Observing Oppression

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

On Sunday, November 25, ​Reuters​ photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon ​captured​ Honduran migrant Maria Meza with her children as they attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The photograph immediately sparked controversy on Twitter, as political pundits and human rights activists retweeted with messages supporting or condemning the U.S. Border Patrol’s use of tear gas. One right-wing media personality even went so far as to ​deconstruct​ the image, claiming the scene was staged for political gain.

With each new humanitarian crisis comes a series of images from photojournalists that get shared and critiqued on social media. This is the dystopian nature of online discourse, in which the most privileged internet users dispute the morality of sociopolitical issues from the comfort of home or work. But there is an important lesson here that pertains to contemporary art.

Issues of climate justice, racial solidarity, class warfare and government corruption drive world politics, yet few encapsulate them better than photojournalists. Entire histories of struggle distill into one moment, one frame in high resolution. A single photograph can ignite widespread controversy on social media as well as critical conversations on popular news outlets.

In many ways, photojournalists help compile the first draft of history, the initial portrayal of events as they happen. There is no reason to consider photography like this as anything less than artistry. But photojournalists are ​rarely considered artists within their lifetimes. This is largely due to a lack of recognition among critics. Their utilitarian, vernacular works are usually treated as tertiary components to developing news stories.

Art criticism has long functioned with a learning curve, a revisionist tendency to define paradigms in retrospect. This is an ineffectual strategy for sparking social change, because it trains readers to interpret historical achievements within current affairs. Seeing events as they happen actually inspires ordinary people to organize for change—from human rights activism to anti-war movements. Much of fine photography’s stale and exclusionary vanguard fails to acknowledge this aesthetic and discursive resource.

News photographers reveal the inherent contradictions in modern cultures, the cracks in our social systems that oppress altruism and reward corruption. Is their work really less deserving of critical analysis than run-of-the-mill gallery exhibitions, hip industry influencers and advertising agencies? The idea of partisan art may seem polarizing to publications seeking centrism, but ignoring the potential to mobilize an already progressive readership is a bit near-sighted. With ​some​ ​exceptions​, art publications avoid taking meaningful stances on political issues.

Social media trains the eye to everyday oppression, but visual representations of injustice are much more than just Twitter fodder. Bringing photojournalism to the forefront of artistic discourses, therefore, could actually help heighten the connection between activism (calling attention to an issue) and organizing (bringing people together to get shit done).

With that in mind, here is an analysis of contemporary photojournalism through the lens of art criticism, with supplementary information for related volunteer work and activations.

First Draft of History, 2018

In a photograph from August, a plane distributes suppressant on the Holy Fire in Southern California as firefighters gather in a cul-de-sac. The yellow hue of the horizon pairs warmly with the workers’ protective wear and the fire truck’s pinstripe. The crimson cloud flowing from the belly of the airplane likewise matches the truck in the foreground, creating a sharp color contrast from the surrounding elements.

Mark Rightmire/Orange County Register

The image takes on deeper meaning when considering why it exists. In the last year, California has suffered 18 wildfires with hundreds of casualties and insurmountable damage. A clear result of climate change, the increased severity of the fires could permanently alter the landscape of the region and claim more lives in the process.

Trump is a climate change skeptic and blames poor forest management for the recurring emergencies, threatening to walk back federal funding if the firefighters fail. And yet, these catastrophes impact millions of lives and acres of land across the entire state. With another set of wildfires decimating Northern California throughout November, petty criticisms like Trump’s serve only to stall the necessary measures to prevent more intense catastrophes.

The California wildfires epitomize the climate crisis so astutely because they bring attention to deeper sociopolitical issues. Inmate firefighters from prisons get $1 per hour for their labor, while smoke from the fires spread across the country. If we continue to normalize these side effects, then we will inevitably become desensitized to their representations in the media.

Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency

Palestinian A’ed Abu Amro visits the fence bordering Gaza and Israel twice a week with friends. At 20, he knows no other reality than that of oppression. Since March 30, when Palestinians began their Great March of Return, Israeli military forces have murdered more than 200 people and injured more than 18,000 at the Gaza border. Casualties include protestors, journalists and paramedics.

Photographs from Gaza always cause controversy on social media. Mustafa Hassona’s photo went viral as soon as it appeared, garnering attention on Twitter and in news publications for its clear David and Goliath parallels. Critics also compared the image to Eugene Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People painting, while others argued that this comparison distracts from the Palestinian cause.

Regardless of motive, discussions around the image exemplify the vain endeavors to resolve the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Left with few options after decades of violent suppression, protestors consistently risk their lives to push back against the Israeli army. As such, it is difficult to envision alternatives to the situation without upending the sociopolitical and economic conditions that foster such an imbalance.

Hannah McKay/Reuters

Genesis Cordona from Honduras is one of many migrants traveling north to escape poverty and violence at home. In this photograph, Hannah McKay takes a rule-of-thirds approach to portraiture by placing the six-year-old’s profile in focus, with Barbie dolls and vibrant colors lightly obscured behind her.

Residual colonialism is still ingrained in the everyday lives of Hondurans and other Central Americans, as exemplified by this young girl’s light-skinned dolls. Looming in the background of the photograph, they represent both the aspirational oppression put on young women and the ubiquity of white supremacy. Ever in the periphery, whiteness and ideals of American life both inspire and hinder the journeys of many refugees seeking asylum.

Conservative rhetoric has long blamed the oppressed for their own conditions, particularly during the Nixon and Reagan eras. But this concept now extends beyond domestic policy, as U.S. actions abroad carry consequences. To consider Central Americans’ migration as voluntary would be an understatement. In many cases, families fled from imminent death and starvation due to increased gang rivalries and authoritarian governments–U.S. exported and supported, respectively.

The long history of U.S. intervention in Central America is reaching a point of extreme contention as these migrants face tear gas at the U.S.-Mexico border. While mainstream media outlets further stoke outrage and fear from their readers, photographs of migrants help contextualize their humanity within the greater struggle for citizenship.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

During the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, there was a brief glimmer of hope that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony would sway the Senate vote. After much deliberation—and multiple elevator confrontations—Senate Judiciary Committee member Jeff Flake still voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Senator Flake’s last-minute indecision sparked controversy within an already dubious series of events. As such, Brendan Smialowski’s photograph functions as the quintessential representation of neoliberal decay—and it even looks like it could be a Neoclassical painting. Here we have Flake at center frame, flanked by Lindsey Graham, Mike Crapo and other colleagues all looking in his direction. His downward gaze is juxtaposed with his rigid posture, counterbalancing emotional stature and professional reputation.

Calling for an FBI investigation was Flake’s version of doing the right thing. For a Republican who is regularly labeled as a sellout liberal, the best possible option is passing off the decision to someone else. Because he relies on corporate money, he transcends his empathy in order to indirectly push the agenda. Ascribing top priority to financial interests is, after all, how Republicans have been able to consolidate their power and organize in great numbers.

The pristine qualities of this photograph—from Flake’s jacket and tie to the arrangement of his onlookers against the shining wooden walls—only further attest to the bourgeois nature of the American political tradition. As such, its representation in contemporary media remains intact, while the subjects in frame avert their eyes.

Francisco Proner/Farpa Focolectivo

Brazil’s political climate is as volatile as ever following the fascist insurgency of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Masked under the blanket term of “populism,” Bolsonaro is heralded by supporters as a return to leadership that favors privatization of state enterprises.

Preceding this election was the ousting and eventual arrest of former president Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula. The charges brought against him pertained to instances of corruption and money laundering, which were brought into the spotlight after speculation that he would run for the presidency again. Any aspirations of candidacy were quickly quashed by a Brazilian federal judge, who ruled against him and ordered his arrest.

Lula accordingly placed himself in exile to delay his prison sentence, but the Brazilian supreme court overturned the extension plea, forcing him out of hiding and into the streets. The photograph above shows Lula after surrendering to the government, with flowers in hand crossing a sea of supporters. The aerial perspective shows the immensity of the crowd gathered outside the Metalworkers Union headquarters in São Bernardo. Preserved in frame, this moment evokes the sadness felt by Brazil’s working class.

While oligarchy once again overtakes the South American nation, an entire population of Brazilian laborers mourn the loss of their only representative, who will remain imprisoned for 12 years. That Lula himself faces corruption and money laundering charges shows the reactionary nature of anti-corruption politics, with government officials ousting leftists for their business deals only to prop up misogynist, homophobic and racist politicians who serve private interests.

Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Modern warfare must be awfully lonesome for the United States. Its involvement in at least seven current international conflicts—including the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan—sneaks easily into the periphery of mainstream media, without the national pride that dominated American thought until the Vietnam War. And in the last decade, much of the news of American conflict overseas pertains to drone and missile strikes in the Middle East.

In April, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would join France and the U.K. in sending missiles to strike key targets related to the Syrian government’s alleged chemical weapon attacks in Douma. The next day, Hassan Ammar captured streaks of U.S. missile fire above Damascus, surrounded by the night sky and the active city below.

Frozen in time, the missiles in this photo imply their own destruction while emanating a remoteness—a sort of cosmic, phenomenal energy like that of a meteor shower. There is no visible life in the photo, only the implicit lives in all those well-lit windows. But while rocks in space evoke awe from their onlookers, these artificially produced weapons only stoke fear and strike land.

The Syrian Civil War will soon be entering its eighth year. Under the Assad regime, civilians will continue to be targets for chemical and explosive attacks as well as victims of starvation and disease. As the Syrian military attempts to crush the opposition, entire cities and their populations are preparing for death.

With the realities of this war readily available online, it is remarkable to think about the bureaucratic ignorance that makes up U.S. foreign policy in Syria. The Trump administration regularly demonizes Syrian refugees, and the recent immigration crackdown means that our involvement could only be viewed as destructive, tertiary and completely unnecessary.

From Activism to Organizing

Photojournalism exposes the masses to injustice, making it easier to internalize and accept as a norm. There are many ways to fight this tendency, from volunteering with political campaigns to joining movements and organizations. The issues addressed above are ongoing, and getting involved begins with access to resources.

The Sunrise Movement’s #GreenNewDeal campaign is rapidly gaining popularity thanks to the backing of New York congresswoman elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Additionally, holding elected officials accountable through phone calls and public protest could be great access points to further involvement. Locating representatives is actually quite easy, and there are plenty of similar progressive activations from local and national groups like DSA and the Green Party.

The migrant caravan is just one example of the broader dysfunctions of current U.S. immigration policy, so joining a volunteer group is a great way to help out and learn more. Many religious groups and nonprofit organizations have volunteered their time at the border, including the Poor People’s Campaign and progressive churches. Their example should steer the course for immigration reform, which must necessarily fight for both racial and economic justice.

Supporting women’s movements and reading about women can help give stories like Dr. Blasey Ford’s more credence. In addition, there are volunteer opportunities with the RAINN-Partner Crisis Center, which hosts the National Sexual Assault hotline (1–800–656-HOPE). Sexual harassment, assault and battery still pervade American society despite significant pushback. Elevating voices of victims helps create space for discourse and could lead to more significant measures.

As former President Lula begins his prison sentence, Brazilian workers formed a committee to organize around issues and continue the conversation. Additionally, the women’s movement #EleNão formed after president-elect Bolsonaro won the election. Raising awareness to these groups helps bring greater attention to the country’s marginalized communities, which stand to lose the most under the new administration.

Finally, there are many ways to provide humanitarian aid to Syrians suffering in the ongoing civil war. In April, Global Citizen put together a handy guide for refugee outreach, which ranges from donations and translation services to pressuring politicians and volunteering with Doctors Without Borders.

To connect with humanitarian issues is to indirectly engage with the organization of political movements. Anyone remotely moved by photos already has the seeds of activism within them. Beyond posting online, ordinary people must actively organize against sources of oppression to cultivate positive change. Otherwise, pitiless elites will continue to drive apart groups of people with unrealized commonalities.