23 July 2010

More on Euphemisms and Photographers Embedded With NGOs

Attack plan, Chad-Sudan Border, 2008. Photograph © Stanley Greene.

Yesterday, the Lens blog at The New York Times ran this interview with photojournalist Stanley Greene. Here is an excerpt in which Greene confirms my own sense that a photographer working for this or that humanitarian outfit means she is "embedded" in just the same sense - producing the same sorts of predicaments - as if she were embedded with the military or some corporation.
Q. But do you think that somebody, a young person, could look at your book — there are a lot of beautiful women and a lot of death in your book — and get the wrong idea? Or feel like this is some romantic view of what my life will be like if I follow Stanley Greene?

A. No, I try to deflate that image. When you realize that you have been with these women and you have left them and broken their hearts — and look, let’s be real here. I don’t own an apartment. I don’t own a house. I don’t own a car. I don’t have any stocks and bonds. All I own are my cameras. That’s it. And some cowboy boots.

If you want to be a success financially, please don’t follow this path.

A lot of the stories I did, I financed. I am not a good business person. I didn’t know how to negotiate with a magazine. I just simply said, “Please give me this story, and give me the go-ahead to go do it.” Or in some cases, “If I do it, and I get the pictures and I send it to you, send me money.” And that is the generation I come out of.

I live from hand to mouth. I am one of the founders of Noor. There are three agencies today: there is Magnum, there is Noor and there is VII. I have a lot of respect for VII, but I really think we are the second agency, and we did it in three years. When you say you are a founder and owner of Noor, people expect you to be rich, but we’re not. Because we are really committed to doing what we are doing and we have made sacrifices to make that happen.

And we are going to continue to make sacrifices to allow that to happen. In the end, it isn’t about money. You want to have enough money so that you can go and eat a nice meal, and you can take your family on a fairly reasonable vacation. But then you have another level, where you don’t even think about that — where you just think about the next story. How do we get the money to go do the next story?

Q. Right. But partially because of this, photographers are doing workshops and are doing N.G.O. work. They are finding different ways. They are not out trying to do fresh photo essays that they can sell to magazines. They are putting their energies into other things to make money.

A. I’m glad you brought up N.G.O.’s, because that has become a real game. Like we work for these N.G.O.’s, right? It’s advertising, so that they can raise money and they can continue to do the good that they do. We get all upset if a photographer shoots for Shell or BP. But when we think in terms of photographing for certain nonprofit organizations who have a lot of money, and we become their spokesperson, we start to lose our objectivity.

Q. Right, but what should our role be as photojournalists working for them?

A. We have to be objective; we have to accept that. For example, when I worked for Human Rights Watch, they would take my pictures and sell them to raise money. What I always admired about Corinne Dufka is that she was a great photographer. And she quit and has literally become an investigator for Human Rights Watch. I think we have to be investigators.

Q. So you’re saying that when we are working for N.G.O.’s, we may try and please the people we are working for instead of acting as true journalists?

A. A magazine editor who hires me better understand that I am going to try and show you the truth. Some of my photos were just too hard to look at. But the truth of the matter was the picture of dead Americans in Falluja was going to run against an advertisement and the advertising people said: “No, no, no. Dead American bodies? Uh oh. No, no, no. Burnt lines? No, not like that.” And in the end, Time magazine ran it in Pictures of the Year, you know? It was made for Newsweek, but it ran in Time.

Q. Because it was causing a problem with the editors? Or advertisers?

A. Yeah, but I shot the picture. I certainly didn’t say: “Would the advertisers be upset if I show dead Americans — burnt, being beaten and tossed down the street? And then hung under a bridge and cut down?”

Q. Do we need to see images like that as Americans? There have been almost no images of dead Americans published.

A. We need to see it because it’s reality. We go to the movies, and we look at violence splashed across the screen like spaghetti sauce. If we can’t stomach watching our men and women being killed in these situations, then we shouldn’t send them there to be killed in such gruesome ways. We can’t have it both ways.

You want to sit there comfortably with your newspaper and blueberry muffin, and you don’t want to see pictures that are going to upset your morning. That is the job of a journalist, to upset your morning. The problem with newspapers and magazines folding is that the investigative journalism is going to disappear. And these criminals doing these nasty and dirty things in the world are going to get away with it.

It seems, as well, that Greene grasps quite clearly the usefulness of photography in efforts to help make visible events and things that many would prefer remain out of sight and to hold perpetrators to account. Some might find much of his work stereotypical 'war photography' and consider him an anachronism of sorts. If the alternative is euphemism I know where my sympathies lie.

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