Journalism at the Limits of Visibility: World Press Photo 2015

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Exposure, Kazuma Obara

It has been observed that some photography critics seem to actually rather dislike the medium, but it might equally be said that many of those who work directly with photography are prone to operating almost totally without criticism of it. One group is perceived to search for weaknesses, where sometimes there are no weaknesses to be found, and the other often seems to prop an ailing medium up, and often refuses to recognise that it has some quite glaring shortcomings. There is a gulf which is often evident between what photography is, and what people want photography to be. It is a gulf evidenced in words and deeds, and a gulf which I myself endlessly fascinated by. Much of my own work has focused on the role of photographs in what might be called systems of power, that is to say the role of photography in generating, supporting, reflecting and hiding the unequal distribution of martial, political, and economic authority in our world. I appreciate that this is a description which is in some ways both overly precise and ridiculously broad, but after several years of trying to trace the thread that ties what I do together this seems to be one explanation which I find consistently remains when all the others have been brushed away. In making this sort of work I have found that photography’s weaknesses can sometimes be as interesting as its strengths, not least in the way that these might under certain circumstances be embraced and twisted into powerful tools.

At the same time though I am increasingly conscious of what sometimes feel like the insurmountable limitations of photography in helping to bring to light and discuss some of the things in the world which seem most vital and urgent. This became particularly apparent to me in working on a recent project which investigates the very different but deeply linked intelligence gathering practices of covert shortwave radio broadcasts and optical reconnaissance satellites. These two practices are inherently non-visual, partly by nature but also to a far greater degree by construction. To turn the camera towards them and find a way to make them visible was an interesting intellectual challenge, but I have also been acutely aware that it is also very tokenistic, and the act of revelation in itself means very little to either my audiences or to the subjects of my photography. This is a problem I have noted in the work of other photographers who focus on nebulous worlds that by intent or accident defy straightforward visualisation. I think for example of the work of Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s photographs of tax havens, or Trevor Paglen’s work on intelligence gathering. One might ask what purpose is served by a series like Paglen’s Limit Telephotography, which uses extremely long lenses to photograph restricted areas like Groom Lake, when high resolution imagery of these sites is readily available on Google Maps. This isn’t to underplay the importance of these works, or to overplay the impartiality of a platform like Google Maps, but rather to suggest that investigating these types of issues with photography is sometimes rather like trying to hammer a nail with a banana, it’s briefly dramatic, eye catching and bizarre, but that’s about it.

Bringing the camera to bear on such issues might expand awareness of their existence, but photography (and I use that term both in terms of the technology and a wider industry) is very bad at exploring or explaining the precise circumstances of this existence, or the circumstances that give rise to them. I wrote most of this post several weeks before the announcement of the 2015 World Press Photo awards, but given some of the issues represented by Warren Richardson’s winning photograph, the timing of this post might feel more intentional than it is. On Saturday I examined Richardson’s photograph in some depth , and in particular complained that the image represented one of the huge problems with traditional journalistic photography, and with photography more broadly. That same inability of the medium to do much more than show the consequences of things, its inability to get the heart of things, and in the process not only missing the point, but also helping to obscure it. To quote Bertolt Brecht writing in AIZ a good eighty years ago, perhaps ‘photography… has become a terrible weapon against the truth’ one which while frequently intending to do good in the world all too often obscures the guilty behind images of their victims. I don’t mean this in the literal sense that photographers should routinely target those responsible for the world’s problems rather than those suffering from them, but I do mean that the informational trail that photography creates should not end at the victims.

What all this increasingly begs me to ask is what part can photography play in a world where a growing number of the problems and processes that define it are either becoming accidentally abstract and anti-visual, or are being intentionally designed out of visibility for reasons that suit the people who make and control them. The arrival of an information age means the world is changing more dramatically than it has in at least two centuries, and yet visual journalism has innovated relatively little. Are we approaching a point where photography is going to really start seeming as inadequate for responding to the essential issues of our day as painting seemed inappropriate for attempting to represent the fast moving new technologies of the industrial revolution in anything but an utterly individual and expressionistic way? As photography reaches more and more of its terminal velocities, i.e. as it reaches the boundaries imposed by the technical and physical nature of it’s processes, will it more and more obviously struggle to still make a useful contribution? In a datafied world perhaps the medium will be relieved of the burden of objectivity and literal revelation by the ‘new photography’ of data, algorithm, and network visualisations and analysis, leaving the ‘old photography’ free to celebrate it’s potential for quirks and individualism. This is an approach perhaps encapsulated in Exposure, Kazuma Obara’s WPP prize winning series on Chernobyl an unconventional and welcome winner in a prize which has always tended to treat so-called ‘conceptual’ photography with concern and caution. Perhaps as early nineteenth century artists like J.M.W. Turner began the process of reinvigorating painting with the tentative first steps towards what would later be recognised as impressionism, a similar approach and a growing acceptance of ‘conceptual’ photography in the fields of journalism will reinvigorate photography as a tool for helping us to understand the world’s problems with the nuance that they so desperately need.

(Critical transparency: Kazuma Obara is a former student of mine.)

2 thoughts on “Journalism at the Limits of Visibility: World Press Photo 2015

  1. Good post Lewis. Very good in fact.

    This might sound glib, but I don’t intend it to be:

    “…but rather to suggest that investigating these types of issues with photography is sometimes rather like trying to hammer a nail with a banana, it’s briefly dramatic, eye catching and bizarre, but that’s about it….”

    I think there’s more there, and your metaphor holds a huge clue. It’s too tempting to think that nothing happens as a consequence of that bizarre hammering action but it does.

    It’s the effect that the hammering has on the banana is where our gaze should alight, rather than on the immutability of the nail.

    I’ll need to think more about this. But….you’ve made me think.

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