What is it? Basically, the photos that we see in the newspapers, which are supposed to be an unbiased way of informing the public of newsworthy events.
Photojournalism is distinguished from other close branches of photography (e.g., documentary photography, social documentary photography, street photography or celebrity photography) by complying with a rigid ethical framework which demands that the work be both honest and impartial.( En.wikipedia.org, 2017).
Out of interest I searched online for ‘news imagery manipulation’ and the search resulted in this site from The Guardian.
The article examines how much trust we should place in news imagery. It seems that The Guardian has strict rules but obviously with the numbers of images they receive, there is likely to be some that slip through the net. The article refers to the outrage that resulted after Grazia magazine showed a front page image of The Duchess of Cambridge with an impossibly thin waist, perpetuating the feminine ‘ideal’. All is not always at it seems. Why would a magazine feel the need to do that to anyone’s image never mind to an image of someone with an already very slim waist? It seems that no matter how slim a woman is she can never be slim enough.
After briefly considering photojournalism above, I now intend to look at three different viewpoints in relation to uses, problems and benefits of photojournalism and will summarise my understanding of the writings of the following three practitioners.
- Martha Rosler
- Susan Sontag
- Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Viewpoint – maintaining social inequality
I have already considered Rosler’s essay in response to the course notes on page 25 to look at her the essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography). My post is here
However, I have also read Ashley la Grange’s summary of Martha Rosler’s essay and have gained a further understanding of her viewpoint that I will summarise below.
- Rosler thought that much of the journalism images relating to ‘socially disadvantaged’ people were ‘sensationalist’ but that the work of Hine, for example, was trying to make a difference. (La Grange, 2017)
- However, Rosler believes that by bringing the plight of people to the attention of the privileged only served to maintain the status quo by appealing to the charity of the elite whilst actually doing nothing significant to change the fortunes of the suffering.
- In effect, the images served no real benefit to the disadvantaged and only reinforced the class structure by ensuring that the elite eased their conscience by ‘donating’ to the poor, whilst also being assured that their privileged position was safe and secure , thank you.
- There is a suggestion that ‘the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor’ and that images that draw public attention to such poverty is more voyeurism than a desire to help and is perhaps driven by self interest such as furthering a career.
- Rosler suggests that well meaning photographers could actually be allowing those that are ok, to face their fears and then walk away, satisfied that they are associated with the ‘powerful’ rather than the victimised.
- Rosler considers that poverty can be portrayed as being the fault of natural disasters so eliminating any feeling of guilt or empathy.
- Rosler acknowledges Szarkowski’s comments that photography has moved away from trying to right the wrongs of the World to being a medium that satisfies personal ambition and merely acknowledges the worlds inequalities and flaws.
Viewpoint – becoming immune to horror
La Grange’s essay is a summary of Sontag’s essay On Photography. Another difficult essay.
- Sontag gives an example, the image below, of a photograph that caused outrage, and how this still photograph had more of an impact than a televised image.
The Terror of War” by Nick Ut
Image courtesy of Pixabay
- Sontag says that the impact of disturbing images lessons as people are exposed to them more and more. I suppose she means that the ‘novelty’ wears off. To continue to ‘shock’ the image has to show something ‘new’.
- Sontag considers that old images ‘get viewed with the general sadness, pathos with which we view the past, and are looked at in terms of art’.
- She concludes, ‘In these last decades, ‘‘concerned’’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it’
- In her essay Sontag says that ‘… in the situations in which most people use photographs, their value as information is of the same order as fiction’.
- I liked this comment: Photography was seen as a way of conveying the news to the less educated. Yet ‘… one never understands anything from a photograph.’
- Sontag says that ‘people in industrialised societies have become ‘image-junkies’ needing reality and experience confirmed by photographs. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it’.
I can identify with this last comment as people seem more eager to take an image of say, the bride and groom, as they walk down the aisle rather than actually savouring the experience and enjoying watching the moment. In actual fact they may miss the moment completely as they focus on their camera phones, adjust the composition and press the buttons. But, they will have an image to remember the occasion by even if they didn’t fully appreciate the moment itself!
- Sontag says that despite people’s desire to avoid suffering there is a curiosity about it ‘which is partly satisfied by photography’.
Sharon Boothroyd, in the OCA course notes (p.27) states that Solomon’s essay Inside/out ‘argues against a binary insider/outsider approach to documentary photography.’
An insider/outsider approach considers that documentary photography is either objective (voyeuristic) or subjective (confessional). Solomon however, thinks that these categorisations are unhelpful and that documentary photography can provide a ‘distanced look at the subject as well as offering some sort of truth’ (ibid).
La Grange discusses Solomon’s essay in chapter 6 of Basic Critical Theory for Photographers and the main points are shown below.
- Godeau considers that images that objectified people prevented the viewer from having any empathy. She thought that Diane Arbus typified this approach and as such she thought of her as a ‘morbid voyeur’ (La Grange, A, 2005). (Arbus photographed people who she considered to be marginalised, whether it was because of their above or below average height, or the way they identified their gender, or if they didn’t comply with society’s general view of attractiveness, etc.).
- Godeau rejects the idea that an image is either objective (from the outside and only concerned with the impersonal exterior of the subject) or subjective (on the inside and with a personal involvement) and refers to Ed Ruscha and Nan Goldin, respectively, as practitioners of these two approaches. I needed to understand this inside/out debate first, so I have taken a look at these two practitioners.
- link to Ruscha’s ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1996)
- link to Goldin’s image ‘Jimmy Paulette after the parade, NYC, 1991′
Goldin is quoted here as saying:
I was eighteen and felt like I was a queen too … they became my whole world.
Part of my worship of them involved photographing them. I wanted to pay
homage, to show them how beautiful they were. I never saw them as men dressing
up as women, but as something entirely different – a third gender that made more
sense than either of the other two. I accepted them as they saw themselves; I had
no desire to unmask them with my camera. (Tate, 2017).
I see now the difference, Ruscha’s ‘outside’ and Goldin’s ‘inside’. However, the subject matter of buildings v people may make the identification simpler than it would be if the subject matter was similar.
- Godeau sees Goldin as producing work that typifies the insider approach; she is not a voyeur as the subjects are her ‘family’ and she has a personal involvement with them.
- However, in rejecting the idea that photographer is either one or the other, Godeau offers an alternative view that, regardless of the photographer’s intention, or of the subjects’ willingness to be photographed, the resulting image can be still seen to be voyeuristic. A viewer is unlikely to know the subjects as intimately as Goldin does and ‘there is a risk that irrespective of the photographer’s intentions the subject becomes an object and spectacle’. (La Grange, A. 2005).
These are three very difficult essays and I won’t pretend that I have understood them all thoroughly. However, I have grasped some main points and appreciate their different viewpoints. I found Rosler’s view about documentary photography merely encouraging charity, rather than fundamental change, a concept that I identified with. I remember as a child seeing images on television of starving children during the famines in Ethiopia and being shocked. There were skeletal children surrounded by flies, no food and just waiting to die. But at the same time, I knew it didn’t happen to people like us.
Regarding Sontag, I can also identify with ‘compassion fatigue’. It has become the norm to see distressing images in the papers and on television. A well known moto of ‘if it doesn’t bleed , it doesn’t lead’ sums up an approach of the media in deciding what headlines to put on the front page. We are so used to seeing images of disasters, starvation, epidemics, murders, rapes and other atrocities that it is possible that we have become immune to their impact. I would be more surprised today with a feel good news headline than any horror story.
Godeau questions an objective v subjective approach and suggests that the actual issue is ‘how we know reality and whether photography can represent the truth’ (La Grange, A. 2015).
En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Photojournalism. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photojournalism [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].
La Grange, A, (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press.
OCA (2014) Context and Narrative, Learning Materials, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley
Tate. (2017). ‘Jimmy Paulette after the parade, NYC, 1991’, Nan Goldin, 1991 | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/goldin-jimmy-paulette-after-the-parade-nyc-1991-p13311 [Accessed 30 Jul. 2017].