Well it seems that the scandal of fauxtojournalist Souvid Datta has set the cat amongst the pigeons and unleashed a very timely investigation of the entire photographic industry by the people who are most concerned with it, that is, other photojournalists.
Of course within any industry that thrives on ego stroking from its audience and the “stars” and celebrities within that industry get world wide recognition, for their “artistic” efforts its no surprise that when a scandal breaks amongst its good denizens that there is much beating of the chest and wailing about how we need to address the problems of our industry.
Well here’s a start. Lets just can the collective ego’s shall we?
Vee Morgana, in an astute post on social media, made comment about the selection of what is to me an empty, but very predictable winner of the annual Headon Photographic Portrait Prize. Morgana says,
“There are two types of photographers in this world: those who photograph with respect, humility, humbleness, patience, a deep understanding of the human condition and most importantly, a belief that the subjects, the people or even places they’re photographing, come first, and the photographers second, if at all.
The other type of photographers are convinced they photograph with the same sensitivities, but ultimately, their work, and as good as it might be (and definitely not in this case) is all about themselves, with their subjects a distant second, way behind their egos and their hunger for the attainment of status.”
Morgana, who has never worked in journalism, has clearly articulated what the central problem of our industry is. Ego.
James Nachtwey, with whom I did a workshop many years ago and who is a gentle and humane soul that has left a major impact on this world with his imagery, has photographed the suffering of many, in many, many conflict zones across the world. He was perhaps the first of the international celebrities of photojournalism and has become synonymous with the Oscar winning documentary “War Photographer”. Nachtwey, who I am sure was motivated by the right reasons when he once uttered the fateful words “let my photographs bear witness” had no idea the level of emulation that he would spawn.
The significant difference being, is that Nachtwey’s work, never ever strips the people he photographs of their basic human right to dignity. Sadly, for our industry very few of the new “IT” photographers have the same compassion for humanity or understanding of the human condition that Nachtwey has exhibited.
So then lets examine the latest crop of winners in the latest photo-competition that has been based on a user pays model. This year, for the first time, the Headon photographic portrait competition has been opened to an international audience and the most awarded of the international entrants in the many international awards he has entered is Spanish photographer Cesar Dezfuli for a photo of a 16 year old Malian boy who had just washed up on the shores of Lampedusa.
It was part of a story on refugees, where every Tom, Dick and Harry from anywhere who could afford a camera and wanted “to bear witness” has shown up either under the guise of an NGO or some struggling newspaper somewhere. Just like the some thirty or forty young photojournalists from Europe that went to Bosnia in the 1990’s aiming to making a name for themselves out of a humanitarian crisis, but just managed to get themselves killed instead, the shores that are being swamped with Refugees are also being cluttered by the bodies of well fed photojournalists from every privileged western country on the map.
I don’t think much of the photograph of Amadou Sumaila as a stand alone portrait. Perhaps in context of the rest of the story it might make sense but Headon is a portrait prize whose brief was “to demonstrate a high level of engagement with the subject”. I may have missed something but I can’t find anywhere within the photographers caption that there was a high level of “engagement” with the subject. There is not the tiniest scrap of personal information about the young man, whose life has been completely uprooted and who has ended up on a floating death trap in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea… But why did that happen and who is the boy and how did he get there? And can someone please explain to me on what grounds this image demonstrates “engagement”. I actually find it quite stylistically cliched as well… goodness if I hadn’t seen the same photo over and over again in the heady days of the 90’s in London in all the fashion magazines I might be slightly more charitable. But I am sure all the judges for this competition would know that style even if the younger entrants may not.
I like, Vee Morgana, would like to know if the photographer Cesar Dezfuli, even asked young Amadou if he could use his photo in the Headon Portrait Prize. Did he get a signed model release? Has he split some of his winnings with the boy? If “bearing witness” and winning photographic awards means just shoving a camera into the face of some traumatised person without a thought to the consequences of what the display of their image will do then I believe that some of these photographic contests should start a fund to look after the person whose image has been used to win such awards.
But that wouldn’t be in their interest really would it? Because as the oft uttered quote “there’s a sucker born every minute” (famously attributed to PT Barnum but more likely to have been coined by David Hannum) describes every minute someone out there says their photographs “bear witness”, there is a potential photographic prize entrant.
Today I am posting a photographic portrait that would be my clear choice for the winner of any photographic competition. It should also win prizes for its pure humanity. The portrait is of Jenell Quinsee, who has been visiting refugees in Melbourne and Manus Island detention facilities. Quinsee says the refugees don’t call the facilities she visits detention centre’s but prison camps.
The photograph was made by a Refugee, whose lived for SIX years in detention. Currently, even though he has no permanent visa solution, he works within the community to raise awareness about refugees still in detention. I can’t name him, because unlike Cesar Dezfuli’s status of photojournalistic privilege, potentially there would be severe consequences for himself and his family for even the publication of his name.
While Jenell continues to campaign relentlessly to try and get the remaining refugees released after EIGHT years, she doesn’t receive any accolades for her work, nor does she reap any potential financial rewards. After twenty years of visiting refugees in these circumstances and fighting for their release, she merely says that its extraordinary that the “ordinary” members of the community do what they do in supporting these poor souls who have become enmeshed in political gamesmanship and sanctimonious discussion about their futures.
From providing advocacy services to organising mini-circus shows to encouraging creative activities the Jenell Quinsee’s of this world are really the ones “bearing witness” to the stark situation of refugee populations. By engaging with people on a human level, over the years, Quinsee says, many have become like family members.
Dezfuli’s work maybe the latest in a run of “IT” photographers that has been promoted by an elitist system that feeds on ego, but to me the plethora of photo competitions and their rewards represent only pyrrhic victories. Case in point, the hubris of Souvid Datta.
The cost of these photo competitions to the photographic industry to me is a devaluing of real issues and quite frankly a sordid attempt to monetize humanitarian crisis and increase their visibility/credibility so as to create more business for themselves. The partnership of Lensculture and Magnum is one such creation.
Now if people want to make money well sure, I get it. You need to be able to live. But please don’t confuse photojournalism and humanitarian action as the same thing. They are not.
Don’t believe the hype.
Todays photo is of Jenell Quinsee holding a placard to get the attention of the politicians so to release more refugees from detention. The photograph was taken by a refugee who spent SIX years inside one of those facilities. Photographer Unknown.