New Media Manifesto
Where the Rules of Photojournalism Need Not Apply
This story is not about diagnosing the problems that plague photojournalism, nor to suggest specific reforms or sweeping solutions to those problems. There are many things I care about in the world but photojournalism is not one of them. However, I care deeply about the broader world of documentary photography.
Since the traditions, practice, and history of photojournalism exert such a weight upon the practice of documentary photography, it’s difficult to talk about documentary photography without implicit reference to photojournalism.
My object here is to make explicit reference to photojournalism, and then to reject a couple of its key premises. Quoting a famous manifesto from the past, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Photojournalism, a product of old media, is a 20th century means for propagating ruling ideas.
I’m not so naive to think that new media, new technologies and networks put in service to ruling ideas, signify much of a change on their own. But there is dislocation occurring and dislodging of old assumptions and, with that, possibilities for new ideas to emerge and gain some footing. This piece is intended to be an example of the rethinking of old assumptions about how to visually document the world, and about the ideas the images can carry.
Photojournalism in crisis
Photojournalism is in a multi-faceted state of crisis. Staff photographers at news outlets are being laid off, while freelance photojournalists are finding they have to compete with smartphone-wielding citizen journalists embedded in news scenes before the professionals even arrive.
But there is another crisis confronting photojournalism, one as old as photography itself. Robert Capa’s famed photograph of a Republican soldier falling back at the moment of being shot during the Spanish Civil War, and the controversy over whether the photo was staged, represent a longstanding threat to photojournalism. Like the current crisis threatening photojournalists’ livelihoods, this one is amplified by the rise of digital technology. This is a crisis of credibility and photojournalistic ethics amidst the perceived proliferation of “posed, faked or manipulated documentary photography.”
Yet, I’m struck by standards of practice that proclaim the staging of photos “unethical” (but portraits are staged) and for which payment to subjects is also deemed unethical, while making money and careers off of images of destitute subjects who weren’t paid is judged to conform to the highest standards of photojournalism. I can find only one appropriate response: Fuck the ethics and edicts of photojournalism.
I was interested to see that the photographer Chris Arnade commented on Gemma-Rose Turnbull’s piece on photographing sex workers, which features a critique of my story, Diary of a Sex Tourist that appeared in Medium/Vantage. I’m familiar with Arnade’s work and methods but hadn’t thought about him in a while. I was talking to a friend who’s rather fascinated by stories of the lives of sex workers and I mentioned Arnade to her and described his work, and she then became, as she put it, “obsessed” with his photographs and the stories of the people he photographs. She pointed out to me a recent disagreement between Arnade and the Bronx Documentary Center that I was unaware of.
From an email Arnade received from the Bronx Documentary Center regarding the inclusion of his photos in their Altered Images exhibition:
“…On Saturday we will open up our Altered Images exhibition, which examines posed, faked or manipulated documentary photography. A number of people had suggested we include your work of substance abusers and sex workers. We have reviewed your work. You qualify on a number of levels and will be included.
You admit to paying your subjects, which violates one of the most closely held tenets of documentary photography. Paying to photograph any person, particularly one dependent upon drugs, and even driving them to buy drugs, as you say you have done, is a clear breach of ethics and standards…”
I think Arnade’s troubles with the Bronx Documentary Center is a product of the crises in photojournalism alluded to above, where two major photojournalism prizes in the past few years were rescinded because of discovered manipulation, false captions, and staging of images. In the midst of questions about the value and economic viability of professional photojournalism in the age of new media, sensitivity over anything that might undermine the integrity of photojournalism is being self-policed in some quarters with the zeal of Russian commissars. Yet, I’m struck by standards of practice that proclaim the staging of photos “unethical” (but portraits are staged) and for which payment to subjects is also deemed unethical, while making money and careers off of images of destitute subjects who weren’t paid is judged to conform to the highest standards of photojournalism. I can find only one appropriate response: Fuck the ethics and edicts of photojournalism.
A recently featured series in Medium/Vantage, the luminous My Last Day at Seventeen by Doug DuBois, uses staged photos along with candid shots to tell a story about the lives of a group of Irish teenagers. As DuBois says:
“…The photographs and the illustrated comic that make up “My Last Day at Seventeen,” blend narrative truth and fiction to create something that I hope is true to the experience of the people in the photographs, their neighborhood and (broadly speaking) the tensions and emotions related to growing up and coming of age. That’s as honest as I can be…”
Photographers who, unlike photojournalists, fail to persist in the charade of detached objective truth, whose genre non-conforming work — immersive, subjective work — are not defined by the standards of photojournalism, need to carve out a space to discuss their approaches and methods, assertively and unapologetically.
I’m no advocate of manipulation, e.g., making inconvenient objects in a frame disappear through Photoshop cloning, but staging and paying subjects are integral to my documentary work and that of many others. These practices are denigrated as unethical by the guardians of photojournalism when we don’t even claim to be photojournalists. However, our work is documentary, it is portraiture, it is storytelling that seeks to reveal truth.
How these documentary photos were staged
Illustrating issues of staging in documentary work by briefly discussing three photos from my recent story on sex workers
My series on sex workers depict a number of scenes in low light and because of my dislike of flash, for both aesthetic and practical reasons, I often made long hand-held exposures of between 1/8 and 1/2 second using only ambient light. Just prior to this photo being taken, Sahomy sat on the edge of the bed of her own accord and began to take off her shoes. I quickly dropped to the floor and asked her to hold her pose because I knew I needed a long exposure and the continued action of taking off her shoes would result in motion blur that I did not want, and would not represent what my eyes were seeing. The photo was staged, maybe minimally, but it was staged.
This photo of Dahiana was taken in a hotel as she undressed, again using ambient light — fading sunlight through the window and the light from a lamp. I asked her to stand against the wall and I took the shot. The staging here is more deliberate and obvious, directing her to stand in a certain place in the room, in the way a portrait often is. (I had nothing to do with the panties or bra she was wearing — sometimes things like choice of underwear and wall color just come together fortuitously.)
The silhouette of Cristal outside my hotel room was the most thoroughly staged of the three. At an earlier stay at the hotel, as I was sitting outside my door one morning, a sex worker leaving the room next to mine stood and looked out at the pool, at the simultaneous end and beginning of her day. I imagined what a photo of her at that moment, taken from her daily work routine, would look like. When I had an opportunity to make that photo at a later time with a sex worker I had become acquainted with, I took this shot.
My question to critics of such staging, or of the practice of paying subjects to allow photographers to photograph them, is whether these practices necessarily distort the reality that documentary photography aims to present? And does personal involvement with subjects, which often accompanies these practices, subvert the truth even as it opens the door to opportunities for picture-making of real-life situations that would be otherwise unavailable?
The paradox of the western eye
Here I turn to a font of provocative statements, a colossal argument presented in a series of epigrams, Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. I read this book 25 years ago, soon after it was published, and its deliberate sensationalism, its often outlandish and overstated interpretations, had their intended effect on me as well as many others, whether that effect was being overwhelmed and convinced or offended and outraged. Thinking of the controversies surrounding documentary photography and photojournalism, and considering the book’s focus on art and representation and cultural meaning throughout western history, I thought now might be a good time to re-read it.
“There is no such thing as ‘mere’ image. Western culture is built on perceptual relations. From the soaring god-projections of ancient sky-cult to the celebrity-inflating machinery of American commercial promotion, western identity has organized itself around charismatic sexual personae of hierarchic command. Every god is an idol, literally an ‘image’ (Latin idolum from Greek eidolon).” — Camille Paglia
Cinema and photography, particularly documentary photography and photojournalism, present a paradox between the rational objective Apollonian eye and the hidden chaotic worlds sought by that eye. As visual media examples of popular culture, documentary photography and photojournalism share traits with other forms.
“That popular culture reclaims what high culture shuts out is clear in the case of pornography. Pornography is pure pagan imagism… Every shot, every angle in pornography, no matter how silly, twisted, or pasty, is yet another attempt to get the whole picture of the enormity of chthonian [Dionysian] nature… Pornography’s male-born explicitness renders visible what is invisible, women’s chthonian internality. It tries to shed Apollonian light on woman’s anxiety-provoking darkness.” — Camille Paglia
Putting aside Paglia’s contentious gender metaphors, photojournalists, practicing at high levels and lauded, facing down danger, sacrificing and heroic, offer witness to chaos, to nature’s and humanity’s Dionysian (chthonian) pull. Like the makers of blockbuster movies, they offer images of intrinsic danger and drama that draw people in massive numbers, the images that make the twin enterprises economically viable.
“Dionysus charges matter with motion and energy: objects are alive, and people are bestial. Apollo freezes the living into objects of art or contemplation.” — Camille Paglia
Photojournalism attempts to wed the rational authoritative Apollonian eye to the visceral earthbound chaos, but in a way that maintains distance and clarity. Fear of being engulfed and dragged down into the mire and confusion of multiple subjectivities underlies many of the rules and ethics of photojournalism. But this approach is a product of old media, the authoritative evening news of two or three television networks, two or three newspapers of record. Now, with the myriad outlets and platforms of new media, multiple subjectivities find their voices carrying.
What new media is to old media, documentary storytellers and photo essayists are to traditional photojournalism. People have stories to tell, stories to show. And the old rules, whether those within genres or those demarcating boundaries between genres, do not necessarily serve the goal of conveying the truth of people’s experiences.
Even in the days of old media, documentary photographers were making the kind of work I describe. But often they could find distribution only through books or specialty magazines, and while photo books can be wonderful objects, their reach is limited. What’s new is distribution through the web, with the potential of unlimited reach.
Dislocation, new opportunities, rejection of rules, making a space for multiple subjectivities. Let’s see what we can do with that.