04 February 2010

Disaster, Photojournalism, and Group-think

I have been pondering the relationships between photography and disaster lately. The problem is not, I think, that photographers somehow exploit the stricken, although the squeamishness of those safely reading reading the paper at a distance (and especially their too readily expressed resentment at being confronted with disturbing images) is pretty telling. What is troubling is how little the images actually show us. There are conventions and stereotypes galore. This comes out very nicely in this post over at The New York Times photo blog. We are shown eight variations on the same image (including one by photo-deity James Nachtwey). And I am certain the post's author could've done the same with other images (say of desperate earthquake victims, arms outstretched amide the crush of others, reaching for food or water at an aid distribution center). If the photographers are not traveling in packs, their editors back home surely are thinking in packs. This is not a problem just with photographers and photo-editors (follow the first link above to Rebecca Solnit's reflections on how, in the wake of disaster*, news reports invoke the spectre of "looting" in knee-jerk ways). But it is a problem for them - or at least the visual coverage of the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath suggests it is.
* I want to call Chris Anderson on the notion that disasters like an earthquake or Tsunami are 'natural' and so call forth the need for inquiry. He cannot be that naive. He claims (in The Times post) that in such cases: "There is no need for explanation or contemplation." There are no 'natural' disasters. In each case the extent and impact of the damage and resulting misery is closely tied to political-economic factors. On that point follow the links in the first post above to this post by economist Ed Glaeser.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Johnson,

Thanks for the very thought provoking post. It expanded for me the universe of "disaster" reporting. I have already commented on how the coverage in Haiti by David Gilkey (NPR) was disturbing as he seemed to be very good at composing art out of tragedy. http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2010/01/photographing_tragedy_the_line.html

Your post gave me an opportunity to discover even more about this type of photojournalism and it's impacts.

Gilles Champagne

05 February, 2010 13:46  

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