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Forgiveness

Twenty years after the genocide, the NYT has some compelling portraits of Rwandan Tutsi survivors and the Hutu individuals who perpetrated ‘the unthinkable’ on them and their families. The images by Pieter Hugo are direct and powerful. The story they tell is hopeful.

Image © Pieter Hugo

Image © Pieter Hugo

 

But requests for forgiveness come from other places too. Journalist Bartholomäus Grill writing in Spiegel Online reflects on his role in ‘A reporter revisits his ‘Shameful’ coverage of Rwanda’ and concludes:


“Where was God in those days of murder? “He was here, or else we wouldn’t have survived,” says Nyirabazungu. And then she asks, in return: “Where were you? Why didn’t you help us?”

These kinds of questions still shame me today. It wasn’t just the UN, the West and other African nations that failed; it was also journalists, like me. We ran after the big story in South Africa, paying little attention to Rwanda or merely spreading clichés about the country.

On April 15, when the massacre in Ntarama was in full swing, my quickly written remote analysis was published in Die Zeit. I told tales of the “gruesome tribal war” in the heart of Africa, where everyone was fighting against everyone else. Bellum omnium contra omnes — the Latin phrase always fits when you know little about what is actually happening.

At the end, I wrote that foreign intervention was probably pointless. That report contains the most unforgivable mistakes I have ever made in my professional life.”

 

A grain of wheat

It is a sad day for journalism with the loss of a very fine photojournalist.

You’ll hear a lot about what others felt about Anja Niedringhaus in the coming days, and what precisely her loss represents to them.

But you might learn even more about Anja by reading what she had to say about someone she encountered in the heat of conflict. And met again some time afterwards. With a grain of wheat.

Saturday, June 4, 2011 photo, U.S. Army Chief Spc. Jenny Martinez holds the hand of injured U.S. Marine Cpl. Britt Burness  onboard a medevac helicopter © Anja Niedringhaus

Saturday, June 4, 2011 photo, U.S. Army Chief Spc. Jenny Martinez holds the hand of injured U.S. Marine Cpl. Britt Burness onboard a medevac helicopter © Anja Niedringhaus

He saw me and that warm smile crossed his face again. He hugged me. Like that day in the helicopter when I held his hand, it seemed he did not want to let go. He kept repeating: “Oh man, it is so good to see you.”

In his room, his dark brown eyes sparkled and he tried to tell jokes. He explained what he had been through since we had last seen each other.

Doctors put him into a coma for a month and when he woke up, he was he was at the hospital in Virginia.

He had just started to regain his speech, working his way back from months of “thumbs up, thumbs down conversation,” says his 22-year-old wife, Jessica.

He will undergo more surgeries next year to rebuild his skull.

Sitting on his bed, he looked at me and asked: “Did you bring some pictures with you?” He wanted to see those moments in the helicopter.

He studied each photo. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. “Thank you so much,” he said.

Text @ Anja Niedringhaus

This is why photography matters, and why ‘good’ photojournalists deserve our utmost respect; in life, and in death.

Kill tradition

Getty has announced its latest set of grants. Here’s what Aiden Sullivan, vice president of photo assignments, told BJP:

In these difficult financial times, where it has become something of a rarity to obtain funding from traditional sources, this grant offers something of a lifeline.”

Photojournalism is always going to be a glass half empty whilst it laments the loss of ‘traditional sources’.

How about just dumping the word ‘traditional’ and reflecting what is out there right now?

The greatest set of tools we’ve ever had to tell stories. The largest number of possibilities to tell those stories. Audiences that we can only have dreamed of reaching before. Spaces where authentic voices are prized over agency ones. New revenue streams opening up and more importantly being opened up by visual journalists/storytellers.  Those hungry now.

Is it possible that some of the (traditional) grants that exist are a part of the problem?

A small number of gatekeepers with very traditional thinking on photography (stuck in a timewarp), on audience engagement, voting for each other, funding work that often can’t even be given away to magazines for free but will be admired online by the same group of people, or end up in a vanity book and then replicated by the next round of photographers (in medium format).  You have to ask yourself is that a tradition that needs saving?

It’s good to see Getty at least starting to nudge away from funding projects that do little more than celebrate the art of photography and push stereotypes around poverty and race.

The pace and the pulse  is set elsewhere. By people who respect tradition but ain’t going to let the mentality that goes with it kill the amazing possibilities that exist right now (Humans Of New York anyone).

“Loss and Truth”

I’ve seen two dramatic video pieces this week, in which the central character is a photojournalist, and the subject is conflict. Each piece was about what individuals are compelled by conscience to do, to strive to achieve. Both were an ‘uncompromised portrait’, one being labeled as such by it’s creator.

But they were profoundly different.

One was intended to sell German cars, and was unsettling. But if I’m honest, it was rather ill-judged given the back story to the event portrayed and the manner of its portrayal. Enough has been written about this elsewhere if you’re at all interested.

The other video was more than a little unsettling also.

And whilst sometimes violent, it was also strangely life-affirming, in places upbeat, insightful and, in the end it left me filled with respect for the subject, and profoundly sad that such a life had been so prematurely ended. If you’ve not seen the Storyville documentary about photojournalist Tim Hetherington, you really should watch it: Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.

 

Hetherington 1

Screenshot © BBC4 iPlayer

 

The reflection of his worth and his integrity, as glimpsed through the reminiscences of those who knew him: his friends, his colleagues, his parents and his lover, painted a remarkable picture, and is a touching and appropriate testimonial to his humanity. It reveals his overwhelming desire to try to make a difference, even if only in small personal ways. It is worth watching just to hear Sebastian Junger’s final, heartfelt observation about ‘loss’ and ‘truth’ in the closing moments.

Tim Hetherington obviously touched people in life, and in death he touched me too, late last night alone in my living room.

 

 

“I know there is strength in me”- Can it get tougher for a parent than this?

It takes an incredible strength to choose to put yourself in front of the camera and tell the world you are HIV positive.

Especially when the world  has already thrown more crap at you then most of us face in a lifetime.

That’s exactly what young Ethiopian Mum Momina does in this film. That Time tells the story of  how she is forced to make one of the most difficult choices any parent could face.

For me it’s our best work. Please watch and read below how you can help us honour Momina and give something back.

Please Help Us

We need your vote to get us through to the final round of the Sony Production awards. We want to win this award so can bask in the glory but much more importantly it comes with a very valuable prize (a Sony FS-700). We already own one of these.

If we win we will auction it and use the money for the support and counselling of vulnerable children and young people. As someone whose life was literally turned around by this kind of support this is a great way of honouring Momina and making sure other vulnerable young people are helped.

THANK YOU.

This film was commissioned by the wonderful people at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Credits:

Filmed/Directed/Produced/Translated: Benjamin Chesterton/Sheikh Rajibul Islam/Ann Noon/Oli Sharpe/The Skipper/Tsigereda Fedlu/Solomon Amare

Music Credits:

Julsy Cocq: Shift, A Robot’s First Love Pietari Kassineri: Emma’s World, Whatever Is Left Of Me Ghosts For Hire: Tunnel Rat Stephen O’Brien: Prelude 1  The OO-ray: Silhouettes

Living on Scrap

I’ve got to say a short doco about kids collecting scrap is not a very appealing prospect for a Saturday morning.  Rubbish dump shots in developing countries are ten a penny on ‘concerned photojournalist’ websites.  Putting my skepticism aside I clicked on Chris De Bode and Steven Elbers short doco, Living on Scrap.

The film does everything these photos can’t.  Asks us not to pity the children but respect them. Compelling, sensitive work.

 

Dying for a photograph (and an Audi A3 advert)

‘From the pickup, Lynsey saw a body outstretched next to our car, one arm outstretched. We still don’t know whether that was Mohammed. We fear it was, though his body has yet to be found.

If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for.

No article is, but we were too blind to admit that.’ Lynsey Addario, Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks, March 22 2011, New York Times 

The driver’s  name was Mohamed Shaglouf. He was executed.  Turns out he didn’t just die for an article but also an Audi A3 car advert.   Hope that  helps relieve the ‘burden’.

A Heart in the Land

Roger May

I’ve just read a beautifully insightful interview with Roger May on APAD (A Photo A Day). 5 Questions for Roger May.

Roger’s work from Appalachia has always impressed me, with its intelligence, and with it’s subtle, quiet beauty. It’s work that does not shout, needs not to shout to deliver the impact it does.

You’ll learn a lot from Roger’s words, about the craft of documentary photography and the integrity required to do it well. Not least about the investment of self that is so important in making good work, the long term investment in place and people that is both a leap of faith and a commitment to collaborate.

“Photographs are so powerful, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. We have to get out from behind our cameras and have conversations. It’s really only then that we can work to foster any sort of understanding about people and place and often we come away having learned more about ourselves than anything else. It takes work, though. And often the photographs that are made in Appalachia are of the drop-in variety, or so it seems to me. That’s why it’s so important to understand the history of a place and why I’m so sensitive to photographs made there.”               

Roger May

The Proxy Journalists of a Proxy War

In a war with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands it might seem unlikely that one more casualty would lead to widespread coverage, but the killing of the teenager Reuters stringer Molhem Barakat in Syria last December resulted in exactly that, and with good reason. Many raised important questions about the ambiguities of Barakat’s relationship with Reuters, precisely what support and instruction they had given him, and the extent to which this had or hadn’t contributed to his death. The calls for real accountability from Reuters shouldn’t end, even if to date they seem to have mostly fallen on deaf ears. I think it’s important though that we don’t let anger about the circumstances of this death obscure another related issue which just as desperately needs answers; exactly why and how news agencies use local activists to gather news.

News agencies might deal in information, but of course that doesn’t mean information flows freely from them. Barakat’s killing and the allegations that have emerged since have forced a small degree of openness from Reuters. Jim Gaines, the company’s global editor explained the practice to the New York Times stating ‘We use activists in Syria partly because they have access and partly because you have to be among friends to be safe’ both fairly reasonable justifications in a war where journalists are increasingly seen as legitimate targets. I can’t be the only one hoping this might be the first of more insights into this murky relationship between agency and activists, but whether we get these might depend on whether more allegations emerge which Reuters feels compelled to defend itself against.

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Someone (presumably Bashar al-Assad) writes something.
From the Syrian Presidency’s Instagram.

It’s widely recognised that Syria is a proxy war, even if the details of who is fighting on behalf of who, and why often remains clouded and uncertain. For some it looks rather like a replay of the old Cold War rivalries, with a nominally democratic west facing off against authoritarian east. For other observers it seems to be more of a regional conflict over a mixture of politics and theology, with Iran backing the Assad regime in opposition to the many Saudi sponsored rebel groups. In either case, anyone who knows a little history will be well aware that proxies have a nasty way of turning out to be not quite what their sponsors imagined. This is something we should keep in mind now that Syria is looking like it is increasingly being covered by proxy journalists.

In a piece published ten days ago James Estrin and Karam Shoumali spoke with a number of Syria photographers including some who had worked for Reuters and other large agencies. As well as confirming that many Syrian freelancers are activists, it was alleged that ‘freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms’. Gaines defended Reuters, stating that all photographs and captions are examined to make sure they are free from bias, not particularly reassuring when you consider that it’s notoriously difficult to determine whether a photograph has been staged. After all we’ve been arguing about whether this is the case with just one of them for nearly a century.

Of course it’s also not just what might have been included in the frame which is significant, but also what might have been left out of it, whether in the sense of what isn’t framed in an individual photograph or the broader question of what types of subjects activist-photographers choose not to focus on. Does it seem likely that activists would file photographs which could be detrimental to the way their cause is perceived outside Syria? I doubt it. It also seems unlikely that a news agency would so readily use similar photographs from pro-regime sources. Are attitudes towards these rebel activists tempered by the fact most in the west view the Assad regime as irredeemably vile? Are we more willing to overlook our concerns about the veracity of these rebel produced photographs because on some level we sympathise with the people who’ve made them?

The further revelation that Reuters does not routinely inform clients that photos were taken by activists raises yet more questions. Trading in photographs of uncertain origin and questionable motive is one thing, but a degree of transparency about this at least leaves viewers and publishers with the space to make their own minds up about what these photographs say. We can probably all agree that a photograph made for the most obviously propagandistic purposes can still have completely unintended informational value. Just look at the way analysts pore over every image from North Korea for signs of illness in the leadership, or recent purges in the party ranks.

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Papers and a phone.
From the Syrian Presidency’s Instagram.

Photography was for a time criticised for its basic inability to discriminate about what detail is included in a frame, but latterly we’ve come to realise this is also one of its great strengths. Information which seems insignificant at the moment of shooting has a way of ending up in the foreground later on, and what was once the principal subject has a way of seeming much less interesting than the thing partially hidden behind it. The Syrian Presidency’s Instagram feed is a piece of rather clumsy propaganda, but as others have said it’s also an accidentally intriguing insight into a banal, bureaucratic side of the conflict. I find myself increasingly fascinated by Bashar al-Assad’s rather tacky office stationery. It’s an element of the war which we don’t see much of from photographers focusing on the heat of battle, but which I think tells us as much, or perhaps even more, than yet another photograph of a man firing a gun at an unseen enemy.

Returning to Reuters, their refusal to leave space for that doubt in the photographs they distribute gives me a sense of deja vu which recalls the regular debates about image manipulation. Photojournalism desperately wants to be an industry built on foundations of truth, but at the same time there’s this reoccurring unwillingness to be open and frank about the ways journalists and agencies operate and the inherent difficulties and ambiguities in the materials and practices they use. As I’ve already said, doubt is far less problematic than an unwillingness to admit that doubt. Reuters had a responsibility to Barakat, which many feel they failed to fulfil. Beyond that the company can also be said to have a responsibility to the people who publish and view their photographs to explain much more precisely how and why they use activists. Answers are still needed, for our benefit, and for theirs.

Lewis Bush

Spring has sprung in London. Time to make photofilms…

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 10.17.33

 ’Boxing your way out of trouble’ by Ralph Hodgson, photographer and duckrabbit trainee.

If you’d like to take your first steps in digital storytelling and photofilm production then our next London 3-day digital storytelling workshop is coming up, from 28th to 30th April.  There are places still available.

The course is designed for photographers, journalists, researchers, communications and PR professionals wanting to develop their skills in digital storytelling. If you’re looking to produce photofilms for yourself or your organisation and want to tell your story in a compelling and powerful way, this training is for you.

You don’t need to have photographic or audio recording experience – the training will include both these elements. Each group of up to three people will shoot and record a story on location and produce a draft version of a short photofilm during the workshop. We will give you the practical knowledge and skills you need to produce your own high quality productions.

So do get in touch if you’d like to book a place. There’s more information on the course here.

  • “It’s a real testimony to the quality of the training that I’m able to produce something to BBC standard only a few months after attending a duckrabbit workshop”  Ralph Hodgson, photographer.
  • “The guys at duckrabbit not only helped me gain skills in audio capture, interviewing and photofilm production, but also increased my confidence in getting closer to people, and hearing their stories.  I recommend this training to anybody with an interest in people, their stories and how they are represented.” Phil Lang, photographer
  • “Thanks for a wonderful course. I feel re-energised, re-enthused and raring to go. The MSF digital storytelling team is going to take Clerkenwell by storm and tell their stories – no one will be safe from our enquiring microphones.” Natasha Lewer, Editor, Medecins Sans Frontieres
  • “I loved this course by duckrabbit. I left full of enthusiasm and confidence. It must have worked because only my second attempt at gathering content for a photofilm made the front page of the Guardian website.”  Emma Wigley, Interactive Media Officer, Christian Aid