Review by Alison Stieven-Taylor
For those of us who work in journalism the myth of the cavalier photojournalist who rushes toward conflict with zeal is well established. Robert Capa’s famous comment about photographers needing to get close to the action in order to capture the best picture is part of industry folklore. Don McCullin has spoken about the adrenalin rush of going to war, likening it to drug addiction. Tim Page’s antics during the Vietnam War have been immortalised in pop culture, Dennis Hopper’s character in the movie Apocalypse Now modelled on the British photographer. Yet while there are those who are lauded as celebrities, the vast majority of conflict photojournalists work in the background, committing themselves to covering some of the world’s darkest moments, to bearing witness to history, largely invisible to the outside world. Glory and money do not motivate them. In fact, these days it is more difficult to make ends meet than ever before. So what drives an individual to the frontline or to document the depths of human misery?
This line of enquiry lies at the heart of Lauren Walsh’s new book, Conversations on Conflict Photography, where conflict is defined as war and crisis, social inequities, natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. Richly illustrated with 110 colour and B&W photographs, the 376-page book is sectioned into three categories: Behind the Lens, In the Newsroom and Beyond, and Advocacy and Aid. An essay written by Walsh precedes each section followed by a series of interviews.
In Conversations the reader finds the perfect balance of academic articulation – Walsh teaches in New York City at The New School and New York University, where she is the Director of the Gallatin School’s Photojournalism Lab – and personal revelations. This combination grounds the book in academic rigour while at the same time delivering an insightful and engaging read. The book begins with Walsh discussing a comment made by one of her students who questioned why he should be expected to respond to another’s suffering, especially when the photograph made him feel bad. Walsh saw this comment “as the genesis of a search to gain new insights into the value of conflict photography today, especially as it is viewed by its creators and distributors.”
Behind the Lens
The first section, Behind the Lens, features interviews with women and men who put their lives on the line to bear witness and is designed to unmask the intentions of the individual photojournalist. Walsh conducted interviews from 2014 to 2018 with photojournalists Andrea Bruce, Marcus Bleasdale, Susan Meiselas, Shahidul Alam, Ron Haviv, Spencer Platt, Eman Helal, Benjamin Lowy, Nina Berman, Alexander Joe, Laurent Van der Stockt, and Newsha Tavakolian.
In the revelations of what compels someone to leave behind the comforts of a largely privileged life in order to bring injustices to light, comes greater understanding and well deserved, but often absent, respect. Photojournalism is still, after more than a century as a crucial element in news reporting, the poor cousin of word journalism, a fact that Maryanne Golon, Assistant Managing Editor and Director of Photography at the Washington Post attests to in her interview. The photograph’s lack of apparent value in the news chain is evident in the wholesale reductions, if not total elimination, of on-staff photography departments in news organisations across the US. Reporters armed with mobile phones are charged with taking pictures to illustrate their stories. The import of photographic skill, not as a technical ability but as a way of seeing, is often lost in a world where everyone with a camera is ostensibly a photographer. Walsh’s work builds a much-needed bridge between this assumption and the reality of what it means to be a photojournalist.
Importantly this book provides a portrait of photojournalism that both humanises and elevates the profession, delivering insights into the way these photographers think, the depth of research they undertake before pressing the shutter, their empathy for those they photograph, their frustrations and the personal toll of their work. Many reveal suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some wrestling with their demons long before PTSD was recognised by the industry.
Through questions that are informed by Walsh’s own observations on photojournalism and the seismic changes to the industry, she skilfully moves discussion beyond the critiques of photojournalism as a product of news to introduce a very personal narrative. Photographers are rarely credited for their erudition, but these interviews evince a considerable depth of knowledge about politics, humanity, and the world at large, not to mention art history and the role of the visual in communicating key social issues. These professionals do not blindly accept the capacity of the photograph to effect change either, but recognise that through pictures comes the opportunity to educate and motivate the audience, question the powerful and help us, as the viewers, to connect with our own humanity.
Voices of the practitioners
Walsh’s intention is to allow the reader to hear the voices of photojournalists, their “personal experiences, anecdotes, frustrations, hopes, and beliefs.” She observes that “viewers are not passive receptacles, and the viewer cognizant of behind-the-lens dynamics can make more informed decisions in response to the photographs she sees.” As a journalism educator, I encourage my students to think about why the photographer took a particular picture or series of pictures, what their motivation was for covering the story. I also ask them to consider the media outlet and the decision-making processes that result in a particular image being published. The interviews in Conversations, with photojournalists, and those who commission them, contributes to answering these questions, and importantly provides transparency of the process at a time when the audience’s trust of the media is precarious.
Conversations also involves interviews with photo editors and those in crucial roles at humanitarian organisations, the latter increasingly an important funding channel for photojournalists. Juxtaposing the professional edicts of photojournalism with the idiosyncratic motivations of the practitioner frames the industry in a new way. Through interviews and essays Walsh moves the narrative from the superficiality of the photojournalist as a swaggering hero, or an opportunistic voyeur, to someone who feels deeply, and is committed to telling the story, no matter the personal cost.
Walsh ranges wide in her interview questions, her style engaging and organic, allowing her subjects to speak freely, share insights and personal anecdotes without wandering into abstraction; the hallmark of a skilled interviewer who allows the conversation latitude, but can also bring focus. She tackles some of the big issues that photojournalism has grappled with since its nascent years: notions of truth, objectivity, balance and the ethics of photographing people who are suffering. Yet Walsh is not seeking definitive answers on any of these points, ensuring the book doesn’t devolve into theoretical posturing. Rather, the photojournalists themselves embark on a discussion about professional practices, the tension between advocacy and reporting, the acknowledgement that subjectivity doesn’t mean inaccuracy, and that the framing of a photograph is an act of omission as much as it is a process of inclusion.
There is also robust discussion about the value of social media, with some photojournalists espousing the benefits and others less so. There is an overriding sense of optimism that photographs can affect change, and evidence to support that images have prompted action, but there is also frustration in the lack of response to some stories, from both the media and the public. Yet as veteran conflict photojournalist Ron Haviv points out, even if you only move public sentiment “a centimeter, you have already made an important difference.”
The book comes with the acknowledgment that historically, white males from western countries have disproportionately produced photojournalism, particularly conflict photography. In turn, the writing about such photojournalism has generally focused on those figures. Walsh aims to ameliorate this imbalance, including interviews with women and those from non-western backgrounds. This work is not intended as an encyclopaedia of photojournalism and Walsh acknowledges that those interviewed “represent a small fraction of the many excellent practitioners” that populate the field. She also recognizes, “the industry has much work ahead to level the gender and racial playing fields.”
Andrea Bruce’s frank discussion about her frustration when working in Iraq for the Washington Post set the tone for the interviews. She talks of how many of her photographs of the aftermath of suicide bombings were never published, despite the importance of the story – at the time these incidents were daily occurrences that killed civilians and soldiers alike. Aggravated by the apathetic response to her work, Bruce shifted focus, drawing on her art history education to create what could be described as images of beautiful suffering. The picture of the baby who froze to death in a refugee camp in Afghanistan echoes that of the Madonna and Child (see below).
Bruce says “the reaction after this photo was published was huge, and unlike any reaction I’ve ever had to any other photo I have taken. The displaced people in Kabul received a lot of attention and help after that photo was published, which was terrific, and that makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing.” Bruce feels the enormous responsibility of covering these important stories, and speaks openly about the toll it takes when you are constantly around death and destruction. She also shares what it’s like when audiences lash out claiming her photographs intrude on someone’s grief and that she has no right to be there at that moment.
Viewers who have little sense of what happens behind the scenes and whose own guilt, or perhaps sense of impotence fuels emotion, can apply the labels ‘voyeur’ and ‘opportunist’ easily. Bruce’s honest, introspective testimony goes a long way to creating greater understanding about why these stories are important and how she works with her subjects.
Marcus Bleasdale talks about advocacy and his stance on balanced reporting, pointing out that his work is about making a clear statement; he is not sitting on the fence. He is also cognizant of the need to “bring people in with the beauty of the place and the story. Otherwise they won’t learn.” Bleasdale has a large social media following and reveals that while aesthetically pleasing images may get more “likes” it is the hard-hitting pictures that often spark lively debate that results in hundreds of comments.
American wire photojournalist Spencer Platt talks about his amazement that some “romanticise this work…You go to these places (like Iraq) and it’s a slog. It’s brutal, it’s difficult, it’s scary.” He also brings the discussion closer to home, talking about how he felt after covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown in 2012. “I think about those kids, about their families, where they are now, about how I was sent there to cover that story, but also how I wanted to avoid it. I didn’t want to go. You just don’t want to be part of the human race in that moment. But I was assigned to cover it and had to go.” It is a story that still haunts him.
Nina Berman reveals that she prefers the term “documentary photographer” rather than photojournalist, the latter too wrapped up in the mythological hard-living male associated with the profession. Berman shares her frustrations with the media who have failed to publish stories, pictures they have commissioned and then found too confronting. She wants to wake people up, and believes the media “is complicit in creating an ignorant audience by feeding them constant bullshit of celebrity features or “news you can use”” that is designed to fuel our consumerist society and keep us busy with the trivial.
In addition to the American and European voices in the book, Conversations features an interview with Shahidul Alam, a celebrated Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist. Following his imprisonment for speaking publicly against the government in 2018, Alam was one of several journalists named TIME Person of the Year, in the issue that drew focus on threats to press freedom. Alam is one of the most articulate people I have had the pleasure to meet, and I’ve interviewed him on several occasions so I read his interview with relish. Responding to Walsh’s student’s comment, Alam observes that the young man’s view is important because the role of photography is “to open up a debate…The relationship between a viewer and a photographic image is not static. It changes. It’s complex. It has to do with one’s understanding of the story.” Alam suggests that the media has failed in its role to educate the public, pandering to commercial interests and playing politics. Walsh’s student is a product of a society where critical thinking is not encouraged.
Alexander Joe, a Zimbabwean photographer who has covered conflict for more than 30 years, talks about the power of the photograph to educate, but also cautions against the media’s desire for shock value. He shares that editors often want stereotypes when reporting stories on famine, pictures of children with stick limbs and distended bellies. In covering the famines that have ravaged African countries, Joe’s approach is to portray these children “in a dignified way that still educates the world about what is going on…A beautiful portrait can tell you about pain.” But he also admits it is easy to get caught up in the media machine. Recalling a moment in Somalia shooting for AFP, Joe says he realised he was ““feeding the system” and not thinking about the people…that made me furious with myself. I turned around and left. I had to clear my head, remind myself why I was there, and go back in. Then I was able to document with a compassionate eye.”
Eman Helal, an Egyptian photographer who covered the 2011 Arab Spring, is invested in work that empowers women in her country. She speaks openly about the prejudices of the Egyptian media, the difficulties for women journalists to be taken seriously and the influence of government propaganda on how news is reported. Her honesty is refreshing especially in regards to ideas on whether photography can play a role in affecting change. In talking about photographing in a Syrian refugee camp, she says, “I take pictures of these people, and then I leave, and then nothing changes for the refugees. At times you feel so small, like you’re powerless, or like your work isn’t helping. But at the same time, you have to try to document what has happened.” It is this commitment to bear witness that is a central theme in all the interviews.
Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian’s work spans reportage to more conceptual photography, created within the frame of social issues. Tavakolian observes, in response to Walsh’s student’s comment, that most people who choose not to look at graphic images are privileged and that it is the photographers’ responsibility to find a way to visually communicate stories of conflict and suffering that don’t deter the viewer. She concedes it is a fine line between documenting reality for future generations and encouraging those in the present to act.
Tavakolian is more invested, at present, in a creative approach to documentary but this does not mean manipulation or fabrication, a point that many of those interviewed in the book are at pains to make. The tarnish of fake news and the ease with which pictures can be altered today have plagued the industry in recent years. The photojournalists in Conversations may engage with innovative storytelling techniques, but they are at their core documentary photographers who are interested in capturing history, not manufacturing it.
The capacity of the photograph to effect change is also a concept that all those interviewed, and the industry in general, grapples with but there is a pervasive optimism in this book that change is possible; an outlook that perhaps is necessary when faced with some of humanity’s greatest crises.
In the Newsroom and Beyond
In the essay introducing this section Walsh addresses ideas around the mediatisation of news, as well as issues of visual literacy, critical thinking and the media as the gatekeeper of information in an age of social media. She also discusses the impact of commercial imperatives on the type of photography that is published and the potential consequences brought on by image saturation.
This section features interviews with Santiago Lyon, former Vice President and Director of Photography for Associated Press (2003-2016); the aforementioned Maryanne Golon of the Washington Post; Aidan Sullivan a former photo editor, former Vice President of Photo Assignments for Getty Images and currently founder and CEO of Verbatim, a commercial agency representing photojournalists; and Marion Mertens, the Senior Digital Editor for Paris Match, one of the world’s longest running photojournalism publications.
These interviews are equally illuminating, providing important insights into how pictures make their way into the newspaper or magazine, and also the kinds of decisions that editors make in selecting photographs. Santiago Lyon, who began his career as a photojournalist, makes an interesting observation in distinguishing the role of the photo editor from the photographer:
“One of the big challenges that photographers face is the emotional attachment they have to their imagery. They are living and breathing what they’re covering, smelling it and feeling it, and sometimes suffering in order to get the imagery. So one of the things I’ve noticed is that while you need that kind of passion in photographers in order for them to be able to do the work, the editing side of things need to be more clinical.”
Marion Mertens suggests there are benefits to the image-saturated world we live in as the audience becomes acculturated to stories being told largely in pictures, with words providing context. “I really believe that you need to show people so that they don’t forget it’s happening,” she says of the Syrian crisis and the Paris Match online feature that focused on images of children in distress. “They’re just like any kids – but they’re in the middle of this war…The images shake the viewer, because you see totally destroyed neighborhoods and kids holding one another, trying to survive.” Mertens is committed to reminding the public of the Syrian crisis even if at times the coverage feels repetitive, a position a magazine might find easier to adopt than a daily newspaper. While Mertens states, “it’s crucial that the media do not abandon places in crisis,” she admits that hard news is constantly “losing ground to entertainment news”.
Advocacy and Aid
In this final section, Walsh interviews representatives from Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and UNICEF. Non-government organisations like MSF and HRW, as well as the United Nation’s various Funds, such as UNICEF, have increasingly become important sources of income for photojournalists. But working for these organisations can be a contentious topic that raises concerns around ethics, representation, politics and an individual’s right to their image.
Photography has been used to communicate humanitarian and human rights abuses since the medium’s nascent years. In the essay for this section, Walsh recognises the “increasing influence of these agencies in the global political arena” and the import of understanding the role of photography in the representation of humanitarian issues. Walsh breaks the discussion of representation into four key debates: timing and urgency; stereotypes; colonial relations of power; and consent and dignity.
In the interviews she asks about the motivation of humanitarian organisations in providing imagery to the media, the terms of engagement when working with photojournalists, the importance of documenting war crimes and human rights abuses, and the function of the photograph as a legal document. There is also frank discussion on how certain images, such as that of the starving child looking helpless and longingly into the camera, have evolved to become clichés, yet they are still used because fundraisers believe they are effective. This section, like those that precede it, provides food for further thought.
So, who is the audience for Conversations? Thanks to Walsh’s informal interview style the book has a wide appeal. Those working in journalism, photographers, and students will find the insights fascinating, the selection of interviewees allowing new and established voices to be heard. I believe there is a general audience also that will benefit from a greater understanding of the intentions of those photojournalists who cover conflict, and the decision-making involved in publishing pictures.
I find Conversations hugely satisfying. In this book, Walsh successfully elevates photojournalism to its rightful place as a vital tool that documents history and brings important stories to the public. What the individual does with the information gained by viewing pictures of conflict is perhaps the most important step after the taking and publishing of the photograph. If Conversations on Conflict Photography leaves the reader with a single question, it is this: armed with knowledge about the crises facing humanity, what will you do?
Published by: Bloomsbury Visual Arts
Available on Amazon.com
110 colour and B&W images