29 October 2008

James Nachtwey & the Campaign Against XDRTB ~ Caught in the Conventions of Photojournalism

A boy experiencing severe pain from TB meningitis is comforted by
his mother at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Svay Rieng, Cambodia.
Family members provide much of the personal care at hospitals in
the developing world. Photograph & Caption © James Nachtwey/VII

Let's start with the obvious, since I want to talk about what I think are more important things. James Nachtwey is an extraordinarily talented photographer. In his work he has captured the dangers and depravities of war and famine and other forms of systematic, man-made devastation. And he's done so in ways that have proven both profound and powerful. It is perhaps only a slight overstatement to say that he is unrivaled. Yet, despite his own admirable aims, Nachtwey is operating within conventions that are highly constraining.

O.K. - now for the critical part. Here I am prompted by this post Jörg Colberg made at Conscientious yesterday.** Jörg used a recent undertaking by Nachtwey to raise a set of general critical questions about photojournalism. He is uneasy about the genre and its conventions - at least as these operate in our current circumstances.

Background: Last year Nachtwey won a TED Award. As part of that extravaganza, winners are granted "wishes." Nachtwey used his wish to request help in mounting a campaign that he was then working on. At the time the subject remained "secret." Earlier this month a coordinated publicity campaign revealed that the subject is the prevalence and spread of extremely drug-resistant Tuberculosis (XDRTB). Nachtwey had traveled to a half-dozen countries (Cambodia, South Africa, Swaziland, Thailand, Siberia, Lesotho, India) to photograph the epidemic. His stated his wish this way:
“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.”
You can find the web site for the Nachtwey's campaign here. Like Jörg, I resisted the multiple pleas I received (directly and indirectly) to post on the project and thereby publicize the campaign. Like Jörg too, I have various reservations. And like Jörg not just the campaign but my own reservations make me uneasy.

Jörg focuses his attention on the content - more accurately, on the conventional style - of the images Nachtwey has made. He finds the images troublesome; so do I. But I want to put that off for a bit. That is because I think the ways - the tacit purposes for which - the images are deployed is troublesome too. Indeed, Nachtwey's style is crucially, a reflection of the way he understand the aims of his campaign.

[0] Nearly all public problems, actual or threatened, tend to be aggregate phenomena - think of epidemic, forced displacement, war, famine, etc. None of Nachtwey's images, however, give any sense of that basic fact. This is true of this project, but is true as well of his earlier work.* He not only focuses on individuals but does so in an especially intimate way. This is intentional; in this interview following the publication of his book Inferno, he observed:
“Virtually every picture in Inferno was made at close range. I like to work in the same intimate space that the subjects inhabit. I want to give viewers the sense that they’re sharing the same space with a photo’s subject.”
In this respect, Nachtwey's work epitomizes the conventions of American (at least) photojournalism - think of such iconic images as Walker Evans's portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs or Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother.' The problem is that by presenting individuals as the exemplars of collective or group circumstance, we too easily lose sight of the aggregate nature of the phenomena and become absorbed in the pathos of individual hardship and suffering. The image I've lifted above - the pietà transported to contemporary southeast Asia- is a perfect example.

[1] The aim (at least tacitly) of photojournalistic conventions is to elicit 'compassion' among viewers in hopes that they will move from compassion to some political (collective) response. In the "Afterward" to Inferno Nachtwey makes this explicit:
“What allows me to overcome the emotional obstacles inherent in my work is the belief that when people are confronted by images that evoke compassion, they will continue to respond, no matter how exhausted, angry or frustrated they may be.”
Unfortunately, as I've noted here before solid psychological research (by, say, Paul Slovic) suggests that this move is virtually impossible. This research establishes that compassion is highly individualistic - it founders more or less immediately if we move from concern for one individual to concern for as few as two. Yet, any plausible remedy to a major (or even not-so-major) public problem requires not just individual "awareness," but concerted, coordinated action. And that action must aim to remedy general patterns. Even if one were to insist that public awareness is a first step, it would be important to establish how - by what mechanisms - that public awareness could be coordinated into action or even support for action. All this is a political problem - one of constituting a 'we' out of the vast distribution of individual awareness. As political theorists as diverse as John Dewey and Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt remind us, we should not be naive about the obstacles and difficulties that stand in the way here. My own view is that campaigns animated by celebrity are unlikely to be effective.

[2] The TED Awards, at best, are a recognition of accomplished individuals, prizes that allow them to pursue some 'wish' in a more or less ad hoc manner. Nachtwey fits the bill. There is no sense in which there is a permanent or even persisting organizational outcome to his campaign. This is not meant as a criticism but as a description of the situation in which he is operating.

Nachtwey's campaign has emerged as a philanthropic enterprise in which various firms donated talent and labor of various sorts. This becomes clear in the credits to the XDRTB.org web page:
"XDRTB.org is a project of the Sapling Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. © 2008 XDRTB.org. All Rights Reserved. Design donated by Radical Media. Website design and development by Mammelfish. Site hosting donated by PEER1. Video on demand donated by Akamai."
All neatly tax compliant or, at least, set up to be able to claim tax credit. But note - the tax code precludes non-profits form acting politically. The funding mechanisms here insure that this plague will be defined as a problem of charity or philanthropy. And the providers in the field - all good NGOs - rely on the same sorts of funding. Again, I am not criticizing - I make monthly contributions to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, but I also understand that that is necessary as a remedial gesture and in no way constitutes political action.

[3] Here we arrive back at Jörg's worries. He is concerned that Nachtwey's photographs (and not just his) are not effective in the same way that similar work has been in the past. This is a crucial worry since, as Nachtwey himself makes clear in his 'wish,' his aim is to establish the continuing relevance of photography in a 'digital age.' Yet, if what I have claimed here is close to being on point, it is unlikely that photojournalism ever had demonstrable effects of the sort that either Nachtwey or Jörg are ascribing to it. Here I think Sontag is correct when she insists that photography has important effects largely when it is taken up and used by those who already are engaged in some movement or other.

Recall that, as I noted here early on, Evans and Lange and others were "embedded" in a government program, not in a philanthropic organization. Recall too that their work - like that of virtually every other photographer I find compelling, including Nachtwey - trespasses across the conventional boundaries of photojournalism and art photography. (I've made the case here and here that that distinction is more or less useless as a guide to thinking about photography and how it is used.) It seems to me that Nachtwey's campaign will be most successful if - beyond perhaps attracting attention and funds to relieving the pain and suffering of those with XDRTB - it prompts a re-thinking of how we use photography in such cases. This is where, I think, Jörg and I and perhaps even James Nachtwey, might agree.
_________
* If you are interested in Nachtwey's previous work, I recommend Susie Linfield, “Beyond the Sorrow and the Pity,” Dissent (Winter 2001), pages 100-106.

** Jörg has just added this helpful update to his first post.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Stan B. said...

One can definitely make the argument that "classic" (often B&W) documentary imagery is going/has gone the way of "classic" rock. But if the subject matter of a photo essay is say... mental illness, which of the two examples provided by Joerg offers the more immediate, revelatory insight? Sure, the color photo works a whole lot better in today's art market- no doubt. So once again we're talking art v content, the B&W example favors content over art, while the color shot places it more on modern aesthetics.

And while the conventions of the B&W example may be passe- it's the color one that more closely resembles a modern advertising shot. Which one would more easily be tuned out is quite arguable.

If you're going to bring a major social problem to light, you have to bring it on a personal level- it's the way people most directly relate. Sure the classic imagery is worn and frayed, no doubt, and this discussion is one that most definitely needs to be continued and expanded- particularly since no viable alternatives have yet to be offered.

29 October, 2008 13:02  
Blogger Joe said...

“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.”

I really can’t believe the irony of all this intelligent speak, do you realize you missed the point?

Let me break this down for you:

“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. – Ok, that’s pretty self-describing and upon reflection it about a disease that doesn’t really need to exist and more people know about it now than before.

I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age. - Ok, here’s where unfortunately you and JC have missed the boat. A photographic Icon has called on you to help him promote a purely altruistic piece of news simply by letting the announcement be broadcast in places like your blog… get it….digital help…. And you and JC treated him with the skepticism of a used car salesman verses the master that you know with out a doubt he is… I mean what did you think? He was going to push porn on your blog?

luckily most of the people gave James the respect he deserved and the simple objective stated above was achieved.

please don't confuse his objective with whether or not classical journalism moves the masses better than something else without telling us what that something else is as this was not the primary objective.

sorry to be so harsh, but i hope you appreciate i put effort to be so articulate in my opinion.

-Joe

..

29 October, 2008 16:07  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Joe,

Thanks for the comment. Let me be frank in return. I think Nachtwey has two things going on. The first is his desire to publicize the dangers of XDRTB. To do that he already has a way bigger platform than nearly any other living photographer. Google him and you'll see that he got massive coverage in TIME, The Guardian, WIRED, and so forth. So he needs my blog post why?

Beyond that, there is no evidence whatsoever that the problem with this epidemic - or any other large-scale problem - is just that people are 'unaware.' Nor is there any evidence that simply increasing awareness or evoking compassion or whatever will do anything to actually remedy this problem (or any other). So if what JN is after is a remedy, then it is perfectly legit to raise questions about effectiveness.

His second agenda is to reassert the power of photojournalism - that is clear in the phrase following the comma in the second sentence of his 'wish':

“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.

In other words, it is JN who raises the issue of the power/impact of classical photojournalism under what he (plausibly) sees as changed circumstances. Neither Jörg nor I pushed it on him.

My worry - and I provide reasons for it - is that that aim is incoherent and is bound to fail. This is not a matter of disrespect or of questioning JN's talent or intentions or whatever. But the road to hell is notoriously paved with .... you've got it.

If you want examples of alternative approaches, fair enough. Try these two. I think work by Salgado is more effective precisely because (while resembling JN's in certain stylistic ways) it resolutely does not focus on individuals and their suffering but instead tacks back and forth between individuals and groups (indeed populations). I also think work by Chris Jordan that focuses in provocative ways on aggregates is a powerful alternative. And I specifically discuss that in one of he earlier posts to which I link (there is only so much I could put in this one).

In other words, I just don't see how either I or Jörg 'missed the point.' We are both trying to highlight questions that JN's project raises. Not because we disrespect him but because we are concerned with how photography might be used effectively in this and other circumstances.

Best, JJ

29 October, 2008 16:34  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Stan,

You wrote: "If you're going to bring a major social problem to light, you have to bring it on a personal level- it's the way people most directly relate."

If that is true, then I think standard approaches are doomed to failure for reasons that the psychologists suggest. But I do not think things are so dire. There also is evidence that your claim about the need to focus on individual level suffering is not true. Studies show that 'priming' stories of large scale misfortune with a human interest sort of hook does nothing to increase the effectiveness of the story.

Where to go from there is another matter.

Hope you are well! JJ

29 October, 2008 16:44  
Blogger Joe said...

First off, thanks for considering my opinion JJ, people brave enough to avoid the censorship of conflicting views have my instant respect, and I hope you might find from what I’ve written here that I’ve spent some time thinking under the same paradigm as you.

but then I peeled off my photography views and thought like what I am, a person that works in financial services, a person that lives in a city centre, a person that read blogs at lunch time and in the evening and comes to work talking about what I read and again at the pub with friends.

During charitable functions, payroll raffles, and by purely walking past kind people holding buckets on Princess St, I reckon I deposit another £50 a month in random charities. Am I less likely to do this for something I know nothing about?

This is where I think the term ‘viral’ comes into play, by having this information show up on everyone’s electronic front page (read influential blogs) then the cross references and wider credibility is pretty considerable. This is what I think is innovative and this term viral is now becoming a household name in marketing because of it. I think it has now just trickled down into the use by not for profits and why little old you and jmc are actually key nodes of that network :-)

29 October, 2008 17:06  
Blogger Joe said...

First off, thanks for considering my opinion JJ, people brave enough to avoid the censorship of conflicting views have my instant respect, and I hope you might find from what I’ve written here that I’ve spent some time thinking under the same paradigm as you.

but then I peeled off my photography views and thought like what I am, a person that works in financial services, a person that lives in a city centre, a person that read blogs at lunch time and in the evening and comes to work talking about what I read and again at the pub with friends.

During charitable functions, payroll raffles, and by purely walking past kind people holding buckets on Princess St, I reckon I deposit another £50 a month in random charities. Am I less likely to do this for something I know nothing about?

This is where I think the term ‘viral’ comes into play, by having this information show up on everyone’s electronic front page (read influential blogs) then the cross references and wider credibility is pretty considerable. This is what I think is innovative and this term viral is now becoming a household name in marketing because of it. I think it has now just trickled down into the use by not for profits and why little old you and jmc are actually key nodes of that network :-)

29 October, 2008 17:33  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Jim- I'm not that familiar with any of the studies or psychologists cited, but this I do know- the main reason, the only reason, Mr. Obama is now in the lead (if the polls are to be trusted) is because more people now believe he is the one to be trusted with the economy.

He made the most direct, personal connection possible in these United States.

Peace.

29 October, 2008 21:48  
Blogger Tom White said...

Jim, that is a great post. It is one of the most concise and articulate assessments of the problems a photographer faces in how their work actually helps those it depicts I have read.

06 November, 2008 21:13  
Blogger griffineyes said...

It's funny how when i first heard new of this profound breaking story I took every step to not miss it. When the day came reminders rang across my suite of electronic devices and I jumped up grabbed my laptop opened Google and searched....

Now I was shocked and amazed by the photos. They definitely elicited a reaction from me, although very distant because I could not imagine their circumstance nor have I ever been closed enough to someone with a fatal disease of that nature. The initial visceral response to those images would make me cry first and emotionally take a few steps back, even look away.

Reading this post brought thoughts of Salgado's work to mind and I'm happy you mentioned it in your comments. His concept of preservation via revelation of what we could potentially lose provides an approachable means of action. His serine photos are musical and beautiful and coaxes one to want to see more.

12 November, 2008 21:31  

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