The Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies at Durham University in the UK organized a conference called "Humanising Photography" September 25 - 27, 2009. At some point I think they will be uploading audio recordings of all our presentations if you'd like to listen.
On the way there, as I looked over a newspaper full of daily news photography I wondered what photojournalism would look like if we turned our attention away from individuals and their immediate responses (away from the emphasis on capturing gestures and expressions) and instead focused on political and social processes and power relations. In the 1930s it was the new technology of 35mm cameras, such as the Leica, that enabled photographers to get up close, to photograph without being seen, without flash, to capture candid shots of people. The philosophy of humanism also emphasized the importance of the individual. It is hard to imagine photojournalism any differently, but I think the convention of focusing on individuals suits the staging and arranging of events for the camera that occupy a lot of a daily news photographer's time and also creates a certain narrow view on the world that blocks understanding of the deeper political forces at work. Prodding my thoughts was David Campbell's interesting essay "Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza."
I don't have an answer, but I think it's worthwhile to imagine a new style of photojournalism. Photos of individuals will always be important, especially for inspiring people to care about the costs of various politics and policies. But I'm interested in what role photographs can play in illuminating causes not just the consequences. (Campbell shows, for example, how the photography of the war on Gaza in January 2009 problematically created Gazans as simply potential recipients of humanitarian aid and was not able to show how Gaza is a place in permanent catastrophe, not just periodic breakdown.)
I presented a paper at the conference that describes a major style within photojournalism. Perhaps it is useful to analyze older, dominant styles, and to think about how they have become entrenched, in order to imagine new ways of depicting the world.
In my presentation I argued that there is a particular visual style that has been distilled and promoted by the famous agency Magnum Photos (not necessarily invented by it) especially from its founding in 1947 into the 1970s. Using high drama, abstract narrativity, artistic expression and documentary realism, the style creates coherent, orderly compositions that seek to comment on the "human condition" in an abstract, general way. They do this by emphasizing expressions, gestures and action which add up to a story that implies something important about human society is being revealed by the photographer. I think this style has deeply influenced what we consider to be exemplary photojournalism and so is now mainstream. (There is also a newer mode within Magnum, which emphasizes fragmentation and disorder and is more explicitly "arty.")
Here are some examples. Remember, I'm trying to describe the style of a group, not of these individuals.
After describing the historical circumstances of its development and the style itself I discussed what I think are the implications for this way of depicting the world. To be very brief, I suggest that it creates images that make broad statements about the human condition that ultimately obscure more than they reveal about politics or society. These abstract narratives flatten the world into banal truisms (such as statements about the horrors of war or the tragedy of poverty), limit diversity and pluralism in representations and gloss over the specifics of how politics or society operate. This style of depiction is the product of a certain moment in time, adapted to the needs of a particular (European) institution and molded by specific social forces.
Though it needs more study, I also suggest that this style of photojournalism participated in presenting the developing world as a region in need of development and humanitarian intervention (by Western industrialized countries) in the early post-WWII era, without taking into consideration the complex wishes or needs of the targeted population.
All in all, although the photos produced in this style are stunning and incredibly well crafted, I think this style is not well suited to the way we live now. We need new visual modes that correspond to how we experience the world as increasingly complex, multi-dimensional, and interconnected.
At the conference there were roughly three groups of people presenting work -- photographers, NGO workers who use photography as a tool, and academics. As primarily a photo editor/critic I suppose I overlapped the categories. The photographers were interested in how their photographs might influence people or express their own experiences, the NGO people were concerned with how photography can be used to empower marginalized groups (and they self-reflexively interrogated some of the issues that arise when Western groups attempt to effect change in the developing world), while the academics were generally addressing the question of what work photographs do (for example, how they are able - or not - to testify to human suffering, how they "bear witness," how they are used and reused for national or political purposes, what they reveal when examined decades after being taken and how their meanings shift over time and through different contexts of use).
A thread that kept emerging was the question of the relationship between aesthetics and politics (most explicitly discussed by Mark Reinhardt). The notion of affect surfaced a number of times. Mark (a political theorist) asked what particular aesthetic strategies induce what effects, what emotions. He noted that the problem with provoking sentimentality is that makes feeling primary and political structures secondary or invisible.
Eugenie Shinkle discussed certain examples of landscape photography that appears more and more in the context of humanitarian photography because it addresses the human costs of conflict and environmental degradation through the marks and scars on the landscape, not by depicting individuals. (I think this type of photography may be one way forward in crafting new styles of photojournalism -- think of Simon Norfolk, Sophie Ristelhueber, Edward Burtynsky.) Here are some examples, both of Israeli road blocks in the West Bank:
Eugenie made the point that the aesthetic overlays the cognitive and the affective (brings together thought and feeling is how I understand that). So, she asks, what kind of affect is being created in these landscape photos through their particular aesthetic and what kind of political response do they provoke? She suggested empathy, a shared sense of belonging, and a linkage between the global and local. It was unclear what exactly about the photos created these responses. That is why, I would argue, it is important to look at the formal elements of photography (composition, design, use of light, form, framing, etc) in addition to political, social and historical context.
There is much more I could write about the ideas brought up at the conference, and clarifications I could make in my argument about a Magnum visual style, but this post has gone on too long already!