State of the Art has an interesting post about a conference on the last day of the Peripignan festival this year, during which the above photograph was discussed (first brought to my attention via The Click, and then elsewhere). The image depicts a pack of foreign and local media photographing a seriously injured man during xenophobic clashes in Johannesburg. The discussion between the photographer, Kim Ludbrook, EPA editor Maria Mann, Visa pour L’image founder Jean-Francois Leroy, and AP photographer Jerôme Delay, highlights both the queasiness that the image might cause and why such discomfort might be unfounded.
Only a small portion of the dialog is excerpted at State of the Art, but it’s a valuable debate. “I felt that we really were behaving as a pack of war paparazzi,” said Ludbrook, “It’s my country, and I was very upset about seeing what I had seen. This debate started with Jerôme in Johannesburg. As a viewer one would start to ask questions. But I’m saying it’s a good debate to start. That day I was embarrassed to be a photojournalist. In this picture of a wounded man, we’re all standing to one side; we are creating a reality.” And on the surface, that’s what the image portrays: a pack of vultures preying on an injured man to fill news holes and awards mantles. Ludbrook was right to take the picture, and EPA was right to send the picture out on the wire.
Alex Webb’s fantastic pictures from the 1994 US invasion of Haiti, in part, take a similar stance one step back behind the media. Two aspects of war photography make it an ugly endeavour to begin with: the war and the photography. The first concern can easily be addressed: we’d all wish that there wasn’t any war to photograph in the first place. The second concern, that the act of photographing atrocities is somehow suspect, requires a bit more work to untangle.
In Webb’s picture above, an important point is made. Conflict photographers, by necessity, are present just inches removed from indescribable violence and bloodshed. That “indescribable” bit, however, is why the work is so important. Without photojournalists taking pictures of people dying or starving or fleeing from a hurricane, etc., there’s no way to know just how the stories under the headlines happened, what emotions were involved, whose lives are being affected, and so forth. This is the value of photojournalism. A story on xenophobic violence in the outskirts of Johannesburg, with statistics about the number of people injured or how many bullets were fired, may not catch the attention of readers and citizens without a picture of some person, someone’s father or mother or brother or sister, living or dying through the violence. And this is exactly what EPA editor Maria Mann was getting at during the conference:
“We do our job, let’s not kid ourselves about our jobs and how we do it. I didn’t have to decide about this picture, it came in and it was sent out. I said yes, that’s us at work. Anything we saw last night in the projection…I don’t know how you think you can get [those] images [without being there].”
We could not have these pictures without the photographers being right in the middle of the action, and if we presume a value to this sort of news, these photos need to be taken and they need to be published and they need to be seen by as many people as possible. Of course, this is not to say there aren’t concerns about the way this sort of journalism is undertaken.
Take, for instance, Edward Behr’s memoir of life as a foreign correspondent, Anybody Here Been Raped and Speaks English?. The title, overheard by Behr, was a question asked by a BBC crew while covering violence in Congo. Conflict journalism–any journalism, really–requires compassion, empathy, and respect for the subjects. From what Ludbrook says about the situation in the picture at the top, the photographers (Ludbrook included, I’d suppose) did not ask the man if he was okay and did not help him get to a hospital. While there’s a need for objectivity and disconnectedness between journalists and their subjects, there’s also a time to put pencils and cameras down. During the 2006 conflict between Lebanon and Israel, photographers stepped in to carry elderly and injured people to safety (“More than Observers”, originally published by PDN, rather than the spam blog I’ve linked to; can’t find the PDN link…). The group included Timothy Fadek, Christopher Anderson, Paolo Pellegrin, Kevin Sites, Wael Ladki, Lefteris Pitarakis, Kai Wiedenhöfer, and unnamed journalists from Turkey. In Fadek‘s words, “In south Lebanon there is an absolute nonexistence of rescuers. It’s a matter of just being a human being,” Fadek says. “You’re there to help. It’s a no-brainer.”