Sunday, 20 July 2014

The ethics of aesthetics

Exercise 40 -  read the booklet on "Imaging Famine" and do some research across printed and online media and find examples that either illustrate or challenge the issues highlighted in this document.  
One article with a 'starving child' was "Three Famines: Starvation and Politics by Thomas Keneally – review", this is a general discussion re the shocking truth about the most avoidable of disasters. This article was run by the Guardian in September 2011 but the photograph dated back to the famine in Ethiopia in 1985 - interestingly the article does not reference the image directly.

"Self Help Africa works with small holder framers, tackling hunger and poverty through food protection and rural enterprise. Join Us." All the images associated whit this site are very positive - showing effectively what well invested money can deliver/achieve.

International Medical Corp. - the website was last updated (in November 2013) with the following definition of famine from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Reference Table (the standard used by the UN), famine occurs when the first three of the following conditions occur:
  • 20 percent of population has fewer than 2,100 kilo calories of food a day
  • 30 percent of children are acutely malnourished
  • Two deaths per 10,000 people, or four deaths per 10,000 children per day
  • Pandemic illness
  • Access to less than four litres of water per day
  • Large-scale displacement
  • Civil strife
  • Complete loss of assets and source of income

Regardless of this depression definition the accompanying photograph was one of a smiling (happy) well dressed, well fed teenager (?).
A Somali girl draws water from a well constructed by International Medical Corps
Image accompanying IMC article

There are numerous charity websites related to supporting the development of third world countries, for example, UNICEFSave The ChildrenWater Aid - not just specifically 'famine' relief. In fact typing the search "third world charities" into Google returned 15 million results in 0.47 seconds! All of the sites I visited showed very positive images of the people they were helping and whilst the conditions were certainly spartan, the people were portrayed as happy and healthy and capable of self-help. However, these images were serious 'situational' portraits rather than jovial snapshots and focused in terms of delivering the message.

Harrowing images of famine can still be found by typing 'famine' into the Google image search - these images are shocking even after decades of being aware of them, when I look at them I'm shocked that human beings had to live through and even die in these conditions. As Roger Tooth, Picture Editor of the Guardian said: "obviously pictures give a story impact ... regardless of the frequency, we should continue to be shocked by shocking images!

As the article Imaging Famine aptly puts it, positive and negative images both serve a purpose "short-term imperative and education as a long-term aim, or short-term emergencies and long-term development". The shock factor of starving children enables a rapid influx of much need money to kick-start the aid effort, whereas the softer "their just like us, but not quite so well off" images ensue the continued drip-feed of income for specific projects, for example, Water Aid - just £2 a mount will help communities build wells and install pumps and taps...... 

Do I believe we are suffering from compassion fatigue? 

I'm not sure, the more I read of Linfield's book the less sure I am. I certainly think we tune-out very quickly, plus I think we are quicker to jump to conclusions and I think this may well be down to the fact that we are bombarded with copious amounts of unfiltered data. I think rather than working harder to apply the appropriate filters, it is easier for us to filter out everything that is not of specific interest to us at any specific time - in other words, we've taken the lazy route out.

Overall, I believe this does everybody a disservice - the image makers; the individuals portrayed and ourselves - rather than make informed decision we make ill-informed assumptions.

Reference articles and images: The Guardian

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Compassion fatigue

Exercise 39 - read the articles "Imagining War" by Jonathan Kaplan and "Walk the Line" by Max Houghton and write done your reactions to the authors arguments.

Both authors agree that a line needs to be drawn with regards to the level of 'gore' that should be published in/by the mass media. There is a general acceptance that the gorier the image, the more likely the audience are to focus on the gore and the less likely they are to focus on the story as a whole.

This then leads on to the inevitable question - where is the line? Simply put - how much gore is too much gore?

Examples of gore are provided: the death of Saddam's sons and the death of a mother in front of her baby son (Kenya). Both 'nasty' photographs, but nonetheless published in the broadsheets; the latter being published twice - first in B&W, then in colour.

I believe that the more exposure you have to any particular 'stimulant' the more resistant you become. That said, the vast majority of people do have their own moral compass that guides their actions and ensures as a society we don't return to barbarism. The issue being, as Houghton stated with respect to the photograph of Saddam's sons, "An invisible line had been crossed, but this line was evidently personal to me."

Kaplan also recognises this as an issue referring to this type of image being "used as medical pornography". Directly after he discusses reality surgery as 'huge entertainment'; with the trend to air American obesity programmes on UK television and the development of our own brand of reality show 'Embarrassing bodies', unfortunately, I have to agree with him.

Whilst it's easy enough for any individual to define their own boundaries of behaviour, it's much more difficult for them to live within them purely because of the media saturated environment in which we live. Watch the adverts on television; see a newspaper; click on a website - an image pops out, unfortunately, once that image is inside your head its very difficult to get out!

Taking the 'double-publishing' further... Ignore whether or not the photograph was appropriate to publish in the first place, a significant amount of effort went into the investigation behind the second publication. So, rather than leave a horror story, a tragedy, in limbo (because the journalist at the time could not find any further information), the follow-up becomes a real human-interest piece. No doubt, in part, driven by discussion and queries from the public. Either way, the approach of the second article 'humanises' the atrocities of war, by that I mean, brings the reality of the situation into the lives of everybody at a personal level that they can understand.

Susie Linfield discusses the use of war images in her book "The Cruel Radiance", accepting that we all have a line, once that line has been crossed (there is no going back) so the only way to make it count is to ensure that the horror is used for good (once the image is outside of the war zone - the propaganda zone).

Assignment 4 planning (part 2) - reading list

Topic - ethics and objectivity

Reading list so far...

Azoulay, A. (2008) The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books, pp. 1–505

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London, Vintage Books.

Baudrillard, J. (2004) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Bolton, R. (1992) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. MIT Press Ltd. USA

de Duve, T. (1978) Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox. in October, vol 5, Summer 1978, p 113 - 135

Krauss, R., (1989) Photography's Discursive Spaces. In: R. Boston, ed. Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge,MA.: MIT Press, pp. 286-301.

Levi Strauss, D. (2003) Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture.

Linfield, S. (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Richin, F. (2013) Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen. New York: Aperture.

Rosler, M. (2004) In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’, in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 151–206.

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Photography at the Dock. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press.

Sontag, S. (2004) Regarding the Pain of Others. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tagg, J. (1988) The Burden of Representation. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Thanks to the students and lecturers at the OCA for their input into this list.