Algunes reflexions sobre fotoperiodisme

Fa la sensació que el fotoperiodisme està en crisi. Els mitjans cada vegada publiquen menys històries i hi ha menys mitjans. Però és la pròpia producció d’històries o la seva difusió la que passa per un mal moment? Potser és un peix que es mossega la cua. Cal trobar noves maneres de cobrar pel què es publica (aquesta és la gran assignatura pendent d’internet), però potser també hem de revisar els plantejaments clàssics de molt fotoperiodisme. L’estil, les aproximacions i les temàtiques esdevenen el centre d’una reflexió per el fotoperiodisme del sXXI.

El cas és que des d’arreu s’està debatent sobre l’estat de la cosa. Aquí en recullo uns exemples:

Interessant debat sobre fotoperiodisme a la revista online “Dispatches” :

War and photography

Marc Feustel reflexiona desde  Eyecurious

Photo-journalism: leaving Nachtwey behind

Published: 20 JUNE 2009

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 I think will be a lot harder to categorise as unrelated to ‘fine art photography’.

En Joerg Colberg va publicar i discutir sobre fotoperiodisme al seu blog

Conscientious:

Some thoughts on the visual language of photojournalism

By Joerg Colberg on October 28, 2008 11:46 AM

A little while ago, I received an email that told me about a project photojournalist James Nachtwey had been working on, which was going to get unveiled at a later date. The email contained the request to write a post that included some piece of code, which would automatically reveal the new project on the day in question. Since I prefer to have full editorial control over this blog, I decided not to post about it. But I was also uncomfortable with how this then secret project – something supposedly very important and completely underreported – was being handled. I thought that generating a lot of suspense could easily be somewhat damaging to whatever it was Nachtwey wanted to talk about: What if on the day in question people would think “Well, this is it?”

As it then turned out, the project in question was about creating awareness of drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB). An underreported topic it sure was, but I am somewhat tempted to write that as for the actual importance the jury might still be out. I remember when I saw the project my initial reaction was that I had done the right thing by not posting about it, and a large part of the actual reason is an unease that I’ve had for a long time. I think it might be worthwhile to talk about it. I cannot pretend that I know all aspects of my unease but maybe talking about it will generate some discussion online.

I think there are two aspects of the complex, which are somehow intertwined, but which nevertheless deserve to be seen separately. The first one is the actual issue. I’m no expert on any of this, but it seems that XDR-TB is indeed a very important medical issue. Whether or not it is more important that AIDS, say, or the current epidemic of obesity in the West I am not competent enough to judge. Whether as a topic it warrants the attention it was just given I might also not be competent enough to judge, but my gut feeling is that it’s not (after all, we’re in a real mess with an economy in severe trouble, financial markets in some sort of melt-down, two wars, both going quite badly, millions of people don’t even have health insurance, and the list goes on and on).

But there’s another aspect of the the XDR-TB work, and that’s the photography. My initial reaction was very similar to what I found somewhere online, namely “it does feel like we’ve seen the same pictures over and over again” (the quote can be found in this discussion, which someone sent me for completely different reasons actually). And indeed, the photography employs the same visual language that we are incredibly familiar with and that, I wager, for that very reason doesn’t achieve its actual purpose any longer.

To say this, of course, invites accusations of callousness or cynicism; but it would be an almost Rovian tactic to claim that it’s actual callousness or cynicism when someone says “we’ve seen the same pictures over and over again”. Because it clearly isn’t, even though some people might perceive an overlap. But it’s very important for this discussion to stay clear of this kind of territory.

Let’s instead talk about just the photography. I think it’s not too daring to say that after more than fifty years of grainy b/w photojournalism (with its sometimes blurry, sometimes crooked shots) the visual tool has become blunt. This is what seems to be behind commentaries such as “it does feel like we’ve seen the same pictures over and over again”. It’s not the topic, it’s the way the topic is presented. The photographic language of this style of photojournalism simply doesn’t have the same impact any longer it had fifty, forty, thirty years ago.

I think this problem contributes to a fair extent to what I perceive as a bit of an identity crisis of photojournalism. Maybe (oh, boy, I’m going on a real limb here!) we here can find part of the reason why all the newer members of Magnum work in such different ways. I often see discussions about why certain photographers are members of Magnum when, in fact, “in reality” they’re fine-art photographers. I have never had any such discussions with any of the Magnum photographers, but I actually do think that there is a lot to be said for different photographic languages to be employed in the context of photojournalism.

I think it’s quite important to realize that even with the best of intentions a viewer might not react very strongly to classic photojournalism any longer. It’s not about jadedness or callousness or cynicism, it’s about being used to something. It’s about the reactions that something triggers – reactions which in part might be outside of the control of the viewer. It’s any ugly way to say this but I think many people simply realize that when they see the classic b/w photojournalism covering some topic they feel like they have to react in a certain way simply because that’s how you react to this kind of stuff. And I don’t think this reaction is limited to photography connoisseurs (actually on the contrary). For photojournalism to work, it has to get away from this.

As I said, I don’t want to pretend I understand all aspects of this, and I am probably overlooking quite a bit of stuff here. But I think it’s a photographic topic that deserves to be investigated a bit – most of all by photojournalists themselves, especially since they are usually most passionate about their subject matters. Given that Alec has now rejoined the blogging world, over at Magnum’s blog, maybe he’ll pick up the thread?!

Some more thoughts on the visual language of photojournalism

By Joerg Colberg on October 29, 2008 3:52 PM

My earlier post about the visual language of photojournalism needs to be clarified in many different ways, and I hope to be able to add a post here and there that will talk about some more aspects. I thought I’d start off by giving an example first.

The following two images both deal with mental illness and the institutions mentally ill patients live in:

Majoli

Broomberg

The first image is from Alex Majoli’s ‘Leros’. The second example is from Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin ‘Ghetto’.

I need to stress that what I’m after here is not which of these images I prefer as a matter of taste. I’m interested in talking about the visual language they employ. Alex Majoli’s image follows the foot steps of classical photojournalism. It’s b/w, grainy, and it’s literally in your face. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin is pretty much the complete opposite. It’s a colour image, fairly strictly composed, and you the person this is all about is turning away from you. It’s probably not hard to guess which image I think works better as photojournalism with today’s audience.

Make no mistake, this is not about which is a better photo. It’s not about who used the better camera. It’s not about who is more concerned about the subject matter, because I do believe that both Alex and Adam/Oliver care very deeply. It’s about how people react to the work, in the light of the cultural context of this early 21st Century.

We live in a day and age where images are bombarding us, and many of them are designed to manipulate us, be it advertizing or cable-TV news (which, while claiming to be fair and balanced, is anything but fair and balanced). There are two ways to deal with all of this: You can either turn off completely and move into a cabin in the woods, or you can develop a mental mechanism to deal with all of this. Most people seem to go for the latter, and I think it’s very easy to observe that mental mechanism at work every day: Most ads you don’t see any longer. You simply ignore them. You filter them out. When ads start you change channels so quickly that – if you think about it – it’s astonishing how well you got it down. There is a reason why TV (where these mechanisms are vastly accelerated) changes its presentations of programs so rapidly: People adapt, and the tools become blunt. Actually, when you now watch a program from the 1960s the old mechanisms start working again: Things look so weirdly static – where is all the moving stuff?

On top of that, what I want to call classical photojournalism has now become part of our photographic canon. I am happy to argue (going on just maybe the slightest limp here) that that also changes the way we perceive such work, in that it might not strike us as dealing with something that we have to deal with today any longer. It’s a bit like listening to really old-school blues music: While there is a very strong message, these days you might actually take the message somewhat more seriously if it was presented in the context of hip-hop, say.

And I think all of this is at play here, making classical photojournalism a somewhat blunt tool. We react to these images in a way that makes it harder for their creators to reach us. It’s not because of the message, it’s because we react to the packaging in a certain – yes, call it jaded (even though that’s not it) – way.

Maybe a good way to think about this all is to think in terms of “visual sophistication” (a term Roger Richards just used in an email to me). In that sense, we all are becoming more and more visually sophisticated since we have to adapt to an ever changing visual environment. I’d really hate to have this effect seen as a dumbing down (as tempting as that might be for cultural pessimists), even though this increasing visual sophistication is in part caused by sites/channels some of whose message isn’t very sophisticated at all (think MTV).

What is photojournalism anyway?

By Joerg Colberg on October 30, 2008 1:41 PM

I thought it would be interesting to pick up a thread from especially my latest post on the visual language of photojournalism and ask “What is photojournalism anyway?” I’m not being facetious here, I’m serious.

(Updated below)

As I wrote earlier, “I often see discussions about why certain photographers are members of Magnum when, in fact, ‘in reality’ they’re fine-art photographers.” Just this morning, I received an email where a friend told me that the work of a certain photographer was in fact not what Magnum was all about. I don’t want to get into the Magnum soul searching that appears to be going on (should you believe the word in the street). What I want to argue, instead, is that if we take Magnum as a place where you can get photojournalism then the presence of people like, for example, Mark Power (great post, if you haven’t seen it!) shows that it’s not a good idea to define photojournalism too narrowly.

Just like print journalism, there’s a large variety of what people can do. There are people who spend an afternoon at the scene of a bank robbery, and there are people who spend a few months undercover, working menial jobs to see if you can get by if your job is with Walmart or Target. Those are two extremes, but what journalism actually is is not defined by the journalist who spends an hour or two on a story that people will forget about the day after, and it’s not defined by the journalist who, after spending months in cheap motels then sits down to write a book – it’s defined by each and every one of these journalistic activities.

And the same is true for photojournalism. When someone like Mark Power creates 2,000 large-format negatives to portray a country like Poland then, of course, that looks vastly different from what someone will shoot who decides to embedd with troops in Iraq. But it’s still a form of photojournalism (or maybe you want to call it documentary). Of course, there is a logical consequence to this, namely that the boundary between what people call “photojournalism” (“documentary”) and what people call “fine-art photography” is not that well defined.

But why should we compartmentalize that much? Why do we have to say that this kind photography is photojournalism whereas that kind is not? OK, sure, if we are this “generous” then, of course, someone like Simon Roberts also does photojournalistic work – because how is portraying Russia any different from portraying Poland? Of course, it isn’t – but what do we gain from sticking a label on it? How does that further our understanding of the work and what it aims to show?

My main point here is not to try to define what photojournalism is, but rather to point out that in order to tell a story there are many different ways. And, as I have argued, some ways to tell a story might not work so well any longer. I’m not the first to say this, of course. Recently, Martin Parr talked about this, and while I disagree with his solution of providing entertainment to make people look I completely agree with his underlying reasoning. Id’ even be happy to argue that part of what Martin Parr says is very close to me arguing that classical b/w photojournalism doesn’t work that well any longer.

There are lots of photographers, many of them considered to be “fine art”, whose work could easily be seen as photojournalistic or documentary. Just because we see some work in galleries or museums doesn’t mean it “only” art.

I’m sure lots of people will find this conclusion too generous, but if we restrict photojournalism to the kind of stuff that’s shot with Leicas, often crooked and blurry, now not grainy any longer because it’s digital, then we almost construct the conditions which allow us to say “Well, you know, photojournalism is in crisis.” I think we need to be more open to all the different ways that can be used to tell a story, and even if you just hate large-format cameras you will still have to admit that, yes, you can take a large-format camera to Iraq – and that’s journalism just like being embedded with the Marines and running around with a digital SLR. It’s a different way of telling a story, but it does tell a story.

Update (30 Oct 08): Alec Soth sent me the following in an email (thank you!): “I think this ‘Magnum soul searching’ regarding art/journalism is mostly gone. I was actually surprised when you originally wrote the ‘in reality they’re fine-art photographers’ line. Most of the photographers I know in the organization don’t really care about these labels. If you look on the front page of the website, this is what it says:

“‘Magnum Photos is a photographic cooperative of great diversity and distinction owned by its photographer members. With powerful individual vision, Magnum photographers chronicle the world and interpret its peoples, events, issues and personalities.’

“That said, the general public does have the perception of Magnum as photojournalists. Over at the Magnum blog I’m trying to highlight Magnum’s diversity. But I wouldn’t describe this as soul searching. I think this is an important distinction and sure wish I could post it as a comment.”

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