Saturday, 24 March 2012

Reflections on the Essay about news and photography.

I have been sitting reading a couple of the essays from “Between The Eyes” by David Levi Strauss. I was most interested on the essay about photographers and propaganda. The essay mainly focuses on two combat photographers (Richard Cross and John Hoagland) and the ethics and objectivity of combat/war photography.  The essay rightly points out there is no objectity in photographs, in political terms and that news agencies somehow tautologically believe that their work is outside ideology by excluding ideology. However editors select stories “to tell readers this is what we [as editors] think is important and hope they’ll feel the same way” and feel that their selection of stories to include in the news is not ideological.
The essay also makes a valid point regarding photography and the press; that to present an illusion of objectivity, photographs are presented more or less anonymously by not including full photo credits, or that a picture agency has produced them. Even in today’s world of citizen journalism, the objectivity is enhanced by news agencies asking for the publics photographs of events so that they can select and publish these images with a small photo credit to the “impartial” observer.  By doing this, the news agencies can disassociate the photographer and their ethics and objectivities and make the impression that “no one died making them”.

In this case both Cross and Hoagland were killed while taking images of what was happening in El Salvador. Hoagland was proud to say that he photographed people “doing right and wrong” and that he did not believe in objectivity as everyone has a point of view. He did not want his work to be used as propaganda.

A web search for John Hoagland turned up a small piece on Wikipedia regarding his life, but it was not detailed. It did point to two other short webpages on Hoaglands life and his work in El Salvador. Maggie Jaffe has written a detailed set of pages not only featuring a number of Hoagland’s photographs but also links to other pieces written about the situation in El Salvador then and now. The most personal piece is a single webpage written about Hoagland’s life and death by his close friend Tom Tweed. Most of the photographs by John Hoagland are poor quality scans and the rest are still exhibited around the world mainly in exhibitions on combat photographers

Richard Cross was killed in crossfire while returning from a Contra camp on the Honduras/Nicaragua border.

Hoagland was killed in a fire fight while escorting reporters in El Salvador. Hoagland’s’ last six photographs are apparently his most well known, four of scouting troops, the fifth and sixth of the ground caused by the shutter motor still running as he fell.

After their deaths, Cross and Hoagland were eulogised by their employers before they were presented as the real life version of the Hollywood propagated vision of the war photographer as a spectator-hero.

I was surprised to see the images made by Cross and Hoagland printed in the context as they were used; some of the images of violence and death stand out and force the viewer to examine them, however in the magazine layout these images fight for attention as they are placed alongside large advertisement photographs rendering a reductive impact and communications of these bloody images down to the level of an advertisement, trying to catch the readers eye and make them look into the written story beside the image. Another photograph of a line of dead bodies on the front page of a magazine vies for attention against the back of the magazine which shows a photograph of a young boy and an old man fishing. These two different images are presented in one graphically equalised axis of proximity, again reducing the impact of the war photography and making the communication about something happening elsewhere far away from the safety of home.

At times, photographs are taken out of context and presented as a form of evidence to back up the published story. At others, photographs are presented more than once, years apart to give the appearance of evidence in the story, the factualness of the photograph is never questioned.

Both of these photographers began to understand that ethically they had a responsibility for the images presented to the viewing public and that they should gain better controls on the use of their photographs in cognitive, political, economic and cultural contexts.

In particular, for every Cross photograph published in the US, five were published in Latin America, apart from one photograph of government troops. The image does not read well as it presents the government troops as strong, well organised and in control. This same image when presented in the US and Europe was read as an ironic and horrific photograph presenting the troops as calculated and malevolent.  The reading and context of the images are being presented as part of the journalist’s view of the story and due to the complexity and structure of the context it makes the reading of the photographs very difficult as the very context still influences the photograph before, during and after the instance of viewing it.

Strauss, David Levi (2003). Between the Eyes. New York: Aperture.

Unknown. (2012). John Hoagland. Available: Last accessed 24th March

Jaffe Maggie. (). The Camera as a Shield: John Hoagland. Combat Photographer. Available: Last accessed 24th March 2012.

Tweed, Tom. (1994). Camera with a conscience. Available: Last accessed 24th March 2012

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