I did a rare thing t’other weekend and went to that there London, in this case to see a couple of exhibitions. Tish Murtha and Tony Vacarro, since you asked.
It got me thinking about an exhibition of Don McCullin’s stuff I saw in Salford and an autobiography of John Phillips.
All four reported some form of social documentary. Tony, Don and John reported on wars and conflicts. Tish recorded England’s war on the poor and women. Tony reported the second world war through Europe as an infantryman, completely against the rules. John reported the build-up to the same war as a Life journalist and had access to the great, the good and the royalty of Europe. Don covered just about every conflict that fell into that period of universal peace that followed the end of that world war. And Tish looked at housing estates, pubs and seedy clubs to reflect the realities of the end of shipbuilding and mining.
What can I possibly add to what they have done, other than to feel very humble? And angry at the actions of governments and people in power.
We say that the role of journalism is to speak truth to power. I don’t see this working. Why would power listen to inconvenient truth, or fake news as we call it now? I do see journalists trying to speak truth about power. And if the truth be spoken clearly, and if enough people can hear it and care, then perhaps power can be brought to account. Who am I kidding? Power means not being held to account. Perhaps we can teach those who hold power to behave better by throwing them out when they don’t? The purpose of democracy as a system is supposed to be to enable the peaceful transition of power. But that means allowing the people to vote and allowing them to be informed.
And now we return to our regular programme, known as reality. It’s a shame that journalism, and within it photojournalism, have faded. Abroad isn’t foreign any more if the foreigners can post pictures on social media. And why maintain a foreign correspondent if the people involved in the affair will do a show and tell for free? So newspapers lay-off their staff photographers and poke their journalists to make headlines out of Twitter feeds. What we gain is immediacy. What we lose is analysis. We worry about Yemen but would struggle to name its bordering countries.
I have spent a lot of hours commuting. Initially I had the radio news on and thought it would keep me informed about the world and its works. But it grew on me that I was hearing a repetitive and superficial reporting of events with little discussion of their meaning or place. So I dumped the news. Instead I listen to long-form pieces where someone talks about a subject they have been researching, investigating and developing. Or I listen to discussions between well-informed people and a curious and challenging interviewer. I don’t shout at the radio anywhere near as often as I used to. I can still skim the BBC website for the headlines, but I now know that they are clickbait.
I had a similar epiphany some years back when I did a bit of contracting at News International. If I had thought about it at all, I had some ‘hold the front page’ idea of newspapers being about telling people what was going on. Not so – the purpose of a newspaper is to sell advertising space. You get people to buy the advertising medium by making it interesting. Somewhere in there could be a bit of journalism, as long as it doesn’t take too long or cost too much.
I don’t know where to go for the equivalent in photojournalism though. Pictures need words, too, just as words need pictures. Go and look at McCullin’s work in places like the Sunday Times magazine. His pictures are remarkable and stand alone, but the addition of words gives context. These people are fighting, but why? These children are starving, but why is this one being treated differently? We’ve all seen the picture of the man being executed in Viet Nam. Does reading the circumstances change your view of events? Or did the newsreel film captured at the same time only serve to inform the SFX team on The Deer Hunter what a head wound looks like? Or am I getting cynical in my old age?
There is also a strange delivery of what is held to be balanced reporting. This usually means though, that the considered and enumerated views of an experienced expert are matched with the opinion of someone handy who happened to have the opposite view. Or we think it balanced that a majority view backed with massive evidence is balanced by an outlier (global warming). This is easy to do with words and happens a lot. I’m not sure if I have seen the picture equivalent – perhaps people still think that a picture is a true record of events while words were made-up? Or are the people who see crisis actors in every American shooting the equivalent of the person who thinks the oceans are rising because of the dirt carried into them by rivers?
I don’t know what the answer is. I do wish we could weigh the value of an opinion in terms of the effort the person has made to form it. In photography terms I would like some words with my pictures to explain the context and help stop me jumping to conclusions. I don’t mean some convoluted and obscure artist’s statement, not unless the picture is meant to be art and then it’s part of the entertainment. For news and social documentary I would like context. Take the pictures I’ve put in this post as an example. Without context they could mean whatever you read into them. I stake no claim to be anywhere near the four photographers I named above, but you could still start a war (or at least escalate one) based on my pictures.
I’m not sure that a picture is worth a thousand words. If the picture has any social relevance or commentary I would like to get a thousand words with it.
Perhaps we will get fed-up with cursory likes on social media and empty clickbait reporting and go back to considered expertise? Or perhaps we shouldn’t care, because it has actually always been like this and the only change is that social media is a better mirror?
I’m off to my shed to grumble against the world.
Update – seen this article? https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/research-review/what-do-newspapers-lose-when-they-use-non-professional-photography/
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