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Morality and the Photographer

Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review. She teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University

I

You saw the photograph in The New Yorker--the one of a mutilated, decomposing corpse--so you know what happened in Rwanda.

You saw the photograph in Vanity Fair--the one of a wide-eyed little girl whose arm has been amputated--so you know what’s going down in Sierra Leone.

You saw the photograph, splashed on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world--of a 12-year-old Palestinian shot by Israelis--so you know what’s what in the Middle East. (The Israelis are brutes.) Twelve days later you saw another photograph--of a jubilant Palestinian with blood-stained hands who had just lynched an Israeli--so now you know even more. (The Palestinians are animals.)

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Of course, you know nothing.

And you know nothing not because these pictures are bad or doctored or false. You know nothing from these photographs simply because they are photographs, which is to say, they are isolated fragments of a larger truth. Photographs surely show us something, but just as surely they tell us nothing, for they are inherently lacking in narrative powers: For the proverbial beginning, middle and end, the photograph substitutes a single frozen moment onto which we project meaning.

A viewer cannot, therefore, “know” reality from a photograph any more than a reader can “know” reality by isolating one word from a sentence. What happens, though, when the part begins to substitute for the whole, when the emotional connection that photographs provide is mistaken for actual knowledge--mistaken, that is, for an understanding of the complex, fluid web of events, human choices and social conditions that we call “history”?

In our image-glutted culture, our relationship to photographs--and especially to photojournalism--increasingly resembles a bad but inescapable marriage in which one unhappy partner distrusts yet depends upon the other. When it comes to photographs, we are all deconstructionists now; even a 10-year-old, armed with his dog-eared copy of “Derrida for Tots,” can confidently (if incorrectly) proclaim that photographs lie. Yet more and more, it is precisely upon these presumably meretricious documents that we rely, not just to bring us news of the world but to actually create our moral and political consciousness and even, sometimes, to determine our actions.

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It was images of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, for instance, that inspired the heartwarming Band Aid and Live Aid concerts. It was images of the Somali famine in 1992 that spurred then-President George Bush to launch our ill-advised foray (dubbed “Mission of Mercy”) into that unfortunate country. But then another image--of a jeering crowd dragging a dead American soldier through the Mogadishu streets--prompted President Clinton to hastily withdraw our troops. During the Bosnian war, Bush feared that footage of Serb detention camps might move the public to demand intervention (one Washington pundit observed that the pictures were “killing” Bush--an interesting choice of words). More recently, images of Kosovars trekking out of their country--rather than a political understanding of a decade’s worth of war--fortified our appetite for the bombing of Belgrade.

Several solutions to the image-conundrum have been proposed, though none is entirely satisfactory. The Taliban, for instance, have banned all photographs of “living things.” Closer to home, a generation of Sherlock Holmes-like critics, armed with moral magnifying glasses, have sought to ferret out the hidden contradictions and falsehoods that, they insist, are inherent in every photograph. And hordes of contemporary photographers have fled from the world into the studio--where safely staged photographs are painstakingly constructed--in response to the horrifying realization that the truths photojournalism offers are partial and unfinished. Curiously, the Taliban mullah, the academic critic and the Soho artist seem to have reached roughly the same conclusion: The photograph is an untrustworthy little snake--and a major source, to boot, of the world’s woes. The alternate possibility--that it is not the photograph that has failed us, but we who have looked to it for a knowledge it cannot provide--conjures little interest.

II

Oddly paired with our over-reliance on journalistic photographs is our increasing suspicion, if not vilification, of the photojournalist. In 1938, the prestigious British magazine Picture Post, in devoting 11 pages to Robert Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War, described the photographer as “a passionate democrat.” Nowadays, a photojournalist is more likely to be described as a manipulator or leech. Fairly typical is a recent New Yorker piece on James Nachtwey, probably the preeminent war photojournalist working today, which suggested that the photographer, like the combatants he documented in Bosnia and Chechnya, “perhaps . . . is a sniper of sorts, too.”

Of course, the recording of war and suffering is a thorny business, and the most talented and committed “conflict photographers” have always questioned both the morality of their craft and the toll it takes on them. Britain’s Don McCullin, who photographed wars in the Congo, Biafra, Vietnam and Lebanon, wrote of the the price he paid for his immersion in catastrophe--and of the undeniable attraction that immersion held for him: “You cannot walk on the water of hunger, misery and death. You have to wade through to record them. . . . I felt I had seen so much horror that it was likely to destroy me. . . . But . . . I cannot do without the head-on collision with life I have when I am working.” But he wrote, too, of his own moral education. Recalling the nearly-forgotten Cypriot War of 1964, one of his first major assignments, McCullin wrote that the Turkish villagers’ open sharing of their grief--sometimes extravagant, sometimes stoic--was “a privilege,” for “in an inexplicable way they were teaching me how to become a human being.”

The authors of “The Bang-Bang Club,” South African photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joa~ o Silva, work in the tradition of Capa and McCullin. Marinovich and Silva--along with their “club” colleagues Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek--are white South Africans who cut their teeth and made their names covering the ferocious fighting in the black townships between supporters of the African National Congress and of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the turbulent, bloody transitional period of 1990-94. The authors were part of the post-Soweto, post-Steve Biko generation of young whites who were simultaneously cosseted and repelled by apartheid. In “The Bang-Bang Club,” they put down the camera for the pen to describe the historical events and the personal journeys behind their photographs.

The title of the book--the four photographers were dubbed “bang-bang paparazzi” by a South African magazine--is both brash and ironic. Marinovich and Silva loved their work and believed, rightly, that it was important and necessary. But they also knew that they were feeding off the violence--the bang-bang--of their countrymen, and they sometimes feared there might be a payback. And there was: Marinovich was severely wounded, and Oosterbroek killed, as they covered a shootout in Thokoza township days before the 1994 elections; Carter committed suicide in July of that year, three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Marinovich and Silva make clear that their photographic work was motivated by a dizzying confluence of factors, including a desire to record history in the making, professional ambition and the need to escape troubled love affairs. They were drawn to the violence-drenched townships because something profound and singular and world-historic was happening there and, equally, because that’s where they’d find the excitement, the juice and the “powerhouse” pictures. The authors’ identities--as South Africans who hate and love their country, as human beings who desire justice, as intensely competitive photographers who cherish their dangerous craft--often collide, and it is these juxtapositions that are at the heart of the book. Arriving at the scene of a particularly grotesque massacre, Marinovich finds his icon: “I knew that of all the gory and heart-wrenching scenes I had already photographed that morning, this dead baby was the image that would show the insane cruelty of the attack. . . . But the light sucked.”

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Though it is not a work of theory, “The Bang-Bang Club” raises many of the questions with which photography critics grapple, especially in regard to the moral role (if any) of the photojournalist. At the beginning of the book, and of his career, Marinovich witnesses the lynching of a suspected ANC supporter (a member of the Pondo tribe) by pro-Inkatha Zulus. “The Zulus and I took off after him, a pack hunting its terrified prey,” Marinovich writes. “After just a few dozen steps he went down. . . . My ears picked out the slithering, whispery sound of steel entering flesh, the solid thud of the heavy fighting sticks crushing the bone of his skull. These were sounds I had never heard before, but they made sickening sense.” Marinovich does not try to stop the mob; the murder proceeds, as does his work: “I was one of the circle of killers, shooting with a wide-angle lens just an arm’s length away, much too close. I was horrified, screaming inside my head that this could not be happening. But I steadily checked light readings. . . . I was as aware of what I was doing as a photographer as I was of the rich scent of fresh blood.”

The bang-bang boys intuitively knew the difference between being neutral, which they weren’t, and being accurate, which they were; thus, though they were staunch supporters of the ANC, they never hesitated to portray atrocities committed by their “own” side. (Marinovich wins a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph called “Human Torch"; this time it is ANC supporters who set a suspected enemy on fire, then plunge a machete into his blazing skull.) The township wars these young men documented were chaotic, sadistic, devoid of glory--though to their credit, the authors never retreated into relativism or nihilism. Still, the cruelty of the combatants is often shocking, and proof once again of the unsurprising fact that dehumanizing political systems tend to dehumanize, not ennoble, their victims. One day while driving in Thokoza, “Joa~ o spotted a group of women chasing another, younger woman. She was bleeding from her head and losing ground fast. In seconds they had caught her, hacking at her with whatever weapons they had. . . . The low cries of pain from the woman on the dirt pavement were almost drowned out by the attackers’ triumphant ululating. Joa~ o was scared, confused. This was not the kind of war photography he had imagined himself doing--this was too weird, but he shot off frame after frame. . . . Just then a man walked into the right-hand side of his frame, patronizing the female killers with a broad smile. Joa~o instinctively . . . pressed the shutter.” And there it is, the picture we see: the handsome man with the dazzling, even joyous smile in the foreground, the female killers continuing their hard work behind him.

“The Bang-Bang Club” is refreshing in its political and emotional forthrightness. At the end, the authors--wounded, hardened, defeated, victorious, chastened, sustained--reject both grandiosity and guilt, arriving instead at a hard-earned but sensible conclusion: “We had not personally suffered like some of the people we photographed, but neither were we responsible for their suffering--we had just witnessed it.”

III

Ken Light’s “Witness in Our Time,” a collection of oral histories with an international array of photojournalists, is a nice antidote to the slippery philosophical assumption--which equates the partial truth with the lie--that underlies so much contemporary photography. The photographers included here are working within and against what Susan Meiselas, in her chapter, calls “a tremendous assault” on the validity of the documentary photograph. These photographers are firmly connected to their craft, to history and to the world outside themselves. They do not deny photojournalism’s limitations, but they view boundaries as a source of creativity rather than despair.

The book spans the period from the Depression to the present. Though critic Kerry Tremain’s introduction is occasionally preachy (“We can value each other although we are not the same”), the photographers themselves never are. And although they represent a variety of stylistic tendencies, consistent themes emerge. These are photographers who do not swathe words like committed, engaged or concerned in quotes. Nor are they tormented by photography’s subjectivity. “Of course [I photograph] from my own point of view always,” says Jill Freedman. “Otherwise, what am I, a machine?”

But though readers--especially photography aficionados--will find much of interest here, to call Light’s interviews probing would be a considerable overstatement. In essence, each photographer seems free to talk about--and ignore--whatever he or she chooses; none was confronted with difficult questions. Mary Ellen Mark, for instance, tells us that “for me, nothing is more imaginative, or fascinating, than reality.” No doubt this is true. But one would also like to hear Mark explain her notorious photographs of Bombay’s teenage prostitutes, which many critics view as disturbingly voyeuristic.

The most thought-provoking observations come from Sebastia~ o Salgado, who is also (perhaps unfortunately) the book’s most famous and successful photogapher. Salgado, who is Brazilian and was an economist, does not so much tease out the moral conundrums surrounding photojournalism as dispose of them with elan. Of the ceaseless, solipsistic debate over the “right” to photograph suffering, Salgado says: “I never ask myself these questions, because I asked myself the more important questions before I arrived there. Do we have the right to the division of resources that we have in the world? . . . Do I have the right to eat when others don’t eat?” Salgado’s majestic photographs, which focus on the earth’s most wretched inhabitants, have been accused by some critics of being too beautiful. But he insists that he has never set out to make a “good” (much less great) picture. “What is a good picture?” he scoffs, as if the category itself had been invented by a madman.

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His aim, Salgado says, is to communicate the reality of what he sees, and it is human history, not aesthetics, that will test his photos: “These pictures will stay or they will disappear depending on whether or not they ultimately are linked with the historical moment. It’s not because they are good . . . or bad.” As for the “rights” of the delicate viewer--well, it turns out there are none. “I believe that there is no person in the world that must be protected from pictures,” Salgado says. “Everything that happens in the world must be shown.” Could it be that the world--not images of it--is the source of our problems, and our pain?

IV

Perhaps someone will send Deborah Copaken Kogan a copy of “Witness in Our Time.” The author of “Shutterbabe” probably wouldn’t notice, but futile yet noble efforts should not be discouraged.

Kogan’s memoir purports to tell the story of a young American photojournalist as she travels throughout the world in search of adventure, love, knowledge and, of course, the picture and the story. But a remarkable thing emerges. Kogan--self-described as “petite,” “impish” and “curvy"--does go to some interesting places: to Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet war; to Eastern Europe and then Russia itself, as the Soviet empire crumbles; to Haiti (well, almost--she makes it to Santo Domingo) awaiting Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return. But the only subject she discovers is herself: In a stunning reverse-magic act, she collapses the world into a mirror.

“There’s a war going on, and I’m bleeding,” Kogan’s first line reads. It is 1989, and she is in the mountains with Afghanistan’s so-called freedom fighters. A lot of people (far more than a million) have been killed and maimed in the extraordinarily brutal wars there--wars in which the United States is cruelly complicit--and it is not entirely clear that a 22-year-old American journalist should begin by discussing her own wounds. But it turns out that Kogan isn’t wounded--just menstruating. Her period (and her dearth of tampons) becomes the subject of the chapter and a recurring theme throughout the book.

Kogan’s ignorance about the world (a sort of updated dizzy-dame routine) and her flipness toward it--both of which, of course, are forms of contempt--are startling. “I’m just assuming that at some point, someplace, I will see some dead or bloody mujahed, or some dead or bloody Russian soldier . . . or one of those great big Soviet tanks whose names I can never remember, or, well, something that looks vaguely warlike that I can shoot,” she writes in the first chapter. More than 250 pages later, she confides, “Haiti is one of those countries whose political upheavals and murderous atrocities I’ve never been able to keep straight.” When it comes to the babe, some things never change.

Each chapter of Kogan’s book is pithily named for one of her lovers, or would-be lovers, or could-have-been lovers. Indeed, Kogan’s vigorous sex life receives even more space than her menstrual cycle or her charming befuddlement about world events. (She views her bed-hopping in oddly world-historic terms, describing herself as a “one-girl revolution.” Did Rosa Luxemburg talk this way?) About men, she writes with the kind of breathless gush that even traditional women’s magazines have wisely banished. Here, in attenuated form, is her fateful meeting with the devastating French shutterhunk who will lead her to the wilds of Afghanistan and its dire tampon shortage: “Pascal . . . strode like a bulldozer into the cafe, pushing in the cool autumn air from the outside with his angular torso. With what seemed like a single fluid motion, he unhitched the camera bag from his shoulder . . . pulled off his blue cashmere crew neck . . . and sat down to fondle a menu. His features were sharp and finely chiseled, his eyes sparkled with what appeared to be a touch of mild insanity. . . . He is magnificent, I thought.” (Eventually Kogan meets an even more magnificent man--thank goodness!--has babies and quits photography.)

Though Kogan reminds us more than once that she is a graduate of Harvard, her writing suggests that standards at that institution may have slipped. (Sample line: “I could smell the thoughts as they popped into my head.”) Her not-infrequent attempts to wax philosophic about matters personal (“Love, I realized, has many forms”) and historic are notably unsuccessful--a problem that is compounded, not solved, by her occasional references to Maimonides. This reviewerbabe admits to being utterly flabbergasted by the following passage, in which Kogan reflects on the existential import of a really serious event: “But what if even the Holocaust was meant as a sign? A terrible, incomprehensible, and unbearable reminder . . . of how precious and precarious our time here is. What if the fact of the concentration camps is the only way of proving to us . . . that we are . . . people, each one unique. . . ?” No doubt the slaves of Auschwitz would have stumbled to the showers far happier had they known that their deaths would someday enlarge--nay, enrich--the precious, unique life of Deborah Copaken Kogan.

“I am a vulture,” Kogan states in an all-too-rare moment of self-loathing. It is a charge that is frequently lodged against photojournalists, but in her case it is true. She has moved beyond being the “tourist of reality” that Susan Sontag warned of in “On Photography"; she is closer to a new type of war profiteer for whom the suffering of others exists only to the extent that she can feed off it, tell stories about it, use it to impress us with how groovy and ironic and experienced she is. Her book is filled with frantic travels, frantic couplings, frantic emotions, yet amid all the sound and fury there is no melody to be heard, and no meaning to be culled.

V

But does it matter? Did Capa’s passion for democracy, or McCullin’s need to learn how to be human, or Marinovich’s grounding in the realities of apartheid produce better pictures than Kogan’s narcissistic wanderings? The answer is yes, though the reasons why are not simple.

Kogan’s photos--which, judging from “Shutterbabe,” frequently focus on oh-so-gritty subjects like heroin junkies, and which she herself calls “mediocre"--are boring cliches. They are incapable of drawing us in, of offering multiple meanings, of fostering contemplation. Rather than serve as a connective tissue, they seem to repel viewer and subject, and they utterly ignore the “I / thou” relation between photographer and subject that underlies the most searingly radiant photographs (think, for instance, of Walker Evans’ portrait of James Agee’s “Mrs. Gudger”). They lack, in short, what we might call moral vision, which is the recognition that the subject of a photograph predates the photo--that while any person might be depicted in a photograph, no person exists simply to be the subject of a photograph. As the young Kenyan American photographer Fazal Sheikh explains in “Witness,” “My role is not to confer upon, but rather to encourage that which is already inherently part of the person to come forward. . . . A photograph with its roots in my imagination pales in comparison to that which is given in the moment of collaboration.” To call forth the essence of a person is a very different thing than to shoot them.

This is not simply a matter of how much time a photographer spends with his subjects, though that may help; it is, rather, one of existential intent. Capa, McCullin, Salgado, even the bang-bang boys: All sought, first and foremost, to understand the social reality that presented itself to them and to convey that reality to others. Out of this--whether slowly or quickly--photographs worth looking at might (though do not necessarily) emerge. Kogan, in contrast, wanted only to produce a series of objects--ones that would, preferably, freak you out, blow your mind and make her famous. Transfixed by the sensational images in her head, she could not see actual people and events. It’s not that she lacked conscience, just that unrelenting self-absorption occluded her vision.

“His pictures didn’t just show action, they screamed action,” Kogan writes admiringly of her rogue boyfriend Pascal. “Young children crying, soldiers cowering. . . . Exactly the kind of images that I was desperate to start shooting.” The results of this desperation (and of this screaming) were not, and probably never can be, terribly good, in either the aesthetic or the moral sense. For such desperation imprisons a photographer within narrow, predictable fantasies of glory, blinding her to the spontaneous beauty--and far-reaching horrors--of the wider world. Perhaps, as Salgado suggests, only when photographers--and their audiences--stop searching for fabulous images will they discover some meaningful ones.


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