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Signal and Noise

February 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I wanted to wait until the dust had settled in Haiti before commenting on the coverage. It was the bodies that bothered me — all those photographs of dead bodies. Photos of the dead always offend public sensibilities, and some take this as a justification for publishing them. Something has to jolt us out of our complacency, so they say.

This is wrong. The problem with photos of the dead is that they rarely tell us much; they are too easy. During the siege of Sarajevo, all of the photos of all of the dead were less effective, I feel, than one in-depth story on the daily struggle to survive in that city might have been. A photo of a dead body often tells us less about the impact of event than does a photo of the unfortunate survivor.

And the same complaint holds true in Haiti. We saw no end of photos of dead bodies, no end of pictures of rioting and looting, no end of pictures of destruction; what we did not see was a deep engagement with the stories of Haitian survivors.

Michael David Murphy took up this same complaint at Foto8, calling for a “new photojournalism.” This new photojournalism is of course the old photojournalism of the Life magazine era, a photojournalism rooted in a deep engagement with its subject that produces in-depth stories.

But here we run into a problem. Outlets for in-depth documentary work have all but disappeared. Photojournalists are now shooting for a single image on a newspaper page or on a website — an image which, if it is published on the web, may not even carry a caption. There is no point producing in-depth stories that no one will see. So today’s shooter is likely to descend on the news of the day with the pack.

The New York Times Lens blog took up the problem of pack journalism. In his response, posted below the initial post, Ron Haviv suggests that pack journalism in Haiti was the exception rather than the norm, although this may reflect more the way Haviv works than the common experience.

One question raised in Haviv’s response is whether freelancers have any business being there at all. As a former freelancer, my first instinct is to say that of course freelancers have the right to be there — but then again, as a former freelancer, I would never consider going to Haiti. Why go when every single publication on earth already has an assignment photographer on site? Just what do you expect to accomplish?

The ethical question really is that simple: just what you expect to accomplish? This is not rocket science. Either you are there for a legitimate purpose, or you are not.

And this brings me to something that only appeared on my radar this morning: Zoriah Miller’s “intimate group workshop,” which proposed to turn Haiti’s disaster into a learning experience for would-be photojournalists and assorted adventurers. For a mere $4000 (plus expenses), you too could experience the disaster zone of Port-au-Prince, first-hand; you too could heroically document the aftermath of disaster. By the time I became aware of it, Zoriah had already seen the light and removed the page, but it remains, courtesy of Google’s archive. [Note: Zoriah has reposted this workshop, despite the criticism he’s received for it.]

About the kindest thing that one can say about this is that it represents a serious lapse of good taste. More candidly, you could say that it is the avatar of all what is wrong with photojournalism: the adventurer who dashes from disaster zone to war zone and back, camera in hand, concealing his thirst for thrills behind a mask of humanitarian concern; he regurgitates well worn-lines about telling stories, but the only story he really wants to tell is his own.

Just what you expect to accomplish? Are you in journalism, or show business? Are you telling Haiti’s story, or your own? Twenty years from now, when you look back at your pictures, will you feel that you added to the signal, or that you added to the noise?

Categories: photojournalism
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  1. February 7, 2010 at 10:35 am

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