Category Archives: 2 Photojournalism

Part 1 – Joel Meyerowitz and ‘Late Photography’

Reading David Campany’s ‘Safety in Numbness’ prompted me to research  the work of Joel Meyerowitz, the photographer who took more than 8,000 images of Ground Zero between 23 September 2001 and 21 June 2002, and also delve a bit more into the idea of documentary photography, in particular so-called ‘late photography’.

A Sense of Moral Duty

Joel Meyerowitz didn’t get formally invited to take photographs of the Ground Zero site after 9/11, he made it his mission to do so.  He was turned away by police officers, he visited a museum director to petition the major to get a team of people to create an archive but was refused access. He was given a ‘worker’s badge’ only to be  thrown off the site, and so  started forging badges instead and dressing up in a hard hat and boots. Eventually, the NYPD Arson & Explosion Squad, who he called his ‘guardian angels’, agreed that photographs were needed as a historical document. (Guardian, 2006).

In an interview with Jonathan Mahler from the New York Times, Meyerowitz compared his task at Ground Zero to that of Dorothea Lange and other photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930’s to document the effects of the Depression. (Mahler, J. 2006).

In a sense, both Meyerowitz and the likes of Lewis Hine, who documented child workers in America in the early 1900s, clearly both felt a strong compulsion to use their ability to create photographs for a ‘higher’, more morally ‘worthy’ purpose; in Hine’s case to invoke social change; in Meyerowitz’s case, to ensure that there was a clear, unambiguous, and complete photographic historical record of Ground Zero and the events which led to the devastation. To consider Meyerowitz’s images beautiful almost negatively detracts from his purpose in taking them.

‘Cool Photography’?

The idea of images being taken in the wake of an event being termed ‘cool photography’ by Peter Wollen (Campany, D. 2003), as opposed to photographs taken during the event (‘hot photography’) feels overly simplistic.

An extract from Conrad’s interview with Meyerowitz explains the hazards of the workers at Ground Zero:-

‘He trod on a surface that was still molten, so hot, because of the jet fuel that continued to ignite fires deep below, that it ate through the thick soles of his boots. The debris, in which so many mangled bodies were compounded, was itself lethal.  The most frightening of Meyerowitz’s photographs shows a zigzagging fissure that one day, weeks after 9/11, suddenly ripped open a street’.

I would therefore question the idea of Campany’s classification of Meyerwitz’s images being ‘late photography’. Whilst he was at the site over 9 months, undoubtedly there must have been times early in that period when he was photographing the men working in treacherous conditions, unearthing grisly remains, working day and night with little sleep, that it must have felt to both Meyerwitz and those men, that the event and the horror was still happening. To these men, the photography was not ‘late’, nor was it ‘cool’. The problem that photography has, compartmentalising itself into categories and genres feels fraught with difficulty.

The Tate Modern exhibition ‘Conflict Time Photography’ which I visited in December 2014, organised images in rooms, sequentially taken hours, days, weeks, then years after the conflict ‘event’ occurred, and clearly demonstrated the problem of adding all ‘after event’ photographs under a single defining ‘type’.

Images shot seconds after an event such as Don McCullin’s ‘Shell-shocked US Marine (1968), an image of a traumatised soldier unable to register the presence of a camera, felt almost visceral and intrusive, and contrast vastly to Sophie Ristelhueber’s ‘Fait’ (1991), a series of images taken 7 months after the end of the Gulf War, of the ‘wounds inflicted on the desert landscape’ of Kuwait, which felt altogether more ‘poetic’, calm and beautiful even. Collectively they were exhibited like a mosaic, a series of beautiful textures, rather than anything resembling the outcome of a bloody war.

sophie_ristelhueber_galerie_jerome_poggi_1309
Photograph in ‘Fait’ by Sophie Ristelhueber. 1991.
sophie-ristelhueber-fait-44-1992-web
Photograph in ‘Fait’ by Sophie Ristelhueber, 1991.

In contrast to the above images, there is palpable emotion generated by Meyervitz’s photograph below of firemen and rescue workers sat resting as a group. The exhaustion is etched across the face of the dusty clothed bodies. Various of their expressions are dazed and showing them almost incapable of assimilating the event and the horror. For those involved in the clear up of 9/11, it was very much a protracted event as they worked night and day in the immediate aftermath to find signs of life and later, signs of former life in the form of bones and personal effects.

Aftermath 3
Image from ‘Aftermath’ by Joel Meyerowitz, 2001.

It seems to me that there is a period of ‘limbo’ where the event or atrocity has occurred and people have not left the scene – their activities they are carrying out are as a direct link to the event, that they become intrinsic to it. Their reactions to the event are still visible and all-consuming. So documentary photography during this period not ‘cool’ so much as ‘still very warm’.. where the embers of the ashes are far from dying and the photography is very much ‘of the moment’.

Searching for Meaning

There seems to be a theme in documentary photographs after devastating events that somehow a deeper meaning needs to be derived from the image. It might be that these images carry a duty as being a vehicle for mourning and therefore the image is not allowed to be merely documentary evidence, but it needs a heavier weight to it. In his article for the Guardian, Conrad explains:-

‘Meyerowitz documents a succession of spurious miracles: the truncated support pier of a bridge that resembles a cross, or the swarm of butterflies that the hard-boiled members of the Arson and Explosion Squad take to be transmigrating souls’..

Further, ‘Aftermath closes with Meyerowitz’s photograph of his own lanky shadow imprinted on the ground as he stands over a rough hole that is choked with random refuse. He has a body after all, and it knows where it is bound.’ (Conrad, P. 2006)

For me these type of arguably ‘fanciful’ notions just detract from the story of the images, which stand up in their own right and have enough gravitas without searching for hidden dimensions. I can surmise however that a photographer so caught up with his ‘mission’ or ‘calling’ to document these type of dramatic events, and an obsessive 9 months of focussed work in dreadful circumstances, might lead to consequential embellishment of images in this way.

Access to Horror

I was interested in Campany’s practical reasoning for the emergence of this newly discovered ‘late photography. His argument is that wars such as Vietnam were considered the last ‘photographers war’ because of the chaos of the war itself and the protracted length of the conflict which itself led to a lot of photographic opportunity for documentary ‘war’ images.  The Gulf War was very different. He explains:-

‘What few images we saw were satellite images from news journalists along with abstracted military footage and interpretive television graphics. Very few photographers covered the war. They weren’t allowed in. After the war many photographers went to Kuwait to document the leftovers – destroyed tanks, bodies, scarred desert and burning oil fields. Their images often had a post-traumatic disposition, and a mournful paralysis.’

Essentially then, war photography has evolved this way because of lack of access to the events of conflict.  It makes infinite sense that to try and glean some kind of reaction to a distant war, is to look at the finer details and make the photography altogether more artistic.

‘Late’ Terminology

Ultimately the term ‘late’ photography is a clever use of the connotation of death and has arisen from a number of factors. I think that it is too much of a sweeping generalisation to classify all images taken after an event under this heading. The further the passage of time has travelled, the more ‘late’ the documentary photography gets, the more the use of the images changes from being newsworthy to being historical documents.

Sources

Campany, D. (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. At http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/. Accessed at 2/1/2016

Conrad, P. (2006). 9/11: The Aftermath. At http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/aug/27/photography.september11.  Accessed at 2/1/2016.

Mahler, J. (2006). The Unbuilding. At
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/03/books/review/Mahler.t.html?_r=0
Access at 2/1/2016.

Part 1 – Rosler on Hine

Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does it matter if someone benefits in the long run? Does photography change situations?

Martha Rosler claimed that Lewis Hine’s documentary photograph was ‘not helping  the social situation because it reinforced the gap between rich and poor’. She described Hine’s work and those like him, as ‘propagandising social work and righting wrongs’. Rosler felt that ‘In calling for their righting the photographers both expressed sympathy for the poor and appealed to the self-interest of the privileged. They were making a strong case for charity rather than self help’.  (Ashley la Grange, 2005:113).

It would be difficult to form an opinion on Martha Rosler’s criticism of Lewis Hine’s apparently misguided intentions and his use of documentary photography, without looking at the history and the images themselves, so I decided to research both.

As a teacher in America in the early 1900’s, Hine would have undoubtedly been troubled by the lack of any laws protecting children from child labour, which presumably is what drove him to give up his teaching post and work for the National Child Labour Committee as their investigator and photographer in 1908.

Obviously not afraid of hard work himself, Hine covered 12,000 miles across America in just one year, taking pictures of children working in factories.  Some of his images are shown below and I’ve included my thoughts on the impact each image has on me:-

Lewis Hine - Workers Stringing Beans
Workers Stringing Beans – Baltimore, June 7 1909

The photograph above does not induce any feelings of shock or sympathy. The children appear reasonably well-nourished and clothed. Some are smiling, apparently happy with their lot. The conditions don’t appear to be too awful – their workplace is well lit, all the children working are seated and they appear to be working alongside adults, some of whom we could assume are family members. It almost feels that Hine’s concern is that these children are missing their education – they should be reading not stringing beans!

Hine himself also consciously avoided maximising the shock factor of his images. He argued in fact that people were more likely to join the campaign against child labour if they felt the photographs accurately captured the reality of the situation.

Hine could, very easily, have resorted to photographing the side effects of child labour on the health and well-being of his subjects. Many children were reported at the time of being underweight. Some suffered from stunted growth and curvature of the spine. They developed diseases related to their work environment, such as tuberculosis and bronchitis for those who worked in coal mines or cotton mills. They faced high accident rates due to physical and mental fatigue caused by hard work and long hours.

Hine resisted the temptation to be exploitative by photographing sick children and I think that his perseverance with the ‘truth’ in an image, focussing on the work the children carried out rather than what that work could lead to, adds to his credibility. He clearly understood that shocking his audience might detract from his ultimate aim of changing the law for the benefit of these and other children to come.  It might even have slowed the entire law making process if the focus moved to the factory owners being criminalised or even going underground.

Lewis Hine - photo4
‘Rose Biodo, Philadelphia, 10 years old. Working 3 summers, minds baby and carries berries, two pecks at a time. Whites Bog, Brom Mills, N.J. This is the fourth week of school and the people expect to remain here two weeks more’. Lewis Hine, September 28, 1910

This second image reinforces the idea of Hine’s concern over the children’s future due to their missing education. It is in fact Hine’s detailed notes taken for each image which provide the tell-tale signs of his deep seated concern and reasons for his commitment to taking these photographs, rather than the images themselves.

Indeed, this next quotation from Hine, clarifies his intention to merely replicate his impression via his images without any falsification:-

‘Hine defined a good photograph as “a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.” Because he realized his photographs were subjective, he described his work as “photo-interpretation.”‘ (The US National Archives and Records Administration).

So what were the results of Hine’s work? Whilst it may not be possible to completely link his photographs to the subsequent changes in the law, there can be no doubt that his work with the Committee did contribute to the social consciences: In 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act that established child labour standards – a minimum age of 14 and documentary proof of age. By 1920 the number of child labourers was cut to half of what it had been in 1910.  Rosler conveniently forgets this historical change in her commentary and it feels like an injustice to Hine himself to do so. These children and indeed their families were not in a position to ‘help themselves’ and it was not ‘charity’ that Hine was looking to achieve, or make the wealthier classes feel better about themselves.

A somewhat bigger injustice for Hine was that he eventually died in extreme poverty himself in 1940, having struggled to make his photographic career pay for himself personally.

Regarding Rosler’s essay again, I think that this type of socially driven documentary photography needs to be considered in the context of the time it was created. In the early 1900s (before television and the wealth of information – written and visual and easily accessible via the Internet), photographers must have felt they had an almost moral duty to provide evidence of the way different classes of society were living. Contrary to Rosler’s opinion that it was damaging to highlight these differences, I think it must have felt almost like their ‘mission’ – they were the first to have this visual type of technology, it was up to them to provide the  evidence in the absence of other media.

Today, the argument might be legitimately levelled to a photographer who is using similar images, that they are exploitative. To single out an individual subject in a photograph for the purposes of highlighting a social issue, feels unnecessary.

One of the images which has always stayed with me, almost hauntingly so, is that of David Kirby, the AIDs victim, on his deathbed in 1990 surrounded by his family members. The image was taken by Theresa Frare, a journalism student. The image is of course shocking and feels overtly intrusive and completely exploitative; but because of probably all those reasons, this photograph must have remained in the minds of the millions of people who saw it, and subsequently also in colour, as part of the notorious Benetton advertising campaign. It struck me that this image and therefore this man, the subject of the image, probably did more for the cause of raising awareness about AIDS across the globe, than any other campaign with the same aim. So yes, exploitative and intrusive at the time, but a powerful legacy for his family to retrospectively understand the impact that it had.

untitled
David Kirby, on his deathbed, Ohio 1990.

So ultimately yes, I do believe that images can feel exploitative particularly at the time they are taken and especially if they are as shocking as the Kirby image was, but it is imminently necessary to look at the bigger picture. What images do you carry with you in your brain simply because they struck such a chord with you and contained such a strong message? Did the same impact happen to many other people and did it therefore did it help globally in some way? Did it effectively contribute to a greater good? Did the ‘victims’ in the image then also benefit from the knowledge that portraying them or someone close to them, maybe saved others’ lives?  I would conclude that documentary photography sometimes needs to be necessarily exploitative for us to sit up and take notice and change behaviours, or in Hines’ case, social laws.

Sources

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Abingdon, Oxon. Focal Press.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (unknown). Teaching with Documents: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor. At http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/hine-photos/

Cosgrove, B (2014). The Photo that Changed the Face of AIDS. At http://time.com/3503000/behind-the-picture-the-photo-that-changed-the-face-of-aids/