Not this, but that
I’m acutely uncomfortable with many of the critiques leveled at photojournalism in practice, because while they make many valid points, they are often as reductive and simplistic as the cliches and prejudices they attack.
Do not show us famine victims, the critics cry; show us the farmers with produce, the flourishing markets, and so forth. Not everyone is starving! Cease this pornography of victimhood, stop stripping people of their dignity, etc., etc.
That’s all very nice, and I agree in principle. The unique strength of photography is its ability to freeze and isolate a single moment, within the boundaries of the frame, and this is also its greatest weakness. Photography—or more accurately, the single photo, which has formed the traditional practice of newspaper photojournalism—lends itself to simple stories. It is not good at context.
But at the same time, let’s acknowledge that the very reason that cameras are in famine-stricken country X is that it is famine-stricken. Cameras need a story they can tell — a visual story — which relates to famine, and this means famine victims. Traditional practice isn’t bad because it’s stupid, or racist, or pornographic; it’s simply limited by the medium and by the fact that news is, by definition, bad news.
I also can’t avoid pointing out that the insistence that the story is not this, but that, is ultimately a political argument. It’s not a demand that we represent the truth; it’s a demand that we represent a particular, pre-defined point of view as an alternative to another, also pre-defined, point of view.
This is why I particularly appreciate this post by David Campbell on famine photography, which avoids the usual simplistic complaints (and strikes a blow for accuracy):
To be fair to the photographer, in these circumstances we have to accept that in large part he has accurately portrayed the people in the feeding centre. But is the feeding centre the real locus of famine? Can a photograph represent the many causes of this emergency? And what is the effect of these stereotypes once again marking Sudan as the “hungriest place on earth”?
One of my refrains for how we should understand photographs in these situations is that the problem lies with the absence of alternatives as much as it does with the presence of the stereotypes. Which means I should conclude with a double-page spread published by The Guardian this morning on the Sudanese elections. Clearly any place that is home to both food insecurity and a practicing democracy cannot be simply represented.
The solution isn’t not this, but that; the solution is to do both this and that.