Category Archives: 2 Documents of conflict and suffering

Project: Documents of conflict and suffering

Exercise: Don McCullin  “Shaped by War”   See also: BBC Imagine 2013

I listened and watched these two items with interest. What impressed me most was  was the thoughtful and sensitive nature of McCullin’s reflections on  his life’s work. In his voice you car hear it and you can see in his eyes that his experiences have profoundly effected him. The most telling part is, of course that he seems to be saying although his photographs have informed us, they have changed nothing.

Exercise: Max Houghton “Walk the Line”, Jonathan Kaplan “Imaging War”. My reactions to the author’s arguments are as follows:

Both pieces consider the justification for the decision to publish (or not) images of the results of horrifying violence. Kaplan asks “where are the limits on what we might wish to be shown?” and agrees with exclusion of documentary images of surgical procedure from a photographic book about landmines, citing the designer’s argument that they may put some viewers off purchasing it, losing the value of the rest of the images. I this case, I agree. He mentions earlier in the article “medical pornography”. I think this is a prime example and would have had no place in the book.

In her piece, Max Houghton makes the point (via a quote from  the picture editor Sophie Batterbury) that pictures of gore are a knee jerk distraction from any emotional impact of other images picturing the tragedy. She also alludes to a double standard, citing a comparison between the “falling man” image from 9/11 and Luc Delahaye’s “Taliban soldier”, whose family (presumably) had no say in whether the image was shown. The Observer spread from the conflict in Kenya appears to have been justified by the picture editor and although I found the black and white version less disturbing, I can understand how expanding the story and humanising its impact is necessary for a fuller understanding of the situation.

Both articles are about journalists using their own sense of what should or shouldn’t be shown. This seems to work up to a point as long as they remain independent and their choices and justifications are  ethical. Self regulation in a free press where editors have to be aware of the impact that poor choices have on readership and advertising revenues have worked so far. What is concerning is the use of social media (presumably why locals photograph the aftermath of suicide bombings) to disseminate such images. Only yesterday (25th June 2015) I read in a tabloid newspaper a report of TFL staff telling onlookers to stop taking photographs of the bodies of suicides as they lay on the tracks. I cannot see any justification for such action as a thinking, feeling human being, let alone as a photographer.

Exercise: Imaging famine

I started my research by looking at the website . It is now three decades since the Amin/Buerke report on Ethiopia and although the blog has since been closed, the posts made interesting reading.

David Campbell proposes that critique of the imaging will help but as this updated thread (August 2011) shows, the issue is a complex one.

Within David Campbell’s blog was this link to post by Barry Malone which is a sad reflection on how very little things seem to change. 

with a second link here to the resulting  Reuters article:                 

During my reading of the article “Imaging Famine” I made the following bullet point list of what I thought were the issues highlighted and searched to see if I could detect change.

  • Images with cultural and racial stereotypes
  • Negative and positive imaging – does the end justify the means
  • Captions and text – don’t always reflect the context experienced by the photographer
  • Is contemporary photographic practice post colonial?
  • Is there any data supporting the effectiveness of alternative images
  • Will still photography gain a renewed importance as TV neglects the world beyond our tabloid concerns?
  • Has the photographer chosen to use established aesthetic traditions?
  • What about using local photographers for immediacy?
  • What is the responsibility of the photographers/journalists present?

As I searched, I felt I was going around in circles so I have briefly summarised my impressions.

The Imaging Famine exhibition obviously highlighted issues with the reporting of suffering and disaster. The media were aware of the problems and it’s clear from what has been reported since, that things have changed. Barry Malone’s piece, for me sums up what a reasonable report should be. He acknowledges the context and writes his piece accordingly. Beyond that, what is to be done? There are more questions than answers here. Have the media been over sensitive to criticism in the past? Is it the hard hitting graphic image that gets the response and if so can it be justified if it has the desired effect? Has the media indulged in navel gazing just once too often and can no longer see its feet? The next exercise which looks at images taken in 2012 in the Horn of Africa and marks a distinct departure from those images we are familiar with from the 1980’s.

Exercise: WeareOCA blog post “The ethics of aesthetics”

This is my response to this thread as part of the Documentary course Project “Documents of conflict and suffering”. The ethics of aesthetics form part of this discussion.

The thread is about the work that Alejandro Chaskielberg has done in the area of Turkana in the Horn of Africa. He has pictured families who have received help from Oxfam in order that the effects of the ongoing drought can be mitigated. His style for these images is unusual in that they are beautifully (if unusually) lit and presented with saturated colours reminiscent of advertising photographs. This is where the aesthetic appears to conflict with the ethical consideration. The question was asked, “Are Chaskielberg’s images too beautiful? Given that we heard from Jo Harrison of Oxfam that “our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen”; I think it is perfectly proper that the aesthetics in this case be allowed to show the positive work that Oxfam are doing to try to prevent another famine. It is not just images of starving children that raise funds and it has been suggested that as a western society, we are inured to such images. There has to be some demonstration of positive outcomes for donors to want to keep giving. They are saying “This is how we are spending your money. Please continue to support us.”

Comparisons were drawn between Chaskielberg’s images and those of  Rankin and Stoddard. We need to consider the context in which these images are taken and their ultimate use.

Rankin’s images are no less beautiful and have a more direct impact on the viewer, they are quickly understood and assimilated. Another plus for the communication of the idea that these people are facing hardship and need our help. The same message but more direct. The photographer used his images to illustrate a blog for Oxfam Blog Action Day which put the images firmly in context.

Stoddard’s images of  famine in Sudan are of a completely different order. They symbolise what the western world thinks a famine in Africa looks like. They are strong, uncompromising and disturbing, exactly what I would expect from one of the world’s leading photojournalists. Are these the kind of images to which we have become inured? I suspect they are.

Exercise: To print or not to print

Had it been my decision I would have edited the photograph, being sensitive to the relatives of the victims. We need no reminder of the horrific effects of explosions no matter how they are caused. The context of the photograph was unaltered.