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Smile for the camera

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

A few months back, I read some Globe & Mail thing about an army captain whose job it is to arrange for the return and funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and I found myself reaching for my notebook, thinking, there’s some kind of story in that.

Then I snatched my hand back, walked down the hall to the bathroom, splashed cold water in my face and looked up, my hands shaking, at the frightened visage staring back from my mirror.

“Man,” said I, “you sure dodged a bullet on that one.”

I had realized, as my hand hovered over my notebook, that 10,000 others were reaching for their own notebooks, all of them preparing to write thick, humourless novels with titles like The Temporary Vault or The Maker of Arrangements, written in hushed and “poetic” prose of the sort that one intones seriously, drawing out the wooooords so that their meaning sinks into one’s sooooul, and that no-one in any of these books would ever smile, or laugh, least of all the reader.

As should be clear from the foregoing, I hate books like that.

I hate books like that because they are so busy being hushed and respectful that they forget the real world. In the real world, people in difficult situations make jokes, and laugh, and smile. Humour is often absent in novels that beg to be taken seriously, as if anyone who smiles can’t possibly be dealing in weighty matters. But humour is often very serious.

Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

Yesterday, a single sentence in a comment left by Benjamin Chesterton stopped me in my tracks: “As one observer pointed out in Nachtweys pictures you never see a patient smile.”

Whoever that observer was, he sure was perceptive. I stopped to think: can I remember a single Nachtwey photo in which someone is smiling?

Yes. I remember one. No; two.

The question arises: why do dour, humourless novels annoy me as misrepresentations, while Nachtwey’s relentlessly negative photography does not?

I could chew on that for some time without finding the answer. Perhaps it’s because of the difference in the media: photographs are inherently superficial, are bounded by their frames and restricted to the single moment of their capture, while long fiction has room to (and should) expand, reach out and drag in all kinds of contradictory nuance. The frames in fiction are entirely artificial and self-imposed.

There is also the question of interpretation. A photograph of a doctor laughing, in Nachtwey’s essay, would suggest callousness rather than humanity.

But does no patient ever smile at the doctor? Perhaps not the far-gone cases, but surely this happens. So what we have are photographs of a disease, and of people dying of a disease, but no photographs of people living with a disease.

A point to Mr. Chesterton, then.

Hacking the tall poppy

March 23, 2010 4 comments

James Nachtwey’s work on extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB, which I blogged about previously, has attracted its share of critics. This is nothing new, of course. Nachtwey has always attracted his share of critics, ranging from those who accuse him of exploiting the suffering of his subjects to make a buck to a recent chorus of voices complaining that his subjects should speak for themselves. Some of those critics say interesting and intelligent things. Others do not.

A typical example of these complaints surfaces at the duckrabbit blog:

Are we really supposed to believe its difficult for someone of Nachtwey’s talents to show people being cured of TB?

Roughly one in twelve hundred people will die after becoming infected with TB, that means the other eleven hundred and ninety nine will survive. (although far less in countries in which Nachtwey photographed)

I’m no statistician  but something about that number tells me that you wouldn’t have to search very far to find an alternative ending to the last image presented on the blog (or at least in the preceding photographs something to balance it out). No question though that if I was the editor of Lens I would have used this photo. Why?  Because this is a story about death and dieing [sic] and loss and pretty much that’s all the viewer sees.

The first suggestion they’re making here, of course, is that Nachtwey’s subject, XDR TB, isn’t really a matter of death and dying, and that he’s dishonestly misrepresenting what TB is really like. He has, the post snidely suggests, an “unflinching commitment to the dark end of this story,” not to its reality.

Except that Nachtwey’s story isn’t about TB, with it’s low mortality rate; it’s about XDR TB, which has mortality rates of 50% or higher. And the high mortality rate of XDR TB is exacerbated by its association with HIV infection in Africa, where one study found that “XDR TB was rapidly — and almost uniformly — fatal.”

You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that this is, in fact, a story about death and dying; high school mathematics will help, but all you really need is the ability to use something called “Google.” I understand it’s all the rage these days.

Benjamin Chesterton at duckrabbit may be suffering from Google fatigue because attention to mere facts might detract from his broader point, which he expounds on at length in a post at Nieman Storyboard: he’s suspicious of our ability to tell the stories of others, and would rather see them tell their own. Nachtwey is the avatar of the traditional approach, the photojournalist who lets the pictures, rather than their subjects, speak — and as such, he’s the tall poppy at which Chesterton hacks.

In fairness to Chesterton, there is nothing wrong with his preferred approach, and he makes a number of good points, particularly about the importance of context and of accurate captions.

But this is not a game of absolutes. The right approach for one story or project is not the right approach for another. Chesterton’s point of view, I’d suggest, is more that of a producer of publicity pieces than of a journalistic storyteller — which is entirely the right point of view for someone working for Medecins sans Frontiers.

A broader problem is the implication that the kind of work Nachtwey is doing is inappropriate, which is dragged in with a reference to Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story.” And it’s certainly true that our view of the developing world as a pit of misery is informed primarily by journalism that focuses on suffering, as it’s true that the perspectives of local photographers may often be more accurate and valuable than those of photographers who parachute in.

But journalists cover stories. “City prospers in relative peace” is not a story. Stories are about problems, and this is not going to change.

Would it be better if no one told us about XDR TB at all?

Nachtwey’s TB project

March 18, 2010 1 comment

The NYT photo blog, Lens, today presents a feature on James Nachtwey‘s project to document the resurgence of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the developing world.

Nachtwey undertook this project after receiving a TED Prize in 2007, which granted him $100,000 to support “one wish to change the world.”

His choice of TB as a subject is both surprising and, on reflection, completely unsurprising. Surprising in that TB is no longer viewed by most people as a serious health problem; we no longer have sanitoriums filled with victims of consumption. The disease simply isn’t on our radar.

But drug-resistant strains of TB have been on the rise for some time, and Nachtwey’s work has taken him to places where TB is decidedly not yesterday’s disease. So it seems inevitable that he would choose this subject.

The resurgence of TB is the story behind the story of AIDS in Africa. It’s not on our radar — indeed, AIDS in Africa is barely on our radar here in the comfortable west. In bringing that story out of obscurity, Nachtwey has set an example of what good photojournalism should do: show us fewer bodies being pulled from the rubble, and more of the long-term consequences of the big story.

Regarding the Pain of Others

March 7, 2010 1 comment

Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 2003. 131 pages.

In Christian Frei’s film on James Nachtwey, War Photographer, we see Nachtwey’s viewpoint, courtesy of a small digital camera mounted on top of Nachtwey’s own camera. We crouch behind an overturned car as Palestinian youths throw rocks and Molotov cocktails and duck rubber bullets, listening to Nachtwey speak in a cool, detached voice-over:

Why photograph war? … It’s occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once, to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet … then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands. But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there, to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they’re doing and pay attention to what is going on, to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference. To protest, and by the strength of that protest, to make others protest.

This is the ideological basis of war photography, a notion that Susan Sontag convincingly eviscerates in the opening chapters of Regarding the Pain of Others, her examination of the ethics of war photography. Depending on its audience, Sontag points out, the same photograph may be a protest against war or a call to arms. What we want to believe we accept at face value; what challenges our cherished beliefs, we dismiss as a fabrication. We may be stirred to anger, or we may be stirred simply to turn the page and look up the hockey scores.

This problem is not, of course, limited to photography; it applies equally to television news, to print and online journalism, and above all to essays written for The New Yorker by writers who brand themselves as coolly critical iconoclasts.

But Sontag reserves her criticism for photography, dipping at times into the same disingenuous bag of tricks she used in On Photography. She asserts, for example, that snapshots taken by anyone in the street “may compete with the best, so permissive are the standards for a memorable, eloquent picture” — a claim that is easily refuted simply by looking at “the best.” And this unsupported (and unsupportable) statement then allows her to absolve painters of her criticism, by dint of “the artist’s skill of eye and hand.”

One reads, in short, with frequent shaking of the head, and occasional derisive snorts. But just as in On Photography, Sontag also makes many good arguments. Her complaint against photography as call to conscience, as expressed by Nachtwey and others, is impeccably argued.

Why concentrate this critique on photography, when other media are equally ineffective? Because, Sontag argues, “all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” Looking at war photography is gawking at traffic accidents, hoping to see blood and bone.

But, of course, so is reading sensational news stories and watching television news. And whatever “the artist’s skill of eye and hand,” a painting depicting suffering remains art, an aesthetic object that we look at in a gallery without concern for the actual events of whatever battle it depicts. At least the photograph — presuming that it actually depicts “the violation of an attractive body,” as most war photographs do not — is presented as news.

And how is one to respond to war? Is it more effective to take a camera into Sarajevo and use it to argue for intervention, or to take up residence there for the purpose of staging Waiting for Godot by candlelight, as did Sontag? How many people were moved by the photography of Christopher Morris, who evacuated himself from the besieged city after having a breakdown? How many were moved by Sontag’s production of Godot?

There is a sense in Regarding the Pain of Others that Sontag is backing away from some of the claims of On Photography, that she discovered in Sarajevo what a glib and facetious stance is deconstruction in the face of destruction. In the concluding chapters, this becomes explicit, as she self-consciously points to two of On Photography‘s arguments and argues against them.

“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism,” she admits. “It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in a rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment … some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.”

This epiphany arrives only when the Manhattan essayist goes to live in Sarajevo. It’s a pity that Sontag didn’t leave her rich part of the world behind more often.

Nachtwey in Haiti, revisited

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

At the VII website, a gallery of Nachtwey’s photos, accompanied by a note from Nachtwey himself.

This time, we get more diversity than in the last one, from Time. The Time gallery showcased Nachtwey’s eye for graphic design: the balance of the silhouetted men and the heap of bodies, the man seen through a gap in the debris, the reaching arms of the man behind the dumpster.

Also, his eye for the symbol: the woman’s outstretched hand below the distant helicopter, for example. Those same reaching arms. Shadows cast on the wall beside a coffin.

Nachtwey’s eye is simply stunning.

But at times, the brilliance of his work threatens to overcome its content, which is why I like the VII gallery better. He gives us heartbreaking shots of child amputees in an MSF field hospital, complete with bright, cheery 101 Dalmations sheets. And here we see also the masked man with a well-worn shotgun protecting a looter in action, putting the lie to the notion that everyone is merely struggling to survive. The murder victim in the street, implying that under the cover of disaster, some people may be solidifying power and settling scores.

Nachtwey is getting past the superficiality of photography here to remind us that reality is more complex than our sentimental fantasies: Haiti is a major drug trans-shipment point, its streets ruled by criminal gangs, its politics irredeemably corrupt. This nation needs more than earthquake aid.

It’s unfortunate that Nachtwey’s accompanying statement is filled with the same sentimental treacle that his photos undercut. Yes, NGOs from around the world have certainly flooded into Haiti with the best of intentions — but let’s not kid ourselves. The sheer number of NGOs, their failure to coordinate, the petty politics of control, have significantly interfered with aid delivery on the ground. This is one aspect of the story that still deserves greater coverage.

“A bit of a contradiction in many ways”

February 9, 2010 Leave a comment

It seems that these days, it’s all Don McCullin, all the time, but I suppose that’s what happens when you publish a career retrospective and have a major show the Imperial War Museum. Today I found a gallery of McCullin’s photography at the Telegraph, and a feature on McCullin at the Scotsman. The interview, although written in a gossipy, tabloid style, is interesting.

(For example, “delicious defiance?” What kind of nonsense is this? The interviewer eventually embarks on expiration of McCullin’s extramarital affairs, complete with moronic surprise that a man who had witnessed suffering could inflict suffering on his own family, etc. At that point, you can pretty much stop reading. Someone please put this interviewer out of our misery. End digression.)

McCullin is interesting because he is openly conflicted. His statements are contradictory. He says he doesn’t want to be remembered as a war photographer, but at the same time he has published a career retrospective and is giving dozens of interviews on his legacy as a war photographer. His burden of guilt and regret has not led him to destroy his negatives. To some, this would indicate that he is insincere, or that his public statements mask some consistent, secret self but he refuses to let us see. This is nonsense, of course; humans are contradictory. When what we say fails to align with what we do, it’s because the angels of our better nature have lost out to nobody’s angel. It doesn’t mean we’re insincere or disingenuous. It doesn’t mean we have something to hide.

When I started work on Combat Camera, I was fascinated by James Nachtwey. Here we have a figure who consistently appears to shine with commitment and purpose. The question to me, the question that initially defined Lucas Zane as a character, was what happens to that figure of commitment and purpose when he wakes up one morning and finds he has lost his faith. Zane was conceived as an anti-Nachtwey.

But this was unsatisfying. It came off as a caricature. It was when I looked at McCullin, when I examined his contradictions, that Zane really came to life for me. This is not to say that Lucas saying is based on McCullin, and certainly not in the direct way that Philip Caputo based his character Nick DelCorso on him. Zane bears little resemblance to McCullin in his background, his aims, is thinking about photography, and certainly not in his rather precarious mental state. But the broad-brush notion of the former war photographer attempting to repudiate his past while at the same time refusing to let go is certainly where Zane originated.

I think that a fictional character should be, to quote McCullin in the Scotsman interview, “a bit of a contradiction in many ways.”

“I don’t want to be remembered as a war photographer”

February 4, 2010 2 comments

Don McCullin is one of the most interesting of war photographers, for the thinking behind (and beyond) his photography. Unlike James Nachtwey, for example, who seems to have found a way to see his work as humane and necessary, McCullin never seems to be at ease with his own legacy.

McCullin himself offers thoughts on the subject in a BBC audio slideshow, which is worth checking out. Should he feel guilty towards his subjects? Is his work merely exploitation?

McCullin says that he doesn’t even like his own work, that he feels guilt over it … yet also that “I like the idea of showing damage, because war is not a creative situation; it is about damaging other people’s lives.” Even as he sets out to show this to us, he is aware that his photography, also, can damage people’s lives.

Nachtwey discussed his feelings on similar questions in Christian Frei’s film, War Photographer, and particularly in this excerpt:

At times, Nachtwey’s commitment, his insistence that his work can have value, seems almost too pat — although, of course, this involves assumptions that are unfair to Nachtwey. But McCullin’s view of his work and ethics is so candid, and so conflicted, that he remains endlessly fascinating.

Nachtwey in Haiti

January 29, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s almost as if, as the torrent of images from Haiti begins to abate, Time announces “James Nachtwey is here,” and the crowd parts, a hush falls, and all the other photographs fall away.

I exaggerate, of course, but Nachtwey has attained almost this stature. The man, and the photographs, are always at risk of overshadowing the events they document.

There is a reason: look at the photographs in question. Nachtwey’s attention to composition is remarkable. His photos are strong graphic designs as much as anything else; he is able to find a stark simplicity in the scenes he photographs, even when the frame is cluttered. He also has an extraordinary ability to shoot for the symbol, as in his shot of the WTC collapse, for example, or a Kosovar farmer carrying scythes. Nachtwey is, perhaps, the leading example or the photojournalist/artist working today.

This leads directly to the critiques of Nachtwey: that his work is cold, exploitative, unsympathetic. The skill of his photography is offensive; some feel that it is inappropriate, somehow, for photos depicting such suffering to look so good. His sincerity is called into question. You won’t have to look too far to find the critical questions expressed as personal attacks.

Some, perhaps most, of this criticism is a case of good old tall poppy syndrome, but a valid question remains: do Nachtwey’s subjects lose their essential humanity as they become the subjects of his art?

James Nachtwey: “because everyone cannot be there”

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

From the documentary film War Photographer, by Christian Frei.

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