About a month ago I attended a conversation about humanitarian journalism. Susan Meiselas was the headliner and, having seen her retrospective this summer, I was curious to hear both her thoughts and how the discussion potentially reframed her work.
It was indeed an interesting conversation which demonstrated exactly what makes photography so hard to pin down as a medium. As much as all the photojournalists claim to be interested in the image first and not actually photojournalists, it’s clear that they’re all aware of how photos in particular can have a life of their own.
Whether or not a photo becomes a true icon, because of its distribution and context—both the context of the image and the context of the distribution—the image is always subject to things out of the photographers’ control. It’s what’s so wonderful about the medium and what’s so scary about it. There’s immense power but it’s not clear who, if anyone, controls it.
As a result, much of the conversation wasn’t about photography at all but instead its context. Who’s taking the photos. How are they being distributed. What’s being shown. What’s being hidden. What’s the goal of the distribution. How successful is that goal. How appropriate is the goal.
It’s taken me a while to write this post since I’ve had to digest and think about many things and decide how far away from photography I want to go.
In many ways though, the most interesting frame on humanitarian photojournalism that came out of this discussion is aligning it with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian action.
Modern humanitarian action and modern photojournalism are both born of war. In particular modern war. Photos of atrocities, action, refugees, displacement, etc. are the language in which we understand war. They’re how we learn about things and how we expect to see them covered.
Heck most of the photos of famine and environmental disasters also qualify as war photographs. They’re two sides of the same coin as humanity fights over resources and control and leaves communities worldwide without basic human necessities. There’s always a war or colonial legacy lurking behind the curtain.
Photography has aligned itself with journalism but it’s really an independent contractor which attaches itself to whatever the distribution network is. The pictures don’t “matter,” the space for distribution does. As journalism has lost its funding, photography jumped from being the way that news sells itself to becoming the way that NGOs fundraise.
Which means that the question of whose agenda the photographs serve becomes more obvious. In the NGO space, photographs are requesting aid from the global West and selling an image of the global South is being inherently in-need of progress.
The action that photography is prompting from us is action that the West wants to perform in order to absolve itself of feeling guilty. This isn’t aid that poor people need, it’s aid that rich people want to provide.
We’d rather feed starving children than fix the system that’s causing famine. We’d rather aid displaced children than stop the war that displaced them. We want to donate money which changes something specific and concrete that we can point to instead of investing in long term changes. And an NGO would rather develop a sustainable donation base than solve the problem it’s trying to solve.
Yes this is colonialism. It also clearly paints photography’s previous use case as photojournalism as also being colonialism.* When we’re looking at the photography we have to ask what it’s asking us to do and for whom are we being asked to do it.
*A key note here is how photography functions as community memory yet most photo archives are inaccessible to many of the communities they depict.
It also makes me to want to dump the term “photojournalism” and instead just talk about the channels photographs are distributed in. Every year there’s controversy about photojournalism prizes and ethics in photojournalism and every year it’s increasingly obvious how bankrupt the term is.
We should be talking about the photos and how they relate to the cause they were attached to. How those causes got visibility and support and how well that support matched up with the actual humanitarian needs. Treat them as the advertising and propaganda they are and credit both the photographer and the network in creating the campaign.
This way, when something unethical comes up, we‘re at least being honest about how the issue is about how the lack of ethics reveals a desire to solicit money over anything else.
Quick notes on what each panelist said that caught my attention.
Gary Bass spoke about photography as way of breaking down barriers and showing how distance doesn’t matter—especially important with visceral evidence instead of numbers-based arguments. I appreciated that he starts WW2 in 1931 when he showed an image of a baby in a bombed-out Chinese train station in 1937. Exploitative it is, this image was viewed by over 130 million people in a month yet ultimately didn’t work. While the distance is no longer important, the question of whose lives matter remains.
Sim Chi Yin spoke about her family history project in British Malaya from 1948–1960. In particular she’s focusing on happened to her leftist grandfather, how he’s been referred to as either a terrorist or a bandit, and how her family was deported to China based on genealogy lines. She’s accumulated an archive of objects and songs (including the Internacional in Chinese) in addition to the official British photographs. There’s an interesting frame shift in what it means to tell this story as a family story rather than the more traditional depiction of British “success” (especially in comparison to Vietnam) shown in the archives.
Virginie Troit, by being associated with the Red Cross had a very interesting perspective on who counts as a humanitarian photographer, how photography serves as interaction between different responding groups, and where images ultimately appear. Her most important observation was that NGOs had replaced the press as image producers and distributors and how the NGO apparatus itself paralleled photojournalism as organizations born of 20th century wars.
Troit compared Salgado in the 80s with Lewis Hine and the ways that Médecins Sans Frontières blurs the distinction between information and intent as the increased of professionalism in NGO branding means it has t also ask the hard questions about how the ethics of the image as it relates to tropes and consent.
Susan Meiselas spoke briefly about the Bangladesh factory collapse and how the embrace photo resulted in nearly instantaneous international agreement for improved working conditions and upgraded factories. Definitely a good thing but also nothing sustainable since labor rights did not improve.
Peter van Agtmael is interested in the nature of icon and the surreal nature of experiencing them, how we cling to them, their arbitrary nature, and what exactly they’re symbols of.
Susie Linfield spoke about Syria and the failure/inability of Syrians to assert/represent themselves. She wonders where the future of photojournalism lies when the perpetrators document and disseminate their own atrocities. Photos do not work by themselves but instead require an existing political consciousness and conviction—which The West currently lacks. Instead of compassion fatigue we have no clue what to do.
Katherine Bussard brought out a bunch of Life Magazine spreads covering Nazi atrocities (Life being the first publisher of the concentration camp images) and life in post-WW2 Germany. Interesting to compare the cover story showing Nazi sympathizers and few photos with the other story in the magazine showing the concentration camps through multiple photos, minimal captions, and the admonishment that “dead men die in vain if no one will look at them.”
Bussard also highlighted how photojournalism repeatedly uses children for humanitarian concerns. Childhood hides the prejudice, is accessible to everyone, and helps eradicate difference because it’s not perceived as threatening.
Andrew S. Thompson followed up the childhood observation by contrasting a 1960 UN propaganda photo in Congo with a 1970 Biafra War photo. Both photos are from post-colonial wars. The Congo photo features a happy mother and child and hides UN atrocities. The Biafra photo has a starving child and confronts the (presumably Western) viewer’s complicity in the conflict. The question. Who is the photo for and is the aid that NGOs are requesting the aid that’s actually needed.