Hagiographies

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Photojournalist action figure

This piece is perhaps less polished than I would usually aim for, but it’s often difficult when writing about something that is particularly frustrating to view it with the usual clarity one aims for. Equally I suspect some will misunderstand what I mean in writing this, but I think what follows needs to be said. When Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in a mortar attack in the Libyan city of Misrata in 2011 I mused in a post on this blog that perhaps the media attention that followed would have been less massive had they not been fitting archetypes of the journalist-hero. Charismatic, western, male, white, cut down in their prime. I supposed that had they been Libyan journalists, or even more likely Libyan civilians, we might never have heard of their deaths, let alone in such widely reported and comprehensive detail.

I was using them as unfortunate examples of a wider tendency, and  wondered at the time if I had gone too far with that post. In the following months however I saw things that seemed to vindicate the feelings that led me to write what I did. From this tragedy there seemed to emerge a lingering sense of something that was distinct from grief and memorialisation, something which verged on hero worship, and which just didn’t seem right. In my fumblings through the world I met numerous people who were quick to name drop either of the two dead men (but particularly Hetherington), boasting of some inconsequential connection to them much as people will talk about how they once shared a lift with a well known personage. In death it seemed Hondros and Hetherington were now to be treated  more as celebrities to name drop than as journalists.

And then mid-way through last year I saw an announcement of a feature length documentary on Hetherington, and now more recently plans for one on Hondros, and this deeply uncomfortable feeling returned. Hetherington and Hondoros were both great journalists who did important work, and like with any death there is a need to remember and mourn. However I single these two out as an unfortunate example of a wider tendency, something I criticised in a post on the polarised perception of journalists, and particularly it seems photojournalists. A tendency on the part of many in the industry and those waiting on it’s borderlands to be allowed entry. A tendency to canonise, rather than question journalists, their motivations, and our reactions to them. It often strikes me as somehow disturbing that when journalists are killed those charged with announcing or commemorating their deaths often seem to employ a distant, slightly reverential patter similar to that used by officials of the military when reporting casualties in action.

Why is a documentary on a foreign war correspondent, who had the choice to pack up and leave but decided to stay, and died as a consequences, considered more important, compelling or appealing than a documentary about a resident who had no choice but stay and die? Is it somehow more tragic, the loss of life more poignant, for that fact that the deaths of Hondros and Hetherington, and so many others, appear so completely unnecessary? Even in our cynical age is there still some latent appeal in that old romantic idea of dying for a cause and what are the implications of this in an atmosphere that seems to be becoming increasingly dangerous for journalists? Profoundly disturbing ones I think.

I’ve heard the argument given that the deaths of Hondros and Hetherington helped to engage people in Europe and America with the conflict in Libya, but if that’s true, why have we now forgotten it? Perhaps because as a friend pointed out when we discussed this subject recently, these individual stories often start to overshadow the real issues. In the trailer for the Hondros movie the narrator suggests that ‘perhaps the most profound story is that of the man who gave us these images’. I have to wonder whether anyone really believes this story is more profound than the post-war malaise in Libya. The ongoing violence and dysfunction which has hardly been mentioned by the media, who quickly lost interest as, or even before, the last of our bombs had fallen on Tripoli. It took the recent kidnap of the Libyan Prime-minister to restore interest, but even then only for a matter of days.

If this is what it takes to spark an interest or put a face on these conflicts, if we are that detached that we need these hagiographies of western journalists in order to feel something, that we can’t feel the same thing for a local journalist or even a civilian, on whichever side of the conflict they are, it just makes me wonder if we are beyond help. With the conflict in Syria showing no signs of abating, and a frightening atmosphere where young freelancers appear to be increasingly encouraged to go out on a limb to gather material with little support from editors and agencies, it seems likely there will only be more martyrs for the canon of journalism’s fallen.

9 thoughts on “Hagiographies

  1. Our tendency to cannonize photograpahers and take their work out of context wsa one of the motivating forces behind our preparing the exhibition and book WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY. We wanted to put work back in context.
    Anne Tucier

    • Thanks for commenting Anne. What was the reaction like to the show? If you have any links I’d be interested to learn more about it.

  2. Difficult post Lewis, and well written. Uncomfortable stuff to get in about. I wont say anything other than quote something I put up on duck some time back, its more than relevant. My feelings have not changed since:

    “And that denial of opportunity to have your voice properly heard is not just confined to people on the fringes of society. There are other voices out there that we all need to listen to but are not always able to hear. duckrabbit suggested something very similar but in a different context, and last week got a smack in the mouth for it. duckrabbit asked, quite legitimately in my opinion, why it apparently took serious injuries to make the work of Guy Martin suddenly worth highlighting in the wider mainstream media. The work has no more merit now than it had before his serious injuries, it was previously insightful, powerful and the work of a committed and humane photographer with a strong social conscience; and it remains so. Photographers of the calibre of Guy Martin, and Tim Hetherington, have made it their life’s work to expose the social injustices, pain and misery that some people inflict on others. Well, shame on this system we are all part of, that it does them the ‘social injustice’ of requiring that the price they must pay to have their voices more widely heard, and appreciated, is either very serious injury or even death. They, and the people whose stories they tell, deserve much better. We all do.

    There is no ‘them and us’ in all of this stuff. There is only us. And its about time we bloody well realized that.”

    • Another set of good questions needing answers there John, thanks.

      (Wheres the original piece btw? I’d like to read more)

  3. I’m happy you published this post. And I love the illustration you choose too…
    ,-))

    These action figures are a symptom of this photojournalist hero worship phenomenon. Unfortunately more photographers share a funny post about these toys – or any toy a photographer might use – than these much more important issues.

    I had similar thoughts (less well arranged than yours) when I wrote a blog post about the recent death of Murhaf al-Modhi, a Syrian photographer who died when he returned home after a graduation reunion meeting with his family at the border.
    Some readers were complaining for my title “Another photographer died in Syria”. They said it was misleading because he didn’t die photographing the war ‘just being home’. However they never question what a western photographer was doing in the moment he died – because he didn’t live there.

    I agree the story and the locals should be the emphasis and not the foreign correspondents. And all this hero worship only fuels the freelancers and other hopefuls to take more risk for fame and a hope for career.

    • I’d never even heard of al-Modhi, this is exactly what I mean. Strange and sad that he died while not actually photographing the war.
      Thanks for commenting.

  4. Personally don’t see this as too difficult to swallow or a ramble, Lewis.

    I recently graduated from the Photographic Art course at the University of Wales, Newport, and undertaking my photographic education in an atmosphere of three (apparently conflicting) photographic courses was a unique experience. I increasingly felt uncomfortable in a culture where Documentary Photography had a real ego problem that was not shared by the other two courses (art and advertising respectively), mostly because of the inherent attitudes you have described here. These attitudes were not a result of the tutors on the course who I can only describe as, for want of a better word, progressive. It was seemingly a wider culture at large that was influencing these alien attitudes in “emerging” photographers. (In fact I can think of one BA(hons) Doc Phot graduate who has the “photojournalist action man figure” you have included here positioned in front of one of his own photographs taken in a Middle Eastern refugee camp as a Facebook profile picture which I do not think is meant to be “ironic”).

    When, in my second year, we were shown the documentary Enjoy Poverty by Renzo Martens, my position was certified, but I have not witnessed anything else beyond that screening that has resembled a “critical discourse” as such that you have presented here.

    Being the time of year when Remembrance Sunday is once again upon us, I have increasingly noticed, year on year, a critical discourse surrounding the hero worship of soldiers and the symbol of the poppy being less about remembrance and more about supporting “our” troops past, present and future. The default categorisation of soldiers as heroes irrespective of conduct, attitudes or beliefs, is one that I feel also mirrors that of the archetypal war photographer and whether it is right or wrong, it is absolutely a conversation that needs to be had when you consider the wider debates around the West’s involvement in global conflicts.

    It is only right and natural that such a debate would extend to those who document and report upon such events and it is the photographic community’s general squeamishness at such an idea that I do not understand.

    So thank you for articulating, so concisely and intelligently, an argument that I personally feel is long overdue exposure.

    • Hi Matt, thanks, similarly as a relatively recent graduate (LCC) it was interesting to compare the different courses. I think the more fine art and commercially orientated courses have their own problems, but there is definitely something awry in the attitudes of many documentary photographers, which likewise I think our tutors did their best to counter. You were shown Enjoy Poverty as part of the course? That does sound ‘progressive’.

      I don’t want to overplay the comparison between soldiers and journalists, but I think they both reflect the tendency to generalise about large groups. It’s easier to decide that all soldiers are heroes, or that all journalists are phone hacking scumbags than to grapple with the many different shades between good and bad that exist in these groups. And yes in both cases eulogising individuals is a handy way to distract attention from more difficult debates that we could do with having.

      Thanks for commenting.

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