Stephen Campbell Moore as Joe in rehearsal for Chimerica. Photo: Johan Persson.
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“A photograph is not an opinion,” mused Susan Sontag. “Or is it?”
It may be a mission. Exemplary practitioners like Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress are documentarists who refuse to be confined by that description. They are witnesses. But they are not neutral. They have a point of view – they are against forgetting. “What sustains me is the overall value in communicating,” says Nachtwey.
“People need to know and they need to understand in a human way. Photography is a language, with its own limitations and strengths, but these are my tools, so I have to try and use them well. I want my pictures to be powerful and eloquent. I want to reach people on a deep level.” The best photographers are moralists at heart. Ethically, they raise the game.
Photographs show us things we did not know (even if we thought we knew). “Photography is naively believed to reproduce visual reality,” Janet Malcolm has observed, “but in fact the images our eyes take in and the images the camera delivers are not the same. Taking a picture is a transformative act.” Such is the revelatory property of photography. It has been well encapsulated by John Szarkowski in a reflection on the influential American photographer Garry Winogrand, whose speciality is not the battle but the banal. Winogrand, says Szarkowski, “discovered that the best of his pictures were not illustrations of what he had known, but were new knowledge.” So it is with iconic photojournalism. Such photographs are not merely illustrations of what was already known. They are new knowledge.
In this pixellated age, they have the stamp of authenticity. The modern photojournalist stands in Goya’s shadow. The mottos of his Disasters of War (1810– 20) are legendary: “One cannot look at this.” “I saw it.” “This is the truth.” Every war photographer has Goya on his shoulder. Don McCullin made these mottos his own. In his autobiography he recalls coming upon a father and two sons lying in a pool of their own blood in a stone house in Cyprus during the conflict of the 1960s. He is riveted by the scene, as much for the tableau as the tragedy. When the rest of the family return, he is suddenly conscious of trespassing with his camera. But the survivors are content for him to do what he has to do.
“When I realized I had been given the go-ahead to photograph, I started composing my pictures in a very serious and dignified way… I was, I realized later, trying to photograph in a way that Goya painted or did his war sketches.”
The faces he composed may not look at us directly, but they address us unmistakably. The address is at once stoic and urgent. Eduardo Galeano has written of Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of famine in the Sahel:
'These photos watch you.
These people fix their gaze on you.
They seem more dead than alive, exotic phantoms flowering in a desert of thorns that isn’t of this world or of this time. But they look at you and silently they address you. My world is your world too, they say; my time is also your time.
According to the dictates of circumstance, other images may be almost instantaneous – the snap dignified as the decisive moment, the composition a matter of instinct. A photograph of Egyptian soldiers assaulting a young woman in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Arab Spring, in 2011, seemed to exemplify that struggle. The woman is on her back, arms outstretched, unresisting. She is wearing jeans and trainers. Shockingly, her upper body is bare, but for her blue bra; she is being dragged by her hijab. The woman’s face is covered by her clothing. There is a kind of choreography in this photograph, but no “look”. Yet it has a visceral address. The woman in the blue bra has become a symbol of an ongoing revolution. The location of the spectacle is no coincidence. In Eurabia as in Chimerica, the public square is the political crucible, the space where the polis, the organization of the people, finds its true expression: “the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word”, in Hannah Arendt’s formulation, “namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly”.
Photographs reshape the space of appearance. They help us to recognize others – faraway others, in countries of which we know little – and in the process to recognize ourselves. Our encounters with these images are a serial tutorial in humanity and inhumanity. They speak to our response, and our responsibility: “the opportunity, and the ability, to be moved by the plight of others,” as Susie Linfield puts it, “and to understand that they hurt too” – in short, to empathize. And then, perhaps, to act.
In the hands of a McCullin or a Nachtwey, the camera pricks the conscience. It is the camera that has done so much to alert our attention and globalize our concern; the camera that has brought us the depravity of the twentieth century, and the carnage of twenty-first. Photographs may be documents, photographs may be indictments.
Depending on our engagement with them, they may also be instruments of the imagination, tools for morals. Here is an answer to Susan Sontag’s final, sceptical, question about the medium on which she brooded for so long: “A photograph may be telling us: this too exists. And that. And that. (And it is all ‘human’.) But what are we to do with this knowledge – if indeed it is knowledge, about, say, the self, about abnormality, about ostracized or clandestine worlds?” What are we to do? We are to work out, like body-builders, muscling the moral imagination. We are to build the best selves for ourselves that we can.
In the preamble to the remarkable work of lyric reportage that he fashioned to accompany Walker Evans’ equally remarkable photographs of the poor sharecroppers of Alabama in the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee posed a series of unforgettable questions to his readers: “Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it …?”
Alex Danchev writes more on these matters in his collected essays, On Art and War and Terror. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham.