Photojournalism: documenting suffering

“A picture can tell a thousand words” isn’t something, as someone in the industry of words, I usually think about. But behind the genericness of the statement, there is a truth.

The writer Susan Sontag wrote in the 1980s that “today everything exists to end in a photograph,” and almost forty years later, this is truer than ever. Established news organisations can now reach an audience of billions through social media and their own networks, whilst the rise of “citizen journalism” has seen people take news reporting into their own hands via sites like Twitter. Today, we are more visually focused: where bloody pictures from conflicts or moments of uncontrolled grief used to be a novelty on the evening news, now they are constant and all around us.

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed,” Sontag said.

The Vietnam War was a turning point for journalism; the horrors of a modern war were immediately exported to a widespread audience for the first time. Professor Liam Kennedy writes that, with on-the-ground reporters on television, photojournalism “constructed a visual grammar for looking at Vietnam”. Helicopters, young men in the US army, injured children running down the streets and damaged landscapes all became fast emblems of the conflict.

“In a war of confusing patterns, resistant to conventional forms of interpretation, it often proved to be the still photograph rather than the moving image that framed and defined moments of insight and brought some clarity to the scenery of confusion,” Professor Kennedy wrote.

The most famous photographs of the war were taken by American photographers, with relatively few photographs from North Vietnamese combat photographers being published.

An increased availability of technology across the globe has meant that now, many caught up in war zones are able to control the presentation of suffering. Bana al-Abed, a Syrian child from Aleppo, has documented her family’s experiences of airstrikes in the country through Twitter. Some, though, have questioned the validity of the account.

Photojournalists have been at the receiving end of criticism in the past, not asking for the consent of those pictured or not sharing the profits of a particular image if it ends up having a widespread reach. National Geographic’s famous image of an Afghan girl with striking green eyes, taken at a Pakistani refugee camp during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, was scrutinised after the photographer Steve McCurry did not ask the subject’s name.

Ultimately, National Geographic found Gula, the girl in the picture, in the early 2000s after years of looking. They paid for her family’s medical costs in addition to the foundation of the charity Afghan Girls Fund, aimed at improving education opportunities for young women.

In other cases, this has not happened. In a war zone, there often isn’t time to check names after all.

As Sontag said, “Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”


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