Are we close enough?
1.Nepal, Zbigniew Libera
"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.” This widely cited Robert Capa quotation could be discussed in terms of the emerging new technology employed in photojournalism today. What is a good picture then? Maybe this depiction, which stays in the mind, pushes us to rethink our approaches. Is it still possible in today’s digitized world to be influenced by a single photo? The function of photojournalists is not only to inform but also to empathize with depicted people, or understand the world better. However, it seems that today’s digital postmodern generation is drowning is a mass of images. We consume thousands of images every day and barely spend a few seconds on each, with no opportunity for human feelings to be influenced or emotions evoked. It seems that the words of Frederic Jameason are so true: “the informational function of the media would thus be to help us forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.” Is this a time of relentless forgetting not allowing any time for reflection? It seems that traditional photojournalism, which attempted to capture the decisive moment in a picture, is no longer an efficient communication medium in the contemporary world. It is essential to find new evocative ways to inform people about present affairs.
2.Dan McCullin, Hue, Vietnam, February 1968
Can you feel the same as a previous generation when you look at one image? Don McCullin’s picture entitled Hue, February 1968 depicts a US marine suffering severe shell shock and waiting to be evacuated from the battle zone. The viewer should be paralyzed and frightened by the abeyance between life and death. McCullin briefly explains his intentions: “I want you to look at my photographs. I don’t want you to reject and say: ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t look at those pictures. They are atrocity pictures.’ Of course, they are. But I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures.” Those photographs compel a viewer to experience and not merely look at the poignant story conveyed in an image.
The war photography of McCullin and Capa is so aesthetically beautiful that the pictures could easily be called masterpieces, they depict war as the direst of human inventions. Is it still an efficient method to communicate with people by producing more stunning photographs in terms of capturing dramatic scenes? Today’s generation is so close to the screen, which becomes an almost human ‘extension’. Furthermore, the sense of time and space has changed drastically. We are under the illusion of closeness to people on the other side of the globe, but simultaneously so far from the people of our own neighborhood.
Robert Capa changed the nature of war photography, reinventing the form with visceral images of the D-day landings on Omaha Beach in Normandy. The anonymous solder could be considered the most provocative, standing out from other war photos. The continuous popularity of the importance of independent organizations such as World Press Photo based in Amsterdam, show that people still need photos with a strong emotional and symbolic impact. This company is known for holding the world's largest and most prestigious annual press photography contest. Each year, photographers from around the world send each thousands of examples of evocative stories. A special jury selects the best photos taken under consideration composition, meaning that there is a certain story, artistic value, sensitivity, and political context. The winners often show human tragedies or terrified personal stories. It’s worth rethinking whether this formula still reflects the present world.
3. Frauke Eigen
Nonetheless, there are photojournalists who work in a more conceptual way, but are still focused on documenting the evidence. Frauke Eigen, in her project ‘From Fundstücke Kosovo,, declined to show humans in her photography. She witnessed the exhumation of a number of mass graves as she was working for a governmental relief organization in Kosovo. Her photographs present some scraps of victims’ clothing and personal objects which had been washed and laid out to dry close to the site of the graves. Each discarded scrap has their own intimacy and contains the story of a death persona. The body may be gone but the residuum still exists and becomes immortalized in the photographic depiction.
The most discussed war photos of last decade were taken by a non-professional photographer. A number of photographs showing soldiers abusing potential war criminals in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison went public and quickly became a sensation. The simply taken images are particularly shocking in their pure realism. These photos uncovered the worst in human behavior. It was shown that evil, stupidity, and envy really exist. Yet, several questions arise. Should these photos be shown to a wider audience? Did they have a good or bad impact on viewers?
It is worth discussing how contemporary artists use conceptual language to rethink the role of photojournalism. Zbigniew Libera, in his cycle ‘Positives’, questions the media’s power of representation. The images depict happy reinterpretations of photographic icons from the twentieth century. As copies of reportage images published in the press, the photos explore not only the medium of photography, but also the media of memory and vision, as Libera recreates and enlarges scenes from photographs of dramatic historical events, pictures that occupy the memory of his generation. Libera’s photograph Nepal recalls the image of of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the child depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972. The original photograph shows a group of people running for cover from the flames. A grandmother holds her baby grandson in her arms; the boy died, right in front of Nick Ut's camera. Then, through the smoke, he saw something else: a young girl, naked, running screaming down the road. Libera, in contrast, shows a group of people smiling warmly for the camera. Their poses, clothes, and figures are almost identical to those from the well-known original. It is the original photograph, functioning like a visual cliché, that is the first thing that appears before our eyes when looking at this reimagining. Yet, after a moment, we realize that we are seeing an ‘inverted’ copy. This happy ‘fake’ photo underlines ‘forgetting’ as the proper content of images. What do these particular iconic photos show now and what do they refer to? We are not sure now… in this way Libera critiques the passivity and distance generated by certain uses of photography and challenges our ways of seeing.
4.Thi Kim Phuc
The work of Broomberg and Chanarin also forces people to comprehend new ways of seeing. Their work, as an artistic tandem, is also engaged in ‘searching for truth’, but they do not record ‘bloody evidence’ directly in the eye of current events. Their method of working is cooler and more reserved than those photographers who witness the very worst evidence of human behavior. Moreover, they have a lot of hesitation as to the role of photojournalism and ask: “What do you expect to see? What do you wish to see? How much would be enough evidence for you?” This was from an interview discussing their Afghanistan project, where Broomberg and Chanarin travelled in June 2008. Along with their cameras, they took a roll of photographic paper, contained in a simple lightproof cardboard box. They arrived during the worst month of the war. But not taking any pictures was their purpose. Every day, they unrolled a six-meter section of the paper and exposed it to the sun for 20 seconds. The results, as seen here, deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering.
5. Broombeg and Chanarin
The artists incorporated the army into their project. Soldiers transported the box of photographic paper from London to Helmand. The package travelled from one military base to another. The artists created a performance, which was presented as a film. In the video, the box becomes an absurd, an object without functionality. The damaged film is an outcome of this performance. The audience sees only two stripes of white film. Does it possess any content? The film is physically present, but plays the role of a non-speaking witness. The audience cannot see anything beyond the empty space which could be a place for our imaginations. Perhaps this movement gives more to rethink than thousands of mundane photos. These negatives were also shown not only in museums or galleries, but also in the New York Times. This led to a broad discussion about the role of photography as evidence of current affairs.The way that the present generation perceives the world has been transformed by the development of new media. Photographers can use iPhones, drones, and satellite shoots, meaning that the photographer often no longer needs to be physically present. Non-professional local people are hired to work as photographers who could ‘come closer’.
Is drone photography less human? Rocco Rorandelli makes use of drones to document the current refugee crisis in Europe. The photographer does not embed himself among the desperate migrants but employs a drone that hovers over them. Photos document the hundreds of thousands of migrants traveling from Greece to Germany. “It’s a less personal story that I’m telling from the air,” the photographer states. “I’m looking from afar, which is somewhat against classic photojournalism where we are supposed to be close and intimate. This is more like mapping.” His approach, that uses more distanced perspectives, serves to underline that migration is not merely a human phenomenon but a movement that is typical for animals of other species. Do we, as a ‘drone perspective viewer' understand the situation more or do we become more detached from the unfolding human tragedy?
CLOUDS OVER SIDRA
New projects have also emerged that use new technology that does permit us to become closer to the human. The present refugee crisis sometimes seems so remote that it is almost abstract. The audience of Clouds Over Sidra become a member of the refugee camp. The project tells an intimate story about one person. We can see through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. It is the first step into virtual reality filmmaking. We are obliged to take an active role in the developing story and can choose our point of view and not serve simply as passive narrative observers. It is the viewers who can make a decision as to what they wish to see, to a particular extent. You have the opportunity to receive an experience of usual life of girl in refugee camp.. The author said that this project “moves ordinary people. I've showed it to taxi drivers, janitors, executives...and something is happening here. What I find fascinating is the power dynamic between Sidra and her audience.”Social projects, such as photographs or movies, should move viewers, and awaken empathy.
The growing flood of digital images that deluges the present generation seems detached from real problems. Furthermore, the virtual space inhabited by computer games also conditions our perception of the world from early childhood. This is in addition to our means of collecting information, which has also changed drastically. The digital encyclopedia Wikipedia, with its intertextual structure, is the most widely used source of knowledge today. Intertextuality leads us to choose our own path in finding answers! Perhaps projects such as Clouds Over Sidra are the firsts steps in giving us more freedom to choose a certain point of view. The decision is not taken only by the filmmaker but gives a chance for the viewer to become an active participant or at least entertain the notion that they can participate. The contemporary, near digital human, is still interested in other people, but now they wish to be active in collecting information and choosing their own point of view. Remarkably, the new technology is a way to meet with other people, who sometimes live far away from our homes. Viewers are, on the one hand, more digitized, but, on the other, they now have the opportunity to meet and understand each other better.