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Saturday, 09 May 2009


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good grief.
that's a fantastic photo.
talk about your despair.

A remarkable series of photographs. So good in fact that I forget I am looking at pictures.

Wonder how these play with the Dutch?

What a terrible image. I'm moved to tears.

It's a terrific series. Saw it when they announced the Pulitzer.

OTOH, I had forwarded the link to a group of (mostly) enthusiast photographers and the comment was something like, "Despair, everybody's photographing despair. It's almost like you don't have to do anything and you'll have good photos."

What do you all think about it? Is it all just despair in newspapers and is it easy to get good photographs of awful scenes?

"Impeccably composed images of despair"?! How much further removed from this world can you get? Aesthetics of feigned compassion, Kitsch of the worst order.

As a parent, this is one of the most powerful and disturbing images I've ever seen.

Standing there, I couldn't possibly have released the shutter. I can't even bear to look at it.

Kitsch? Feigned compassion?

Salgado and Nachtwey get criticized all the time for employing good composition in their photos of human suffering and conflict.

I don't understand the criticism. The viewer isn't *enjoying* the photo at all, and certainly isn't enjoying it at the subjects' expense (few people hang such photos in their homes as "art").

No, in employing good composition the photographer is simply doing what he can to get people to look at a photograph of something they'd rather not see. He is also ensuring that if they only glance at it for a moment, their eye will go straight to the essence of the picture (something that the eye doesn't do with poorly composed photos). Is it wrong to try to get viewers to look at photographs of unpleasant realities?

Look, as long as there is human suffering, there will be photographs of it (or should be, so that the rest of the world notices). Given that reality, the choice is between badly composed photos of suffering and well-composed photos of suffering.

If we have to choose, I for one vote for the latter, but maybe distressing subjects are only supposed to be photographed using poor compositional techniques? Or maybe the critics are implying that we are not supposed to look at and discuss such photos at all?

An award of $10,000 for an evocative skillfully captured image expressing the situation in any of dozens of the world's misery pits at any given time.

This, to me, is a far starker example of ethical conundrum than the Chinese pothole. Yes, I know that Salgado, and others, grew their wealth and fame from just such stuff. Very dicey to me.

Robert- I think it's sometimes a fine line between exploitation and responsible reportage. Particularly when events are photographed in a country where more established, powerful countries have a long, established history of exploitation. Yes, I would much prefer that those countries directly responsible for the perpetration and continuation of that poverty and despair would step up- until that happens we should at least be privy to how those legacies impact not only everyday lives, but in instances of natural catastrophes such as this. I don't think there was a stampede of photographers to cover this event, and bottom line- rather than just criticize, what are your suggestions on how to cover events such as this- aesthetically and morally (eg- one such way is to establish programs where indigenous peoples can photograph themselves)?

Ken, I'm with Stan B. (who I think was addressing the other "Robert," not me, in his comments): what's the alternative to the ethically "dicey" situation you describe?

Do we condemn the novelists, journalists, and photographers who told the stories that changed the world's attitudes about slavery -- and child labor, immigrant exploitation, massacres of Indians, lynching, discrimination against blacks in the American south, Vietnam, domestic abuse, torture at Abu Ghraib, and any of a number other real ills -- condemn them simply because those novelists, journalists, and photographers told the stories so well that they became famous for it?

Should all storytellers in all media be anonymous and penniless? With regard to "wealth," it seems to me that most of the documentary photographers like Salgado and Nachtwey do not live lives of luxury. And their "fame" (such as it is; they are probably about 1% as well known as Annie Leibowitz) is acquired through extremely risky and unpleasant means in what you describe as "any of dozens of the world's misery pits" (itself a rather dismissive and condescending characterization).

@ Robert: I did not mean to suggest that I condemn the photographer...or Salgado.

No, rather, the point I made badly earlier is that this represents the same ethical dilemma as the Chinese pothole posted earlier.

This photograph is beautiful on its own terms. That's all anyone can ask of any photograph and far more than most deliver.

Should someone not seek to make money and fame from beautiful photos of terrible subjects? Not if it bothers their conscience. Otherwise, go for it. The photographer did not create the situation that killed that kid, any more than Nachtway ignited the idiotic conflicts he snaps or Salgado created the hellholes to which he's so attracted.

So that's my personal perspective.

Mine was certainly not a criticism of the viewer - it's a condemnation of blatant exoticism on the part of the photographer and the dissociated powdered wigs who awarded him $10,000 dollars for "impeccably composed images of despair".

His composition skills are indeed "impeccable", and undoubtedly one's "eye" has been treated to its "provocation", but what does the "rest of the world" do when it notices? It defends the aesthetic.

It doesn't really matter how "events such as this" are covered. My beef is with the smarmy self-congratulations of that segment of the photo world that thinks there's nothing out of place with awarding reportage on the basis of how pretty it looks. Especially given the self referential use of western, emotion inducing iconography. Kitsch.

The entire series is very powerful. I don't have an ethical problem with capturing the image, because obviously the poor child is already dead. It's important to illustrate what is actually happening around the world; too many people living in developed countries really don't understand poverty or human disaster, and don't realize that much of the world lives like this.

I don't know if I feel comfortable with giving a professional photojournalist an additional $10k bonus just for being in the right place at the right time. Isn't recognition and the Prize itself enough?Perhaps the Pulitzer Prize board could consider donating to a charity in the subject country, e.g., relief for Haiti. They could certainly use the money.

Not sure what is "impeccable" about it. But it would be stronger in color.

I remember Don McCullen once commenting that most people object to his photos because they didn't want to be disturbed while they were reading the newspaper and eating breakfast.

Many years ago I was commissioned to do a story on prisoners of conscience in the USSR. I had to photograph them and document their suffering at the hands of the KGB. None of these people refused, they were all happy for their suffering to be told to the rest of the world in the hope that it would bring about positive change. It was an awesome responsibility, I pulled out all the stops to make the most striking images possible because I did not want to disappoint them. When eventually the pictures ran in the UK they were picked up for a presentation in the British parliament and many of the politicians there took upon themselves to individually campaign for these people. I know for certain one family, the Barrinovs from Leningrad, were allowed to leave the USSR and live in the UK as result. That was worth far more to me than anything else, my work made a tangible difference for that family. This is what motivates the likes of Salgado and Natchwey, hoping that their photos will stimulate enough interest that change occurs. You don't get rich doing this kind of work and in fact you pay a dear price for doing it as damages your psyche.

"Both of these draw directly from the mythology of the Catholic church."

There was also a winner of the WPP in 2007 with a photo from Afghanistan that was pure Michelangelo's Pietá - an old man holding the body of his son. (I THINK it was by the General News Story winner, Balazs Gardi, but the WPP site removed everything for 2007 except the overall contest winner and his site doesn't show the photo.)

Then there was the photo of Putin in the same year that was done to resemble an Orthodox ikon...

Pop history of art: it isn't surprising, because Christian mythology and imagery was dominant in the Western world for a very long time. Although the 19th and 20th century saw the rise of much more personal visions, the Christian imagery is still one of the more recognisable.


"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

--Inigo Montoya


How many photographers must have dreamnt of taking their cameras off in to a war zone and returning with a pulizter prize winning photograph.

Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Kevin Carter left a suicide note that brings home the reality of that dream.

"I am depressed ... without phone ... money for rent ... money for child support ... money for debts ... money!!! ... I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners...I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky."

Kevin Carter.

"Well, I don't have a great brain on me really, and I suppose if I had a great brain on me, maybe the emotional side of my make-up wouldn't be as sharp. You know, my emotions hurt me sometimes."

Too bare; you're too exposed.

"You know, I knew a very famous photographer once, his name was Eugene Smith, and he had a plate in his head because he got very badly injured at Iwo-Jiwa and he was a very human person; and I always described him to others, as a man who I thought had his nerve ends hanging out of his finger-tips"

Don McCullin


Mike, I say Kitsch in the sense of "aesthetics convey(ing) exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama" ... "that merely imitates the superficial appearances of art" and "is aesthetically pretentious" (apocryphal stories of the mighty moved to tears for example). Which pretty well sums up much of the history of photography I'm afraid.

It's not a straw dog, it's an actual dead five-year-old. That's tragic--not sentimental--to most human beings.


I think one of the concerns put forth by some of the commenters is the tendency for photographers (and many other artists as well) to use despair or tragedy as the go to theme to elicit strong emotions in the viewer. For whatever reason, it is much easier to convey authentic feelings of grief and sadness than it is of joy and happiness. The movie that ends with the hero overcoming all and saving his friends is sentimental drek while the movie that ends with the hero sacrificing his life is Oscar material. I love my Russian novelists but I personally have more respect for a piece of art that manages to overcome the bias and create an authentically joyful work than an authentically tragic work.

It reminds me of this series of stories on NPR:

Where they go back to the scene of a huge earthquake one year ago. One town was so completely devastated that they are moving it some miles away. Many bodies are still buried in the rubble and they have turned an overlook over the town into a tourist attraction. (They are going to set it up for laser tag!)

They interviewed one woman who sells photos at this overlook even though the bodies of several of her immediate family are still buried in the town.

Despair and the horrors of war and even life have been long a part of the artistic tradition.

Why do I see no condemnation of Goya or other painters who depicted the horror of war.

I'm surprised no one here has mentioned Susan Sontag's "Regrading the Pain of Others."

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