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The blindness of photojournalism made crystal clear

EDITORS UPDATE: Please read Aranda’s response at the bottom of the post and my thoughts on it. It’s important to note that Aranda claims the family were happy with the use of the image, although in an interview he gave elsewhere he states they were not aware of the cover before it was licensed by him to the band for use on merchandise.

 

What is f*ed up about photojournalism? What is rotten in photojournalism?

Yesterday, I saw Crystal Castles’ t-shirt / album sleeve campaign and I reckon it pretty much sums the rot up:

crystal castles

I’m flabbergasted by this. I apologise in advance if I am not wonderfully coherent.

Can you imagine if you saw a picture of yourself cradling your child whilst he/she is in pain on a band’s t-shirt; on an album sleeve?

I’m trying to imagine it. I think I would find it deeply alienating and humiliating. I think I would wonder if the whole world were not in fact against me. Which indeed, it would be, because the powers that be (i.e. the Western world and its advocates: politicians, war-makers, business people and photographers and editors, and, apparently, musicians) are happy to use my suffering in order to make money. They would be especially happy about using my body and image to make money because I was foreign, darker skinned, without much money, without political enfranchisement and non-Western. If I were the woman, I would also know that people were especially happy to trample on my identity in order to sell stuff because I have a womb, and – call it a double strike – I am wearing a niqab.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what happens when consumerism drives and is driven by a Western-centric, patriarchal, ‘white-man-saviour’, racist set of ideologies. This is what our type of consumerism does to people’s bodies, stories, grief, identities, humanity: turns them into a pile of disposable sh*t in the name of cool.

The original image, of a Yemeni mother embracing her son as he suffers with the burning pain of tear gas, won World Press Photo of the year 2011. But you know, f that, because now it’s on a cool electro-band’s t-shirt and album sleeve. Ooh and it’s a limited edition!

aaa

You know what’s also limited, compassion apparently. I do not know for sure why Aranda agreed for his image to be so totally detached from context, slashed free of human framing, and pasted onto a t-shirt for hyped up cool kids, but I’m guessing it’s something to do with our good old friend, Money.

If you believe in photojournalism, if you want documentary to work, as a photojournalist, photographer, artist, storyteller you are the defenders of the ethics and necessity of your practice. If you sell-out your images in this way, debasing the stories you claim to tell, trading in the bodies of people you claim to be an ally to, you deserve your industry to flop on its bloated, Cyclops-eyed face. If you cannot see beyond the money, you have no business engaging people in image making in their private moments of suffering.

What the use of this image on a ‘cool’ t-shirt has done is turn these people into objects to be consumed by people who are far more privileged than they. The objectification and consumption of a person’s story, which essentially figures a dehumanisation of that person, has been used to support and reassert the identity of a privileged group of people. The consumed people are fighting for their identity by protesting against an oppressive regime. The privileged group of people pose their ‘identity’ by purchasing a band t-shirt.

The question has been raised: How is this any different from what the World Press Photo does with these images? My take on that: not different enough. However, one crucial difference is context. The WPP represents this image with context which locates the suffering of these people in a meaningful political and personal story. This raises awareness. This asks for witness, and witness asks for people to protest, to petition and to see the ‘other’ as an equal human. This is especially important when we consider the demonisation of Islam in the West and the very real way this leads to savage attacks on innocent people in Islamic countries, attacks which we do not protest, attacks which we quietly consent to in order to ‘protect’ ourselves. This t-shirt bears no witness, it is blind and axe wielding, severing image from story and denying political response or narrative.

But as I say: the difference is not enough. Who profits through the WPP? Who wins? How are the spoils of war shared? How are our professional and personal identities shored up again and again by capturing and viewing and trading in the suffering of others, whilst tangible, meaningful outcomes for those  depicted are left un-grasped?

What is this image now then? Nothing more than a colonial white man’s trophy – a grizzly head – held up victoriously upon returning to the empire’s soil, and kept, thereafter in a glass case. Looking at the case’s polished surface we see reflected back to us our own whole and safe Western selves; our own stories and identities validated by our own consumption. The shrivelled head remains in shadow, its history vague and distant, its suffering unknown. Our faces across the glass are all the more clearer for the dark background it supplies us. Our selves are all the more whole for the disintegration and digestion of those other, shadowy selves whose pain is nothing more than a motif.

Rock on photojournalists, rock on.

Samuel Arunda’s Response:

First of all, I don´t understand that you publish an article about me, without contacting me in advance to ask for my answer. Is not really ethical in journalism, in case that you are a journalist. The language that you used is pure sensationalism. The answer to this “polemic” that you are trying to create is easy, I still in contact with the woman and her son, and they were agree on this. Also it was a personal interest from the music group to put the focus on this persons that during the last two years are fighting for their rights. So, I don´t see the problem anywhere, everybody was agree, and this photo published in the front of the album will arrive to many youth that will know about Yemen and the suffering of the civilians in this country.

duckrabbit

Hi Samuel, great image deservedly recognised. Thanks for your response.

In your response you state ‘ I still in contact with the woman and her son, and they were agree on this.’  In an interview published last November you were asked about how the family feel and you state ‘I think they’ll be alright with it, they’re really easy-going and open-minded people.’ So at the point where the artwork for the album had been decided and printed and according to the article the merchandise also designed the people in the photo had not been specifically told.  Sure they were very happy and proud of the photo though but might not have expected it to turn up in this context?

‘This photo published in the front of the album will arrive to many youth that will know about Yemen and the suffering of the civilians in this country.’

I think if you get beyond the ‘sensationalism’ of the post you’ll see that one of the problems that Madeleine has is the de-contextualisation of the image. That the ‘youth’ (and slightly less youth like me who loves the album) won’t know anything about the suffering in Yemen. How could they from the image?

Please note this is a comment piece on a blog about the sale of a photo to be used on an album and t-shirt that has been in the public domain since last September. I don’t agree with everything in the post but I do upheld the right for people to express an opinion on the blog about work in the public domain, even if those opinions upset some.

 

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    118 comments to The blindness of photojournalism made crystal clear

    • wyatt

      This article comes from a good, pure place. I agree with it on a theoretical level: turning authentic art into some form of consumer goods, or commoditizing others’ suffering is definitely debasing to the art form.

      HOWEVER, this is clearly not such a case. Crystal Castles is not a Fortune 500 company. They, and their fans, are far from privileged. Have you been to a CC show? Yeah, there’s more punks and revolutionary types there than “privilged”. There’s more grad students and Peace Corps types there than Katy Perry and Justin Beiber fans. CC and their fans are not naive, they are afraid of the world they see, of how many suffer needlessly. And they want to see them, and rage against the leaders who oppress them. And wear their images to remind others of all the needless misery occurring at the hands of dictators across the world. In other words, it’s exactly what good art does: it challenges and teaches people. Aranda’s picture and the Crystal Castles III album beautifully reinforce one another. Selling out it is not.

      YOU MISS the point that the the entire Crystal Castles III album is about giving a voice to the oppressed and fighting tyrants, like those in Yemen. The album is protest art, and it complements and reinforces Samuel’s work. What is wrong with two groups are artists collaborating?

      Give a song like “Plague” or “Wrath of God” or “Child I Will Hurt You” a listen. This is not easy music. It is not for straight entertainment and consumption. It’s a big “fuck you” to the dictators of the world, creating an oppressed class, like those featured in Samuel Aranda’s work. Your aim here is noble, but you missed the mark. This is not selling out, it’s a great photo finding a home on a great piece of protest music.

      Best–

    • john manfield

      Hi Duckrabbit,

      For having 40-50000 visitors a month, your blog seems to have quite a few comments only when you open a controversy. Not a very nice way of promoting your photo-film business… don’t you think?

      Cheers

      • Hi John,

        In my experience this is one of the things people write when they can’t actually engage with what is written in the post.

      • Not to appear to be splitting hairs John, but a ‘controversy’ is something created when people actively discuss their disagreement over an issue, and come down on one side or the other. (OED definition: “prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion:”)

        Madeleine expressed an opinion, some people agreed with her, some others made it ‘controversial’ by disagreeing. As the issue was important and needed discussing, that was a good thing.

        It’s noticeable that you took the time to respond but for some reason did not express any opinion. Did you agree or disagree with her?

    • john manfield

      Hi both,

      I am a photojourno myself. In this case, it depends on the ideology of the band and whether the people in the picture want to be in a t-shirt or not and whether they will make also a profit (as the band and the photographer) that will improve their lives. At the end of the day, profits will be delivered to both the band and the photographer, so I guess the people in the pic should have their share as well. I understand that quite a few times, photographers don’t think too much about the repercussions of their choices when they commercialize their photos but at the same time I don’t see anything wrong in a collaboration between a band and a photographer. However, to be honest, I don’t know Crystal Clear at all, don’t know whether they are activists, whether they just make music as a passion or there is some ideology behind their music that can be supported by the photo. For instance, as some posters mentioned, Rage Against the Machine did something similar and I didn’t see anything wrong in that case. They were a left wing band (which I liked a lot) and the pictures they used were strong and helped to transmit their messages.
      However, some times your posts seem to be beyond the good and the bad, and quite a bit sensationalists and it gives the impression that you look for controversy to promote your business. I miss also a bit of auto-criticism about your own work. For instance you do work for NGOs which could be criticized as well. You can find a lot of articles talking about how NGOs do more harm than good. Are you totally ok with what you do then? Is better to collaborate with and NGO than with a rock band? Some people, including me, could argue about that. And how would you feel if bloggers kept on criticizing your work because of that reason?
      By the way, I wouldn’t sale one of my photos about other people’s miseries to a rock band, unless I truly believed that they were committed with the cause for the right reasons. And, of course, after I made sure the people in the frame is well aware of the implications of being in a rock band t-shirt. In this case, reading the answers of Aranda, I doubt he thought much and/or deeply about it, which I find sad.

      Cheers

      • Hi John,

        Your point about our work and NGO’s is a good one. Our work for NGO’s has been criticized (most recently in the Guardian) and we have put the criticism up on the blog. Its vitally important these things are debated. That things thought in private are also expressed in public.

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/gilad-shalit-palestinian-white-media

        Best

        • john manfield

          Hi duckrabbit,

          I see you published the guardian article in your blog. I have to admit that it’s a good strategy: you promote your business and open a debate at the same time, well done. I also think, despite your criticism to it (calling it “crappy” shows that you are not so happy about other people criticizing your work, btw) it raises very good points. You say in your blog though “In the Congo it’s a fact I found an amazing team of people, white and black, working seamlessly together to save lives”. I totally believe you are missing the point there. I worked for years in DRC and I think MSF was too patronizing, for instance. Also the NGO debate has nothing to do with the good will of the people working for them but its a much deeper one. Albert Camus wrote in his novel The Plague something like this: “goodwill without clairvoyance can cause as much havoc as evil”.
          In any case, the title of the guardian article was not something like “Duckrabbit and MSF perpetuates the cliche of the white saviour in Africa”, which are the kind of titles you use in your blog. I think the writer doesn’t even mention you. I also find interesting that assuming that it’s you the one commenter called “woodragon”, why you didn’t use the duckrabbit nickname? I mean, I really don’t care if people prefer not to reveal their names while commenting but you seem to care reading your responses to some commenters.
          Also, you say below, that debate is good and Mad sparked one… quite simplistic and very defensive, don’t you think? You obviously are a clever guy and you know as well as I do that they are different ways to spark a debate and I think a respectful one is better. Madeleine’s article, again, is aggressive, and like one commenter said well “trying too hard to look smart, but with no substance to back it up”. Btw, I miss Madeleine responses… she wrote the post and then hid??
          Obviously you think that writing a blog gives you the right to say whatever you want about anyone, with no much to back it up. And you also say debate is good but you didn’t answer my questions, which I find funny… Again, are you totally ok with collaborating with NGOs (I would add: despite they help to perpetuate conflicts in many cases)? Is better to collaborate with and NGO than with a rock band?

          Cheers

          • Hi John,

            My log-in to the guardian(and name) predates duckrabbit. But clearly I identify myself as the person who made the films.

            One persons idea of ‘respect’ is another persons idea of maintaining hierarchy.

            ‘Debate is good and Mad sparked one’. Simplistic yes. I don’t have a problem with simple things. Defensive? You’ve lost me on that one!

            Mad did respond. Here and elsewhere.

            ‘Obviously you think that writing a blog gives you the right to say whatever you want about anyone, with no much to back it up’

            Nothing to do with writing a on a blog, or hosting one, it’s called free speech John. I’m sorry it irks you so!
            Best

            B

    • john manfield

      Sorry, I got wrong the name of the band, which is Crystal Castle, not Crystal Clear. Also I forgot to mention that the way Madeleine wrote the post is a reflection about one big problem of many bloggers. She was too passionate and thought little about how the photographer could feel reading what she wrote. The post totally lacks balance and looks like an aggressive attack to the photographer. In my opinion it shouldn’t been published. I have the feeling that she didn’t think much and/or deeply about the subject either. Or maybe you could have told her to think more about it and write it again. In that way, probably the post would still bring quite a lot of traffic to your website and would be more respectful to the photographer.

      Regards

      • Hi John,

        if ‘sensationalism’ is publicly expressing what you feel about something then I’m all for it, on the blog an elsewhere.

        The photographer gets a glimpse of how some people feel about the use of his photo. I have no problem with that.

        We are not a news service. This is a polemic, which by it’s nature is not balanced. Nor at any point does it claim to be. If you’re looking for balance I suggest reading the BJP.

        Debate is good. Mad sparked one. I’m pleased about that.

        Thanks for your comment

        B

      • Thanks for responding John.

        You said “I have the feeling that she didn’t think much and/or deeply about the subject either. Or maybe you could have told her to think more about it and write it again. In that way, probably the post would still bring quite a lot of traffic to your website and would be more respectful to the photographer.”

        This site is not ‘edited’ other than by the various contributors (of which I am but one of several).

        Madeleine can defend herself, but I would like to point out in response to your comment above that she HAD thought about this issue. She had invested in it intellectually and emotionally several times before writing this particular post.

        See this http://madeleinecorcoran.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/in-defence-of-this-years-world-press-photo-an-image-that-is-complex-and-conflicting/

        and this

        http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2012/02/arandas-world-press-photo-of-the-year-pietas-and-burkas-and-just-plain-obscurity-oh-my/

        I referenced some of this in a recent post http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2013/03/why-questions/

        I think there’s sometimes a time to ask these difficult questions. Is there a ‘right’ way to do so? I dont know, but I think it is better to simply grasp the nettle rather than fear the stings.

        Regards
        John

        • john manfield

          Hi John,

          Thanks for you response. To be honest, those links don’t show at least to me that Madeleine thought much about the subject of the photographer collaborating with a rock band. To me it shows that she thought: a rock band is something superficial and photojournalism is so deep and committed that they shouldn’t be related in any way. And also it seems to me that she kind of felt betrayed after defending the picture using pseudo intellectual arguments that show her own vanity.

          Cheers

          • Hello John – it wasn’t any attempt to refute your argument, nor to defend Madeleine – I would not presume to do that, it was simply to point out that her comments did not come from ‘nowhere’ but that she had previously engaged in some discussion over the ‘meaning’ of the image.

            I cant speak for Madeleine, but personally I dont think “photojournalism is so deep and committed” – some practitioners are, some are not. Some work is excellent, some is awful. There’s good and bad, and at the consumer’s end of the telescope polarized opinions exist too.

            What I think is a shame is that for many commentators it was easier to bash the messenger rather than engage with the issue at hand, one Madeleine obviously felt strongly about.

            Thank you for taking the time to engage in this discussion. There are no clear answers, but that should not prevent the issues being discussed frankly and with a degree of conviction.

            Regards
            John