world which appear unbidden, they are not utterances are given voice without someone articulating them. They are considered constructions, whether constructed in the moment of their shooting (and before) or in their selection, arrangement, contextualisation, and dissemination out into the world. Jones, who is normally so ultra critical of photography (indeed once calling the medium ‘flat, soulless and stupid’ in the context of fine art) manifestly fails in the role of a critic to ask even the most basic questions of the Souza’s images. Souza is very proficient photographer, and it’s not my intention to denigrate him on that front, but his photographs are unavoidably the product of an extremely effective press machine, one which exists to stage manage and represent the presidency in a very particular light which has absolutely nothing to do with creating an objective ‘chronicle’. It’s not for nothing that the visual analysis blog Reading the Pictures often analyses White House photographs critically (ironically Jones even links to an article on the site, presumably without having read much further). These photographs might speak the language of documentary, but in any traditional sense they are not, and Obama’s presidental career and his legacy are far more complicated than these photographs suggest.

In the United States Obama might perhaps be remembered less for what he did during his time in office than for the way his election itself seemed to push America closer to realising its founding creed of equality (even if some of the major markers for racial equality show widening gaps). While that narrative might appeal to American citizens keen to believe that their nation is realising it’s long held aspirations, it might have much less resonance in some parts of the world where the fallout of Obama’s two terms are likely to be remembered quite differently. These photographs speak little if at all of the revelations of absolutely massive US surveillance programs, the prosecution of more whistle-blowers than any previous president, and the escalation of illegal drone wars which have killed thousands of innocent people in states with which the United States is not even at war. This is to say nothing of the failure to shut the prison at Guantanamo bay, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Obama’s general record on secrecy, for example his administrations unwillingness to reveal the extent of the CIA’s torture program. Of course you can argue that mahy of these wrong doings were inherited, that Obama was just cleaning up his predecessors mess, or towing the presidential line, but to me doing so is a little like arguing about whether a photographer is responsible for a lab technician manipulating his photographs or not. These things happened (or in some cases didn’t) on Obama’s watch, and like it or not that makes these things as much a part of his legacy as Obamacare or his reset of relations with Cuba.

Souza’s photographs chronicle very few of these important things (in some respects it would be unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise) and where they occasionally do, as for example in the case of the now iconic photograph Situation Room, they do so in a way which is meticulously designed to send the ‘right’ message. In the case of Situation Room the calculated message is of a president taking his responsibilities incredibly seriously, indeed overburdened by them, surrounded by the wisdom of his accumulated advisors, and so on. The few truly informative details of this photograph is also the most overlooked; the blank laptop screens, a pixelated document on the laptop in front of Hillary Clinton and a binder on her lap marked TOP SECRET/CODE WORD/NOFORN (that last one the intelligence abbreviation for ‘no disclosure to foreign nationals’). These small items are to me the closest Souza comes to hinting at the true legacy of the last eight years, and indeed the last sixteen, which are a profound secrecy and the rigorous control of information. These are things which Souza as White House photographer is arguably a part of, and there have been regular criticisms from photographers and press organisations about the way the White House prioritises its own photography while restricting access for photojournalists. In 2013 Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’s head of photography, went so far as to write a piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of exercising an Orwellian control over the presidents image with the intention of producing ‘a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.’

Saying all of this is not to underplay the historic significance of Obama’s election and presidency, nor is it to question his remarkable charisma and what in a different time might have been termed his ‘common touch’ which is certainly demonstrated in many of Souza’s photographs. It is however to question the extent to which these things become a dense smokescreen around the figure of the president and his administration, and the way that issues which are arguably of far greater importance than Obama playing games with small children or dancing tenderly with an elderly woman get shifted into the background as a result. It’s worth looking at Souza’s very similar photographs of Ronald Reagan, who I suspect many Obama advocates would harbour far less positive feelings about, to see how these moments feel when the subject is someone whose policies you don’t agree with. Souza’s earlier photographs say nothing of Reagan’s divisive economic agenda, his escalation of the Cold War, the Iran Contra affair, the Invasion of Grenada, his retrograde views on HIV/AIDS, or any number of other things which we might now consider to be indelible parts of his legacy. As it was with Regan, so it is now with Obama. If Jones wants a true picture of these last two terms then by all means he is welcome to include some of Souza’s official schmaltz, but if he wants that chronicle to have a grain of truth in it Jones will need to look beyond the photographs on Whitehouse’s Instagram feed. He’ll need to look for photographs which for the most part are still waiting to be taken, or daresay I say it, constructed. Photographs which wait to be given voice in the cells of Fort Leavenworth, amongst the server racks of the NSA’s massive data centers, and in the remote mountains of Waziristan.

Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton

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 Dickey Chapelle taking photos on the shores of Lake Michigan during a U.S. Marines operation in 1959. (from Flickr)

Photographers seem ever more aware of the representational responsibilities which comes with their craft, but the question of who is actually doing this representing remains just as important as who is being represented and how. In a field like documentary photography this question becomes particularly essential, if only because it’s unrealistic to expect an adequate reflection of the world in all its messy complexity, when privileged, white, western men remain so often the ones taking the photographs and defining the terms of representation, dissemination, and so many other things. The gender gap in photography has come into ever greater focus in recent years, with some great initiatives launched to address it. At the same time these modes of address, for example gender specific exhibitions, themselves invite scrutiny, and need to meet with a discussion about the extent to which they do actually help to resolve the issues they intend to address, and or whether they sometimes inadvertently create different problems. Being that I am pretty much the definition of a privileged, white, western man, these are topics which I don’t feel entirely comfortable holding forth on in the usual monologue that typifies pieces on this site. Because of that and also because one of my ongoing aims is to involve other voices in this blog, I thought it would be interesting to address some of these concerns in the form of a dialogue with someone interested in many of the same questions. Enter Max Houghton, writer, senior lecturer on MA photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication and (transparency) a colleague of mine.

Max, it might seem like an obvious question but perhaps you could start by saying a little about how this topic first became of importance to you, was there a particular moment of awakening or just an ongoing sense of photography as a field marked by a gender divide?

I used to edit 8 magazine, a photography biannual, with Lauren Heinz. It’s fair to say that after we went to Perpignan for the first time – in the mid-2000s – we could be in no doubt that certain parts of le monde photographique were indisputably male. I thought it was inevitable and quite funny. At first. We didn’t positively discriminate in terms of subsequent magazine content thereafter – we never considered it – but we did get excited when we found people like Rena Effendi, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Dana Popa, Newsha Tavakolian and Lourdes Basoli, for example, and featured them in the magazine or at Host gallery. Vanessa Winship, Susan Meiselas and Jane Hilton were always on our radar, and greatly admired. Interestingly, when I interviewed them, they were all incredibly low-key about their contributions to photography. They talked profoundly about their work and the people they photographed, about ethics, about mystery, but not about themselves.

Fiona Rogers, who worked across the road at Magnum, set up Firecracker, as a platform for female photographers, which seemed like such an obvious and incredibly important thing to do. I went to an earlyish debate on the subject of Women in Photography in Brighton and noticed a divide between ‘celebrating’ women and ‘fighting for’ women – it was predominantly a difference of tone. I realised I believed in both things. When Fiona asked me to curate a month for Firecracker, I set myself a brief to find work that only a woman could make. This was not Firecracker’s remit but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Why else would I select work based on gender only? I chose work by a former student of mine, Samar Hazboun (a graduate of MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster). Samar had gained access to a women’s shelter in her native Palestine, which offered some respite for women who had suffered gender-based violence. Despite the refuge offered, the shelter itself was run within the confines of a deeply patriarchal society, so the women living there were to all intents and purposes imprisoned, and treated as shameful beings.

Choosing this work seems fundamental now to why I think it is important to discuss women in photography. It’s not really because of how women are treated within the – vast and unwieldy – industry, which encompasses the media, the art world, the photo studio, fashion etc etc, but how women are treated in the world. Of course one is not separate from the other. And while women in the UK alone are being murdered at the rate of two per week by their intimate partners (source: refuge.org), it’s necessary to look at how women are treated by men, and what kind of a society permits that. Photography is a very powerful tool of communication. That doesn’t mean I only champion work about the very worst -case scenarios (though actually, I would be most interested to see more work on subjects such as intimate partner violence, rape, low-self esteem). I think it’s a question of balance. I want all these essential subjects to be made visible but at the same time, I want to look at ways in which women do resist the patriarchy in all its forms, often with such wit. Virginia Woolf’s use of photographs in her anti-war book Three Guineas is a good place to start. I was going to apologise for the long answer, but I deleted it because I know this is something women (generalisation alert) are prone to doing.

Whenever the question of gender in photography comes up I often hear (invariably male) photographers argue that yes photography is in some respects still very male dominated, but women are actually well represented in the industry in terms of roles like curators, editors, and so forth. This might be true, but there is another issue here in that these roles often seem to be seen by people as potentially powerful but actually not particularly creative and essentially subsidiary to the ‘real’ job of going out into the world and taking photographs. I wonder whether you see a similar delineation of work in the industry between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ and if you do whether that is in some respects that is tied to a sense of the status of these roles, or perhaps something else?

I agree up to a point. We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum. Women are extremely well represented within the industry in the roles you mention, and also in academia. And yes, I guess there’s a certain amount of power, or, at least, cachet, or, at the very least, respect for such roles. But they are admin heavy. They involve doing lots of things for other people and with other people; a form of midwifery, perhaps. At the heart of these roles is caring very deeply about someone else’s work and wanting to find a way to make other people care about it too. Editing and curating are very rewarding and creative – and collaborative – practices. However, I find men feel more entitled to make their own work, and also are freer to make it, both domestically and financially. They are free to roam alone, in all sorts of ways. Women seem to find more success within institutions, where their roles are clearly delineated. The role of a photographer following stories, or ideas, seems a huge privilege and one that very often demands being out of the home. This disrupts patterns, which, even for those of us who reject them, structure society. As de Beauvoir tells us, it’s not that the woman is naturally secondary, but that society has made her so. And women, unlike other oppressed groups, are not a minority; nor are we a minority within photography. But the opportunities are different. It’s absolutely essential that we make way for female photographers and visual artists; otherwise, we keep seeing repeated male visions of the world, and come to believe it as a truth. Imagine if war had only ever been photographed by women.

I think we both recognize a gender imbalance in photography then, my next question would be how to answer it. Women only exhibitions seem to be a popular strategy at the moment, but I must admit it’s a response I have misgivings about. I feel split in that on one level I think it is worth championing and celebrating any identity, simply for the sake of it, but on the other hand I also feel these exhibitions sometimes serve more to marginalise the work on show as a sort of special interest or charity case, mere ‘women’s work’ as you said when we first discussed this, rather than validating the work as legitimate and interesting beyond the gender of its creator. I felt the 2013 exhibition Home Truths at the Photographer’s Gallery was a good example of another approach. Being about motherhood, female photographers and perspectives were dominant in the show, (if I recall correctly there were two male photographers, which I think was a nice reversal of the ‘token woman syndrome’ we often see on photography panels). Gender wasn’t directly advertised as part of the rationale for the show, even though it was clearly a major part of what was being discussed. To me this approach seems to work more effectively, but I wonder what your feelings are on this?

Yes, I agree, it was a very smart curation by Susan Bright and an important show for The Photographers’ Gallery to host too. I have to be careful what I say here, as I am co-writing, with Fiona Rogers, a book on contemporary female photographers, which I hope will put a very bright spotlight on a large number of women all at once, and it will be very obvious they are force to be reckoned with. It’s a way of ensuring women are part of the future history of photography. I would certainly like to see an exhibition that featured only female photographers because they had represented the theme of the show in the most exciting and innovative ways, and, ideally, that theme would not be one specific to women (though it could be). Positive discrimination is a method that is used in the workplace to redress imbalances – as far as I understand it, it means in practice that if two candidates offer similar skills, the one that has been historically disadvantaged would be given the job. That makes sense.

I think the way in which male photographers seem to be able to build their reputations – in part by having more self-confidence, and the subtle ways in which traditional male discourse is self-affirming – makes it more likely that opportunities come their way. This is of course self-perpetuating. I am very interested in the fact that more and more people are identifying as gender-fluid, not least because these millennia-old binaries are having to be rethought. I really like that the lack of gender certainty in my chosen name means I am probably read more often as a male voice than a female one.

I am more interested in the eye that makes the photograph, and what it has seen, than the body that hosts that eye – the mind’s eye is something different altogether. It’s not men or male photographers who are a problem, but a masculine and patriarchal discourse that goes unquestioned and dominates. I’m happy for shows, books, and whole festivals – like the nation-wide Signals festival, curated by Val Williams in 1994 – to be for women only, but at heart, it’s about a way of seeing. It’s essential for men to see that seeing too.

Embracing gender fluidity or ambiguity is an interesting answer to these problems. Like you it’s something I have a little experience of as for a long time I went by my middle name which is Kay, originally a Victorian boy’s name but now almost always assumed to be a girl’s name. People’s reactions were always interesting to say the least. I rather like the idea of a group of people disrupting the rather binary gender roles of the photography world with their ambiguous names! But I think your last point touches on an important, related issue, the wider male awkwardness about associating with feminism or self-describing as feminist. I think to end I should ask whether there are things you think photographers themselves can, or should do to address the problems we’ve been discussing?

Very much like the name Kay. It’s pretty hard to keep your gender quiet in the age of the picture byline, but I agree, there is some fun to be had.  I think men can put their awkwardness aside if they behave as people committed to equality. They don’t need to wear t-shirts – hello Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Clegg – but make sure that any any power they wield – some of which originates from their gender alone – is fairly (re)distributed, acknowledges the largely relational role of women in society, and actively tries to find ways to champion what we can term women’s work. That needs to happen in so many ways – especially in relation to childcare, ‘domestic’ violence, pornography and women in prison, for starters – and also in relation to how we as a society define what can be considered art. If anyone is unsure what the answer is to ‘Are you a feminist?’, it’s ‘Of course, it’s a political necessity.’ And if a man can’t say that and mean it, then I hope he does feel awkward.

I have found a couple of examples of female expression exceptionally moving recently – one is Beyonce’s nuanced articulation of love, jealousy, infidelity and pain on her visual album Lemonade. If you listen carefully, she is exposing herself as vulnerable and strong, which I find much more affecting than an astonishing display of girl-power. The other is Kim Cattrall on Woman’s Hour, ostensibly talking about insomnia, but making such perceptive points about (among other things) being a woman ‘without a husband’. We don’t usually hear such candid voices, which, for me anyway, articulate in different ways the experience of being female, in a society set up to venerate its men, and in which women – black women, older women, gay women, single women – women – are marginalised, automatically.

But I am straying from the question … perhaps. What can photographers do? To state the obvious, how people are pictured plays an enormous role in how they are seen. So photographers who photograph women need to think about that, and not just how they are seen, but if they are seen, and where they are seen, and by whom (these further questions are necessarily addressed to editors and curators too). I think we should all think twice about giving the same people the big prizes and ever bigger shows; we must challenge the status quo. Photographic educators can question the canon, and add to it, when they find it wanting. We can champion the work of contemporary female photographers, so their work becomes part of future history. Freud is often criticised for not being able to answer his question ‘What does a Women Want?’ but at least he asked, and at least he spent much of his career trying to find out. I think the whole industry can listen better to what is being said by women, or what is not being said but should be. The whole Women in Photography movement is in full swing at the moment – it’s lively, it’s witty and it’s inclusive – feminist never meant separatist, though it has been perceived as such. It’s the best party in town and everyone’s invited.

Welcome to Panoptica

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table
at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Photographs are just abstract marks, distortions of tone and colour. But our ability to recognise things in these patterns is remarkable, as is the ability these recognitions have to mould and shape the ways we think about certain things, and act on them. I’ve never been fully convinced by the idea of image fatigue or the dearth of compassion which is sometimes said to result from such images. I remain unconvinced by the popular claim that exposure to photographs can’t change us, and in process perhaps also change the world in however slight a way. In the context of Europe’s recent refugee crisis it seems that regardless of how many thousands of images I see I still find these events distressing, exhaustingly so, but not yet to the extent of fatigue, and not yet to the point that these images instead of fueling my sense of anger instead extinguish it. Something always gets me, there always remains that capacity for some small detail to penetrate whatever emotional or intellectual armour I might have constructed, and manages to stop me dead. When that happens the moment and source is always unexpected as it was last week when I saw the photography above by Muhammed Muheisen from a wider series which can be seen here.

Muheisen’s photograph shows an asylum seeker named Reda Ehsan recumbent on a table in the middle of a cavernous space. His pose is one I’ve seen a thousand times before in western paintings, where it most often used with a nude female subject to transmits an air of exotic passivity and it seems apt that Ehsan is from Iran, source of many an orientalist fantasy. The tone here is quite a different one though, although related. Muheisen’s photograph has an air of exhausted lethargy, of inertia and uncertanity, the same feelings conveyed in many of the massive number of press photographs taken of the recent European refugee crisis. An air of profound exhaustion is evident for example in this year’s World Press Photo winning image by Warren Richardson even at the same time as being a dramatically dynamic image. The repetition of this set of emotional tropes in the context of the crisis and whether it is intended to speak to the physical exhaustion of refugees or the alleged psychic exhaustion of European audiences could be the subject of an article in its own right, but that is not my focus here (and I think it is important to note that other images in Muheisen’s series do not play to these tendencies). No, what hit me about this particular image though was less the subject and his pose and the messages those things are calculated to send but rather the distinctive space that Ehsan occupies. The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one. The photograph it transpires is part of a series on asylum seekers housed in prisons which thanks to Holland’s falling crime rate are no longer needed for their original purpose. Twelve institutions in the country have reportedly been turned to this purpose, and according to the article which accompanies the photographs they are ‘so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention’.

But this is not just any prison. For anyone even moderately versed in the architecture of incarceration or theories of surveillance the gently curving walls behind Ehsan’s recumbent form speak deafeningly of an architectural technology which continues to loom large, two centuries after it’s rather stuttering entry into the world. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘Inspection House’ was a concieved as a radical new model of control, a building constructed with total surveillance in mind, and which employed the unique sensation of being surveiled to modify behaviour in ways which only violence and physical restraint had previously seemed able to. The Pantopticon didn’t see realisation in the English philosopher’s lifetime despite Bentham’s considerable efforts, and no true Panopticon was ever built in Britain, but in the two centuries since his death Bentham’s notion of an architectural technology which permits total observation of it’s occupants has come (usefully and not) to inform almost all conversations about surveillance and control. The prison pictured in Muheisen’s photographs is Koepel in Harlem, designed by the prison architect WC Metzelaar and constructed from 1899 to 1901, it was the final of three such Koepelgevangenis or ‘dome prisons’ built in Holland during the period and was clearly inspired by some of Bentham’s ideas. Today the prison is no longer a true Panopticon, if indeed it ever was by Bentham’s quite specific definition of the term. The inspection tower shown in early photographs standing in the centre of the space is gone, although the red inner circle of the sports court directly above Ehsan’s recumbent form mark the spot where it might well have stood, an unintended architectural fingerprint lingering in the present. In any case, and as many post-Panopticonism have argued, the moderating sight of the inspection tower is no longer needed by many of us in the societies and spaces for which it was originally conceived. It has been internalised and replaced as it has been by persistent and pervasive forms of social and electronic surveillance, forms of observation which far better meet Bentham’s original description of the Panopticon as way ‘of obtaining power of mind over mind’.

The act of housing asylum seekers in a disused Panopticon is undoubtedly a pragmatic one by the Dutch government, with different accommodations reportedly being made for anyone who might find it traumatic to have escaped one set of cells in their homeland only to find themselves housed in another set in Europe. But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, as much a gesture of European feeling towards refugees as the sight of Germans cheering their arrival. In so much recent discourse Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, and in some cases Muslim communities as a whole, are described in terms which characterise them as potential fifth columns of extremist ideology and violence. Even moderate commentators across the continent are buying into these troublesome notions of guilt by association, with the logic that however innocent most in these communities might be, hidden amongst their number might lurk infiltrators from ISIS or other groups, intent on carrying out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels (it is perhaps here worth reminding ourselves that both attacks were perpetrated in the most by EU citizens and long term residents of the continent, not newly arrived refugees). One of the many arguments in the British debate about whether to leave the EU stems from whether European rules on immigration make us vulnerable to such attacks, and in recent months the British government has also ramped up it’s ridiculous Prevent program, which asks teachers and others to report on students they suspect of harbouring radical sympathies in what which some academics have compared to the enforced collaborations between East German university lecturers and the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Housing asylum seekers in a structure like this seems to me like a form of atmospheric acclimatisation or adjustment for these new arrivals, a setting of the tone for things to come. The message it seems so perfectly to send is that we think we know what you are, or what you might be. Know that you are suspected, that you are being watched, and should we allow you to stay here, and however well you integrate, so it will remain. Welcome to free Europe, welcome to Panoptica.

Not All’s Fair: Photo London 2016

photo london new york paris peckham art trade
Trotters Independent Trading co. van,
from Only Fools and Horses (Flickr)

At the risk of being outspoken (hah) it’s my belief that the only useful purpose that the commercial art trade has is as something which inadvertently creates spaces where normal people can look at artworks, effectively subsidised by those few who are rich enough to actually buy and own them. I have absolutely no problem with artists selling and living by their work, my problem rather lies with the speculation, inflation, obfuscation, hype, exclusivity and all those other things which invariably seem to come with the professionalisation of this activity. These are things which art doesn’t need, and which in some cases actively harm art, but which by dint of this trade have come to be seen by the majority of normal people as being at the core of it is about. Even so, while I might not like galleries, fairs and their ilk, I can tolerate them as long as they provide at least the shadow of a socially useful function. When on the other hand these places restrict the audiences who can view the work they tout, I completely run out of interest in them. Photo London which launched last night plays host to eighty photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit, and is sponsored by the Swiss private bank Pictet. But it also asks punters to cough up £27 for a day ticket, which as photographer Jim Mortram pointed out on Twitter is roughly half the weekly allowance for a carer like him.

Historically fairs were places where a relatively broad swathe of society mixed in the pursuit of trade, entertainment, and more. Matthew of Paris recounts that in 1248 Henry III banned all traffic in London ‘in order that by these means the Westminster fair might be more attended by people’. Such human heterogeneity seems unwelcome at the art fairs of today, where one imagines ticket price plays as much of an important function in defining and filtering the type of visitors who attend as it does actually fulfill any need to generate additional income. Whether this bothers you or not probably depends very much on your view of who art is actually for, and what purpose you believe it ought to serve. If you view it merely as chintz for the ultra-wealthy to pad out their obnoxious homes, then get yourself to Photo London and enjoy yourself. If it’s anything like last year you’ll see some enjoyable if usually rather predictable photography, often unfortunately handicapped by its display in forms better suited to sales than to contemplative viewing or contextualisation. You’ll also likely get to snap a selfie with the row of Bentleys parked up outside and if you’re feeling cruel then do ask some of gallerists to tell you the prices of the pieces they are showing, that question usually seems to make them a little nervous in a city where more than a quarter of the population live in poverty.

If on the other hand you see art as something which ought to be economically accessible to as wide an audience as possible then I suggest you give the main events at Somerset House a wide berth. There are some great fringe events going on over the next few days which are completely free. For example you might cross the river to Tate Modern (freshly liberated from its long corporate sponsorship by BP) for Offprint where you can see some of the best that photobook publishing has to offer. Could it be that the explosion in interest in the photo book has come partly from the realisation amongst so many young artists and photographers that the type of galleries participating in Photo London actually have very little to offer them? Nearby to Tate is Fix Photo with some great work including images from Ed Thompson’s The Unseen Project (in interests of critical transparency, Ed is a friend of mine) and Robert Clayton’s Estate series. Alternatively jump on a 171 bus from outside Somerset House and get yourself down to Peckham 24, where a range of interesting photographers including Ciaran og Arnold, Ryan Moule, and Tom Lovelace are showing work, along with three promising young Irish artists exhibiting as part of the Belfast Exposed Futures program. There will be a series of talks running on Saturday, including a panel chaired by Rodrigo Orranta with Jo Dennis and Carlos Alba and one by yours truly (advertorial alert). I’ll be in conversation with Mark Duffy and Peter Mann to discuss humour and appropriation in a world of images. It’s free and open to all, you can sample the delights of Peckham, and if watching too many episodes of Only Fools and Horses has left you worried about a visit down south then take it from someone who grew up nearby that the area isn’t what it used to be. For one weekend at least the wheelers and dealers will be in another part of town.

Steve McCurry and Photojournalism’s Burden of Truth

national-geographic-100-best-pictures-cover

Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl
On the cover of a National Geographic publication.

The intellectual milieu that gives rise to a technology or a practice leaves fingerprints on that thing which last for a long time, indeed which sometimes might even be impossible to completely remove from it. The technology of photography was born in a century fixated on empiricism and on the belief that witnessing was the path to knowledge. New technologies like the various permutations of the camera offered the means for better witnessing, untainted by the shortcomings of human physiology or bias, and led therefore to knowledge which was more objective, and closer to the ‘truth’. In its turn the practice of photojournalism developed and reached maturity in a century defined by enormous ideological battles, populist conflicts between socialisms, democracies and fascisms which sought to settle essential questions about the nature of man, and his future direction. While aspects of photojournalism were appropriated by all sides in these conflicts, photojournalism in its truest sense tended to come down on the side of democracy, humanism and a sort of universalized view of human experience. This was a view exemplified in certain cultural products, National Geographic magazine being one, Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 exhibition Family of Man being another. ‘There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men’ wrote the poet Carl Sandburg in the commentary which accompanied the exhibition on it’s subsequent eight year global tour.

I refer back to these points in the history of photography and photojournalism because I think they are interesting and important for the way we continue to think about these things today. In photojournalism notions of objective truth and universal human experience remain very popular ones. They have perhaps been tempered by the growing number of voices who see these ideas as problematic, or at times even quite dangerous, but they continue to lurk, waiting to be released from their dormant state by the right circumstances and events, like fingerprints at a crime scene waiting to be illuminated by exposure to the right combination of chemicals and an investigators ultra-violet lamp. This I would say is what happened briefly when it was recently revealed that photographs by veteran photojournalist Steve McCurry had been photomanipulated to remove extraneous details. The discovery was initially made by Paolo Viglione, an Italian photographer who noted evidence of cloning in a McCurry prints at an exhibition in Italy. In the image in question the base of a street sign appears to have been accidentally cloned across the leg of a man passing in front of it. Subsequent analysis of other McCurry images available online revealed a number of other images had been subject to manipulation, including some much more clearly intentional removals of large parts of photographs, and one where parts might even have been added. Petapixel and other sites quickly picked up the story, and McCurry issued a statement blaming the mistake on an overzealous technician (blaming the retoucher seems to be becoming an ever more common strategy employed by those who instruct them).

Revelations of photomanipulation always draws the ire of photojournalists, despite the evident irony that this is only one of the many forms of manipulation which occur in photojournalism. The same people who rabidly condemn someone like McCurry are often the ones who fail to recognize the extent to which every other part of their own process is a form of manipulation. From early interactions with subjects through choices made in shooting and image selection, to the final editing tweaks made to maximize visual effect. Even the pre-eminent final form of photojournalism, the photo essay, is itself a form of manipulation, an entirely artificial narrative device design to produce certain effects which have little to do with the way events unfold in the real world or the ways we experience them as bystanders. The photo essay instead has everything to do with a particular conception of how stories are told, how time flows, and how these things can be twisted into a form convenient for the reproductional technology of the early twentieth century (which, lest we forget, is stone age compared to the possibilities of today). Every stage of the photojournalistic process then is a manipulation, each one capable of manipulating reality in a direction which facilitates the telling of stories in ways which are sometimes accurate and illuminating (even dare I say it, truthful?) but which can just as easily be regressive, misleading and unhelpful. What matters far less than the fact of whether manipulation takes place or not, is the extent to which the photographer is transparent about it, and the manipulation is made clear. The examples of photographers who have done just that are few, such are the severe strictures against breaking these sacred codes, but they do exist. From Frank Hurley’s exceptional composite images of First World War battles, to W. Eugene Smith’s numerous genre defining projects, the latter famously responded to questions about his use of unconventional techniques with the remark that ‘I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?’

The real problem with McCurry’s photography isn’t down to the use of the clone tool to create them, it’s a problem embedded even more profoundly in his way of making photographs, and goes right back to those latent fingerprints. McCurry is engaged in a type of photography born in the ideological battles of the Cold War and which seems to have barely evolved since. A universalized world view which often appears to be attempting to simplify the complex and sometimes uncomfortable differences between people and places rather than fully acknowledging those differences or the things that create them. It’s an approach to photography and to the world it depicts which is reductive and unreflective, not least on the process that gives rise to the images themselves. In the words of Teju Cole, it’s astonishingly boring photography, and in Paroma Mukherjee’s words just well marketed visual imperialism (I recommend reading both of these pieces for more on what’s wrong with this type of photography in general). I suspect the reason that people really object to the discovery that McCurry or someone close to him has been manipulating his photographs is mostly just that it calls into question the sacred notion of empirical photographic truth to which so many hold dear, and reveals once again that absolute rules rarely hold strong. In that sense at least perhaps we should actually thank McCurry for allowing himself his own ‘unguarded moment’ and in doing so revealing the artifice not only of his photographs but also the framework of beliefs that lie behind them.

From where I stand unquestioning faith in the idea of truth as something absolute and human experience as something universal and self-evident have become a terrible burden on photojournalism, and perhaps these rigid conventions partly explain why so many are deserting the practice and instead aligning themselves with disciplines like documentary and art. It is a burden of truth which rather than enabling important work often seems often to paralyze photojournalism’s most zealous adherents, leaving them unable to respond to many of the major problems which face the world today. As I wrote recently about the World Press Photo, journalists can no longer believe in the idea of objective photographic vision in an age when so many things that they need to reveal are constructed exactly to exploit or defy exactly such ways of thinking and seeing. Instead they need to embrace alternative forms of seeing and storytelling, ones where the potential for revelation lies in partly a readiness to embrace difference, subjectivity and in a rejection of simple ethical binaries and moral black and whites.

At the Gates of Photography

Liberty_Bond,_World_War_One,_New_York_Times

A U.S. Army soldier hangs up a Liberty Bond poster on a sentry box
during the Occupation of the Rhineland, c. 1919 (NY Times archive)

It’s notoriously difficult to ever speak of a ‘photography industry’ because when we do so we are lumping together so many disparate professions and practices within that broad phrase. Even breaking it down to the many industries within an industry, when we speak of a practice like photojournalism we are still talking about a very distributed, diffused and international activity, in the very opposite of many other professions which even today remain top down in organisation and much more clearly regulated by specific bodies like unions and guilds. Instead photography has a much more nodal, networked structure, with a great number of different organisations all presiding over their own fiefdoms, sometimes intersecting like venn diagrams, butwith the interactions between them often disjointed and scattered.

A diffused industry has some clear benefits, this plurality is a large part of what makes photography an exciting and diverse field, but it also has some very significant disadvantages. In photojournalism for example talk of ‘industry standards’ with respect to issues like ethics or photo manipulation is hollow precisely because there is no single body which defines what these standards might be and which can speak with any authority for the entire industry. Part of the mounting frustration aimed at World Press Photo prior to it’s recent rule changes stemmed I suspect from the feeling that the organisation was starting to look like exactly that sort of industry arbiter, and photographers didn’t much like it (even as much as many of the same photographers dislike the wide ranging inconsistencies over manipulation and the disputes which can result). At the same time recent scandals over sexual harassment in photography highlight the fact that without any overarching body which moderates and speaks for photographers and photography professionals it is difficult to adequately judge or bring action against people suspected of breaking rules or laws, informal or otherwise. Once the online storm dies down they potentially remain free to practice and in such a large and disconnected industry I fear there will always remain corners where they can continue to exploit their profile and ply their trade to people who might be unaware of their past transgressions.

The latter example is important because I believe this diffusion of power throughout the photography industry contributes to an environment where people can more readily abuse their power and get away with it, whether in ways which are subtle or extreme. In contrast to a traditional hierarchical industry where those who hold power are very clearly defined and often subject to codified rules and systems whereby that power can be moderated, censured or removed, the highly networked and distributed nature of the photography industry leads to a diffuse and informal distribution of power without oversight. The result is a system dotted with a great many gatekeepers who are often unmoderated and self-appointed. The maddening thing is that many of these gatekeepers refuse or fail to recognise their own power or to acknowledge the influence they can bring to bear on their corner of the industry. I sometimes wonder if this is a product of wishful thinking as much as anything. By and large the photography world tends to be left leaning, and the natural inclination of those in it is often to associate with those they see as being at the bottom of the heap rather than those at the top. That may partly explain the lack of willingness by many of the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge the power they hold because to do so involves recognising that they are part of the same groups that they might have spent much of their career imagining themselves arrayed against. I can say from my own experience that this dissonance is a challenging one to process.

A related issue which I identified in a recent piece on anti-intellectual undercurrents in photography, is the reality that not all gatekeepers are the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, as do the gates they guard and the rewards which await on the other side for those granted passage. While writing, it occurred to me that while I am still very much a new arrival in this field, I have already come to stand guard over numerous gates, whether as a writer about photography deciding which work to discuss and promote (or savage) next, or as someone selecting prospective students for any one of the courses I teach on. Hence why as I have become more and more involved in photography the more important it has become for me to find my own mechanisms for being accountable, whether those be the small critical disclaimers I often include at the end of reviews on this blog to reveal any connections I might have with work I am writing about, or in declining or donating payment for participating in things like portfolio reviews which I have serious professional objections to. From what I’ve seen these minor mechanisms of mine are fairly novel in the industry and to my knowledge are rarely employed by peers at the same level as me or higher. I’d like to see them instead become the norm.

I’ve argued before that privilege and power are less of a problem than what you choose to do with these things, and I would say much the same is true here. Gatekeepers are a problem but they are also a reality of a diffuse ‘industry’ like photography, and I think that in practice few of us would prefer the alternative of an industry which is highly hierarchical and has more formalised power brokers. At the same time, I really believe it is important to find ways to moderate and scrutinise gatekeepers of whatever size, and to my mind the most effective way to do this is to call on them very directly to self-moderate and practice accountability and transparency in their actions. Many of course will decline, but that should tell you plenty about these people. The role of the press has been said to be to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think we could do with practicing some of that within our industry, calling these gatekeepers out when they engage in dubious practices or when they refuse to be transparent about their motivations for promoting or demoting work they encounter. This has long been the role of the informal photography press, primarily blogs and websites including this one, but photographers themselves need to actively participate in this process if the voices that call these figures to account are to have any real weight and are to really push for greater openess.