Picture this: in sun-drenched, saturated colour, a dozen Muslim men are shown, doubled over, heads to the ground in prayer, somewhere in the dust and dirt of Afghanistan. Cutting a diagonal line across the top third of the frame, their backs line up in differing shades of green; the dirt around them almost golden like some fantastical beach. In the lower third of the image, in spotlight, sits a single AK47, angled in careful symmetry towards the vanishing point that the line of men forms across the frame. The contrasting symbolism of devoted men in prayer with the iconic Kalashnikov; weapon of choice for freedom fighters and terrorists alike, seems an obvious if not a little heavy handed attempt to both critique and represent life of the contemporary, post-9/11 middle east.
As the late Susan Sontag reminded us in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, one of the distinguishing features of contemporary life is that it provides seemingly endless opportunities for regarding (at a distance, through the medium of photography) the horrors taking place throughout the world. Contemporary depictions of the human impact of conflict, disaster and violence hold the potential to awaken in us an ethical responsiveness to the things that are done in our name, but they also carry the potential to create a glamour of misery and spectacle of suffering which inures us to that suffering. Photojournalism, with its roots in a documentary tradition that comes with certain expectations about the depiction of ‘reality’, has always contended with the question of how to imagine, capture and represent the essence of a story in/through the power of the image. From the beginning, questions of technology were intrinsically interlinked with questions of ethics.
At first glance, it could be an image from the pages of National Geographic, not so much photojournalism as much as it is a depiction of exotic and romantic visual imagery from the globe’s furthest corners.
Or this: a woman stands front of frame, her arms folded across her front, her eyes slightly downcast looking to our right at something we cannot see. She is dressed in a simple black chador, her strong features framed by her headpiece. Behind her sit four women, faces covered, two wearing teal-blue burqas and a third with blue, brown and white. Her sandals stand out as a spot of red in the middle of the frame. As in the first image, this photograph consists of rich, saturated hues: the teal of the burquas and the green stone floor contrast with the cloudy white of the wall that serves as a backdrop behind them.
Again, this image could be from the pages of National Geographic. Or, given that it is a fairly intimate portrait of five women in a country which, in the eyes of the West, treat its women as second-class citizens, it could be conceivably be an image taken by an international NGO to raise awareness or funds for the plight of women in the middle east.
Are images showing the human face of life after wartime allowed to be so painfully beautiful?
Neither of these pictures are what they first seem to be: they were taken by World Press Photo award-winning photojournalist and iphoneographer Benjamin Lowy with nothing more than the camera on his smartphone and a handy little app called Hipstagram. A selection of photographs from Lowy’s iAfghanistan series were recently exhibited at the State Library of New South Wales as part of a citywide Head On festival of photography. The intimate and affecting images of daily life in Afghanistan were taken over a period of nine years that New York-based Lowy spent in the country following the 2003 US-led occupation. All the images exhibited a similar, unsettling mixture of sumptuous, saturated colours with an observational depiction of daily life in a country battered by poverty, conflict and occupation. Lowy’s images elicit a simultaneous affective and critical response, which pull strongly in opposing directions. There has always been a gap between the fallibility of the image in representing some intrinsic ‘truth’ and its reception by audiences as bearing some kind of authentic witness to real life events. But what is less clear is how these questions are complicated by new mobile camera technologies and smartphone apps.
Fields of vision: the continuing power of the image
"Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation." - Eddie Adams
The most memorable examples of photojournalism in conflict zones have always been the images that pull on the heartstrings. Two of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War - Eddie Adam’s Saigon, 1968 and Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl – illustrate, in different ways, the power of the still image in documentary photography to captivate, persuade and quicken the sentiments of millions of people; and in some cases, sway public opinion.
When World Press Photo and Picture of the Year International award-winning photograph The Crescent by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin was found to misrepresent the location and person depicted in his winning photograph (details that were integral to the veracity of the subject), this uncovered the unspoken pact between image-maker and audience in which the audience places trust in the image-maker to, if not depict the exact truth of a situation, then to convey a level of faithfulness to the subject matter.
Lowy’s images resonate historically with a humanitarian tradition that includes the iconic image of the young Afghan Girl that fronted cover of National Geographic in 1984 (still the magazine’s most recognizable image). Yet they prompt more complex questions beyond the use of carefully composed images to invite empathy and identification: they provoke us to think about the space between ethics and aesthetics that new technologies generate.
Anonymous, ubiquitous, intimate: the ethics of iPhone aesthetics
“What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
The use of cameraphones and smartphone apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram is changing the face of photojournalism and throws up new ethical questions around the politics of representation, the use of new technologies, and the responsibility of the image-maker to consider the broader cultural context in which his or her images are created. Lowy’s stated intentions in using Hipstamatic to “capture the zeitgeist” of Afghan society in a “technologically innovative way” have sparked online debate around the ethics and aesthetics of contemporary photojournalism in the age of the smartphone.
If Lowy is aiming to capture the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist appears to be the reproduction of a dreamy past. But this is a past not simply remembered, it is deliberately (re)created for a viewer. Lowy’s images provoke strong affective responses associated with the warm, fuzzy memories of the Super8 home movie and the Polaroid; infused with the hue of pre-digital family photographs you’d find kept in a shoebox by your grandparents. In Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson argued that in the postmodern age, nostalgia has replaced history as a way of responding to and understanding our individual and collective (national) past. Hiptsamatic’s motto, digital never looked so analogue, captures the cultural fashion of reviving, reinventing and reimagining practices from the past. Like its successful cousin Instagram, Hipstamatic is a photography application that provides a choice of pre-set filters and lenses to create vintage-inspired images at the click of a button.
Hipstamatic relies on cultural quotations from the era of the Super 8 home movie reel and the analogue camera movement (revived by hipsters through the worldwide lomography movement) to reimagine the present through the lens of what Pat Gill terms “technostalgia”. Gill argues that technostalgia “grants the reestablishment of homey virtues in a blighted world, sanguinely celebrating the force of the human spirit in increasingly mechanistic surroundings”; a nostalgic disavowal of potential future (or present) catastrophe. These images of iphoneography are doubly framed: they are framed in the traditional sense of what choices the photographer makes in constructing the image; and they are also framed in through the memory of our visual history. Of course, the argument against the digital colonisation of the analogue past and its cultural implications are not new (see Nathan Jurgensen’s essay on what he terms “faux-vintage photography” and its discontents) and perhaps I’m just suffering from “hipstamatic angst” or instagram anxiety”. But I would argue that it remains important to carefully consider whether these instances point to larger trends towards or away from something we might regard as important; particularly when their use is transposed from the context of social media sharing to its application to instances of war and conflict coverage. What are the implications when this social practice is reappropriated by photojournalists and contextualised not as the vernacular cultural production of social media self- display, but as representations of news, documentary and contemporary politics?
If we return to Jameson’s general point, we can ask: does the hyper-saturated aesthetic of Lowy’s dreamy images of ‘everyday’ Afghani street life rely on technostalgia to hollow out or disavow the history of the impact of US military occupation and Western presence in the Middle East? What are the ethical obligations, if any, to consider when working with a technology that has such strong cultural meaning and significance in this context? There are no straightforward answers, but it is important to ask the questions.
The politics of aesthetics: creativity in conflict
Creativity and documenting the social realities of human experience are not mutually exclusive. Aesthetic concerns have driven choices about how to frame the subject, what moments to chose, what to leave out of the frame etc since the invention of photographys. Some of the most lauded independent documentary makers such as Errol Morris play with the notions of the construction of reality through (re)staging and re-enactment, and use highly stylised images and emotive colour palates to convey their message. In 2010, the Australian War Memorial appointed video artist Sean Gladwell to travel to Afghanistan as an official war correspondent. Gladwell used his time with Australian troops to produce innovative video works that, in part, meditated “on the role of technology in modern war” (AWM), confounding traditional expectations around the role of the war correspondent and the type of works they produce. His poignant yet stark Mirror Sequence was a two-channel synchronised video depicting two soldiers in a Mad Max-like landscape circling around each other while filming each other with video cameras.
Of course, innovation and creativity in the visual representation of war and conflict is not always unambiguously good. Propaganda also works with coded symbolism, aesthetic categories and affective resonances that are in part inspired and transformed by the technologies that they use. The technical lessons that Leni Riefenstahl learned during her filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which she used innovative low-angled shots to frame athletes from below as contemporary gods that towered over mortals, were later transposed to represent Adolf Hitler in a glowing light. Her 1934 documentary Triumph of the Will succeeds as both a technical masterpiece and as a piece of Nazi propaganda.
The new economy of photojournalism
What Jameson termed “convergence culture” more than a decade ago has seen a dramatic collapse in the binaries that separated producer from consumer, professional from amateur. In the area of photojournalism, convergence culture and global network technologies have reconfigured the boundaries around what ‘counts’ as ‘legitimate’ news images. Cameraphone footage of the 2007 London bombings, and more recently, the civilian protests across North Africa in the ‘Arab Spring’, have become the ‘breakthrough’ images in the new economy of citizen journalism. This changing landscape is exciting but also in a constant state of flux, emerging on the frontiers of image ethics in the digital age.
Lowy, of course, is not the only to jump on the technological bandwagon. He is but one of a small but growing cohort of documentary photographers using mobile camera technologies and smartphone apps to change the landscape and political economy of freelance photojournalism.
Balazs Gardi’s 2011 photoessay War in Hipstamatic was produced on an iPhone in Afghanistan and published in Foreign Policy Magazine. The de-saturated images pull out the blue and green tones of his subjects to create an aesthetic contrast to Lowy’s colour-drenched images. The de-saturation and edged border make them look ‘archival’; almost out-of-time.
French-Lebanese photographer Patrick Baz has been photographing war zones for over thirty years. When he decided to try out the Hipstamatic app on his iphone as a correspondant for AFP in Bagdhad, he found it allowed greater flexibility and discretion as it looked like he was just another tourist taking photos. But when he agency was considering whether to submit Baz’ photographs to AFP clients, the initial response was not so favourable: “our policy is clear and simple: using apps or filters that create artificial effects on the image are not consistent with our mandate of delivery of objective information ... the distortion of reality engendered by these filter applications introduces an element of subjectivity and takes us too far from the kind of journalism upon which our reputation is constructed”.
Despite this, images like Baz’s, Lowy’s and Gardi’s are increasingly making their way into traditional media and in the process reshaping our collective understanding and imagination of these all-too-foreign lands. And while there has never been a time in the history of photography that pure, unfiltered authenticity existed within the ‘field of vision’ that is the documentary image, we remain haunted by messy and shifting line between ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. When anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch coined the term cinema verite to describe his process of documenting the life and culture of others, he referred to a ‘cinematic truth’ rather than an absolute truth. Perhaps the same thing can be said about the tradition of documentary photography.
What is my point here? Ethic, aesthetics and politics in visual documentary forms of representation such as photojournalism are intrinsically intertwined and cannot be considered in isolation. There is no such thing as an objective, unadulterated image. This does not mean that the ideal of objectivity should be dissolved by postmodern deconstruction and intense subjectivity. Rather, it means that the position of objectivity that is created through a suite of choices, including technologically-driven choices that open up new frontiers of the depiction of human extremes. Creativity absolutely has a role to play; but so does responsibility and responsiveness to the humanity of the subjects we represent and depict.