Some thoughts on the visual language of photojournalism


General Photography

A little while ago, I received an email that told me about a project photojournalist James Nachtwey had been working on, which was going to get unveiled at a later date. The email contained the request to write a post that included some piece of code, which would automatically reveal the new project on the day in question. Since I prefer to have full editorial control over this blog, I decided not to post about it. But I was also uncomfortable with how this then secret project - something supposedly very important and completely underreported - was being handled. I thought that generating a lot of suspense could easily be somewhat damaging to whatever it was Nachtwey wanted to talk about: What if on the day in question people would think “Well, this is it?”

As it then turned out, the project in question was about creating awareness of drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB). An underreported topic it sure was, but I am somewhat tempted to write that as for the actual importance the jury might still be out. I remember when I saw the project my initial reaction was that I had done the right thing by not posting about it, and a large part of the actual reason is an unease that I’ve had for a long time. I think it might be worthwhile to talk about it. I cannot pretend that I know all aspects of my unease but maybe talking about it will generate some discussion online.

I think there are two aspects of the complex, which are somehow intertwined, but which nevertheless deserve to be seen separately. The first one is the actual issue. I’m no expert on any of this, but it seems that XDR-TB is indeed a very important medical issue. Whether or not it is more important that AIDS, say, or the current epidemic of obesity in the West I am not competent enough to judge. Whether as a topic it warrants the attention it was just given I might also not be competent enough to judge, but my gut feeling is that it’s not (after all, we’re in a real mess with an economy in severe trouble, financial markets in some sort of melt-down, two wars, both going quite badly, millions of people don’t even have health insurance, and the list goes on and on).

But there’s another aspect of the the XDR-TB work, and that’s the photography. My initial reaction was very similar to what I found somewhere online, namely “it does feel like we’ve seen the same pictures over and over again” (the quote can be found in this discussion, which someone sent me for completely different reasons actually). And indeed, the photography employs the same visual language that we are incredibly familiar with and that, I wager, for that very reason doesn’t achieve its actual purpose any longer.

To say this, of course, invites accusations of callousness or cynicism; but it would be an almost Rovian tactic to claim that it’s actual callousness or cynicism when someone says “we’ve seen the same pictures over and over again”. Because it clearly isn’t, even though some people might perceive an overlap. But it’s very important for this discussion to stay clear of this kind of territory.

Let’s instead talk about just the photography. I think it’s not too daring to say that after more than fifty years of grainy b/w photojournalism (with its sometimes blurry, sometimes crooked shots) the visual tool has become blunt. This is what seems to be behind commentaries such as “it does feel like we’ve seen the same pictures over and over again”. It’s not the topic, it’s the way the topic is presented. The photographic language of this style of photojournalism simply doesn’t have the same impact any longer it had fifty, forty, thirty years ago.

I think this problem contributes to a fair extent to what I perceive as a bit of an identity crisis of photojournalism. Maybe (oh, boy, I’m going on a real limb here!) we here can find part of the reason why all the newer members of Magnum work in such different ways. I often see discussions about why certain photographers are members of Magnum when, in fact, “in reality” they’re fine-art photographers. I have never had any such discussions with any of the Magnum photographers, but I actually do think that there is a lot to be said for different photographic languages to be employed in the context of photojournalism.

I think it’s quite important to realize that even with the best of intentions a viewer might not react very strongly to classic photojournalism any longer. It’s not about jadedness or callousness or cynicism, it’s about being used to something. It’s about the reactions that something triggers - reactions which in part might be outside of the control of the viewer. It’s any ugly way to say this but I think many people simply realize that when they see the classic b/w photojournalism covering some topic they feel like they have to react in a certain way simply because that’s how you react to this kind of stuff. And I don’t think this reaction is limited to photography connoisseurs (actually on the contrary). For photojournalism to work, it has to get away from this.

As I said, I don’t want to pretend I understand all aspects of this, and I am probably overlooking quite a bit of stuff here. But I think it’s a photographic topic that deserves to be investigated a bit - most of all by photojournalists themselves, especially since they are usually most passionate about their subject matters. Given that Alec has now rejoined the blogging world, over at Magnum’s blog, maybe he’ll pick up the thread?!