Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Beyond words: Vagaries of visual information

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The feet of a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Paris. Photo: Shahidul Alam

By Shahidul Alam*, Media Helping Media, Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Twelve years ago a small working class child in Dhaka summed up the power of photo journalism. Moli, a ten year old girl was looking at a photograph taken by Azizur Rahim of the bodies of children who had died in a fire in a garment factory. The young girl had heard that the owner had taken the bodies of those who died and dumped them in the drain. “If I had a camera,” she said, “I would take his picture and put that guy in jail.”

“Every atrocity must have its images – otherwise, the world does not respond. Atrocities without photographs tend to be forgotten in our image-dominated reality – the photographer’s role remains crucial in making sure we bear witness.”

Trisha Ziff curator of “Hidden Truths”

“But placed in exhibition vitrines they take on a reliquary aura, like the personal effects of saints. Their glamour transfers to the pictures around them, turning visual documents into icons. Elevation to iconic status is what turns photography into art, with all the ideological privilege and power of persuasion that implies.”

“Photography walks many fine lines. Democratic and prolific by nature, it undermines old genius-at-work, precious-object ideas of art. At the same time, it keeps laying claim to art’s special powers and perks. One of its traditional selling points is objectivity. Yet it’s a medium of calculation: of measured light and chosen angles, of zooming in and editing out. These opposites define its tensions.”

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Holland Cotter: New York Times: The Camera as Witness to ‘Bloody Sunday’

Both the authors refer to the same photographic exhibition, “Hidden Truths: Bloody Sunday 1972” shown at the International Center of Photography in New York. An exhibition significant not only for the history it recreates, but as “prosecution witnesses called to testify exactly how that event happened and who was responsible.”

Photographs, in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion.

The irrelevant discussions of whether photography is art, has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion.

The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred around the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more ubiquitous, and less perceptible manipulation of photographic and editorial viewpoint.

Lewis Hine had pointed it out as far back as 1909, “The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.”

We now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels, newspapers, and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before. The presence of shareholders and the importance of the bottom line has changed the media business.

Personal experience

I will talk about my personal experiences as a majority world photojournalist trying to challenge the control that the power brokers within the media have. Conscious that mainstream media had no working class representation, in 1994, I started teaching photojournalism to ten working class children in Dhaka.

The first day we met, we sat on the veranda of their school, talking pictures. As we looked at a photograph taken by Azizur Rahim, of the bodies of children who had died in a fire in a garment factory, Moli, a ten year old girl said:

“Oh that was the fire in number 10.”
“What happened in number 10?”
“What’s there to say, the owner took the bodies and dumped them in the drain at night.”
“What happened to the owner?”
“Nothing ever happens to owners” she said.

Then, waiting a bit, she added “If I had a camera, I would take his picture and put that guy in jail.”

As a working photojournalist, I get cynical about what we actually achieve through our photography. But here was a child who had that conviction that we as professionals have somehow lost. She still believed.

Given the way the media is controlled however, I recognise that at a global level, the messages are too well orchestrated, and that putting the guy in jail, requires a lot more than having a camera.

Using the media to shape people’s perceptions is of course nothing new. “Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possible have.”

The date is interesting. The birth of photography parallels a move by colonizers to dominate the globe. The colonisation of our visual space became merged with two words; Development and Civilization, while a new word later joined the ranks, ‘Globalisation’. Photography is particularly relevant to this understanding, as globalisation’s reach allows photography to manifest itself.

Even the gatekeepers need to devise methods to justify their actions. Hence rules were made that allowed justification, and mind-sets created that accepted the reasoning. The silences are also part of this visual vocabulary.

The five permanent members of the security council of the UN happen to be the world’s five biggest arms dealers, and tend to do precisely as the US requests. Rarely has there been a greater ‘conflict of interests’ when it comes to promoting world peace. While the standard press photographs of UN meetings are abundant. The photographs have never been placed in this context.

Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast images characterize the typical majority world helpless victim. Huge billboards with a dying malnourished child in a corner with outstretched arms. A clear message in polished bold font in the top left corner cleverly left blank. The message reads, “We shall always be there.” A reality constructed for and by those who want us to forget the implications. That “you (the majority world) shall always be there.” In that role – a passive existence deliberately maintained – we who receive aid (“the client group”) remain.

I was staying with friends in Newry in Northern Ireland. Paddy and Deborah had kindly made their five year old daughter’s room available for me. Corrina was friendly and curious and would spend a lot of time in the room. One day as I was clearing my pockets of change I had accumulated, she suddenly remarked, “but you’ve got money, but, but you’re from Bangladesh.” The family had just returned from a trip to Bangladesh. Paddy was a development worker and they had visited many of the projects. At the tender age of five, Corrina knew that Bangladeshis did not have money.

The hungry child, the woman with the shrivelled breast, the pitiful look – it is an image that has deliberately been propagated since it feeds into a new economic system, one that requires a patron-client relationship. On the other hand, some lives are cheap.

“All things considered, we think the price was worth it.” Madeleine Albright said about the 500,000 children that had died in Iraq as a result of US sanctions. Bangladesh revisited.

It was not considered ‘inhuman’ to forcibly enslave 50 million Africans. 36 million died enroute and only 12 million eventually made it. In Bangladesh, the trade of Dhakai Muslin, was stopped in favour of the Lancashire yarn and a tradition passed down from father to son was brutally crushed. Humanism had a visible face with the ‘we’ clearly defined, and of course, no photographs.

John Lucaites felt ‘the primary reason for a photograph achieving iconic status was through presenting a strategy for managing endemic tensions.’ It was a further tool for control, another cog in the mechanism for manufacturing consent.

The image business

Businesses have been quick to recognise the capital involved in the image business. The two biggest owners of images today are Bill Gates (Corbis) and Mark Getty (Getty Images). Besides buying up huge archives, Gates is now building an underground warehouse for images. Libraries which were once browsable by researchers, students and interested public, will be buried beneath the ground, with only images that Gates et al consider ‘appropriate’ released to the public domain.

The quest for ‘development’ has become an inevitable drive towards certain goals. Those who stood in the way of this ‘progress’ were ‘backward’ and the obstacles needed to be eliminated. In the process of learning to be “fully human,” only some kinds of suffering were seen as an affront to humanity, and their elimination sought.

‘Good pain’, whether it meant amputation by a doctor, or a surgical strike from the sky, was noble. Where the ‘goodness’ of the pain was not so obvious, the images had to be eliminated. The image of the charred Iraqi soldier by Kenneth Jarecke (called ‘crispy’ by his agency Contact Press Images), slipped through the defence screening, but the media itself decided to cull the image. It didn’t fit.

The scriptwriters also had problems with the images of Bosnian Muslims protesting against the September 11 attacks. These too were culled, by all major channels. To create and nurture this ‘civilisation’, a new soldier was born, armed with camera and a satellite phone. Things had gone horribly wrong in Vietnam where the media had free reign. The new soldiers knew how to manufacture consent. They knew how ‘truth’ had to be presented. A new science was born, the science of manufacturing consent. In some parts of the world, it’s called ‘journalism’. Icons of misery sometimes replace the icons of poverty, while the photographer becomes an accomplice in a process controlled by the newsdesk. But it has to be the right misery.

A woman sued Paris Match magazine for publishing a photograph taken of her sitting on her boyfriend’s shoulder. They were celebrating France’s victory in a sporting event in public at the Champs Elysees. Her grounds for the case was simply that she didn’t want to be in Paris Match. The dying in Somalia, the starving in Sudan, the devastated in Bangladesh, are regular fodder for the glossies and the news magazines. Their choice has never been an issue.

It also has to do with the times and current sensibilities. There have been no pictures circulated of Diana dead in her car. The films had been confiscated. JFK and Martin Luther King were shown dead, but not Di. The ‘people’s princess’ was sacrosanct. No one cried ‘censorship’.

On the other hand, the orient, and its misery was being romanticised. Typecasting in Algerian postcards required little more than swapping captions under the photographs of the same model. She was after all, what you wanted her to be. Voluptuous, exotic, demure, enticing, above all she was there as a still life, ready to be consumed. Much like the rest of the ‘orient’.

Don McCullin’s photograph of a Bangladeshi refugee carrying the body of a woman dying of cholera was part of a significant body of work by a committed photojournalist trying to highlight the plight of a wronged nation. 25 years later, Paul Harrison’s image, a virtual copy, establishes the stereotype basket-case.

People at play, children dancing, tender moments at home, are images that Corrina will never see. The skeletal frame dangling from a weighing scale will make it to expensive books and museum collections. All at a time when the majority world screams out for the icons of poverty to be replaced by images of humanity, and our visual radar remains restricted to ‘terrrors’ defined by a few.

*Shahidul Alam, Shahidul Alam is one of the world’s most recognized and exciting photographers and a major figure in the public, intellectual, and cultural life of Bangladesh. The sheer versatility of Mr. Alam’s accomplishments can be gauged from the fact that he first introduced email to Bangladesh and first launched a photography gallery in the nation’s capital. He founded the Bangladesh Human Rights Network www.banglarights.net in 2001. His work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was recognized by the Mother Jones Award in 1992, the first time it had ever been awarded to an Asian. He has since gone on to win numerous international recognitions, including the Andrea Frank Foundation Award and the Howard Chapnick Award [for excellence in photojournalism], both conferred in 1998, and induction as a Honorary Fellow into the Royal Photographic Society (UK). Mr. Alam also serves as a juror for National Geographic. He founded the Drik Picture Library in 1989, the Bangladesh Photographic Institute in 1990, Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography in 1998. Pathshala brings to Dhaka visiting professors, not only of photography, but of allied fields, such as literature, art, and art history. As though this were not enough, Mr. Alam founded Chobi Mela, a festival of photography, in 2000. His own photographs have been exhibited in the leading venues of the world, including the Museum of Modern Art [MOMA}, New York, the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran, and the Photographer’s Gallery in London. His photographs have been published in newspapers and magazines of mass circulation, among them Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Liberation, Paris Match and The New Straits Times. Among the latest initiatives in which he is involved is majorityworld.com, which “champions the cause of indigenous photographers from the developing world and the global South.”

He can be reached at: shahidul@drik.net See also his personal blog: ShahidulNews

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October 25, 2007 - Posted by | Citizen Journalism, Photography, Shahidul Alam

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