Monthly Archives: December 2014

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 4

“Shooters – When Is The Photojournalist A Voyeur, Rather Than A Reporter With A Camera”
Using examples from Requiem, consider whether a photojournalist, covering genuine news – as opposed to celebrity stalking – can go too far? Are there some things that should not be photographed? Are there areas of privacy in the most public of arenas? Where does the photographer cease being a photographer, and start being a human being?

These are very broad questions to answer using examples from Requiem. It only covers the topic of war and only the Vietnam war.

Can a photojournalist go too far? From a personal risk standpoint, I don’t think so as long as the person understands the risks. The photo of Dickey Chapelle receiving last rites by Henri Huet says it best. She understood the risks — she had been working as a photojournalist covering war since Iwo Jima — and accepted them.

U.S. Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara of Boston administers the last rites to war correspondent Dickey Chapelle.  HENRI HUET, Chu Lai, Vietnam, 1965 -- AP

U.S. Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara of Boston administers the last rites to war correspondent Dickey Chapelle. HENRI HUET, Chu Lai, Vietnam, 1965 — AP

Can a photojournalist go too far with regard to the content of his or her images? Again, I don’t think so. An editor can decide what photos are suitable for publication depending on the audience but should stop short of censorship. The armed forces, at least in the United States, had careful control over the media until Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, people were able to see for themselves how ugly, cruel, and wasteful war is and it made the difference in turning popular support away from the war. The military-industrial-congressional complex learned its lesson from Vietnam and reasserted control over information flowing from conflicts. There are a few, but how many of us have seen combat photographs from Grenada, Panama, or the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, even after NATO became involved?

Encouraged by the success of tight press control in Grenada and Panama, the military “pooled” journalists into specific units under the watchful eyes of Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) during the 1991 Gulf War. One of the few non-video-game-style photos to make it out is an image of an incinerated Iraqi soldier by Kenneth Jarecke. It was refused by Time and the Associated Press, not because of military pressure, but for editorial reasons. It was published by the Observer in the United Kingdom and Libération in France but wasn’t seen in the United States until American Photo ran it months after it might have made an impact.

The same tactics were used in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by “embedding” journalists in specific units. This is a stark contrast to a photographer being able to hop a ride on a Huey to the action in Vietnam.

Three things have made military control of the press less successful in recent conflicts: the long durations of both wars, the ubiquity of inexpensive, high quality cameras, and the internet. People get tired and make mistakes and the longer a conflict lasts, the more photos there are to leak to the public. Not counting military cameras, there is probably one camera for every US soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phones and point-and-shoot digital cameras are everywhere — the sheer number of images guarantees that some will make it past military censorship. Not every access point, satellite uplink, or cellular connection can be controlled by the military; pop a memory card into a PC in a cybercafe in Kabul and a photo is on social media, viewable globally, in seconds.

A photojournalist cannot go too far. The military will try to censor him, someone with a camera phone will scoop him, right-wing media will demonize him, and liberal media will be too afraid of losing access to run the photo. Self-censorship by photojournalists is redundant.

Are there some things that should not be photographed? First, specific tactics or strategies should not be photographed or at least not published immediately. If an enemy has a specific vulnerability, that information should not be published until after the end of hostilities. Conversely, if a photographer has an image that shows a vulnerability in our methods or equipment, it should remain unpublished to afford an opportunity to fix it. This has worked well in the cyber-security realm; release information to the software maker first. A deadline for public release of a hack puts pressure on them to do something.

Second is classified information. Many things, as we’ve learned via Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, were classified because they are illegal or embarrassing and not because they contain national security information. Photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn disappeared in Cambodia on 6 April 1970, three weeks before President Nixon announced expansion of the war into Cambodia. A week before the announcement, Secretary of State Rogers told congress, “We recognize that if we escalate and get involved in Cambodia with our ground troops that our whole program is defeated.” Documents declassified in 2000 show that there were bombings in Laos and Cambodia as early as 1965. Who knows what Stone and Flynn might have been able to reveal had they made it back.

Are there areas of privacy in the most public of arenas? There are, or at least, there should be. A celebrity showing that the carpet matches the drapes while getting out of a limousine at a public event is different from a bombing victim lying in the street with her dress up around her waist. A photojournalist needs to get the shot but that doesn’t mean it can’t be cropped or strategically blurred. Going back to Huet’s shot of Chapelle, it shows that one can get the shot while being sensitive to the emotional impact of the moment.

Where does the photographer cease being a photographer, and start being a human being? Hopefully, a photographer is always human. Larry Burrows’ sequence covering Marine helicopter Yankee Papa 13 wouldn’t have been so moving without his humanity. He had no way of knowing how it would turn out when he started following Crew Chief James Farley. The first photos, from the briefing to touchdown are all business; even macho. The desperate race to try and save the crew of another Marine helicopter erodes the tough facade. The sequence ends with Farley alone in a supply shack, ashamed of his tears but unable to stop them.

Yankee Papa 13 crew chief James Farley carries M-60 machine guns to the helicopter.  LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965  -- Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Yankee Papa 13 crew chief James Farley carries M-60 machine guns to the helicopter. LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965 — Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In a supply shack, hands covering his face, an exhausted, worn James Farley gives way to grief.  LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965 -- Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In a supply shack, hands covering his face, an exhausted, worn James Farley gives way to grief. LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965 — Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The book: Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina
Up to 10% of Amazon purchases made with this link go to MIT OpenCourseWare.
Course link
Wikipedia entries for Dickey Chapelle, Henri Huet, and Larry Burrows.
The full sequence of “ONE RIDE WITH YANKEE PAPA 13” from Life Magazine.
The War Photo No One Would Publish by The Atlantic on Kenneth Jarecke’s photo.

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 3

“Objectivity – Myth, Reality, or Ultimate Goal”
Consider Cole’s view of objectivity and the biases of the documentarian, and explain whether a documentary photographer can – or should – be objective, and what part objectivity, or lack of it, plays in the value of the photographers work

To be objective, one has to have a working definition of the concept. To have that, we first need to look at “objective reality” and see if that exists. That is the reference point. Without some standard of reality, how can I, or you, decide that I have represented it as it is (objectively), with no coloring from my (conscious or unconscious) needs, wants, or biases

Within a certain framework (like assuming an experiment is performed at STP — a standard temperature of 0º Celsius and a pressure of 1 atmosphere) we can agree that some object exists in a photograph. That framework may be “common knowledge” or some other reference point the photographer and the viewer share. If you have seen a cat and I hand you a photograph of a cat and ask you what it is, you will, in all likelihood, answer, “A cat.” If you know of a cat in a general way, we share only a broader reference and you might not be as convinced that what I’m showing you is a cat. By applying what you know about a cat, four legs, pointy ears, fur, and a tail (I showed you a plain old cat, not a Manx or a Sphynx) you may deduce that it is a cat but you had to meet me more than half way.

As long as we have a common reference, objectivity is not a myth. Depending on the quality of that reference, what we call “objectivity” can be a pretty subjective subject.

So, is objectivity a reality? Really, by answering that it is not a myth, I am saying that it is a reality because they are mutually exclusive. In this idealized laboratory, if something is A or B and we know it is not A, then it has to be B. Expanding the previous example, suppose I hand you a photo of a cat and the fur is purple. If you know cats, you know I altered the image or dyed a cat. If you know of cats, you may believe it or you may not. Other mammals you might have direct experience with don’t come in purple. At an abstract level, it is still a cat, the same as a child’s drawing of a cat is a cat — not anatomically accurate but recognizable.

As in answering the question posed by reading On Photography, “Do photographs tell the truth?”, intent matters. Why did I show you a photograph of a purple cat? Am I just a smart aleck seeing how far I can get you to go along? Am I genetically engineering designer-color pets and want to convince you that it is ethically OK? Am I trying to sell you pet dye? Maybe I learned that you have never seen a cat and the only photograph available to show you is the purple cat. If that is the case, I need to tell you that cats don’t naturally come in purple to balance the distortion introduced by the color. Purple gives reality a half-twist to the left. In order not to introduce bias, to be objective, I have to give you information that gives it a half-twist to the right.

All I’ve done so far is to decide for myself (your mileage may vary) that there is such a thing as objective reality and that I can represent it to you in a photograph if we share a common reference. This experiment is at STP and probably not reproducible in the real world and ignores larger existential questions completely. I can show you a picture of a cat and within that idealized framework, a perfect common reference, we can agree that it is a cat.

After that prolix introduction, I can get to the heart of the question: Can a photographer, or a documentarian in general, be objective? I don’t think Coles really answered the question in Doing Documentary Work. There are different types of documentary work and I think of them in the same categories given for speeches: informative, instructive, persuasive, and entertaining (narrative storytelling). These categories speak to the intent and not just the content but an article or photo essay must also be entertaining or it will never see the light of day to inform, instruct, or persuade.

Think of the humble aluminum can, which can be documented in various ways (from most objective and least interesting/entertaining to least objective and most interesting/entertaining in my subjective opinion):

Informative: This is a can made of aluminum. It can hold liquids.

Instructive: This is a photographic essay about how cans are made from bauxite ore or recycled aluminum, how they are used, and how they can be recycled or thrown away.

Persuasive: Here are the benefits of using an aluminum can and I will show you why it is preferable to a glass bottle.

Entertaining: A day in the life of those wacky kids at the bottling plant.

Coles focuses exclusively on persuasive documentary work; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and others trying to effect policy change. This is documentary with an agenda, “I believe there is a question of fact, value, or policy and I intend to persuade you that my view is the correct view.”

The FSA photographers Coles writes about didn’t just inform, “this is a migrant worker”, or instruct, “she moves from place to place picking crops in exchange for money or other items of value”, they persuaded, “she has almost nothing, her children are hungry, she makes very little from toiling under cruel farm bosses, this is wrong, and we need to help her and others like her”.

By assembling and editing, the photographs became stories although the intent was still to persuade. To tell the stories, the photographs went through each type of documentary, becoming less objective in an absolute sense even as they became a more cohesive, persuasive, and ultimately influential narrative.

Pure objectivity is so rare in practice that for any real purpose, it is a myth. It is theoretically possible, but if achieved solely for the sake of objective purity, “this is a cat”, “this is a can”, the subject has to be so isolated from context it is almost meaningless. Should objectivity be the ultimate goal? If I’m photographing some never-seen-before type of cat, yes. Its existence is a complete statement. If I want to say anything about it, I have to choose a way to describe it or its actions. “The cat is ___.” “The cat does ___.” I choose how to fill in the blanks and in choosing, I have made a subjective decision.

Wikipedia entry on Robert Coles.
Course link

MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 2 — results

“Richards and Salgado – Two Documentary Visions”
While Gene Richards is considered one of the great, if not the greatest, American documentary photographers of his generation, he is hardly a photographic “artist” in the technical sense, depending as he does on the raw impact of his images, rather than their technical perfection or beauty. Sebastiao Salgado, on the other hand, produces rich, gorgeous, technically perfect photographic images of unimaginable suffering. Which of these approaches do you prefer, and why? Does either approach detract from the photographers work, or specifically add to it?

Maniella, East New York, 1992 © Eugene Richards

Maniella, East New York, 1992 © Eugene Richards

I disagree that Eugene Richards is not a photographic “artist”. “Maniella”, probably his most recognizable photograph and the cover art for “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue”, is masterfully executed. The shallow depth of field is perfectly focused on her eye. It shows us she will have that fix no matter what. Even if you couldn’t see her semi-toothless mouth holding a hypodermic needle, the crazed look in that single eye tells you everything you need to know about addiction.

There is no doubt that Sebastião Salgado is a brilliant photographer, rivaled perhaps only by Ansel Adams in the technical precision of his work. And Adams had a greater luxury of time. Most landscapes will hold still for you, at least for a while. Salgado also has an artist’s eye, in that his subject matter, while sometimes hard to look at, is captured in a beautiful way.

I think their work is much more similar than the question posed would lead one to believe. Scale is the real difference, or at least the major contrast, between the works of Richards and Salgado. The only way I can liken or differentiate the work of such different artists is to look at the scale in various ways and delve into their work within those scales.

Geographic scale: Salgado’s work covers a country (Brazil), a region (the Sahel), a continent (Africa), or the planet, sometimes within the context of a single project. Richards works almost exclusively in the United States, within a specific emergency room (Denver General), a specific neighborhood (Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn), or a specific city (Dorchester, MA). The geographic scale of Richards’ work ends where Salgado’s begins. This specificity continues in other aspects of their work.

Scale of issues: There are exceptions for both photographers but I think it holds true here as well. Richards focuses more narrowly: The cancer, treatment, and death of his wife Dorothea Lynch; the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City; a protest against the Seabrook, NH nuclear power plant. Salgado’s works, understandably fewer in number, deal with larger questions. He has done projects on workers’ conditions across the world — “a visual archaeology of a time that history knows as the Industrial Revolution”, the 1984-1985 drought in the Sahel, the effects of colonization, economic, social, and environmental crises in Africa, and global migrations. In his own words, “Each of my stories is about globalization and economic liberalization: a sample of the human condition on the planet today.”

Temporal scale: Most of Richards’ books cover weeks or months. Salgado’s “Genesis” took eight years and “Africa” includes work done over a span of 30 years. Within individual projects, the time scale is different too. Richards looks at an event, people in his hometown, a drug fix, or a shooting victim specifically. This thing happened to this person at this time. Salgado looks at events from a historical perspective — the tide rather than the wave. The individuals will change but there were people digging for gold by hand in Brazil twenty years ago as well as today. Sadly, if there is any gold left, there will be people digging for gold (or the next rare earth needed by the newest generation of electronic gadgets) by hand twenty years from now.

Scale in the style of individual photographs: Many of Salgado’s photos are rich with the vivid detail of the surroundings of the subject. One can spend time browsing, almost like playing “find the [some object] in this picture”. His backgrounds are nearly always in focus, the depth of field echoing the grandeur of the project. Richards’ style, aside from requiring a wide aperture to capture a scene quickly in existing light, uses a shallow focal plane to bring the viewer to the unvarnished and unambiguous point of the photograph. His photos say, “this is the important thing in this image.”

Neither approach is better or more important than the other; it is the micro versus the macro view. Of the two approaches, I don’t have a preference. Each style fits within its scale. Some of Salgado’s more intimate work has a grittier feel. His photograph of Brazilian children playing with animal bones from “Other Americas”, my introduction to his work, could have been a shot by Richards. It is a softer-toned image, perhaps, than Richards might have captured, but not entirely alien. I haven’t seen a sweeping, grand-scale image by Eugene Richards so I can’t make the reverse comparison. Within their respective photographic genres, each artist’s style just “fits” and adds to the impact of the work.

Brazil, 1983 © Amazonas images

Brazil, 1983 © Amazonas images

Eugene Richards
Sebastião Salgado at Amazonas Images
Course link