Part 3 : We are all photographers now

Exercise 3.4: Post-photojournalism

Project 4. Re-thinking photojournalism 2: ‘post-photojournalism’

 Exercise 3.4 – Look at the work of one of the practitioners discussed in the project. Write a short analysis of one of their projects or the practitioner’s overall approach. Comment on how appropriate you think their creative responses are. What is your impression of the evolving nature of photo journalism?

 Looking at new strategies used by photojournalists to maintain viewers’ attention in the light of ‘compassion fatigue’. I’ve written previously (on other Modules) about Jeff Wall and LucDelahaye. Looking at Benjamin Lowy’s work on his website, what struck me the most was that I found it difficult to tell whether the images were produced from an iPhone or a DSLR. Comment is made in the DiAC Handbook (p.77) that perhaps it is the familiarity of the smartphone image ‘that gives it a fighting chance of catching the attention of apathetic audiences’.  That seems counter-intuitive somehow because I would imagine that because it was so familiar it would just become one of many to be scanned-over quickly and the the eyes move on.

I’ve looked at the work of Patrick Chauvel and his series Guerre Ici [War Here] (2009) . bringing the conflict home with his digital composites combining images of war zones with views of Paris.  I would imagine it did get people to look then but now, given what has happened in Paris in more recent years, such images might seem in bad taste – similarly in London and Manchester.  In fact, thinking about it, these recent dreadful incidents could really have brought home the consequences of war and how far their web stretches.

Thomas Dworzak

A Magnum photographer, Dworzak was working in Afghanistan when he found some portraits in a photographer’s studio in Kandahar. These were illicit images requested by Taliban sitters (all photography banned except for ID purposes).


Do portraits like this ‘subvert the regime by exposing the contradictory behaviour of its adherents’ (Handbook p.77).  In a Vice Interview  Dworzak acknowledges that he received a lot of criticism in Europe for being disrespectful – as if he had taken the photographs himself.  He bought and published them because he was wanting to point out the inconsistencies. I agree there are and they do intrigue me and make me look because they make me think of more than the inconsistencies.  The backdrops they were taken against don’t look like Afghanistan (although maybe I’m stereotyping here) they look like some idyll of a different life.  The flowers add femininity beauty somehow, softness.  The portraits make me wonder what thoughts and feelings these Taliban fighters have about their lives and the constraints around them and what choices they had. I feel sad even whilst knowing of the Taliban’s brutality.

Compare with two other photographs taken by Thomas Dworzak

What do I think about the evolving nature of photojournalism. Well, it’s like a chameleon, changing according to prevailing circumstances to survive and I think that’s a positive strength.  Viewers suffer compassion fatigue and I would imagine that photojournalists do become burnt-out; inured to what they see.  I’m not surprised that some of them feel the need to venture into other modes of being to reclaim themselves.

Exercise 3.3: Breaking the news?

This exercise  follows from Project 3 on Re-thinking photojournalism 1: the citizen journalist. The exercise asks us to read the blog about the New York Post’s image of a man about to be killed by a subway train; analyse the event and then comment on the ethical decision of the commuter who took the picture.

 I don’t know where the ‘commuter’, R. Umar Abbasi, was standing when he saw what was happening. Was it a camera phone or another more powerful phone? Presumably he knew about the power of the flash given that he is said to be a New York Post freelance photographer. I would have thought that a man running and waving his arms might have caught more of the train driver’s attention than the light of a flash in a lit station platform but then the article refers to other people there doing exactly that.  However, Abbasi apparently said that the train driver saw his camera flashing but told him he couldn’t stop the train fast enough. He obviously questioned the man – was this on the basis that he was a ‘reporter’? I also read that the train operator was treated for shock and brought out of the stain in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask. Did Abbasi speak to him whilst he was in shock or afterwards.

No other people appear in the photograph except the unfortunate man on the tracks, Ki Suk Han, who was pushed by the suspect after trying to calm him down when he was ‘harassing and cursing at straphangers. I could presume that Abbasi was in front of everyone else.  If he was repeatedly firing his flash then presumably he was repeatedly taking photographs as well. I might presume that, given that he is named as a freelance photographer, the adrenaline flowed and his photographer self immediately went into action ahead of his ‘rescuer’ self.

I was relieved to read that the adrenaline flowed in a different way for another person – Dr Laura Kaplan, a second-year resident at Beth Israel Medical Centre who saw the man on the tracks and later rushed over to administer CPR.

There is information in the blog that the victim, Ki Suk Han, had quarrelled with his wife beforehand; had been drinking; one witness claimed he was the aggressor on the platform, and that the authorities found a bottle of vodka on him afterwards. Are we expected to feel less sympathy for him because of that? Does that minimize the actions of the man who pushed him?

If I hadn’t read the article and seen the photograph then I could well assume that this is a ‘case study’.  It raises many implications for the role of the ‘professional’ photographer, including are they just ‘witnessing’.  Personally I couldn’t stand by but then I wouldn’t want to be a photo journalist anyway.

The ethical decision of the Newspaper isn’t queried in the exercise. What purpose does the article have except to provide sensational news but then what about those photographs showing people jumping out of windows in an attempt to escape from the Twin Towers? Why were we shown those? What purpose did it achieve? Why do human beings have this need to gaze upon disaster, violence, tragedy?

PS : The New York Post was criticised for publishing the photograph. An article in the International Business Times   comments on this and considers the ethics involved. Kevin Z. Smith, Chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee (in the United States) gave his view in a phone interview with Christopher Zara, IBT. Smith cites the “Minimize Harm” section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics (link given in the article). The website of the Press Association in the UK is here . I’ve looked but can’t find mention of a Code of Ethics so I’ve emailed them.


Exercise 3:2 from Project 2- Digitising atrocity

Quite a large part of me didn’t want to do this exercise because there are some images I’ve had such strong feelings about and think were wrong that I don’t want to publicise them by inserting images or providing links. I think part of it is the intent behind the photograph being taken or if I perceive that advantage is being taken of someone vulnerable, particularly a child.

I had very conflicting feelings about the images of the little three year old boy, Alan Kurdi who drowned, along with his mother and five year old brother, when his family, with others,  were attempting to reach the island of Kos after escaping from Syria. Twelve people died in total including five children. There were several photographs taken and what disturbed me was that in one of them a policeman was standing over the body of the little boy and it looked as though he was taking a photograph.  Obviously someone else was also photographing that scene.  I accept that this little boy was being used as a representative for all the suffering that has been caused by this conflict, lives lost, futures cut short but it seemed so disrespectful to me. The justification for publishing these photographs was that what happened should force authorities, countries to get together and form a plan to tackle the refugee crisis.  This child drowned in 2015 and still nothing has been done.

There was another photograph, again of a small Syrian boy, five years old this time, pulled from rubble in Aleppo after a regime airstrike in August 2016. Covered in dust from head to toe, injured and sitting alone in a chair, looking so dazed. I felt so angry that he was being photographed in such a state instead of being comforted. The photograph is a still from a video which shows him being rescued, carried into the ambulance, placed on the seat and then his rescuer walking away from him so that someone else could take the photograph. This photograph and video were in a Guardian newspaper online article which also contained another image from Twitter. A Telegraph reporter had photographed the little  boy after treatment – bruised and bloodied with a bandage round his head. The photographs went viral.  Again nothing has changed.

I’ve read quite a lot recently about digitising atrocity and the role of the photojournalist. Peggy Phelan’s essay ‘Atrocity and Action: the Performative Force of the Abu Ghraib Photographs”(2012) very much  drew me .  I won’t go into detail here because she takes a different, more philosophical approach concerning the way in which we, as viewers, of images such as the Abu Ghraib photographs respond; disavow, become defensive, angry. Her reasoning is complex, introducing the concept of the “….. given-to-be-seen and the blind spot that are central to seeing a photograph” and I want to return to the essay in future to re-read and digest more fully. Phelan begins with the questions posed by such photographs; the actions portrayed within them and also the viewer’s potential action – “What can I do to fix this? How can I limit this atrocity?”


PS Ariella Azoulay wrote about “The Civil Contract of Photography” (2007). Azoulay wants action not empathy and believes we don’t know how to look at such images. This is a note to access the book.


Exercise 3.1 – Fred Ritchin Towards a Hyperphotography (2008)

I found this essay very interesting – in fact it led me on to research other articles, videos etc. There’s a strong message coming through all of them in relation to photo-journalism and its need to use interactive digital methods to engage, weave together multiple narratives, and allow all points of view to emerge.  All this achieved through hypertext and hyperlinks which can be contained within an image (hyperphotography)  so that further information can be accessed.  His example of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is a very clear one to begin to understand his concept and here is a helpful Wikipedia article that gives contextual background and presents other photographs taken at the same time. Imagine though a web image of the actual photograph with links embedded that travel to comments and memories from Florence Thompson and her family. In the essay Ritchin writes ‘reality has no single truth’ (2008:147). He posits the idea of a contradictory ‘double’ image which is cubist, staged events  or simulations which could be exposed by a second photograph.

The Exercise asks if we can find any visual examples of ‘cubistically unmasking photo opportunities’ and to look for multiple points of view around a single news event or story. In his essay Ritchin refers to the  website akaKURDISTAN here  – “a place for collective memory and cultural exchange”.  There is a story map and the introductory panel quickly changes to a map which has highlighted yellow spots

Every spot takes the viewer to a different story. One took me to images and story from a teacher of what happened at midnight on June 19th 1963 to the people of Sulaimania. Many were captured and four teachers were executed and placed in a mass grave.  No one knew about this until November 1963 and when the bodies were exhumed a friend of theirs (the narrator) took photographs of the exhumation. The father of one of the executed men said, “I have no photo of me with my son so please take our picture together”.

The website was one of the outcomes from work by the photographer Susan Meiselas  who used MacArthur Foundation funding (beginning in 1992) to curate a photographic history of Kurdistan which resulted in a book as well as the website.

I will be writing more about Fred Ritchin’s views on photojournalism in a digital age in Assignment 3.