Page 79: Exercise 3.4
Brief: Look at the work of one of the practitioners discussed in this project. Write a short analysis of one of their projects or the practitioner’s overall approach. Comment on how appropriate you think their creative responses are. What is your impression of the evolving nature of photojournalism?
There are three requirements in this exercise:
- Choose a practitioner and do a short analysis of his work.
- Comment on the appropriateness of his creative responses.
- Give my impression of the evolving nature of photojournalism.
- The photojournalist is Tim Hetherington whose work I came across by accident, as I shun war photography generally, three years ago, . There was something about his images which presented a different perspective on the subject so I bought his book ‘Infidel’. The book has an introduction by Sebastian Junger who was with Tim in Afghanistan for a total of five months, sometimes together and sometimes separately. They worked together on assignment with one platoon in the Korengal Valley, which is known as the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. They recorded video to document their experiences, and this footage went on to form the basis for Restrepo, the movie, the outpost where Junger and Hetherington were embedded, which was named after a combat medic, Juan Restrepo, killed in action.
In the introduction, Junger sets out the situation & conditions in which Tim produced his work: “There was nothing at the outpost – no running water, no hot food, no communication with the civilian world, no alcohol, no drugs or girls or entertainment of any kind – and so if the enemy didn’t shoot at you, it was pretty much a wasted day in your life … it was very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that without combat there was no story to tell. … I remember one stifling June day in the middle of a real combat drought – nothing for two weeks straight – and almost every soldier at the outpost was asleep … I remember sitting there thinking that this was pretty much hell on earth: twenty guys trapped on a hilltop with the heat and the dust and the tarantulas and the flies and nothing to do but wait for someone to try to kill them.” (1. p15) Tim came creeping through the camp and said: “You never see them like this, they always look so tough, but, when they’re asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them.” (idem) and this started Sebastian writing.
When I look at the images, I do not see the anguish normally associated with war photography. In the portraits of the soldiers I see people having fun, a sense of brotherhood, a community displaying emotions seen in normal, everyday life. The men are human beings with normal, everyday needs and expressions. It is this ability to see the person inside the uniform which I thought was breathtaking in the work.
In the film, Restrepo the movie, as Junger explained, “It’s a completely apolitical film. We wanted to give viewers the experience of being in combat with soldiers, and so our cameras never leave their side. There are no interviews with generals; there is no moral or political analysis. It is a purely experiential film.” (2)
- How appropriate is his creative response?
Tim found stories to tell in moments when there appeared to be none. He found ways of telling those stories in ways nobody else seems to have found relevant: the poster, next to a bunk bed, of a naked pin-up woman behind an insect strip covered in flies / ?, hanging just in front of the woman is a fly swat , while above the poster is a black spider happy not to be caught on the insect strip. Torment in many guises caught in an image. Hetherington found ways to reflect the living human element in a war zone / the deadliest outpost in Afghanistan. Could anyone be more creative in such circumstances.
In the video on what constitutes conceptual photojournalism (3), Broomberg and Chanarin were so dissatisfied when they were asked to judge the World Press Photo Awards that there were so many clichéd images from Afghanistan and Iraq which seemed to repeat the ideas photographed in the Vietnam war, that they started asking questions of photography in a war zone: What constitutes legitimate photographs of soldiers at war? They refer to an image in the competition by John Moore taken in Rawalpindi on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 which acted as a catalyst for their conceptual work. The image is blurred and askew & had no information except attesting to the fact that he, the witness, was there. This image made the photographers ask the question “ How much does a photograph of an event need to represent that event to be evidence of the event? How much do we need to see for the image to act as evidence? They asked the question ‘How can we be subversive as embedded photographers in Afghanistan?’ The only way was to refuse to take a picture, to deny the photograph; the embedding form which photographers have to sign does not allow them to take images of dead or wounded soldiers or of enemy fire & no visual evidence of conflict at all. Given those restrictions, the pair went to Afghanistan, with digital a camera and a roll of light sensitive paper and took what has since become that icon of what to them is true, & the antithesis of photography “The Day Nobody Died” (2008). The images they took with their digital camera they deleted.
Which of the two bodies of work is more creative? If the embedding rules given to us in the video by Broomberg are correct, then Hetherington contravened them by showing a dead/wounded soldier (1. p80) which gives the punctum in the body of work which otherwise would lose its gravitas. In my opinion, Broomberg & Chanarin do not enlighten me regarding any aspect of the war – their piece simply tells me that they were somewhere where the light affected their light-sensitive paper in that way. Their work makes me reflect on war imagery generally, and I agree with them that it has neither changed nor affected opinions or the outcomes of war much over the incessant world conflicts. They claim that their work is anti-conceptual. Val Williams refers to their work as “idiosyncratic, inventive and iconoclastic. … end products which are very much encompassed within the terms of artistic partnership – a free-ranging thought process contained within very particular boundaries of carefully tempered and organized working practices.”(4). Williams claims that their work is “work which emerges is a combination of art practice, archival experiments and a very singular form of photojournalism.” (idem)
Tim Hetherington presented the war in ways not done before, but, given the embedding rules, and wanting to present conventional images, there was little else he could have done. He gave his subjects a voice: he recorded their views of their situation at the end of the book. In the film ‘Restrepo the movie’ which he did with Sebastian Junger and which won and was nominated for multiple awards, Hetherington brought the internal world of the soldier into sharp focus. How appropriate was his creative response? Given his restrictions as an embedded photographer, in my opinion it was more resourceful response than a creative one. Had I not seen the work of Broomberg and Chanarin, I would have said Tim’s work was very creative.
- My impression on the evolving nature of photojournalism. Given the emerging democratized photojournalism of the people by the people, and Fred Ritchin’s prognosis that we will not have conventional newspapers after 2020, I can see that the light at the end of the tunnel for the career is a train coming the other way. The only thing which will temporarily slow down its demise is if the authenticity of the images supplied by the public is brought into question time and again. The quality of the images in terms of composition and technical quality,is no longer important; in fact, the grainier and the more out of focus an image is, the more it is considered authentic and it is the authenticity of the digital image which can so easily be altered which has damaged the whole digital apparatus for conventional photojournalists. It does not appear to matter that analogue images have been altered before but it is the ease with which this can be done which seems to cause offence. I suspect that the UGC is so popular because the public feels that they could have taken the image – it makes people feel that they were there. The UGC practice has blurred the boundaries between the formal photojournalist and the smartphone user – there is no more us & them. The newspaper content is constantly changing: like the focus groups highlighted in the series “The century of the self”, newspaper editors are aware of what readers want; what expands circulation figures is not in-depth debates and questioning but infotainment; not political analysis but sensational images. In his analysis of Restrepo the movie, Junger stresses that “there is no moral or political analysis. It is a purely experiential film.” (2) In cash-strapped newspapers, what the people want is what the people get. Fleet street is no longer the hive of news industry – there are no more newspapers being produced there. As Fred Ritchin indicates, we will soon be producing our own equivalents of on-line social media newspaper articles in our own virtual communities. Our social media pages already circulate articles from the papers and other news media read and shared by people who have the same interests as we do – but they have their own journalists with their own smartphones. Big digital or analogue cameras can put their users, seen as ‘professionals’, at risk if they are in sensitive situations like the London riots of 2010
- Hetherington, T. 2010. Infidel. Chris Boot.
- Wikipedia: Sebastian Junger
- Ritchin,F. 2013. Bending the Frame. Aperture.