serenity and squalor: human suffering in photojournalism


Exhibit A: Eugene Richards‘s Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The photographs that I would like to make, stylistically speaking, differ from the photographs that I could make which would have the effect I would like them to have out in the world. I imagine that for a few photographers, there is no such rift, but for everybody else, it’s not so simple. How do I reconcile a personal style of shooting with the effect I hope to achieve with the photograph as a concrete object?

What I have in mind specifically is photojournalists and the depiction of suffering (more often than not, of non-Caucasian peoples in the developing world). There seem to be two popular approaches. Either a.) show suffering as it happens, in war and conflict, and in hospital wards, with the irrefutable proof of the ravaged human body. The intention of which, to me, is to put the viewer as close as possible to the circumstances of those who suffer, to substitute for the experience itself. Or, b.) create less overtly charged portraits of the subjects, using accompanying text to deliver the real emotional punch. These sort of photos seem to aim to create sympathy for the subjects, to humanize them.

I came upon Eugene Richards’ photo essay on a Mexican mental asylum in Mother Jones magazine. He falls squarely on the side of those who get in your face with the gritty ugly details. His approach is that of classic black and white conflict photojournalism in the style of Nachtwey. In fact, he addresses the choice of styles in his text:

In so many photographs of the disenfranchised, subjects are shot to look wise and dignified, as if there is something ennobling about suffering. We like these images for their optimism — all that serenity makes the squalor more palatable. But all too often, when people are locked up, they lose their dignity. Psychiatric patients rarely look transcendent — mostly, they seem frightened, vacant, miserable. But shooting honest, brutal images presents another problem: That can be too much to bear.


Exhibit B: Jonathan Torgovnik‘s Intended Consequences

On the other hand, we have Jonathan Torgovnik’s photos of Rwandan children born of rape at Aperture gallery. You would be hard pressed to guess at the disturbing stories told through the text by looking at the photos themselves, in which the subjects are not exactly serene but are not overtly emotional.

Is one or the other a more productive, constructive approach for pushing for a remedy of ills? I suppose we need both, but I’m beginning to wonder if either are all that useful. I thought that most photography could easily be divided into two camps: artistic expression and action-oriented documentation, but though they are easily documents, photos from both camps are starting to feel more like personal artistic expression of sympathy toward a cause than a guide for action for a concerned citizen. Basically, they are simplified ads for a cause, and the meat of the issues still need to be hashed out elsewhere.

We are drawn to human interest stories, we want to hear about other people’s lives. That’s a natural impulse. But if we want to instigate long term change, these photos must be about not only suffering and the need for help but also how best to deliver that help, which political situations gave rise to the problem, how our own behavior plays into the situation. Or maybe more accurately, those things should be featured more prominently. Shouldn’t we go further than sympathy and anecdote, stats and suggested donation?

I know that journalism is supposed to be objective, not prescriptive, but given the inherent subjectivity of photographs, pointed analysis and recommendation seem more appropriate. What’s always confused me about balanced journalism is that if informed journalists are not qualified for analysis, the taking of sides, who is? Certainly not the reader who just became aware of the problem? There’s documentation and then there’s investigative journalism. In light of the financial crisis, it seems most of our media falls more on the side of documentation than investigation, and that’s a bad thing. Journalism without ‘investigative’ is simply regurgitation of facts, a transcript of he-said-she-said.

These days, the act of showing doesn’t seem worth much without the so-what. There’s just too much pure documentation floating about. So perhaps this is where photojournalism can go beyond. If photographs are already ‘tainted’ with the photographer’s angle, why not go the whole hog? I suppose, you then have to consider whether a strong viewpoint is off-putting and damaging to the cause, but that’s another story. I thought being apolitical was the way to be accessible to the maximum number of viewers, but perhaps we should make a distinction between prescriptive analysis and evangelical opinionating or political alignment.

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~ by Jin on April 15, 2009.

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