We hold a special love for a complicated world. Despite Thoreau’s advice to simplify, and despite our love for speed and efficiency, there is something wonderful about a detailed explanation, a mystery unveiled, a dilemma given voice.
Of course, photography only seems simple. Point the camera. Press a button. In truth, nothing about photography is simple. There is nothing simple about the technology of a camera, and more importantly there is nothing simple about the images we take. We do not talk enough about the ethics of photography—the issues on either side of a lens—but I have on my desk now Conversations on Conflict Photography by Lauren Walsh and I am both impressed and grateful. Here is love for explaining a complicated world.
Conversations on Conflict Photography is not a ‘how-to’ book, and it’s not a series of memoirs either. It’s much deeper than that, and much more troubling. Conversations on Conflict Photography is about the ethics of our work. It’s about imposition and intent. It’s about apathy. It’s about putting your life at risk to tell a story no one may ever see. It’s about the moral imperative of telling the news.
This book is necessary reading for everyone who picks up a camera.
It is put together by professor and writer Lauren Walsh, who teaches at The New School and New York University and also directs the Gallatin School’s Photojournalism Lab, as well as Lost Rolls America, a national public archive of photography and memory. She opens the book with an anecdote from one of her classes. She has just shown her class a graphic and disturbing image by James Nachtwey and one of her students responds: “…there is so much suffering in the world. I don’t see why I should care about that person. There’s nothing I can do anyway. So why should I be made to feel bad?” Walsh says this exchange, and its implications, are in part what prompted the collection, and she touches on it with each of the photographers she interviews.
But the anecdote is really only a touchstone here. The conversations go far beyond this moment.
Do you show the mutilated body? Can photography influence the way governments and soldiers behave? What do you do when killers are performing for the camera? What is the point of bringing these images to the rest of the world? What is at risk for the photographer? What is at risk for the person who sees the images?
The book is divided into three sections: Behind the Lens; In the Newsroom and Beyond; Advocacy and Aid. There are conversations with 12 photographers in Section One, four editors in Section Two, then three communication directors/editors in Section Three. Each interview is formatted as simple Q&A. Every one of them is arresting—and I mean that. The issues in each interview made me stop reading, think about the topics and subjects raised in fresh, disturbing, and more nuanced ways, and then keep reading.
Each section begins with a short essay wherein Walsh tries to set the foundation for the interviews that follow. Walsh is a scholar and she does a wonderful job framing issues and questions. In her essay for Section One she says:
“…the ethical debates around conflict photography fall into two broad categories: the ethics of creating the imagery and the ethics of looking at it. Regarding the former, the critiques can range widely in tone, with the more extreme likening photographers to vultures; some say this is a predatory behavior wherein the subjects of images are appropriated, turned into objects for the gain of the photographer, who benefits professionally from a powerful image. Other critics accuse photographers of voyeurism, or of ‘parachuting in’, snapping pictures, and getting out without real understanding or regard for the subjects. For this reason, it is particularly interesting to learn when and how research plays a role for photographers covering faraway conflicts.”
Every interview begins with Walsh asking some version of “how did you get here?” just to establish some sense of context for the reader. Quickly, though, the conversations take on the complex issues of the work. Walsh asks important questions and her subjects answer at length. Nothing is simple. Complexity is honest and rewarding.
In the first interview of Section One, photographer Andrea Bruce talks about the intrusion of a photographer into a private scene:
“Yes, there are huge cultural differences around the globe in terms of mourning and privacy, so people often misunderstand what they’re seeing in those types of pictures. For instance, people in the United States, or perhaps the Western part of the world, find images like this one [of Afghan women and children mourning the loss of family members] highly intrusive, like I’m invading the special and highly private space of people who are in a great deal of pain.But in areas of the Middle East…people don’t mind showing the world that they loved someone so much that it makes them cry hysterically when that person dies…It’s a sense of ‘We feel this pain and we don’t care who sees it; in fact, we want everyone to see it.’ They invite you in. But they are going to act the same way if the media is there or not.”
In a later interview, photographer Ron Haviv says,
“Objective? How that can ever be attributed to photography is absurd. Really, how could photography be objective? The phrase I use is ‘a fair representation.’ Photography by its nature is subjective. I’m choosing the frame. I’m choosing the moment. I do it while I’m taking the picture, and then I’m doing it again with the edit. So twice over I’m being subjective. And this is where citizen journalism versus the work of professional photographers comes into play. This is key. The audience should be relying on me, trusting me via a reputable publication, to present to you that actual representation of what I saw through my eyes…I am there, in my responsibility, as your eyes.”
In Section Two, Santiago Lyon, former Vice President and Director of Photography of the Associated Press, speaks from the point of view of an editor, the one who chooses what images the public will see, the one who establishes a tone and sensibility to the message.
“One of the great strengths of journalism, both writing and photography, is the ability it possesses to find and show a commonality in humanity. That is often a successful entry point for readers or viewers of news stories. In other words, if the public can relate somehow to the people in the photographs or the people in the stories, they are possibly more likely to pay attention than if it’s something abstract that they feel they have no connection to. So if you show a bunch of guys running around firing guns, a certain segment of society is going to relate to that if they have military experience, but a lot of people have no true understanding of what that is.By contrast, if you show a destroyed school or refugees or displaced people, viewers might relate to that more effectively. You get them to think, ‘Oh, that person isn’t that different from me.’”
In the last section, Michael Goldfarb, Communications Director at Doctors Without Borders, asks an interesting question.
“…I think we also run a risk if trying to apply a broad ‘apathetic public’ brushstroke. Look at what outlets like Vice News are doing. They cater to the millennial demographic. We all presume that’s a demographic that’s insular, that is thoroughly self-absorbed, that is literally the ‘selfie-generation’, all about themselves and instant gratification. And yet, Vice has tapped into a deep hunger for international news, for ground truth, for evocative, upsetting imagery, and coverage of conflict and human distress…We make presumptions about certain viewing publics, especially about the younger generation, the millennials, when we assume they’re so caught up in their Instagram accounts and posting pictures of themselves. Are they really?”
There are 110 color and black and white images in the book, taken by a range of excellent international photographers—Susan Meiselas, Shahidul Alam and Nina Berman to name a few—but it is not really a photobook. The images are examples more than subjects. Instead, it is exactly what it promises: a series of conversations. As a collection of interviews, there is no overreaching narrative arc. There is no ‘story’ to this book. And while it’s clear Walsh has given thought to the order of appearance, in truth the chapters can be read in any order. This is not a problem, however. Conversations on Conflict Photography is a large and deep undertaking. Not one of the interview subjects tries to condense or simplify its insights and understandings. This book is a careful, articulate unpacking of difficult issues. One interview at a time is the best way to proceed.
Conversations on Conflict Photography is a necessary book. It does not matter if your work has nothing to do with battlefield or crisis. These conversations are intelligent, detailed, thoughtful, and often profound. They will shape your thinking, give you pause, and ultimately trouble—in the very best sense of that idea—every press of the shutter.