Photography has died (again)

Fred Ritchin A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk at the American University of Paris given by Fred Ritchin, the author of After Photography, who has been thinking and writing about the future of photography in the digital age for longer than most people. The session was tantalisingly entitled Photography and human rights, but mercifully it was far more interesting than the title suggests.

His talk (given in total darkness so that we could see the slide show that he had prepared), was much like the man's career: it darted off in several directions at once, with ideas constantly being eaten up by new ones. While I did will him to slow down on more than one occasion, his rapid-fire thought-process is fascinating and the quantity of ideas that get thrown at you at once are in keeping with Ritchin's message that we need to wake up and smell the digitally enhanced coffee.

In his view (one which I share) slick, glossy photo-journalism is antiquated and only has a minuscule impact on the contemporary audience. In recent times it has been replaced by 'citizen photo-journalists' taking photos with whatever cameras they have to done. Somewhat strangely, poor quality, pixelated, uncomposed images have become a mark of authenticity, some kind of indication of a raw truthfulness. In the era of reality TV we want images made by insiders not outsiders, no matter how good the latter are.

Ritchin's central thesis is that we are lagging way behind technological innovation in terms of the way we use photography to address issues of human rights and more broadly issues of sustainable development. He illustrated this idea by a number of image-related tools (not all of them photographic), which Ritchin sees as having huge, virtually untapped potential: Google's Street View, Photosketch, Photosynth, etc. One great example of the use of technological innovation to make photography do something completely new and actually useful is the Extreme Ice Survey, a project that provides visual proof of how the glaciers are melting using time lapse photography.

I had to keep stopping myself from thinking about Ritchin's propositions in the context of fine art photography, which is where I spend most of my photographic time, because these are ideas that are centred around press or, more loosely, documentary photography.

Overall, while I don't agree with Ritchin's doom-mongering message that press photography is all but dead, I think he is right in his provocative call for shaking things up and, more importantly, for making use of the amazing technology that already exists. This applies far beyond the realm of photography to much of web 2.0's innovations, particularly to social networking. If we could get Facebook to be about more than looking at drunken photos of college frat parties or throwing virtual sheep at each other, it could potentially make some kind of difference.

Further reading: for some reasons why photography may not be entirely dead, try reading these Asian photographers' answers to the question, "Why photography now?"

The Places We Live

© Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

A friend of mine at the UN sent me a link to The Places We Live, a photo project by the Norwegian photographer, Jonas Bendiksen, in collaboration with the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Bendiksen's series documents life in a series of four slums around the world: Caracas, Venezuela; Nairobi, Kenya; Mumbai, India; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

In addition to the obligatory sweeping views of corrugated iron rooves, in each location Bendiksen photographed four families in their homes to give a human perspective to the project. I think these portraits are the strongest part of the series, giving a straightforward sense of what daily domestic existence is like in these slums while avoiding any sense of pity and condescension. Bendiksen doesn't create a sense of divide between the viewer and the people in these photographs.

The exhibition is currently touring in multi-media form, consisting entirely of HD projections and sound installations. The site that was created for the exhibition is very well put together and does a great job of combining informative texts on ths issues related to the growth of urban slums with interesting images. It also gives a series of links to further reading and organisations that are involved on the issues dealt with here. I found that all of this gives the project an added informational and advocacy dimension that doesn't weaken its emotional resonance... this is no Al Gore Powerpoint presentation. The way the site is built would also enable the project to be expanded and it would be interesting to see Bendiksen (or other photographers for that matter) add additional material to it in the future or to see other projects developed using a similar approach (this could be an interesting idea for the Aftermath Project maybe?).

The Aftermath Project

Christine Fenzl, Playground, Gazi - Baba, Skopie, Macedonia I recently received a copy of War is Only Half the Story, Volume II, a publication by The Aftermath Project run by the photographer Sara Terry. The Aftermath Project is a non-profit organization that aims to tell "the other half of the story of conflict" through photographs of post-conflict situations. This latest publication includes work by the winner (Kathryn Cook) and finalists (Natela Grigalashvili, Tinka Dietz, Pep Bonet and Christine Fenzl) of their 2008 grant.

A lot has been written (some on this blog) about the desperate state of photo-journalism as both newspapers and magazines continue their steep decline. A number of reports from the recent Visa pour l'image festival in Perpignan stopped just short of saying that photo-journalism is a dying profession. The situation is bad in many ways—photographers have fewer and fewer outlets for in-depth stories—but I think that it is precisely because it is so dire that initiatives like the Aftermath Project are sprouting out from within the cracks. Dispatches magazine is another great example of an initiative that produces in-depth and in-context stories.

Aftermath is focused on post-conflict situations: a subject which is rarely considered to be newsworthy and may not have the immediate photographic gratification of the extremes of conflict. But if initiatives like these can survive, and even thrive, we won't be burying photo-journalism quite yet.

The book is on sale here. The Aftermath Project also holds a yearly grant competition open to working photographers worldwide covering the aftermath of conflict. The next deadline for applications is 2 November 2009.

Abu Ghraib and Lynndie England

© Lm Otero / AP Lynndie England is (thankfully) no longer a hot topic, but I was reminded of her story by this week's episode of the consistently excellent This American Life. For those of you that haven't switched on a TV or read a blog (or one of those newspaper thingies) in the past year, England was one of the US soldiers that was photographed humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. One particular picture, showing her holding a leash tied around the neck of a naked prisoner lying on the ground, made her the poster girl for Abu Ghraib, and, to some extent, for the failures of the American approach to the Iraq War.

When the images of Abu Ghraib made it into the press, England rapidly became the principal scapegoat for the crimes committed by the US in the prison. She was perfect for the part: pretty much everyone, from both ends of the political spectrum, could agree on hating Lynndie England. The coverage unanimously condemned her, without paying much heed to her side of the story. Eventually, the journalist Philip Gourevitch and film-maker Errol Morris decided to interview her extensively for two separate (and equally excellent) projects investigating the events surrounding Abu Ghraib and, more importantly, their representation in the media.

This is what England had to say about the infamous photograph of Abu Ghraib: "I don't see the infamous picture from the Iraqi war. (...) Yeah I was in a picture showing me holding a leash around a guy's neck. But that's all I did, I was in a picture, I never actually did anything to them. I was convicted of being in a picture." (my emphasis)

I didn't write this post to pass judgment about England's guilt regarding what she did in Abu Ghraib. But I think that her statement is pretty much right. This image was set up for the camera: it is because there was a camera there that this event took place. It is extraordinary just how much power a single photograph can still have, even within the context of something like the Iraq War which was filmed, recorded, written about and photographed in real-time, more extensively than any other war in history. And yet despite this, perhaps the most famous image of that war is staged.

Last week, two French art students were awarded Paris-Match's annual Grand Prix du Photoreportage Etudiant for their photographic story documenting the precarious lives of students today and their struggle to survive. When they received the award (which has now been taken taken away from them) they revealed that the winning series had been staged in order "to reveal the codes used too often in photojournalism and to prove that something real can be translated into something staged." Interestingly, they also stated that they did this because they were art students and, had they been studying journalism, would never have allowed themselves to commit such an act. There has been some discussion of this in the blogosphere, and opinions are divided. However, in the light of stories like that of Lynndie England, the statement of these French students seems all the more relevant.

Further reading, listening and watching: Philip Gourevitch, The Ballad of Abu Ghraib Philip Gourevitch's segment on This American Life, episode 384 (fast forward to 18:27) Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure

Photo-journalism: leaving Nachtwey behind

James Rosenthal, Iwo Jima Flag Raising The excellent dispatches magazine recently organized a debate at Brooklyn's VII Gallery with Gary Knight, one of the magazine's co-founders, and Tim Hetherington, a young photo-journalist (and 'thinker') who has made some interesting attempts to break out of the dark corner in which photo-journalism finds itself. The debate is available in its entirety on the dispatches website and is well worth a look.

At the conversation I attended earlier this week one of the panellists, a former journalist for the NY Times, kept steering the discussion towards his experience of photo-journalism, blurring the lines between it and photography. I found that there was a palpable feeling of discomfort in the air each time that he drew this parallel: as if  'photo-journalism' has become a dirty word which is not really supposed to be mentioned in a discussion of Photography with a capital 'P'. The fence (or is it barbed wire?) between these two fields has always seemed a little artificial to me and thankfully up-and-comers like Hetherington are contributing to tearing holes in it (see Sleeping Soldiers for a good example of this). I have been wondering whether the recent turmoil that is hitting newspapers and magazines (the traditional homes of photo-journalism) so hard is going to further contribute to blurring this distinction. In the dispatches debate the Knight explained his concern that the only images of war that get distributed are overly legible, presenting the extremities of war (tragedy, suffering, violence) and not the body of it. This used to be precisely what photo-journalists searched for in conflict photographs—James Nachtwey still seems to think that by presenting the most dramatic forms of these images that he can single-handedly change the course of history—but thankfully this is changing. Maybe that, as photo-journalists are forced to find new ways of distributing their images, we will start to see a less selective picture and one which will be a lot harder to categorise as unrelated to 'fine art photography'.