Category Archives: 02 Photojournalism

Late Photography

‘Late photography’ is a term that seems to have been coined by David Campany in his essay Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’.  According to Campany (2003), late photography is ‘photographing the aftermath of events – traces, fragments, empty buildings, empty streets, damage to the body and damage to the world.’ It comprises ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event.’  In my delving to the understanding of late photography I have looked at David Campany’s essay as well as two journal articles: one by Debbie Lisle entitled ‘The surprising detritus of leisure: encountering the Late Photography of War’ and one by Simon Faulkner entitled: ‘Late Photography, Military Landscapes and the Politics of Memory’. In my analysis I will only touch briefly on some aspects of these articles, as I found in my readings that the more I read, the more I wanted to delve deeper into the subject and the temptation to veer off track was very great.

In this type of photojournalism, the photographers turn up after the event has occurred and document the resulting aftermath. One of the key differences between late photography and photojournalism is the contrast between the photograph of the aftermath and the photograph recording or freezing a human action. As Faulkner (2009) states ‘late photography appears to be marked by an avoidance of instruction; it seems to ‘present’ and ‘record’ rather than ‘comment’.

According to Debbie Lisle (2011), late photography contains a certain ambivalence which can frequently be seen through a common motif: ‘the juxtaposition of leisure and war.’ In her journal entitled The surprising detritus of leisure: Encountering the late photography of war, she explores two themes. The first being the manner in which ‘viewers are invited into a space of contemplation where their familiar emotional responses of pity have no immediate purchase’ (Lisle 2011, p 874).

The late photograph is one that is aesthetically pleasing, often rich with compositional elements of rules of thirds, horizontal and vertical lines, leading lines, light and shadows and muted tones – what Lisle terms ‘formally anachronistic’. However, photography has long lost the race to “break news”. That role has been taken over by video feeds, which are more immediate and action driven. Campany states (2003) that:

The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event, but in the aftermath of video… Today [photojournalists] are as likely to be at the scene of the aftermath because photography is, in relative terms, at the aftermath of contemporary culture.

Thus there are three components to ‘late photography’, namely ‘temporal, technological and formal belatedness’, all of which focus on ruin and absence. The theme of absence is central to late photography as it is the very absence of people and the openness of the scene that invites the viewer to contemplate the image and come to his/her own interpretations. ‘These pictures of the detritus left behind by conflict refer to absence as much as presence and, because of this, are inextricably linked to issues of memory’ (Faulkner, 2009).

In her essay Lisle remarks on the traces of war on the leisure industry. Frequently during war times, hotels, and stadiums are used for various conflict-purposes. Hotels become targets for terrorists groups (Mombasa, Mumbai and Bali), as do shopping centres (Kenya). Hotels are frequently used as detention centres, or billets for soldiers, while stadiums have been used for marshaling refugees or ethic cleansing sites. I had not thought too deeply about this, but in thinking back I do remember history teaching that. Germans seized hotels and even private dwellings to house their troops. Lisle refers to Simon Norfolk’s series “Liberia: Welcome to the Hotel Africa“. Norfolk’s use of light and dark in most of the series depict a sense of the layered histories mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness”. According to Lisle, Norfolk’s ‘Wrecked Restaurant of the Hotel Africa’ photograph is a perfect example of ‘late photography’. She states (2011, p 880):

it shows a complex, symbiotic, and parasitic relationship between what is inside the Hotel Africa compound … and the surrounding tropical jungle … so that the restaurant’s mimicry of the surrounding jungle blurs the boundary between the ‘man-made’ inside and ‘natural’ outside.

This kind of image by Norfolk does not allow for a speedy resolution, as there are no quick motifs to be decoded by the viewer. There is an encroachment of nature upon the building – moss and mould are growing inside the building and tree branches stretch inside the building through broken window panes. The overall tones of the image are similar to that of an army’s camouflage. There is no invocation of pity involved in this image as the viewer is not in a position of privilege. See also Norfolk’s image of Bratunac Soccer Stadium in Bosnia in his Bosnia: Bleed series where 700 boys and men were held prisoner and where ethnic cleansing took place. Instead, without reading the caption, the viewer is left with an impression of familiarity – the Bosnians also play basketball, just like the Americans do – an attitude of ambivalence. But with the caption stark reality sets in and our view changes.

Another photographer who has photographed leisure and military sites that have fallen into decay and disuse, which attest to the fall of the Soviet military power is Angus Boulton. See his Gymnasia and A Soviet Legacy series.

As previously stated, the absence of people is a central theme to late photography, but in the very absence of the people we expect to see, we are acutely aware of their past presence. The ghosts of the slaughtered men and boys in Bratunac Soccer Stadium, the spectres of former guests in the Hotel Africa, the invisible swimmers in Boulton’s 41 Gymnasia seem to haunt the images by echoing their presence off the walls of the enclosures.

The value of late photography is not in what it tells or does not tell us about conflict zones, but rather in the way that it is able to generate multiple ways of holding one’s attention and by providing the space for a variety of interpretations, some of which will encourage political points of views (the critical stance), while others might favour that of boredom or indifference (the uncritical stance). Lisle (2011, p. 883) argues that ‘ambivalence offers more critical potential as an ethical viewing relation because it does not automatically privilege the viewer … ambivalence … is politically compelling precisely because of its unruly, open, and contingent character.’

Ambivalence in late photography is important because it holds open the interpretation of the image for a long as possible ‘by deferring the moment of closure when meaning becomes totalised and viewers assume a privileged position’ (Lisle, 2011, p.883). I tend to agree with Lisle on this point. As a person not particularly fond of politics myself (or maybe it is the hypocrisy of politicians that puts me off), I would not classify myself as having an uncritical stance. I don’t see myself as the type person who will be off to join every possible cause out there either. Its a little too late in life to start that now. No, I’d put myself in Lisle’s ambivalent grouping, where I can look carefully, mull things over and draw my own conclusions.

References

Boulton, Angus [online]. Available from: http://www.angusboulton.net/ [Accessed 1 June, 2015]

Campany, David, (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] Available from: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 17 April, 2015]

Faulkner, Simon (2009. Late Photography, Military Landscapes and the Politics of Memory. [online] Open Arts Journal, Issue 3. Available from: https://openartsjournal.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/faulkner_v3_p121-136.pdf

Lisle, D. (2011). The surprising detritus of leisure: Encountering the late photography of war. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29 (5), 873–890.

Norfolk, Simon [online] Available from: http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html [Accessed 31 May, 2015]

Bibliography

War/Photography: An Interview with Simon Norfolk [online]. Available from: http://bldgblog.blogspot.ca/2006/11/warphotography-interview-with-simon.html [Accessed 31 May, 2015]

Administrative Structures of the German Occupation [online]. Nord Pas de Calais. Available from: http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/history/the-department-of-nord-and-the-coal-basin-under-german-occupation/administrative-structures-of-the-german-occupation.html [Accessed 2 June, 2015]

Research Point: Three critical debates around photojournalism

Photojournalism is a term used to identify news imagery. It’s often seen (or mistaken) as a factual way of using photography to inform the public of events and happenings across the world. However, as we know from the many different messages our own newspapers give us, the choice of news photograph all too often reflects the publisher’s agenda. (Course notes p. 26)
Three critical viewpoints
Charity – Martha Rosler
 ” … which political battles have been fought and won by someone for someone else?”

(Rosler (1981) in Bolton, 1992, p. 307)

Questions:

Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine?

Two of the photographers criticised in Rosler’s essay are Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940) was a sociologist and photographer and used his camera to work towards social reform. He is well known for photographing new immigrants on Ellis Island and documenting their lives and struggles as they settled in their new country. He also documented child labour in the factories and was instrumental in having the child labour laws changed in the United States.

Jacob Riis, a Danish photographer who emigrated to the US, was also a social reformer and photographer. Having become poor himself, Riis became a police reporter writing about life in the slums and tried to improve the tenement dwellers’ quality of life by exposing it to the upper classes.

Rosler argues that the approach that the socially driven photographers took in trying to right the wrongs in society was flawed. She states that the wrongs “were tolerated rather than bred” and this then “marks a basic fallacy of social work” (Rosler, p.304). She derides the photographers’ appeals for charity from the elite classes stating that this far outweighed any call for self-help.

Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth, and reformist documentary … represented an argument within a class about the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below, an argument embedded in a matrix of Christian ethics.

(Rosler, p. 304)

Personally, I think Rosler is being rather unfair and quite unrealistic on the socially driven photographers as she is attaching a political analysis on a socio-economic problem: “Imperialism breeds an imperialist sensibility in all phases of cultural life” (Rosler, p 321). The gap between rich and poor has and always will be present. It has been there since time immemorial and always will be. Even in the early days of communism in Russia where classes were “abolished”, government officials and black marketeers quickly found ways to earn extra privileges/money through bribes and favours. This is still a prevalent problem even today. It’s a question of “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, 1887).

Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising?

This would depend on the subject. If the subject is not in a privileged situation, but consents to being photographed, very much like Florence Thompson in Migrant Mother, then I think the work is not exploitative, even though some viewers might perceive it to be so. In Lange and Social-Documentary Photography article on The J. Paul Getty Museum’s website it is stated:

Lange herself did not hesitate to aim her camera at people in misery, but said, “I had to get my camera to register the things that were more important than how poor they were—their pride, their strength, their spirit.”

The J. Paul Getty Museum [online]

Just recently at my camera club someone had taken a couple of photographs of people who were from a third world country and obviously did not have ready access to dental facilities. One of them only had about three teeth in his mouth, the other had horrible, discoloured,  rotten teeth. Both the subjects were smiling broadly. It was so obvious that they had consented wholeheartedly to the photos and were very proud to be considered like this. However, some of the reaction in the audience was of horror and shock and statements to the effect of “they should not have taken those photos. That should not be documented. Those poor people!” rippled through the room. I was quite perturbed that none of the commentators could see past their own comfortable surroundings with access to free health care and the shiny, bright, white Hollywood toothy smiles we seen on TV on a daily basis. They had all missed the message of the portraits and so did not see the inner beauty that emanated from these joyous subjects.

Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run?

The photos taken by Dorothea Lange and other photographers during the Farm Security Administration (FSA) belonged to the United States government, so the benefits that the photographers would have gained were probably not monetary in nature, apart from their salaries. Although Florence Thompson did not benefit directly by the time the FSA sent relief in to the migrants’ camp (her family had moved on), I believe the benefits that the photographers reaped would be more from the awards or fame they achieved with their photos. In a lecture I attended last year by Steve McCurry, he related the story of his rediscovery of the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula. He mentioned that she had had a very hard life and National Geographic had set up a fund to provide aid to her and her family. Her children now have a chance of education.

Migrant Mother
Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Also known as Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, 1936.
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions
Call Number: LC-USF34- 009058-C [P&P] LC-USF346-009058-C.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Can photography change situations?

Most definitely. One example is the one I have given above about Sharbat Gula. Photography informs people of situations they would otherwise not have been aware of and thereby spurring on reform or protest, improvements and education. It is a universal language in that it eliminates language barriers and creates a more lasting impression than words do. I cannot remember the newscaster’s words when the planes flew into the World Trade Center in 2001, but the images will be forever imprinted in my brain.

Compassion fatigue – Susan Sontag

In these last decades ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.

(Sontag, 1979, p. 21)

Question:

Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses?

I’m not really sure whether images of war provoke change in today’s age. It almost seems as if the more photos that are taken of torture and war atrocities, the more the perpetrators seem to get off on flooding the internet with similar images. I’m thinking of the recent ISIS beheadings or the xenophobia attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa (warningviewer discretion is advised as both videos are disturbing). In a way by sharing these images on the internet we are also to blame for the perpetuation of these atrocities. Would it make a difference if there was a total blackout on war/atrocities images – I don’t think so. At the end of the day there are no winners in a war. Too many young men (and women) filled with patriotism and idealism have lost their lives, often for causes that they do not fully understand. The only ones who benefit are the arms manufacturers and the politicians.

I am in total agreement with Sontag’s statement that frequent exposure to horrific images, be they of war or violence, numb one’s senses, as I have personally experienced this. Before emigrating from South Africa local media bombarded the viewer daily with images of horrific violence. Photographs and video footage of a single murder were passé around 1993. Only photographs of multiple murders were thenceforth newsworthy. With so much exposure to blood, gore and violence on a daily basis, one has to develop a blocking mechanism in order to survive as it is an extremely stressful situation. One glances at the images, but does not absorb them (at least one tries not to). This does not mean that one does not feel empathy for the victims, one certainly does, but over the course of more than twenty years the self-protection mechanism kicks in automatically. The images just become another batch on the pile of daily atrocities, or as Sontag puts it ‘a pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react in real life’ (Sontag, p 41).

Inside/Out Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Question:

Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?

Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay Inside/Out contrasts the views taken by Susan Sontag and Martha Rosler on their approaches to photography. Solomon-Godeau (1995, p. 49) states:

Sontag’s critique is best characterized as an investigation of the ethics of photographic seeing, whereas Martha Rosler’s no less uncompromising critique of traditional documentary practice … was structured around an explicitly politicized analysis of how such photography actually functions.

The inside/outside point of view for Sontag revolves around the question of empathy and identification (or the lack thereof), while for Rosler it pivots around issues of power and powerlessness. According to Solomon-Godeau the insider position is one where engagement, participation and a degree of privileged knowledge is clearly evident in the photograph. The outsider position, in turn, conveys a position of isolation, a “looking from afar” relationship between the subject and viewer and has a sense of detachment about it. Numerous debates on the ethics or politics of photography pivot on these two positions. Examples she gives of the outside position is the work of Diane Arbus and of the inside position, the work of Nan Golding (Ballad of Sexual Dependency and The Other Side) and Larry Clark (Tulsa and Teenage Lust).

However after discussing some of the photographs on exhibition  at the Public Information Desire, Disaster, Document exhibition by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1995 (for which this essay was written), Solomon-Godeau states that the works of Robert Frank (The Americans), Dan Graham (Homes for America) and Ed Ruscha (Every Building on the Sunset Strip)

… is a way to think about a truth of appearance that without prodding reveals itself to the camera and totally escapes the binary of inside/outside. This runs counter to a cultural bias that maintains a truth behind appearance, a truth always veiled that reflects the philosophical divide between seeming and being… It may well be that the nature that speaks to our eyes can be plotted neither on the side of inside nor outside but in some liminal and as yet unplotted space between perception and cognition, projection and identification.

Solomon-Godeau (1995, p61)

I am inclined to agree with Solomon-Godeau that it is not necessary to be an insider to produce a successful documentary project. I think it depends on the subject that is being photographed to a large extent. Clearly being an ‘insider’ would provide the photographer with those very intimate details that one would not normally get as a bystander. One only has to look at Nancy Borowick’s narrative essay entitled Cancer Family, where Borowick documented her parents simultaneous battle against cancer. The photos are heartrending and elicit empathy from the viewer. On the other hand, one can look at Edward Burtynsky’s Oil project, where all the photographs fit into Solomon-Godeau’s definition of the outside position to see that it is a successful documentary series.  The distance from the subjects and the voyeuristic relationship that arises from this, is what makes the series stand out. The viewer is given room to look and see for him or herself and draw their own conclusions. It is a journey of discovery as opposed to the inside position of Borowick’s work where the viewer is immediately drawn into narrative. From my mind, an example of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s ‘truth of appearance’ which escapes the binarism of inside/outside is Bela Doka’s series on Fan Club Putin. Here we have a mix of neutral photos, combined with some intimate moments of young girls dozing or sitting in a kitchen surrounded by their Putin fan club paraphernalia. The viewer is drawn in slightly in some of the photographs, but is still left a distance from the subject. Another example is Glenna Gordon’s series on Abducted Nigerian School Girls. Here Gordon has employed a practice similar to that of Rosler in The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. The series is about the abducted Nigerian school girls, but because of their physical absence, Gordon has had to substitute items in lieu of the girls. She has photographed photographs of the girls and items belonging to them, like school uniforms, school books, a toothbrush, shoes and other clothing items. The series relies quite heavily on the accompanying captions to put the photographs into the correct context. The absence of the girls from the photographs serves to drive home the message of the abduction.

References

Lange and Social-Documentary Photography [online] The J. Paul Getty Museum. Available from: http://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/dorothea_lange/background3.html [Accessed 20 May, 2015]

Rosler, M, (1981). ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’. in The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. ed. by Bolton. R. Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 303 – 325.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, (1995). ‘Inside/Out’ in Public Information Desire, Disaster, Document. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Sontag, Susan. (1977) On Photography. New York: Picador

Bibliography

Borowick, Nancy (2013). Cancer Family [online]. LensCulture – Contemporary Photography. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/nancy-borowick-cancer-family [Accessed 24 May, 2015]

Corruption in Russia [online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_in_Russia [Accessed 20 May, 2015]

Gayle, Damien (2015). Pinned down by bloodthirsty ISIS executioners and screaming for his life, campaigners in Syria release footage of latest man beheaded for disobeying their Islamist rules [online]. Daily Mail.com. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2928730/Pinned-bloodthirsty-ISIS-executioners-screaming-life-campaigners-Syria-release-footage-latest-man-beheaded-disobeying-Islamist-rules.html [Accessed 21 May, 2015]

Gordon, Glenna (2014).  Abducted Nigerian School Girls [online]. LensCulture – Contemporary Photography. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/glenna-gordon-abducted-nigerian-school-girls [Accessed 24 May, 2015]

Swails, Brent, (2015).  Xenophobic killing in South African township caught by photographer [online] CNN. Available from:  http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/20/africa/south-africa-xenophobia-killing-photos/ [Accessed 21 May, 2015]

The Phrase Finder [online] Available from: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely.html [Accessed 18 May, 2015]