Category Archive: photo battle
Scott and I began sharing pictures with each other when we met at the University of Washington – a practice that ultimately became Dvafoto – and we’ve always been interested in what we call “photo battles”, instances of photographers publishing similar photographs either from the same event or the same place shot years apart. One classic example is the pair of photographs of a boy on a tank in Chechnya taken by James Nachtwey and Christopher Morris in 1996.
We’ve posted a few of these ‘battles’ on Dvafoto over the years but I have to hand it to Time Magazine photo editor Phil Bicker for putting together a fantastic post and gallery of 73 pairs of images from the last year that show off photography déjà vu on the Lightbox blog. Read the whole post 2012: A Year of Déjà Vu for intriguing descriptions (and categorizations) of the different kinds of photographic referencing that take place, from photographers repeating themselves to pure coincidence half a world apart. Bicker also wrote a post in 2011 about photographers who travel together, particularly in war zones, coming up with similar pictures in another great post Two Takes: One Picture, Two Photographers.
Perhaps our contemporary, collective déjà vu is trigged by the news cycle’s constant hunger for images. Photographers, after all, do sometimes document annual events — at the same time and place, year after year— as if nothing at all has ever changed, or ever will change, at that location.
Documentary photography, meanwhile, raises its own breed of déjà vu. Photojournalists often travel together and work side by side at the same event, documenting the same moment—seeing the same things, taking the same pictures. Even when working independently, photographers are not immune to conscious (or subconscious) mirroring, and the 20th century has provided a litany of masters—Cartier-Bresson, Klein, Evans and Frank come to mind—who have influenced entire generations of image makers. After all, we all want to pay homage to our forebears and our heroes. Is it so surprising when, paying tribute, we veer into imitation?
This is in part a guest post by photographer Daniel Etter
From the very beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there has been debate about the nature of US media coverage of the conflicts and the embedding system. One of my favorite sources for this media criticism has come from Michael Shaw at BagNewsNotes. He recently published a post about three news organizations publishing three stories about US Medevac units at the same time, which has set off a series of discussions and posts around the photo world. Medevac is short for Medical Evacuation, typically a helicopter rescue in the context of modern war zones. For a good round-up and links to all of the work in question, see this PDN Pulse post which includes a response from one of the photographers involved.
I think it is worth noting as well, before we get started, the photographic echoes we are dealing with when we look at medevac stories and why they are so visually/culturally interesting. This story’s inherent appeal is echoed in Etter’s response. We can start with Larry Burrow’s foundational Life Magazine essay One Ride with Yankee Papa 13 and David Turnley’s memorable photograph from the 1991 Gulf War of a soldier crying over the death of his friend in a medevac chopper. As well, James Nachtwey recorded a video interview with Time Magazine about his assignment in question: “Photographing the Birds of Hope: An Army Medevac Unit in Afghanistan”.
I was especially interested in this discussion because an old colleague of Scott and mine, Daniel Etter, recently completed an embed himself with a US Medevac unit and worked on his story Medevac, which we are also featuring in this post. I thought to ask him what his view was on the current hubbub, given his own personal knowledge of the process and decision making, and to learn more about his own project. He wrote back with some thoughtful ideas and insights and we have chosen to publish the entire piece. I consider this a guest post for Dvafoto by Daniel Etter, and turn it over to him with thanks:
So there were three major US publications that nearly simultaneously published prominent stories on US Army medevac units. My take on it? Partly coincidence and partly photographers’ herd instinct.
I approached the military specifically asking to be embedded with a medevac unit. There was absolutely no influence from the side of the military. It might have taken longer if I’d applied for a foot patrol, but I doubt that. I was embedded in Regional Command South and during my time there, there were at least four photographers with troops on the ground, while there were only two photographers embedded with medevac units, me being one of them. One additional photographer split his time between ground troops and a medevac unit. The people who didn’t ask for a specific unit ended up with ground troops.
I was surprised to see all these photographers doing the same story and, even more so, to see the same story being published in the NYT and Time Magazine within such a short time frame. The former is pretty easy to explain. You could be with the infantry on foot patrols for weeks and absolutely nothing happens, and, given the cynicism of our profession, you don’t want that. (Back in Kandahar, another photographer asked if I had seen any amputees during my embed. I said, yes. To which he somewhat jealously replied: “Strong images, man, strong images.”) Being embedded with a medevac unit means, you can be sure to get dramatic photos. About every third mission I accompanied was to a so-called “POI”, the point of injury somewhere in the dusty plains around Kandahar. In one case it was a hot POI, meaning that fighting was still going on. Wounded being rushed into helicopters, guns pointed at invisible enemies and dust blown up by the whirling chopper blades. Very visual.
In 2008/2009 various high profile photographers went to the Korengal valley embedded with US combat troops. Among them were Tyler Hicks, David Guttenfelder, Tim Hetherington and Adam Ferguson. Gary Knight (on Rethink-Dispatches) and David Campbell (on his blog) wrote about this strange clustering, asking if this was due to the military’s strategy to narrow the public’s focus on this tiny part of Afghanistan and keep it away from other parts. [Editor's Note: This is a terrific observation and both Campbell's and Knight's articles offer great insights that are applicable to this current discussion]. Now almost the same question is being asked again just the other way around. Is the military trying to get the focus away from combat? In both cases, I doubt that the answer is a simply “yes”.
When deciding where to embed, photographers, especially those without much experience in the war theater, ask other photographers or look at work that has been done before. The most important question often is: Where do I get good photos? Which basically means: Where is the fighting? In 2008/2009 the answer was Korengal. Last year it was medevac, and I expect we will see more of it this year. This clustering doesn’t only happen with war photography, but with pretty much every subject. For example, most of the photographers based in India have done stories on Kushti, the traditional Indian wrestling.
The other thing is that medevac embeds are comparatively safe. Well, at least you feel safer. You are only on the ground for a minute or two and you spend the majority of your time on the base. On a foot patrol there’s always the danger of getting shot at out of the blue or, even worse, stepping on an IED. While with a medevac unit chances that you get under fire are much higher than with the infantry, at least you don’t have to carry that fear around all day long. Perceived safety and dramatic images at the same time make up for a pretty strong argument for a medevac embed. At least, when you look at it from a purely pragmatical viewpoint.
The latter, why there where three major publications who did the same story within such a short time span, I can’t explain. But I don’t believe that it was due to influence from the side of the military. Perception has a lot to do with the current ruckus, I think. If Nachtwey hadn’t done this story, nobody would have raised the topic. And also, there were other, less heroic pieces that got published around the same time. About a month earlier, the NYT did a story on night raids that were heavily criticized by the Afghan government.
That being said, I still think that this clustering of the same story being repeated is definitely a symptom of some problems of the photographical coverage of the war in Afghanistan. I just don’t think the gravest problems lie within the embed system. Sure, being embedded means that you are part of the military’s public relations strategy, and there are definitely stories withheld from the public (special ops, for example). But it’s not that you don’t see the downside of the military’s actions. Adam Ferguson had a big multimedia piece in Time on an infantry unit that accidentally killed a 14-year-old girl (there is also a a text version of the story).
The graver problem, I think, are the difficulties of getting out of the embed system. What’s missing are not stories about American troops fighting, but stories about the other side. It is not only very dangerous to report unembedded in Afghanistan, but also very expensive. An embed is free. So a lot of independent photographers end up doing the same stories with the military and their public relations strategy.
Another problem that comes up here sounds very simple: Photography relies on images. The more dramatic, the better to sell. Photographers aren’t magically drawn to stories like Korengal or medevac. You can make powerful and journalistically important images in these places, but on the other hand you are very limited with a camera. There are stories that simply cannot be told in images. And sometimes, even if the story is an entirely different one, the images remain the same. Can you tell the difference between an insurgent and a simply Afghan farmer on a photo?
My decision to embed with a medevac unit was mostly pragmatic. It was my first embed, and, to be honest, I was freaking scared to go. I didn’t set out with the idea to do the best or most unique story possible. And I don’t believe in the naive notion that one single photographer in the context of this war can change anything for the better. However, I do believe in the necessity of communicating these stories and events to a wider audience in order to keep public debate alive. But I just wanted to start with something that might not be the most important topic but seemed relatively safe. I’ve seen Nachtwey’s piece on the broader subject of military medicine in National Geographic, which also covers the work of US flight medics. It seemed like a good option. Simple as that. No conspiracies involved.
[Ed: Thanks again Daniel for your insights in to this story and your honest and open assesments of the situation. And to Michael Shaw for setting this discussion and our thinking off ]
Joerg Colberg has a very interesting and probing post titled “A Theme With Variations”. It deals with, possibly, the changing nature of both war and fine-art photography, and/or their intersections. Well worth a read and the thought.
The post stems from a series of three photographs (posted by 2point8), starting with Nick Ut’s famous image from the Vietnam War following a napalm attack. Then there are two variations, one removing the Vietnamese victims and the other removing all of the humans from the image. Colberg has some interesting theories about how this parallels changes in photography itself. And points to a thought-provoking quote from Susie Linfield (posted on Colin Pantall’s blog): “…I don’t urge naïve acceptance or cynical rejection of photos of political violence; the book makes a plea for us to use photographs of atrocity as starting-points to engage with very complicated histories and very specific political crises.”
Read the post and be sure to check out the entire series “Fatescapes” by Pavel Smejkal on the Critical Mass 2010 website. (also of note: A Photo Student just wrote about another series by Smejkal which is very odd: photoshopped faces of celebrities on photos from the Holocaust)
From the first moment I heard about the February Australian bushfires I’ve been waiting to see the work of the amazing Oculi Agency who I knew had to be covering the event in a profoundly different and perhaps more important way than the wires. I was treated a few minutes ago to their emailer which directed me to a gallery they set up with 42 images from their photographers. Found from their opening page.
This first picture is a classic example of one of the first things that I loved about Oculi (and I guess Australian photographers in general, at least from what I’ve been introduced to): really bold color on an offbeat, oddly seen scene. Oculi alum Trent Parke and his wife Narelle Autio are the essence of that style I think. If you don’t know them or their pictures, you must go have a look. It’ll change your day.
One of the other reasons I first thought to try and find Oculi’s work from the event was because of Parke’s pictures from past bushfires. They don’t look like anything I’ve seen before, a bit more punched out that I had ever thought to go, but they really seem to capture the essence of that landscape. It is devastation and hellfire. And the pictures show it in a powerful way.
While I think of Oculi for superstaturated and/or high contrast quirk, they (forgive me .. I know they’re not one cyborgtronic entity .. I’m being simplistic) definitely have a more contemplative approach at times, as shown so beautifully by Andrew Quilty’s stark landscapes (the immediate reference to pano scorched earth: Koudelka’s Black Triangle) and Dean Sewell’s ‘still lives’. (Another aside: I think this is also the great benefit of an agency/group like Oculi. Where else could we see such great, diverse photographs side by side? I gain so much more information about this event from seeing it through three sets of amazing eyes)
Lately I’ve been really drawn to these slower studies of situations, often shot with larger format cameras (Xpans or 6×7 I guess). I tried this myself, to varying result but great reflection (read the comments), and will have to pursue it again soon. In the same post I gushed about the work of friend Ziyah Gafic, amongst other photographers working in this vein, and have been visually obsessed this week with Mikhael Subotzky. Just look at this picture (or this one!).
Scott brought something interesting up when I sent him these pictures: put this work, with its depth, engagement and quiet contemplation, alongside something like the Big Picture Blog’s coverage.. sure the wires are doing a different job but for me Oculi’s work tells much more of an important story. (just compare, they shot some of the same scenes). And it hits me so much harder, and stays with me longer. This is the value of great photography I think. It takes time to do, which I guess is no longer much of an option.
On a side note, when you look at the full portfolio, what is with all the weird lawn figures in the Australian countryside? Sorry, but it makes me think of the Garden Gnome Liberationists.
Following up with Anthony Suau’s win in the 2008 World Press Photo contest, there’s an interesting behind-the-scenes interview with the photographer over at Editor & Publisher, ominously headlined “World Press Photo, Pulitzer-Winning Photographer Struggles to Find Work” (Thanks to Tom Leininger on the APAD list for the tip). There are some interesting revelations in the piece, not least of which is that Time magazine never published the photos in print. Today, the magazine has published two galleries of his work online, “Best Photos of the Year, 2008: The American Economy: Down and Out” and “Prize-Winning Photos: Struggling Cleveland.”
Also of interest, PDNPulse tracked down an essay by Cleveland Plain Dealer photographer Gus Chan covering the same story and same detective in January 2008, nearly 3 months ahead of Suau. Chan’s photos are good, certainly, and seeing the two essays next to each other is a welcome reminder of the value that individual photographers and the notion of authorship bring to the photojournalism. We may just be pushing buttons on a camera, but there’s a whole lot more that goes into it…
After reading Safe Area Gorazde last week, my mind has absently been thinking about Bosnia, which holds a special place in my heart. While researching something else (another post coming soon..) I came across this Josef Koudelka picture from Mostar, which is a city in western Herzegovina that was the site of some of the worst street to street fighting of the Bosnian wars. Notable too because it featured all three of the major ethnic groups, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats (Bosnian Catholics) and Serbs (Bosnian Orthodox). It was also the site of one of the worst symbolic moments of the war, when a Croatian tank commander (who ironically was a theater director, I’ve been told) directed his cannon at the Stari Most bridge, which spans the mythical Neretva river in the center of the Turkish quarter. It destroyed a cultural landmark and point of pride for all Bosnians that was built in 16th Century.
Due to the symbolic significance of this bridge, and its new status as an UNESCO World Heritage site, it was amongst the first historic structures rebuilt following the war, at an estimated cost of 12million Euros. Koudelka returned in 2005 and took this picture:
I was in Mostar for a week in 2007. It is an amazing place, and that bridge is an amazing sight. It is known for the Mostari, who perform for tourists by leaping from the 20m tall span into the swift, shallow and disturbingly cold river. And a youtube video of their jumps at the annual Mostari festival. People die every year doing this, I’ll add…
Another thing that I imagine M. Scott and I will make a regular feature of here is the ‘photo battle’… a little thing we enjoy whenever we find two pictures, by two photographers from different sources, who have shot the same scene. Classic example: Paolo Pellegrin “vs.” Antonin Kratochvil in Basra, Iraq (2003). What are the chances that is Paolo’s shadow in the frame, too?
Anyways, just saw this image in the 9/12/08 New York Times by staffer Tyler Hicks.
I recognized that photo on the fence, I took a picture of it a few years ago. My photograph from ‘ground zero’ on the 2005 Anniversary of the 9/11 event.
Not a great ‘battle’ but something I noticed. I’m really curious if it is the exact same print on the fence as when I shot in ’05. Hard to tell when the site itself (as evidenced by how the fence looks .. no view anymore of the hole in the ground) has changed so much in the last couple of years.