Tag Archives: photojournalism

The separation of body and soul

I’ve been thinking about picturing the dead and how the object making that bodies – especially women’s bodies – are subject to through the photograph are a kind of death-making. I guess I’ve been provoked by the images of Reeva Steenkamp, whose bikinied body posed next to headlines that screamed of her murder. It was painful to see those front pages. If nothing else, it tells us that images and narratives matter. Images hurt, maim, murder. Images save and recover. Linda Stupart has written a great piece, “Woman, object, corpse: Killing women through media”, which pretty much summed up and furthered my thoughts regarding those Steenkamp images. Have a read.

I wanted to find an example of an image that was painful to see, but set out to do the opposite to what those front pages did the day after Valentine’s. It had to be beautiful, it had to reckon with the objectification of women’s bodies and the very real damage they suffer because of it. No violation, no leering glance. How does one save a woman’s body from the bounds of dead object and yet still tell of the danger and struggles she faces because of that body?

My former classmate, Helen Rimell, drew my attention to her work documenting the lives of Mumbai’s sex workers which appeared on Vice last week. And I think it answered and provoked some questions:


The photo I wish to focus upon is a portrait of the dead body of a woman called Mumtaz. As explained in the piece, her family believe she was murdered by her partner. It features about half way down the page linked to above. I didn’t want to paste it here because I feel this is something you have to elect to see, not something you stumble across on a blog. As I say, I’m focusing upon that one image, but as an important aside, Vice’s SEO orientated labelling of the whole story is predictably lame and offensive – the text preview that appears if you share the link on facebook calling this “a scary story”, doesn’t really even begin to cover the depth of feeling in these images. Similarly, the shock tactics of the headline substitutes these women’s stories with horror house dummies. Helen’s photo project and her narrated experience of it are a world away from such tactics.

My opening questions when approaching this image were: what does it mean to show someone’s life and death? What does it mean for me – a white, middle class, western woman – to see this life and death; one so unknown to me?

I find it interesting that we often talk about the showing of a dead body as in some way degrading – and indeed it is the case that the Western media is happy to oggle many more dead and maimed black and brown bodies yet treats white bodies with a respectful averted gaze, but in this case the way the body shown stands outside that damaging dynamic. Yes, it is shocking, but Mumtaz’ body acts as a testimony to her life and the struggles she faced. As Helen says, the family wanted the world to know what had happened to Mumtaz and so wanted photographs of everything at the funeral.

There is also the fact that the visibility of the body is a natural part of the funeral process in this context, which surely transforms the extent to which we would call the viewing of the body an exposure. Instead, it is evidence which demands witness and the beautiful elements keep us looking at what is hard in the image. Golden petals, pink stains, a slash of sunlight – naturalistic elements of the funeral which become metaphors for this female body and female life. All are painful, all demand regard. I think it is important to recentre identity in the body in this way, especially when you live and die by the fact of it.


Images of Sexual Violence (1): Saying Things Kept Silent, Showing Things Kept Hidden.

This article is the first in a series about images of Sexual Violence in photography, photojournalism, documentary and visual art. My own piece, You Did This To Yourself (http://you-did-this-to-yourself.tumblr.com/) figures a response to the issues and examples I raise here.  

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is a story about a young black girl in 1960s America who is sexually abused by her father. It’s beautifully written and painful to read – speaking fearlessly about the realities of poverty, race and gender. It unearths the causes of victimhood and the silence which surrounds and supports the on-going occurrence of sexual violence. How to word something that is kept silent? How to show something that is kept hidden? Morrison writes:

“The novelty, I thought, would be in having this story of female violation revealed from the vantage point of the victims or could-be-victims of rape – the persons no one inquired of (certainly not in 1965); the girls themselves. And since the victim does not have the vocabulary to understand the violence or its context, gullible, vulnerable girlfriends, looking back as the knowing adults they pretended to be in the beginning, would have to do that for her, and would have to fill those silences with their own reflective lives. Thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void filled, an unspeakable thing spoken at last.”

Two things strike me as important here and may prove important in regards to other stories of sexual violence in other mediums:

  1. That bringing words and images to the unspoken and unseen event is a kind of healing and overcoming. Morrison says that with the realising of the story of sexual abuse ‘a void is filled’, a need is met. Similarly, the silence appears as a kind of menacing spell, a thing to be ‘broken’. The relief provided by this break is clear in ‘spoken at last’ – this has been something needed and anticipated for a long time.
  2. That the victim herself does not necessarily have the words: ‘the victim does not have the vocabulary to understand the violence or its context’. This is not to say, the victim is incapable of ever having the vocabulary, but rather her position as victim is defined by not having the words or a voice to speak against what is happening to her.

This makes it clear that to fight against the creation of victims of sexual violence, words and images must be given to those victims with which they can begin to address and describe their suffering and those who cause it. As it will become clear, these words and images are hard to provide or develop in a culture which still struggles to see the complex, various and ubiquitous nature of sexual violence.

In light of this, and to draw our attention to photojournalism, Ariella Azoulay’s essay, “Has Anyone Ever Seen a Photograph of Rape?” sets out an argument for the sheer lack of imagery of sexual violence in the canon of iconic photojournalism (1). Azoulay argues, whilst photographers have brought into the public arena images of many kinds of suffering – genocide, mutilation, violent warfare etc. – images of rape, an act which occurs in much the same context as the other atrocities, are largely absent. This labelling of the blind-spot proves to reveal not only that photographers have mostly failed at documenting rape when it occurs amongst other atrocities (typically during wartime), but their techniques of documenting rape during peacetime are also highly restricted and restricting. This blind-spot, in Azoulay’s analysis, goes on to be seen not just as an historical failure to vision, but also an ongoing inability to envision, born of the inadequacy of social discourses which still cannot recognise the reality of rape.

Azoulay’s questions are then, Why is it we cannot ‘show’ rape in the way that we can show other kinds of torture and bodily suffering? Hint: this might say more about the viewer than the actual event itself. And also – In what ways do these lack of images damage those who might need them – i.e. victims, potential victims and the wider society?

These questions will be explored later. As a first example, ‘Project Unbreakable‘ by Grace Brown is an interesting place to start:

It attempts to do the same thing that Morrison does with her novel, to fill ‘the void’ of silence and bring words and imagery to that which has been kept un-worded and hidden. People who have suffered abuse hold up the words of their abusers, words that were used to silence them. It is one simple gesture of resistance, of refuting the silence that has been put upon them. The phrases are short but they provide a small window into the complex world of abuse and sexual violence. That opening image, ‘I love you’, is especially powerful because it marks the importance of context and the complicated nature of abuse. They signal the way in which abuse can be non-violent – something that must be recognised if these cases are going to reach justice. They also indicate what the victim must struggle with: What if abuse is presented as love? What if you don’t know enough about love to be able to say this abuse is not love? That is certainly the case for Pecola, the abused girl in Morrison’s novel.

Perhaps the technique is a familiar one – photographs of people holding up signs with their personal stories or position on has been used in many other contexts and protests – but here is takes on a special resonance because these are words that have been characterised by the fact that they occur in private. Their power has been because of secrecy, because the abuser persuaded the abusee to never tell, because the abuser invoked shame and fear in the abusee. These signs are an act of placing the shame back on the abuser, of making the public witness what goes on in private. It is one simple way to take the words and turn them around.

The images also make clear, in case there could ever be any doubt, that choosing what to show – the very act of representation – is a fiercely political act. The format and style of that act of showing can make or break the message. These truths are especially raw in the context of a little seen and little understood phenomena which needs vision and recognition in order to overcome its occurrence.

This piece now on the Duckrabbit blog here.


You can read more about Brown’s project here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/22/project-unbreakable

You can see the ongoing tumblr blog of Brown’s project here: http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/

(1) See : Azoulay, A.  The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008, New York: Zone Books.

Many Images, One View.

Many images, One View – a look at photojournalism and documentary photography inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s speech ‘The Danger of a Single Story’.                                                                                                                                                           

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think there is something rotten at the heart of much contemporary photojournalistic practice. I tried to put this off, I tried to admire those who had been to the toughest places, taken the toughest photos – things I knew I could never do. It was easier to self-criticise rather than raise my objections in the face of those who have shown determination and bravery in difficult situations. That is, until I realised that it wasn’t that I couldn’t do these things, it was that I didn’t think it would help anyone in any significant way if I did. And I think it’s to do with the often privileged photographer who tells the story and the underprivileged subject who must submit to the story. I see image after image produced by these privileged photographers who do not fully realise the great gulf that their privilege creates between them and their subject – no matter the sympathy with which they undertake their work – and despite the fact that there are so many thousands of pictures, I see only one view; only one story.  Of course, critics have written in great depth about the power of the gaze and what it does to its subject, but I do think it’s worth locating this stance within photojournalism once again, and I think Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful and fierce speech about stories would be a good way to do that – because after all, photojournalism is about stories; telling stories, showing stories (1). Adichie essentially argues this: Stories have the power to persuade and define, and if the same story about someone or some groups of people you don’t know and will never meet is told again and again and again you are going to believe that that is the only story they can ever be a part of; that story becomes their whole identity. (Link to speech at the beginning of this article.)
Adichie describes how she first met the single and repeated story about Africa and about Africans that those in the West are told:
“I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked be me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position towards me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Adichie’s speech focuses upon literature, which is of course an important vessel for those limited and limiting stories which come to dominate discourse with the Western perspective. However, I’d also like to ask, what role did photojournalism play in Adichie’s roommate’s perception? Where did she get her ideas about Africa as a total and ongoing ‘catastrophe’

Photojournalism is largely responsible for the image that loomed so large in Adichie’s roommate’s mind that she could not conceive of an African as her equal.  As Adichie says, her roommate ‘felt sorry’ for her ‘even before she saw’ her.  One story, one image had obscured her vision of Adichie far beyond Adichie’s power to ever claim her actual image and identity back.Layer upon layer of imagery has depicted Africa (as if it were one country and not a huge continent) as an ongoing catastrophe involving famine, aids, poverty and helplessness. Similarly, we are surrounded by a swarm of images of Indian’s living in slums, drinking polluted water and so on. It is important to maintain a balanced view here: I am not stating that these images should not be sought out and should not be shown. It is vitally important that aid agencies and other charities and NGOs have images to move their supporters and to raise awareness. It is important that injustice is witnessed as this is the first step towards tackling it. However, it is also important that there are other images, not only to show the diversity of existence so that one nation or ethnic group are not repeatedly typecast but also for the very ends of the images of catastrophe – if we are to act against injustice and suffering we must feel there is an alternative for the subjects. The ongoing catastrophe of Africa, the ongoing helplessness of ‘Africans’, makes the Western viewer feel helpless as we see that our efforts mean nothing. Dangerously, we can begin to ascribe essential qualities to these apparently helpless Africans, we begin to read into them the spectre of famine, the lack of resources, the complete dislocation from the modern (read Western) world.  Ultimately, it puts the West in the normative position: we are the modern world, we are informed, we should try to help – and the ‘third world’ other into the deviant position: they are behind, they are uneducated, they can’t do anything to help themselves. The West can then either look to this pathetic cousin with sympathy or choose to turn away, or worse, blame that cousin for its problems. Images that were meant to bring out our common humanity have divided us, and with this overpowering single story remaining so central in our vision it is increasingly difficult to challenge that division.

To take an example, we might regard Tom Stoddart’s widely acclaimed images of famine in Sudan. Now once again, I must stress that I am not criticising these images themselves, but I am asking, ‘Where are the other images?’ and, ‘Is there not something amiss in the fact that a photojournalist’s career is frequently built upon revealing horrror and suffering again and again?’, ‘Doesn’t it become overwhelming?’. Take a look at this image of emaciated people running for air-dropped food supplies: It’s hellish and huge and hopeless, the mass of people obscure the horizon and race to take the whole frame. They are seemingly endless and at such a distance they are multiple and indistinguishable.

Tom Stoddart, Sudan, 1998.

There are of course a variety of structures and frames in Stoddart’s story of the famine, but my argument is that this image is one that not only provides visual information for the local moment depicted, but one that also acts as a metaphor for the emotional and visual impact of the whole series.  As Stoddart says, these pictures are “sad and necessary”, but he also urges the viewer not to feel ‘sorry’ but to feel ‘angry’. This is where I struggle: I want to feel angry but I just feel horrified. I see ongoing, all-subsuming catastrophe, I see a whole world of hopeless suffering entitled ‘Africa’, and I don’t know who has caused it. It seems apocalyptic and Biblical in scale – something handed down from a much higher power than myself and against which I cannot even hope to stand. Stoddart’s own words reveal the troubling enormity and vague identity of the enemy: “mankind’s greed, intolerance, prejudice, inhumanity, lust for political power, and sheer stupidity”(2). Perhaps if there were other images in my vocabulary about Sudan and about other countries in the North-Eastern area of Africa, told by other voices, told from many different perspectives, I would be able to question these images, analyse them and see them for what they were in an appropriate context. Rather than seeing terrible and blasted ‘Africa’ I would have African comparisons with which to understand this tragedy, with which to see that this isn’t the way Africa has to be; that this really is a specific tragedy that deserves specific action and that it is not the massive, ongoing, unstoppable reality of ‘Africa’.
It is also the case that it is not enough to make a one off ‘happy’ image to challenge the images of despair. I’m not suggesting that Stoddart should go out looking for some upbeat images after having shot the horror of the famine. Instead, we need a far-reaching, insightful variety of stories and a way to consistently bring them to a Global audience. Many of the ‘happy’ images of Africa and India and other ‘third world’ countries enter into the same power structures that depict these people as a homogenous mass. By these ‘happy’ pictures I am thinking of the images of poverty which are supposedly meant to subvert our assumptions about the impoverished other – the kind of images that people coo over saying ‘But look at their brightly coloured clothes,’ or ‘Look at how well they dance,’ or ‘Look at how cute that smiling kid is’- as if we should not have expected any of these features to exist in a continent as massive and various as Africa. In both cases, the West patronises and continues with the ongoing infantilising of ‘Africans’ which is rooted in the Colonial narrative and used to justify all kinds of control, interference and dominance. As Adichie reminds us, Rudyard Kipling called the African “half devil, half child” and this dichotomy still defines such imagery and stories today.
The problem is one of scale. Adichie summarises both the importance of recognising the power of the story and how this relates to issues of scale when she talks about the Igbo word, nkali:
“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali”. It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependant on power.”
Her definition, ‘to be greater than another’ is key – greater means both better and bigger. It is the scale of the imagery that is damaging – the vast amount of catastrophic images that come to represent ‘Africa’ relative to the tiny pile of alternatives.  It also the scale of coverage, the power and size of the platform for these catastrophic images compared to the minimal platforms offered to other voices. Photojournalists may defend their position as ‘storyteller’ by pointing out that they have the greater access to an audience, they have better skills and better equipment, they have a bigger platform, but all of these things are symptoms of the disease of power inequality rather than the solutions. The photojournalist as the storyteller, even as he/she claims to be merely representing the story of an otherwise unheard other, is asserting him/herself as bigger and better than that other. The photojournalist has access to the platform the story needs and he/she essentially ventriloquizes the voices of vulnerable people in order to tell and retell the same overwhelming story of catastrophe. Perhaps this story would not be told if the photojournalist were not present, but on the other hand, perhaps this story is not fully told because of the photojournalist’s overshadowing presence.
As an example and metaphor we can look at Mike Well’s image, winner or World Press Photo of the Year 1980, which is often referred to as ‘Uganda’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Mike Wells, Uganda, 1980.

Here the agony of scale is evident – not just in the immediate moment where a starving child’s hand is held by and compared with a fleshy white Missionary’s hand – but also in the grander meaning and resonance of this image. Both sides of the awkward paradox are illustrated: that the photojournalist enables the representation of an injustice and that the photojournalist overshadows the representation of an injustice. This image is tense with comparison: black/white, starved/well-fed, weak/strong, child/adult. The image relies upon comparison and division to make it’s argument – it’s very strategy is about division, and not about togetherness or common humanity, despite the half-attempted holding of hands between black and white that echoes anti-racist symbolism from America. Although the image makes a gesture towards unification, in fact it then reasserts the divide even more powerfully in the painful and totalising contrasts that it presents. These contrasts are made more powerful, and more dangerous, because they are ones that enter into the long-running narratives, discourses and symbols that surround the West’s patronising and narrow view of ‘Africa’: that ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ are somehow childish, frail and hellish compared to white Westerners . Once again, I stress, I am not saying this is a ‘bad’ image, what I am saying is its effect is dangerous, as much as it might be powerful, in a context where the Western viewer has few alternative points of reference for the country that is apparently depicted. The commonly used title of the photo, ‘Uganda’, raises this issue in all its totalising inaccuracy. The dislocation of hands from specific bodies – we cannot see a face with which to more specifically identify the two people – further universalises this image. It is an image that in both construction and title claims to speak for a whole nation, a kind of eternal truth, bigger than the two people whose hands are featured. It demands a grand scale in order to present something that is intrinsic, that is beyond the local image, and that ultimately adds to those Colonial narratives which infantilise and belittle Africans. In the absence of other imagery, in the absence of labels and identities through which to view this image as a specific tragedy, it dwarfs a complex idea of Uganda or Africa just as the white hand dwarfs the black. Although the fleshy white hand helps us to understand the suffering of the black hand, it also condemns that black hand to a contrast the photo asserts as universal. In the same way, the photojournalist helps us to understand suffering, but he/she also labels his/her subject as the ‘other’ who eternally suffers when other imagery is absent.

Perhaps an alternative is that the privileged photographers, writers and editors of the West need to pay some penance to this problem of scale. A group of people who recognise the value of stories within their own lives should surely wish to support and facilitate that value within the lives of others. If photojournalists truly wish to help people tell their stories – why don’t they do just that? For every image from which they make money that reaffirms the catastrophe of Africa, or the slum-life of India or the gang warfare of Columbia, perhaps story-telling professionals should donate a little bit of money to organisations that help disadvantaged people to tell their own stories and to move beyond images of helplessness. A storyteller’s equivalent of ‘carbon offsetting’. Like carbon offsetting, there is the argument that what is needed is a fundamental shift in perspective and behaviour, rather than token gestures, but also a bit like carbon offsetting, when opinion and practice is slow to change, some routine recognition of the imbalance is better than nothing and might actually foster that long-term shift in mentality. As these many stories told by many people reach new and bigger audiences with sponsorship and access to the platforms that major photographers and editors hold, perhaps we would see a new multi-view emerge in strength. Adichie’s Farafina Trust is one such an organisation that seeks to enable people to tell stories rather than tell the stories for them:
“My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust. And we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist, and providing books for state schools that don’t have anything in their libraries, also of organising lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.”
She concludes by clarifying the importance of facilitating these many stories:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
If storytelling professionals can then use their access to platform and audience – their advantage of greater scale – to disseminate and publicise other people’s stories, then the hugeness of the one image might be broken down into an overture made of many images, many views. In the context of many perspectives, each image can take on its own specific meaning and not have to submit to the larger meanings forced upon it by the photographer who may unwittingly enter it into a condemning, Colonial narrative. 
1) See C.A.Lutz and J.L.Collins, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, 1991. And Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972. And also P. Phelan who writes, “The combination of psychic hope and political-historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.” (p.4)  in Unmarked, 1993.
2) From Stoddart’s ‘iWITNESS’ site: http://www.tomstoddart.com/iwitness.html