by Jess Howard
The world of fashion and artistic photography are always portrayed as incredibly glamourous. Pre-organised shoots or models dressed in couture to advertise the latest perfume. Photojournalism falls into a slightly different category. Sitting on the boundaries between art and reporting, a photojournalist’s job is to depict the events and suffering that words are unable to convey.
But how does a photojournalist disconnect from the suffering they are capturing, without wanting to help those in the picture?
His talent and levels of detachment had been rewarded, while hundreds of Sudanese people starved.
Kevin Carter is one of my favourite photographers. Having discovered his work in a newspaper supplement I read in secondary school, I studied his work in college as I become more and more interested in the medium. The most famous of his works depicted the Sudanese famine in the early 1990’s. A painfully thin young girl crouches on the barren ground on her way to a food clinic, whilst a vulture watches from afar.
The reaction to the piece was extreme. A controversial image, many argued that Carter should have run to the child’s aid, instead of taking the picture. This reaction only grew when he was awarded a Pulitzer prize for his work. His talent and levels of detachment had been rewarded, while hundreds of Sudanese people starved.
Carter grew up during the Apartheid in South Africa. Surrounded by racial segregation and suffering, he wanted to document the events that occurred around him. As his passion for photojournalism grew, he joined a group of photographers that the press christened the Bang-Bang club — due to their documentation of the violence that they witnessed around them.
Detachment is vital in photojournalism.Regardless of the public’s opinion on the medium, there is simply no way a photographer can take these kinds of pictures if they are emotionally involved with the events. The group witnessed hundreds of beatings, murders, and stabbings and continuously had to remain at a distance from what they saw.
Carter was not as detached from the events he saw as he seemed.
Detachment is vital in photojournalism. When Carter took his award winning photograph, he had been working in the Sudan and witnessing the starvation and suffering around him throughout his trip. It is reported that during his time in the country he was chaperoned by a group of soldiers — assigned to him, essentially, to prevent him from interfering. Quite simply, if he had attempted to help the child he photographed crouching in front of the vulture, the soldiers would have intervened.
Sadly, Carter was not as detached from the events he saw as he seemed. Perhaps due to the press’s reaction to his work, or due to underline personal reasons, Carter committed suicide in 1994. Filling his car with fumes from its exhaust pipe, he died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33.
Recently, a similar image has come into the public’s attention. Taken in Syria, an image of a child seeming to be surrendering to the photographer has been retweeted countless times, and gone viral around the world. Whilst there was a slight confusion over the origins of the image, and identity of the child, a BBC article entitled The photographer who broke the internet’s heart confirmed it had been taken by Turkish photojournalist Osman Sagirli. The child assumed that the camera was a weapon, horrifically demonstrating the fear that has been driven into the people of Syria, since the conflict began.
“The child assumed that the camera was a weapon, horrifically demonstrating the fear that has been driven into the people of Syria, since the conflict began.”
I would consider categorising photojournalism to be difficult. Yes it demonstrates the skills and talents of the individual behind the camera lens, but it also shows skill in identifying events that the public will be most interested in seeing. It is also my argument that distancing themselves from the horrors around them is also a skill that a photographer needs to develop — honing it as a talent in its own right, in the same way a painter would learn to demonstrate colour gradients, or a sculptor would learn to manipulate clay.
Far from criticising these artists for not helping those they capture images of, the public should be thanking them. For without them we would have no visual recollection or knowledge of the horrors of war, conflict and suffering.