Research point: Primitive typologies

The course handbook suggests that we research some of the work mentioned in this section, with the specific questions:

“Can you find any examples of work carried out amongst indigenous peoples that, in your view, honestly document the lives of their subjects without falling into some of the traps that we’ve been discussing here? If so, how has the photographer achieved this?” (course notes: 96)

It aided my analysis to parse out the ‘traps’ discussed in the notes:

  • Romanticism (e.g. the ‘noble savage’)
  • De/re-contextualisation (e.g. primitive nudity -> erotica)
  • Primivitism / infantilisation (projecting a lack of intelligence/maturity onto subjects)
  • Dehumanisation (treating subjects as specimens not individuals)

I certainly found all of these traps had, to varying degrees, been fallen into in the Tribal Portraits catalogue, but I have covered this already so will focus on the new artists introduced in the subsequent notes.

Peter Lavery comes in for some criticism for his decontextualised tribal portraits, and to be honest I think it is justified. He pretty much falls into all four of the above traps, notably the last: there’s an almost Victorian sense of ‘collecting specimens’ in his aesthetic, with the mono palette and the velvet backdrop.

Interestingly, his website explains his objective as quite the opposite of what I perceived: “to make portraits for himself of people he met in his travels and who interested him not as types but as individuals”.

The decontextualisation is explained thus: “I wanted to play down the exoticism of my subjects […] I knew that I was interested in the being under the body of paint or feathers and primitive weapons’” – yet to me the taking of the individual out of their environment enhances, not reduces, the exoticism. By presenting them against a plain black backdrop, Lavery is drawing attention to, not looking past, the ‘paint and feathers’. The fact that the portraits aren’t captioned with individuals’ names further strengthens the argument that these are types more than they are individuals.

The African work of Juan Echeverria has some parallels with that of Lavery, in as much as it decontextualises the subject from their environment and places them against a plain backdrop for examination. As with some of the work in Tribal Portraits (notably Lenhert & Landrock) the nudity takes on a different reading in the studio context; these subjects are not so much being observed as gazed upon.


I found the work of David Bruce to be more satisfactory and respectful, falling into fewer of the clichés. Yes, he uses black and white and that gives the images the ‘timeless’ look that encourages a romanticised interpretation, but on the whole he does less decontextualising and more shooting in the natural environment. Also, he doesn’t produce many gratuitous images of bare female flesh, something that other photographers can all too easily fall back on.

Researching contemporary practitioners in this genre, it seems that Jimmy Nelson has it all sewn up (or is a whizz at SEO) as he is every Google result on the first page for the term “photography indigenous tribes”…! This seems to largely be around Before They Pass Away, his long-term project he has undertaken to capture the world’s remaining indigenous tribes before they disappear.

This self-appointed chronicler of the soon-to-be-lost is unashamedly an art photographer more than a documentarian, and makes no bones about the aesthetic imperative in his work – his pictures are “intended to be aesthetic rather than factual”, and in his own words, “There is no sociology, no statistics. It’s how I see the world […] Yes, it’s idealistic.” (Guardian 2014)

Nelson has avoided some of the clichés by choosing a more positive and less patronising aesthetic than most – he makes the tribes look strong and proud. Ironically, he received much criticism (including the Guardian article quoted above) for the representations being “false and damaging” in their idealised, romanticised aesthetic. You can’t please all the people all the time.

Jacob Maentz is a good example of a photographer that has captured various indigenous peoples without resorting to clichés. He shoots in colour, which gives a more ‘real’ and contemporary feel to the work, and shoots unposed, observed scenes of the subjects in their natural environments.

He can sometimes veer towards idealised, beautifully-composed images and seldom shows particularly hard-hitting or problematic subject matter, but overall I think he does a better job than most of showing an ‘honest’ depiction of these primitive societies. For one thing, his detailed captions describe not only individuals but their circumstances, making this more of a set of images of people than of ‘types’.

For me there are a few criteria that might make a project on indigenous tribes more likely to be seen as ‘honest’:

  • Shot in the natural environment
  • Unposed/observed
  • Colour looks more ‘authentic’ than black and white for this kind of work (unlike the traditional view of documentary photography?)
  • Naming the subjects in captions leads to a more human connection with the viewer, and reduces the risk of seeing the subject as ‘specimen’

The insider/outsider debate

Looking at this from a particular school of thought – that of Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her 1994 essay Inside/Out – there is a fundamental dilemma within the question of whether an indigenous people can be accurately portrayed.

In the essay (summarised by La Grange, 2005) Solomon-Godeau contrasts the two approaches of documentary photography: pictures taken by ‘insiders’ (authentic, confessional but subjective, self-absorbed) and those taken by ‘outsiders’ (touristic, voyeuristic, exploitative, objective, sometimes unrepresentative). By definition, projects on indigenous people are by outsiders – because the insiders are sufficiently primitive as to not have the technology to make photographs.

Thus a true insider’s view is inherently impossible; once a society has the faculties to record itself, it is no longer primitive.

Therefore, the best that can be expected is a sufficiently empathetic outsider, self-aware enough to recognise reflexivity and authorship and stay as true as possible to a neutral observer stance.

One could make the case though that even being observed by an outsider, however respectfully, irreparably changes the community – classic ‘observer effect’ in action.

Thus I conclude that it is ultimately impossible for photographers to “honestly document the lives of their subjects”, unfortunately.


Peter Lavery (accessed 12/10/2016)

David Bruce (accessed 12/10/2016)

Juan Echeverria (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jimmy Nelson (accessed 12/10/2016) (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jacob Maentz (accessed 12/10/2016)

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press


Exercise: Tribal Portraits


Browse the catalogue Tribal Portraits: Vintage and Contemporary Photographs from the African Continent, Bernard J Shapero Rare Books.

Write a brief reflective commentary in your learning log.


Though the subject matter is broadly similar, a close look at the range of images in this catalogue reveals several different approaches to the subjects, and provoke accordingly different reactions.

The ‘best’ images to me – and by that I mean most interesting and informative – were those by George Rodger and Mirella Ricciardi (more on her later). Rodger combined unusual subject matter such as tribal rituals with an excellent photographer’s eye. The ‘keyhole’ image chosen for the cover is perhaps the most striking image in the whole collection. The keyhole also works as a visual metaphor for looking in on another society.

Rodger Keyhole.jpg
The Nubas of Kordofan, Southern Sudan, 1949 by George Rodger

There’s inevitably a sense of ‘othering’ going on, as there is with all colonial photography to a degree, but Rodger’s images are of legitimate historical interest and largely respectful of the subjects.

The other photographer whose work caught my eye was Mirella Ricciardi. Her work is in the same curious-but-respectful space as Rodgers but with even more of an obvious eye for a striking composition.

All shot in the late 1960s, Ricciardi’s images seem to seek to portray the subjects as both more human (ordinary) and more beautiful (extraordinary) than the other – male – photographers in the catalogue. I came away from this wanting to know more about Ricciardi and her work.

A few others stood out as treating their subjects (visually at least) with a certain amount of respect mixed in with the curiosity. Georg Haekel and Mervyn Cowie stood out in this regard, though their compositions are less engaging than Rodger’s or Ricciardi’s.

Stephane Graff was an interesting one: a contemporary artist, his work included here is a handful of portraits with the subject’s faces obscured, and one nude (again with face obscured) that shifts his style towards generic erotica. Indeed, looking at his other work online, he does take a reasonable amount of erotic photography and the Africa work seems tangental to his regular style.

The other contemporary photographer in the catalogue, Antoine Schneck, is more respectful and creative.

A few of the photographers here, such as C. Vincenti, Pascal Sebah, Seydou Keita and a number of anonymous photographers, worked in studios rather than out in the lived environment, which I found a little odd. If the intent was to observe the people, to do so in their own environment would seem most natural; moving subjects to a studio implies more of a typological than anthropological interest.

There was a subset of these images, thankfully small, that struck me as thinly-disguised fetish material, soft porn for the colonial era. Lehnert & Landrock’s work in particular fell into this category. There is no legitimate justification for the studio nudes in such poses, it’s simply satisfying prurient curiosity. To some extent, all of the photographers here may have exploited their subjects, but it is in these lascivious images that this exploitation is so overt and unsettling.

In summary, this catalogue demonstrates that there’s a huge range of approaches in which photographers have captured African tribes since the 19th century, from romantic/nostalgic anthropology, through respectful curiosity, to the simply voyeuristic. None gives the ‘full story’, of course, but merely points to the multiple ways there are to approach any subject matter.

So what was the attraction? Not so much in taking these pictures – as there does seem to have been a legitimate anthropological interest underpinning most (not all) of the work on show here – but in the viewing of them by the public? A large part will no doubt have been the novelty of the unclothed body in the generally prudish first world. But beyond the potential sexual interest, is there something inherently attractive in primitive living? Does such a bare, simple lifestyle appeal to human nature on a subliminal level?


TribalPortraits (accessed 11/10/2016)

Exercise: BPB 2008


Read the two essays in the BPB 2008 programme and look at the work the curator selected for the exhibition.

Write a short press release of around 250 words in your learning log – in your own words.


“Memory of Fire: The War of Images & The Images of War” at the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial

The third Brighton Photo Biennial, curated by writer and critic Julian Stallabrass, brings together historical, contemporary and commissioned works from over 35 photographers, all looking at aspects of how war has been – and is currently being – depicted photographically.

Taking the Iraq War as its contemporary reference point, the exhibition looks at how the use of photographic imagery has changed, paradoxically becoming more narrow and controlled while the rest of the world gets more open and connected. It contrasts the highly sanitised versions from embedded photographers with the broader and more neutral chronicling of the untethered ‘unilaterals’ working in war zones.

The works on display also take a critical look at the political control over visual imagery, and the extent to which warring states use still and moving images not only to justify wars to their own peoples, but as audiovisual shows of immense power to their enemies – ‘shock and awe’ as weapons of war.

Photographers such as Simon Norfolk, Paul Seawright, Joel Meyerowitz and Sophie Ristelhueber circumnavigate the difficulties of in situ war photography by choosing to instead document the aftermath of war. As Sarah James puts it in her essay to accompany the exhibition, “the technological nature of today’s warfare has resulted in a war that is nearly impossible to document as it happens.”

The static, unpopulated scenes of deserted war zones serve a different purpose to traditional conflict photography; their resemblance to landscapes invites contemplation more than compassion or horror.

“Memory of Fire: The War of Images & The Images of War” is at the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial at various venues from 3rd October to 11th November 2008


BPB 2008 programme (accessed 03/10/2016)

Exercise: To print or not to print


Read Claire Cozens’ Guardian article about Guerrero’s photograph [of human remains in the 2004 Madrid bombings].

What would you have done had you been the editor of a British broadsheet newspaper?

A similar case revolving around a photograph of a dead Iraqi soldier in the Gulf War prompted Michael Ignatieff, the author of Magnum Degrees, to write and reflect on the ethics of photojournalism. Read ‘But Should You Print It?’


Pablo Torres Guerrero photograph

The controversial image featured a bloodied limb in the foreground, which different UK newspapers treated differently:

  • Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail airbrushed/cloned out the limb altogether
  • Independent and Daily Mirror printed the photo in black and white
  • Guardian desaturated the body part to grey

My view is that none of these responses was the most appropriate.

I agree with the Guardian’s deputy editor of news that the original image “put us over the threshold”, but I found all of the above responses to have fudged the issue in different ways.

  • Those who de-emphasised it using colour didn’t go far enough
    • as they still showed it
  • Those who airbrushed it out went too far
    • as they had visually manipulated the material too much for what is supposed to be a photojournalistic image

I can think of two ways in which the photo could have been used without either of the above issues arising:

1. An overt visual censoring via a black bar covering the body part. Text accompanying the photo could explain the censorship (on the grounds of both respect for the victim and the sensibilities of the readers). This is, in my view, the most ‘honest’ alternative:

Pablo Torres Guerrero 2004 – censored version

2. Even more simply, a cropped version could have got over the same sense of carnage:

Pablo Torres Guerrero 2004 – cropped version

‘But Should You Print It?’

This article by Michael Ignatieff raised a few interesting issues that I hadn’t yet come across in this debate. He starts with listing the four areas of sensitivity in photographic ethics: violence, privacy intrusion, decency and faking.

Faking would seem to cover the Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail treatment of the Guerrero image above, and I agree with the author’s stance on such manipulations: “They cannot be detected. They must always be admitted. The credibility of photojournalism must not be eroded by covert manipulation” (Ignatieff 200?). This leads me to wonder: would the above UK newspapers have been exonerated by adding a disclaimer admitting the manipulation?

The bulk of the article is about violent imagery. It picks apart aspects of the argument, such as whether it is right to take, publish and award prizes to images of violence and suffering (he implies his responses are yes, yes and no respectively).

He also touches on the desensitisation debate with his consideration of how one judges when (and how often) to use violent imagery:

“Photographs of violence do cause distress to many people and that has sometimes to be accepted; but to inflict distress at random is to weaken the case for doing it at all. Circumstances must determine cases, and certainty is elusive.” (ibid)

He also suggests that the geographic scope of a news outlet can move the line of acceptability, with a national newspaper being able to ‘get away with’ more shocking imagery than a local one: “A smaller community may expect its paper to bind wounds, not expose them.” (ibid). This phenomenon of sensitivity increasing with proximity has been observed at an international level before, but maybe it also atomises down to a community level.

One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the checklist of four tests that he applies to controversial imagery:

  1. Is the event of sufficient social or historic importance to justify the shock?
  2. Is the objectionable detail necessary to understand the subject matter?
  3. Does the subject freely consent?
  4. Is the photograph expressive of humanity?

He asserts that an image has to meet at least one, not all of the four. Applying the list to the Madrid image, I’d say that it may meet 1 and 4 but does not meet 2 and 3.

Where Ignatieff’s article goes a little further than I expected is in his discussion of the specific photo by Kenneth Jarecke of the incinerated Iraqi soldier. Ignatieff moves beyond ethical issues and into moral ones, highlighting the subtle difference between the two. He justifies the publication of the photo (in the UK and France, but not in the US) as he believes that the Western reader must face up to the fact that this war was supported by a significant proportion (possibly the majority) of the populations of the Western powers engaged in it, and that the ‘true horror’ of a war should be shown to those who support it:

“It is right that we should contemplate the results of our convictions … The concept that war is horrible is altogether different from the stunning, practical realisation of horror we have willed.” (ibid)

I may be paraphrasing more than Ignatieff would like, but he seems to be saying that a fifth justification for horrific imagery is this: Does it educate people about the negative consequences of their beliefs?


Editors ‘clean up’ bomb photo (accessed 29/09/2016)

But Should You Print It? (accessed 29/09/2016)

The War Photo No One Would Publish (accessed 03/10/2016)

Exercise: The ethics of aesthetics


Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘The ethics of aesthetics’, including all the replies to it, and write a comment both on the blog page and in your blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post.


Below is what I wrote on the post as my comment:

Like the last few additions to this thread, I am contributing here as part of an exercise in section 4 of the Documentary course. My responses to the images are similar to many of those who have gone before me, so I will summarise here and attempt to add any new thoughts of my own.

© Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam

My one-word initial reaction to Chaskielberg’s work was: “unreal”. This is a little problematic, since I presume the viewer is supposed to recognise it as a ‘real’ scene of real people – as others have noted, the highly stylised aesthetic (and the stiffness of the long-exposure poses) does get in the way of engaging with the content somewhat. It’s a project that works better with the accompanying text.

© Rankin 2011 for Oxfam

My first thought on the Rankin portraiture was “dignified”. The concept of the day’s worth of food wasn’t initially clear to me but once I’d absorbed this information, and seen others in the series, the picture acquired a new depth.

© Tom Stoddard 2004

Both aesthetics contrast with Stoddard’s more ‘traditional’ approach of showing the horror of famine, albeit in its own stylised way – graphical, minimalist, b&w. My reaction here was something like “heartbreaking”.

The most enlightening contribution to the thread above was from Jo Harrison of Oxfam, who went some way to explain the photographic choices. Oxfam’s stated principles that its photography “must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen” have clearly been enacted by Chaskielberg and Rankin, but I’m still a little unsure of the overall objective.

Sympathy and empathy

The difference between traditional depictions of famine and these approaches brings into sharp focus the distinction between sympathy and empathy.

The traditional way to encourage donations is to elicit sympathy – the subject is ‘othered’, and depicted as a helpless, distorted variant of a human being (as in Stoddard’s image here), and the viewer feels pity and sorrow – leading to donation.

Oxfam seems to be experimenting with evoking empathy instead – showing how similar the subjects are to the viewer, not how different. The intended reaction seems to be more like ‘people like me are starving’. There is less urgency, and fewer visual indicators of suffering, making these images easier to ‘like’ than to respond to.

Creativity and actuality

The Mraz reference of the “balance between expression and information” reminded me of John Grierson’s definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”. Famine photography usually tends to downplay the creative and major on the actuality, while here it looks like the photographers are looking to push the boundaries of the creative.

Intent and context

I think the effectiveness of the Oxfam campaigns depend largely on two things: intent, and viewing context. If the intent is to urgently encourage donations, and they are e.g. bus shelter ads – they are too subtle. If the intent is to raise awareness of ongoing issues and how they are being addressed (as implied by Jo Harrison), and the distribution method is, say, magazine articles or an exhibition – then they could be seen to be more successful.


The ethics of aesthetics (accessed 27/09/2016)

Exercise: Imaging Famine


Read the booklet ‘Imaging Famine’.

Do some research across printed and online media and find examples that either illustrate or challenge the issues highlighted in the document. Add your findings to your learning log.


In 2005 there was across the Western world a critical mass of interest in global poverty, (Band Aid 20 and Live 8; the Make Poverty History movement; the G8 Summit in the UK), sadly neglected in the decade since. The exhibition Imaging Famine looked at how famine has been photographically depicted, though it does not claim to have any answers, rather that it:

“aim[ed] to draw public attention to issues that should animate debate among the producers and consumers of disaster imagery and to encourage further reflection by all concerned.” (Imaging Famine catalogue 2005: 3)

My notes below pick up on a few key themes I took from the exhibition catalogue.

The power of photography

The catalogue sets the scene by pinpointing the watershed moment in famine reporting, the October 1984 BBC TV report from Korem in Ethiopia, filmed by Mohamed Amin and reported by Michael Buerk. An interesting point only apparent to me from doing this research is that Amin was primarily a photojournalist more than a cameraman, and he brought a photojournalist’s eye to the situation. An unnamed TV producer is quoted as saying “it was as if each clip was an award-winning still photo” (ibid: 2).

Michael Buerk and famine victim, Korem, 1984 by Mohammed Amin

It might be a controversial viewpoint but this opens up the question of whether the story would have had such global impact if it had been filmed by someone else, just pointing the video camera at the scene. The instinctive human response is that of course it was the subject matter, not the way it was shot, that made the story so moving – but then why was it this particular report that moved the whole Western world into action? Maybe it was the particular combination of Amin’s visual interpretation of the scene and Buerk’s narration that made this eight minutes of TV news cut through the noise. Buerk has had a lot of credit over the years for this report; Amin less so.

Sometimes, an image breaks through because it is visually powerful. Whether it is through composition, lighting, metaphor or any of the other tools of rhetoric available to the photographer (and whether the visual language being employed is deliberate or unconscious), a strong image can move the viewer far more than a mediocre one of the same subject.

Positive vs negative images

Negative images are used to get attention, which in turn is intended to translate into fundraising and international aid. Negative images are also, unfortunately, the most accurate and representative images in the famine situation. Artificially seeking out good news stories and positive images in the midst of a famine crisis would be neither representative nor useful. However, as discussed later, the surfeit of such images imprints a stereotype that becomes hard to shift.

Positive images have more of a place when looking at the situation over the longer term. Showing how famine-stricken communities have recovered, developed and are preventing future crises is good for promoting the longer-term ‘sustainable development’ approach. The risk is, however (and I am aware that this sounds cynical, so please note that I am not voicing my own opinion…) that there is little or no inherent interest in good news stories, and the level of engagement in a ‘happy African country’ news story is going to be considerably lower than an urgent appeal to help save lives.

Men walk along a road with cattle near turbines, northern Tigray, 2014 © AFP/Getty Images

I had to do a little research to find the kind of positive, long-term development imagery that the catalogue refers to, since as noted above it tends not to make the news. What I did find employed a different aesthetic to the urgent and negative ‘appeal’ imagery; it tended to focus more on community and infrastructure than individual people – more wide shots implying the growth of the country.

This section raises the dilemma of whether the end justifies the means: “Is an image necessarily negative if it produces a positive outcome?” (ibid: 9) – but I’m equally interested in the flipside: is an image necessarily positive (e.g. demonstrating sustainable development) if it produces a negative outcome (e.g. complacency and withdrawal of aid). So I think one needs to separate the negativity/positivity of the content from the negativity/positivity of the outcome.


The text talks about how disasters tend to be more newsworthy the closer to home they are, though correctly points out that it is more complex than simple geography and incorporates ethnicity, e.g. UK coverage of a bomb attack in Sydney will exceed equivalent coverage of a bomb attack in Beirut. Overseas disasters tend to get reported in the UK with a specific mention of how many Brits were involved, a subtle but telling indication of how we prioritise our care for fellow human beings. A disaster that only happens to ‘Others’ needs to be of a magnitude before it earns its place in the Western media.

Moving images and moral responsibility

The emotive and ethical issues around famine photography are highly problematic. The impact of an image of, say, a dying child is greater than that of a dying adult. The photojournalist makes decisions on what will tell the story best, but often needs to set aside the dignity of the subject.

This is a dilemma crudely illustrated by the following extract from a sobering blog post from photojournalist Barry Malone:

“Rows and rows of women sat on the ground cradling delicate babies. An aid worker told us we had ten minutes and so we went to work. Camera shutters clicking, pens scratching: ‘What’s her name? How far did she walk? How many of her kids are dead?'” (Malone 2011)

The dignity of the subject is mentioned only in the context of the photographer having taken it away:

“An Ethiopian girl told me last week that she cried as she watched foreign journalists interviewing a Somali woman in a Kenyan refugee camp. ‘All she had left was her dignity,’ she said. ‘And then they took that, too.'” (ibid)

The unwritten contract seems to be that the subject’s dignity – even when that is all they have left – is a fair exchange for the publicity if the image ultimately provokes positive action.

There is then the question of ‘compassion fatigue’. What happens when viewers are desensitised to images of starvation? Do we need to up the ante? More questions, no answers.

These moral dilemmas often weigh heavily on photographers. Mike Wells won a World Press Photo Award for the ‘hands’ image above, but admitted he was ashamed to have taken it, and especially ashamed that he was rewarded for doing so. Kevin Carter took a huge amount of criticism for The vulture and the little girl picture above, and three months after winning a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, he ended his own life.

Stereotypes, icons and symbols

One of the greatest arguments against continued use of traditional famine photography is that it has perpetuated stereotypes. Africa is broadly painted as a homogenous country rather than a continent, and African people are too often depicted as primitive, naked, swollen-bellied – inferior. The overuse of such imagery – justified in each individual instance, certainly – has led to this generalisation of the single, impoverished Africa.

New York Times magazine, July 2003

In 2003 the New York Times magazine printed a cover feature with 36 photos of malnourished children from various countries over five decades; it’s hard to tell which were taken in what year, such is the homogeneity.

This loops back inescapably to the ‘positive and negative images’ dilemma above. These images are used because these images work at the time. The fact that they have solidified into a cultural cliché for an entire continent is unfortunate to say the least. The catalogue text asks: “are the most powerful images necessarily those that reinforce cultural clichés as opposed to the more complex ones that attempt to convey knowledge, understanding, context and explanation?” (Imaging Famine catalogue 2005: 15) – and I think the answer is, sadly, yes.

How to change this? I think a big part of it is to use local photographers more. The standard modus operandi of dropping in Western journalists to cover famines leads to a subliminal ‘Othering’ that only sees the subject in a particular way – foreign, a victim – even if they do see them as human. An indigenous photographer should be able to see the societal context, look past the immediate scene and maybe absorb some of the wider influences on the situation.

Sources (accessed 22/09/2016) (accessed 22/09/2016) (accessed 22/09/2016) (accessed 22/09/2016) (accessed 23/09/2016) (accessed 23/09/2016)


Exercise: Kaplan and Houghton


Read the articles ‘Walk the Line’ by Max Houghton (Foto8, issue 23, pp.143–4) and ‘Imaging War’ by Jonathan Kaplan (Foto8, issue 23, pp.142–3).

Write down your reactions to the authors’ arguments.


Imaging War

Kaplan is both a surgeon and a photojournalist – often at the same time and often in war zones. He makes enlightening comparisons between the two jobs, particularly the judgement needed on ‘how far to go’ and when to step back – based on a combination of knowledge, experience and intuition.

He speaks in a matter of fact way about the gruesome conditions in which he works, yet manages to hold onto an ethical stance on what should be photographed and shown to the public. Interestingly, one of the things he said in the article demonstrated (in a roundabout way) the point that one doesn’t need to show the gory details to get a point across, you can let the viewer use their imagination to fill in the details – something I discussed in my last post regarding the use of metaphor and allusion in war photography. In this case however, he managed to paint a picture with only words: “where some of their injuries have been caused by flying pieces of other men” – this mental image was perhaps more powerful to me than a real image of a severed limb.

The final point of note in the article was the anecdote about having images (of landmine victims’ amputation surgery) for a book being pulled by the publisher. Evidently a line would have been crossed. The reason given was that a casual browser may be put off buying the book if they flicked through it in a bookshop, and it would therefore risk not getting the intended message across (I am giving them the benefit of the doubt that it was not purely a commercial decision…).

As Kaplan concludes, “The question of what kind of images of the human body are considered suitable for publication is one that rightfully persists.”.

Walk the Line

Houghton picks up this point of where to draw the line and examines it in more detail.

The first point I picked up on was that while there are overall societal norms on where to ‘draw the line’ – such as not showing dead bodies – these can be shifted based on individual ethics, publications’ editorial ethics, national ethics (US press won’t show dead US soldiers) and the passage of time. However, these shifts away from the norm are small and gradual.

Houghton highlights that some images are deemed inappropriate (e.g. the 9/11 ‘Falling Man’) while others are accepted (e.g. mutilated bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Luc Delahaye’s Taliban soldier, the Kenyan mother). I fear that there is an underlying ‘Othering’ going on here: perhaps it’s considered fair game in the West to closely examine the dead or dying body of a non-Westerner, but to do so with ‘one of us’ would be deemed unacceptable.

This brings me on to a concern I have on this ethical question of where to ‘draw the line’: one can divide the ethical issue of depicting suffering into two categories:

  • Concern about breaching the bounds of good taste in the viewer
  • Concern about breaching the human dignity of the victim

I often think that the Western media is more concerned about the former than the latter, although the latter increases in importance when it is a Western victim.

The example of the Kenyan mother is somewhat problematic for me. The re-publication of the image, in colour, is justified as the journalist had put a name to the victim and filled in the details of the personal story. All this is admirable, but telling the woman’s story did not need the reproduction of the image in full colour; that part feels unnecessary. It’s as though the humanising of the victim by the investigative work of the journalist had been reversed by the objectification of the dying body.

It smacks of the old press maxim ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. The quote from Sophie Batterbury, picture editor of the Independent on Sunday – “The gore tends to distract from any emotion or feeling other than basic revulsion at the image rather than the tragedy that is being illustrated.” – might well be the case, but it does sidestep the question of whether the gore helps to sell newspapers.

This reading has left me with more questions than answers. Kaplan and Houghton both, in slightly different ways, say the same thing: there’s a ethical line that needs to be drawn. But neither author gets into a meaningful discussion of why we need the ethical line. The double standards around Western vs non-Western dead bodies leads me to conclude that it’s more to do with offending readers’ sensibilities than respecting victims, and that doesn’t sit well with me.


Imaging War (accessed 22/09/2016)

Walk the Line (accessed 22/09/2016)

Exercise: conflict photography


Listen to Don McCullin talking about his exhibition Shaped by War on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage.


I’ve expanded this exercise slightly to take in my thoughts of a couple of other photographers mentioned in the course notes and from my own research, to compare their style with McCullin’s.

Don McCullin

The BBC Radio 4 interview is a curious choice for this exercise, as I don’t think it really enlightened very much about his conflict photography; I have read, heard and watched various other interviews that have provided much more of an insight into McCullin.

McCullin is a war photographer in the traditional sense, taking what he describes as “stark” photographs with the stated intention of shocking people into a response. His best work is blunt, raw and graphic – not what you’d call nuanced or sophisticated.

Hue, Vietnam, 1968 by Don McCullin

Susan Sontag wrote an essay for McCullin’s self-titled retrospective book (2003) that summarised it well: “There can be no doubt of the intentions of this tenacious, impassioned witness, bringing back his news from hell. He wants to sadden. He means to arouse.” (Sontag 2001)

His photography is the kind of work that Sontag subsequently wrote about in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), her complex and inconclusive examination of responses to conflict photography, where she revisited the notion of ‘compassion fatigue’ from On Photography (1977) to broaden the discussion out to a wider range of potential responses:

“Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” (Sontag 2003)

I think it’s fair to say that by the time Sontag had written that, McCullin’s raw, unflinching work was the archetype of conflict photography – and maybe the viewing public had seen rather a lot of this.

Gilles Peress and Tim Hetherington

Other photographers have in recent years taken slightly different approaches, possibly aiming to find ways of getting across messages using imagery that circumvents the risk of compassion fatigue, or any related less-than-useful responses.

Sontag again (my emphasis): “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.” (ibid)

In a sense the work of Gilles Peress and Tim Hetherington (both suggested in the course notes) represents simultaneously a continuation of McCullin’s work and a reaction to it. They aim to communicate similarly unpalatable truths, but in a more nuanced way.

I liked the way it is described in the course notes: “Visual metaphors probe deeper than visual spectacle. Leaving the viewer to complete the visual message allows them to unleash the power of their own imagination.” (course notes: 89)

I’m very interested in the use of metaphor and allusion in documentary photography (it is likely to be the subject of my critical review assignment) and agree that making an image even slightly ambiguous can make the viewer engage more closely, and reflexively use their own imagination, context, knowledge and opinions to ‘join the dots’. This recalls the ‘mental modelling’ concept that Stephen Shore refers to in The Nature of Photographs (2010).

Peress often employs a technique of showing scenes that allude to rather than show acts of war or conflict. He often captures the ‘moments in between’, where people in war-torn areas are depicted getting on with their lives, albeit in a surreal, grotesque facsimile of normal life.

Obala Vojvode Stepe Stepanovica, Sarajevo. 1993 by Gilles Peress

This image is a case in point: Peress shows children playing, drawing chalk lines round their own shadows, but the allusion to chalking around a dead body is chillingly evident, reinforced by the accompanying text that explains this as the site of regular sniper shootings. My mental processing for an image like this goes something like this:

  • Children are playing, but are emulating something that happens to murder victims
  • So they live in an environment where bodies on the ground has become normalised
  • So even if they physically survive it, the war has already damaged them

In a sense, this image is more affecting than an equivalent of an actual sniping victim in a chalk-line. The mental effort it took to unpack the image means that the resulting interpretation is both more ‘hard-won’ and more collaborative. These aspects can make an image more memorable.

Tim Hetherington’s image described in the course notes demonstrates another approach to conflict photography that contrasts with the McCullin style.

US soldier resting at “Restrepo” bunker, 2007 by Tim Hetherington

As noted, it is a very painterly photograph, quite at odds with the normal war photography aesthetic. This discordance between the subject and the style is part of what makes this photograph successful. It isn’t ‘just another war photograph’, it’s something more expressive and emotive.

Luc Delahaye

While I’m talking about alternative approaches to war photography, another contemporary photographer springs to mind. Luc Delahaye straddles the normally quite distinct spheres of photojournalism and the ‘art world’. He has shot images that are clearly documentary in nature, and others that are more etheral and abstract – all from the same source material: war zones. He shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies.

US Bombing on Taliban Positions, 2001 by Luc Delahaye

One clue to this apparent contradiction is the title of his war-zone project: History. He seems to want to rescue these images from their transient, repetitive, ongoing-present and preserve them life-size as historical artefacts for the future. It’s a bold approach to documentary, no doubt about it.

The reason I wanted to expand this exercise out to other photographers is because I’m personally more interested in these alternative approaches to conflict photography – how people are stretching and subverting the genre in order to keep getting the messages across to an audience that might think it has seen it all before. Not that I dismiss McCullin by any means – he’s one of the photographers I respect the most – but more that I don’t find much new to discuss in his work at this point in my studies.


Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

McCullin, D., Evans, H. and Sontag, S. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador

Exercise: the Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes


Read the article ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’ by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins.

In what ways does the idea of the gaze apply to your photography? What are the implications of this for your practice? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.


Lutz and Collins take the concept of the photographic gaze and dissect it in admirably comprehensive detail, from a viewpoint of Western viewers of images of  non-Westerners: “[T]he look at the racial other places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of both recognising him or herself in the other and denying that recognition” (Lutz & Collins 1991: 136).

The essay adds to my existing understanding of Foucault’s theories of disciplinary power (my emphasis):

“[P]hotography of the other operates at the nexus of knowledge and power that Foucault identified … The crucial role of photography in the exercise of power lies in its ability to allow for close study of the other” (ibid: 136)

In particular I was interested in the discussion of ‘normalisation’ – how photography of ‘deviants’ (criminals, the mentally ill and, much more controversially, certain racial and ethic types) had been used as:

“representation of these others to an audience of non-deviants who thereby acquire a language for understanding themselves and the limits they must live within to avoid categorisation with ‘the outside’.” (ibid: 136)

In this way, seeing examples of ‘non-standard’ individuals and peoples helps to form a (comparative) sense of cultural identity in the ‘civilised’ viewer: ‘I am normal because I am not like these unusual people’.

Lutz and Collins identified seven types of photographic gaze, some of which are interesting to examine while others I found more tangental:

  1. The photographer’s gaze
  2. The institutional gaze
  3. The reader’s gaze
  4. The non-Western subject’s gaze
  5. The explicit Westerner’s gaze
  6. The gaze returned or refracted by mirrors or cameras
  7. The academic gaze

1. The photographer’s gaze

This is straightforward enough and I have covered it elsewhere in my studies; the photographer is always making subjective decisions, even if subconsciously, that affect what ends up in the frame. Vantage point, cropping, colour palette, focus etc all form part of the visual vocabulary available to the photographer.

2. The institutional gaze

In the examples given Lutz and Collins are talking about a magazine’s gaze, in this instance National Geographic, but it could apply to whatever distribution channel is being used. Again, this is familiar territory: that the magazine decides what to commission, which images to select, how to crop and caption them.

3. The reader’s gaze

Per Barthes, a photographic image does not have a single, universal interpretation but is the result of a reading made by the viewer. The photographer and the magazine will have tried to direct the viewer to the intended reading but the final part of the mental processing is out of their hands. A negotiated or oppositional reading is a risk. The reader’s gaze has a reflexive context, or as the essay puts it, “a history and a future … structured by the mental work of inference and imagination” (ibid: 138).

There are paradoxes in play when looking at ‘the Other’; the viewer can get a sense of participation through vicarious viewing, and the presumed consent of the subject to be photographed can imply a valid relationship with the viewer – but the photographic construct (two dimensional, static, fragmentary, framed to remove all the context) objectifies and creates intraversable distance. The subject may have given the photographer consent to gaze, but not you the magazine reader…

4. The subject’s gaze

The authors discuss four responses a subject can make: (a) confront the camera head-on; (b) look at something within the frame; (c) look out of frame; (d) no gaze, eyes unseen.

(a) implies acknowledgement of the photographer and by extension the reader, although it’s not always a sign of consent – some returned gazes can be welcoming, but others can be defiant, challenging. The returned gaze can imply intimacy, yet inherently has to be a staged shot and so could diminish the perceived neutrality of the photographer. The frontality technique invites examination, whether this is intended to be critical or celebratory. This invitation to close examination, however, risks turning the subject into a typographical specimen and so carries undertones of condescension.

Lutz and Collins’ study showed that subjects culturally defined as ‘weaker’ (children, women, the poor, the racially oppressed) are more likely to directly face the camera, while men, community leaders, pillars of society are more likely to look elsewhere, per (b) and (c) above. This is a fascinating insight that supports Foucault’s disciplinary power theory – that to allow oneself to be closely examined is to be subservient.

In semiotic terms, the gaze at something or someone else in the photo as described in (b) above is often a clue as to the interests and motivations of the subject.

The distant gaze (c) is potentially indicative of thoughtfulness, determination, planned action – disregarding the photographer is itself a form of defiance. In some cases, an averted gaze allows more identification with the reader – as both subject and reader are ‘outside the frame’.

The unseen gaze (d) is increasingly prevalent, especially in countries with strong religions beliefs regarding the presentation of women. A gaze specifically withheld is a sign of a boundary that must not be crossed.

5. The explicit Westerner’s gaze

A little niche, this one, though presumably of interest to National Geographic readers. This concerns the relation between the Western and local subjects in photographs, and in particular how they address each other. The scope for examining power structures is obvious – visual hierarchy can be demonstrated by e.g. composition can reinforce colonial stereotypes. This kind of image is no longer as popular as it once was.

6. The refracted gaze

Again a bit niche, but speaks to issues around identity, both personal and societal.

7. The academic gaze

A subset of the reader’s gaze for the over-thinkers among us.

Application to own practice

The brief asks us to consider how these ideas around the gaze impact our own work.

I tend not to take too many posed pictures of identifiable individuals and so the notion of the gaze isn’t always uppermost in my mind. However, reading this has helped me to articulate certain things that I’d appreciated but not thought about too consciously, and made me think about other aspects that hadn’t crossed my mind before.

Specifically, the notions of the photographer’s gaze and the reader’s gaze were already familiar to me but I have considered them in a new light regarding power structures and the ethics around photographing ‘the Other’.

The most enlightening section for me was the discussion of the subject’s gaze. I will in future pay more attention to the gazes of people in my photographs, and what significance might be attached to them – so I can relate the significance back to my intent, which is itself about the alignment of the photographer’s gaze and the desired reader’s gaze.

I’ve realised that I tend not to capture direct, returned gazes as per 4 (a) above, but my reason has always been about my own shyness rather than a respect of the subject! Interesting to realise that in eschewing such direct gazes, I am subverting the traditional power structures inherent in photography – albeit accidentally… I’m more likely to catch subjects with the gaze types 4 (b), (c) and (d), and they’ll be candid, captured shots which I consider to be more naturalistic than any posed shots. But I know now to at least consider the potential interpretations of such images.


‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes’ (accessed 19/09/2016)

Exercise: On Foucault


Read the article ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ by David Green (The Camera Work Essays, 2005, pp.119–31).

Summarise the key points made by the author in your learning log.


Green attempts, not entirely successfully, to summarise Foucault’s main theories of disciplinary power and photography. Foucault’s writing is famously difficult to comprehend and Green’s paraphrasing won’t win any Plain English awards either.

I was a little disappointed to see how little of it was related to photography, and how little these ideas were developed – at least in the Green summary even if not in the Foucault original works.

Main points

  • Knowledge = power
  • Power isn’t inherently a negative force in society since it produces knowledge
  • Discipline is a key feature of societal power…
  • … and surveillance is a key feature of disciplinary power (per Bentham’s Panopticon)
    • “The specific techniques of surveillance, documentation and administration of individuals which are constitutive of the forms of disciplinary power are the product of those new ‘rationalities’, those new kinds of knowledge about ‘man’, the human and social sciences” (Green 2005: 124)
  • What Foucault calls the “carceral network” – schools, factories, hospitals, prisons etc – support the “normalising power” in modern society
  • “This power is realised only by the subjection of the body as the object of knowledge, and the function of this power lies in its ability to extract knowledge, not pain, from the body” (ibid: 126)
    • Meaning (I think) that gaining knowledge of a person’s body is a form of subjugation
  • Enter photography: its importance in this power/knowledge/body relationship is its reputation as “a form of empirical truth or evidence of the real” (ibid: 128)
    • Its ability to enable close examination and comparison in a uni-directional gaze becomes part of the “mechanisms of surveillance”, especially in fields such as criminology, medicine, anthropology and eugenics
  • A major criticism of Foucault’s work is the implication that this mode of power is irresistible
    • Green posits that “it is necessary to develop alternative ways of working with photography, and to develop different photographic forms and devices suitable to the varied contexts in which the photograph is placed and used” (ibid: 129)
    • … but provides no suggestions on how this can be done

My thoughts

I found this quite hard to follow. I understood the individual points made, but failed to discern a coherent greater meaning of the essay as a whole. Some of Foucault’s theories can be applied to some kinds of documentary photography (i.e. that which is predicated on unapproved surveillance), but I’m struggling to find broad application of many of the concepts raised here.

But it did provoke further thought…

One interesting aspect that does have broad application (and that the course notes highlights) is the point that the ‘gaze’ is uni-directional; the power structure inherent in photography is that while one person is gazing upon another in the moment of capture, multiple viewers can subsequently gaze upon the subject in isolation, with no right to reply or return the gaze by the subject. There’s a kind of a parallel with the notion that some primitive tribes allegedly believe that the camera steals one’s soul; it may not steal your soul, but it does confer a power advantage on the viewer once the photo has been taken.

14264173_10154547159768799_5509763190230511897_nSurveillance is an interesting subject in modern society: on the one hand, there are more CCTV cameras than ever before and unapproved surveillance is decried as a threat to privacy – on the other hand, there’s a widespread culture of voluntary ‘self-surveillance’ with the internet and social media. I recently read George Orwell’s 1984 and it only predicted the first half of this phenomena. Or, as Keith Lowell Jensen put it:

“What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody is watching”

Is this crowd-approved mass surveillance an example of the “different photographic forms and devices” that Green proposed? Maybe.

Another tangental thought inspired by the essay but not overtly mentioned, this time in relation to the politics of the body in disciplinary power: in today’s highly consumerist society (… of the Spectacle, per Debord) there are innumerable instances of people voluntarily conforming to norms of the body promoted not by a legitimate authority knowingly wielding disciplinary power, but rather by media imagery combined with peer pressure: “Are you beach body ready?”

And there’s a celebrity variation of this unwritten body-disciplining, when we the public simultaneously revere famous people for being paragons of physical perfection, and enjoy the schadenfreude of seeing them looking imperfect in unapproved paparazzi shots. The power of the photographer can be harnessed for either the promotion or the demolition of a public figure. This loops back to the power of the uni-directional gaze.

My final thought on this is that it doesn’t talk much about the intent of the photographer, beyond suggesting which kinds of photography are most likely to exert the disciplinary power being discussed (criminology, medicine, anthropology and eugenics).

Is taking photographs of other people inherently unethical and or an exertion of power? Doesn’t it depend on why you are taking the photographs? There’s a kind of documentary photography that is actually intended to give or return power to the subjects, to give them a voice. This doesn’t fit so well with Foucault’s theories.


On Foucault (accessed 19/09/2016)