Last night I participated in an online salon hosted by BagNewsNotes called "Assignment Egypt: Analyzing News Photos from the 18 Day Revolution." Other participants were David Campbell, Laura el-Tantawy, David Degner, Loret Stienberg, and Nathan Stormer. Everyone made enlightening comments.
The talk revolved around a series of photos pulled together by Michael Shaw (editor of BagNewsNotes). Although I believe that picking apart the details in an individual photo to try to discern meaning usually distracts from the larger issues of how the system of photojournlism creates a particular experience of our world, this exercise did help focus our comments.
I can't sum up or accurately quote what people said (there will be an archived version online soon if you'd like to listen). So I'm just putting out here a few thoughts on the subject.
Recently I browsed through thousands of photos for the next issue of Middle East Report (Spring 2011) on the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. I was struck by how certain locations and certain tropes dominated the coverage. In Egypt, as anyone could guess, Tahrir Square in Cairo was the central location of a majority of the images. More people were demonstrating in Tahrir, as a massive group, than anywhere else. It felt like the center of the revolution and probably was. But I also wonder how much it was constructed by the media as the most crucial event when there were actually important moments happening elsewhere too.
One example is the industrial town of Mahalla el-Kubra. Large-scale labor organizing and strikes at the textile factory, Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, have been ongoing for about a decade. It was the labor movement's long and hard work in Egypt that helped pave the way for the revolution that ousted President Mubarak on February 11. The Mahalla el-Kubra workers protested in February just as people did in Cairo, but I could not find professional photos of these events.
Photos of organized labor protests in the provinces would not have fit well into the dominant media framework of a leaderless youth rebellion spurred by Facebook and Twitter converging on a visually compelling central Cairo square. I also found it interesting that the characterization of the protestors as mostly young and tech-savvy fell apart the more I looked at the photos. They revealed a vast diversity of people from all sectors of society (as far as one can tell these things from visible details, which can be misleading).
Certain tropes emerged from the photographic coverage: distant shots of masses, groups of women (most often with covered heads), people chanting vigorously, Muslims and Christians holding tokens of their faith together, tanks, protestors cleaning up, rocks being thrown, flags being waved, placards held aloft (as well as children). All this happened, but with the repetition of these themes over and over the revolution ends up being described in a particular way -- basically as all acts of protest with only hints of the important, unseen, work of organizing logistics, mobilzing people, crafting political demands, and creating relationships.
There is pressure on photographers to be where the most dramatic action is occuring, which has the effect of corralling them together in one location. Plus, society rewards photographers (in the form of audience praise, awards, funding, promotion) who are able to create iconic photos that can stand in for an entire event. Iconic photos are most often abstract -- that is, they don't show too many particular details that would anchor the image in a concrete moment.
I wanted to see more photos that described the texture of life during these 18 days and shots from other neighborhoods of Cairo and other parts of Egypt. I was also curious if anyone, probably a documentary photographer rather than photojournalist, followed just one person or one group throughout the 18 days but have not seen this.
I did find some shots that showed something a bit different, such as photos by Maha Maamoun of graffiti and the ephemeral pieces of paper and documents that circulated around Tahrir, the sinks set up in the square by a plumber by Yasser Alwan, many shots of people reading newspapers in the encampment by Timothy Kaldas, people charging cell phones on a power strip commandeered from a travel agency shop, artists setting up shop to make signs. My dilemma in choosing photos for Middle East Report was that I needed to convey a broad sense of the revolution in only a handful of photos and thus could not include as many detail shots as I would have liked.
As consumers of news we need all kinds of photos -- from the iconic and abstract to those that capture humble details. But ultimately what I find most interesting is trying to understand how the whole system of photojournalism constructs the events that are photographed, guides what is considered worth photographing, and how this shapes our understanding of the world.