Photojournalism: The Myth of the Passive Photographer

On Remembrance Sunday, I attended the Witnessing Global History exhibition at Felsted School, an exhibition displaying original photojournalistic prints of images iconic and unfamiliar, assembled with the input of former Sunday Times photojournalist Harriet Logan. Companion to the collection was a talk with Logan which changed my perception of photography for good.

A number of the photographs in the exhibition were harrowing not just in the subject matter but also when considering the position of the photographer. Take, for instance, the image below, captured by an unknown photographer in Japan in 1943, entitled “Captured Australian Pilot About to be Beheaded by Japanese Officer”. It shows a blindfolded man on his knees (later revealed to be Sgt. Leonard Siffleet of the Second Australian Imperial Force), hands presumably fastened behind his back, and a Japanese man with a sword raised above his head, clearly preparing to strike the fatal blow. One assumes that in the late stage of motion displayed there is no going back either for the officer or the prisoner, and indeed, moments after the photo was taken, the Australian was executed.

beheading

Captured Australian Pilot About to be Beheaded by Japanese Office, Unknown Photographer, 1943

So what was the unknown photographer’s role in this scene? One assumes he was a war photographer attached to Japanese, but what were his own thoughts? And, what were his motivations in capturing it?

“The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.”

American writer, filmmaker and critic Susan Sontag (1979) suggests that the simple act of taking a photograph is passive in itself, or that it is a way of hiding from what is (or is not) going on; witnessing but not acknowledging. She writes, “the person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.” I asked former Sunday Times photojournalist Harriet Logan about her feelings on the passive role of the photographer, particularly as witness to very real and often horrific events. Her response was that it is in fact a long way from passive because the process of recording the event is in itself an active effort to initiate action. She used the example of Tom Stoddart’s ‘Famine in Sudan’, an image in which a well-nourished Sudanese man steals maze from a skeletal child (below). the photo begs the question why did the photographer not intervene? Logan’s response was that in fact the act of taking the photograph was an intervention in itself, because following its publication the photographer raised £150,000 to help feed the starving population.

Famine in Sudan, Tom Stoddart, 1998

Famine in Sudan, Tom Stoddart, 1998

Logan also spoke of one of her own experiences in Afghanistan where she followed the story of a young girl who had been horrifically abused by a gang of much older men. Subsequently her own father was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit on the word of her abusers. By just following the story Logan was putting herself and the family in danger, but her actions and those of her team, led to the release of the girl’s father and the persecution of the men responsible for her fate.

Two Women Walking Past Ruins, Harriet Logan, 1997 (Afghanistan. Part of 'Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan' collection)

Two Women Walking Past Ruins, Harriet Logan, 1997 (Afghanistan. Part of ‘Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan’ collection)

“As a photographer, you feel helpless. Around you are medics, security personnel, people doing good work. It can be agonisingly painful to think that all you’re doing is taking pictures.”

Award-winning war photographer Adam Ferguson talks of the lasting affects that his work in war zones all over the world has had on his life. He told the Guardian newspaper in 2011 (original article) that he still feels scared whenever he sees some of the images in his own portfolio. He says “as a photographer, you feel helpless. Around you are medics, security personnel, people doing good work. It can be agonisingly painful to think that all you’re doing is taking pictures.”

An Afghan woman is rushed from the scene of a car bomb, Adam Ferguson for the New York Times

An Afghan woman is rushed from the scene of a car bomb, Adam Ferguson for the New York Times, 2010 (source)

Both Logan and Ferguson agree that as a photojournalist, one witnesses and documents the worst of human life; the depravity to which humankind can sink. It takes one person to capture a scene for it to have any chance of disseminating, and remember: “an image speaks a thousand words”. If a politician is shown a photo of a ten-year-old Vietnamese soldier, glancing blankly at the viewer, machine gun slung across his back, perhaps they would be more likely to act convincingly to combat child abuse and exploitation. If an individual sees in print a skeleton wrapped in papery flesh, dragging itself across the frame of the image, maybe more funds and food-parcels would make it out to the Sudan.

Whose job is it to show us what is really going on in the world? The responsibility lies with photojournalism, and the photographers deserve more credit.

Thanks to Felsted School, Harriet Logan and all involved in the Witnessing Global History exhibition. Click here for the online exhibition gallery.

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9 comments on "Photojournalism: The Myth of the Passive Photographer"

  1. Brava! Brava! That’s a very strong piece. Power to the photo journalists…and to you.

  2. Brilliant article! Very insightful

  3. Fantastic article, Emma! I agree–my perception of photography (and photojournalism in particular) has been challenged and reformed by this. It’s an uncomfortable discussion, in some ways, but a fascinating one.

  4. Pingback: Photojournalism and Context | cultural memory

  5. True, honest, raw, powerful, ethical problems raised, I feel it. You did a wonderful work.

  6. Yes, great piece, Emma. I wonder – can the recorder intervene after the act of recording? I’m thinking about the horrific Stoddart image. Couldn’t he have put the camera away and run after the thief…?

    • Emma Nicholson on

      It’s a very good point and I thought the same myself. It’s tough to speculate, but I can only suggest that he may have experienced the dilemma that he was there to document from a purely neutral standpoint and intervention was therefore not his prerogative. It could be said that a photographer cannot be seen to be taking sides so as not to affect the context. If the photographer irritates someone or snatches a bag of food from a dominant individual, everyone will begin to act differently around the person with the camera. The photographer will no longer be able to document anything other than the subjects’ perception of the photographer himself.

      I expect it is a moral dilemma that all photojournalists will experience and each photographer’s response will be different. According to Harriet Logan, there aren’t a huge number of photojournalists who have stuck at it for very long before turning to safer careers. Logan chose to stay closer to her family and keep away from the dangers of a war zone. Tim Hetherington was killed in the ‘line of duty’. João Silva lost both his legs in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

      Adam Ferguson says he felt helpless after taking his award-winning photo in Afghanistan. He felt bad that all he was doing was taking photos; “When I won a World Press award for this photograph, I felt sad. People were congratulating me and there was a celebration over this intense tragedy that I had captured. I reconciled it by deciding that more people see a story when a photographer’s work is decorated.” (http://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/jun/18/war-photographers-special-report)

      This, I think, is the emotionless crux of the point, although it must be agonising to speculate over the possible future affect your photograph may or may not have on the welfare of the subjects of your photojournalism.

  7. Yes, I think there is a strong argument that the recorder must stay neutral and any intervention will interfere with the situation they are trying to communicate to the wider world. The emotional impact of this work is clearly beyond anything most people have to experience in a normal career. (Not the mention the physical danger, as you note). There was a great documentary about Hetherington on the BBC last year, perhaps you saw it?

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