CONFLICTED PORTRAYAL–DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY COMMODIFIED BY CONTEXT.

A women gazes at us from a magazine cover , her eyes are calm despite her mutilated nose, What happens if we leave Afghanistan, reads the text nestled next to the sitters shoulder below the iconic Times magazine font. The text and the image combined clearly state a social and political position. If “we” leave Afghanistan, women will have their noses cut off. (PM wants to quickly interject something here; clearly women have their noses cut off even when you are there, now back to original train of thought). Let us assume this position is what the women in the image (Aisha) feels should be communicated to the world, and clearly Time magazine thinks pulling out of Afghanistan will lead to further human rights abuses, but is this what the photographer Jodi Bieber thinks? For the sake of this argument lets assume this political position does not align with the photographers stance, lets assume again for the sake of this argument that the photographers experience in Afghanistan has led her to the conclusion that all foreign forces, be they peace keepers or otherwise, should rabbit away without delay. If that is the case a very powerful/ emotive image has been aligned to a clear political position resulting in propaganda that is outside of the photographer’s control.

Question: How much control does a documentary photographer have regarding the commodification of their image as propaganda by the newspaper houses for whom they work on assignment? Or by any other publishing forum for that matter?

There have always been questions and objections raised regarding the commodification of a documentary photograph in an art / gallery environment. The train of objection generally follow this track…some middle class photographer goes into a foreign environment and takes photo’s of the poor/ destitute/ weird/ the other/ the exotic/ the imprisoned, and then prints these images on Hahnemühle paper and sells them to people who wish to hang them above their designer brown leather couches. A beautiful image of somebody starving, Is still an image of somebody starving. Obviously the subject/ person in the photo does not realise that their suffering is going to be commodified on expensive paper and (PM is being consciously flippant here) sold as decor. PM can’t imagine they would dig that, or maybe they don’t care. On the other hand if they knew their image was going to be placed on the front of the Time magazine with a political stance they supported they might in fact be keen (PM is conscious that PM is making an assumption here and if the subjects life was at risk PM acknowledges they might not be keen). However is the commodification of an image by a gallery really that bad in comparison to the commodification of an image by a newspaper agency? In the first case the image will be seen by a handful of élite art viewers who will judge it in terms of its formal merits and then forget about it until it’s secondary market auction results go through the roof, the second will be seen by the world. Newspapers, weekly magazines are opinion makers that have the power to create propaganda that can sway policy and create perceptions on a huge scale.

Since I started writing this, Jodi Bieber won world press photo of the year award with the above portrait of Aisha. On the home page of Jodi’s website, Jodi does not just show the winning image, Jodi shows the winning image on the front cover of the Time magazine. This leads PM to the conclusion that she supports the assertion that leaving Afghanistan is a bad idea, or alternatively having your image on the front of the Time magazine is more important than your political stance on the situation.

While we are on this topic, the image and it placement strongly mimic the iconic portrait of the Afghan women which appeared on the front of the National Geographic some years ago ( you remember the one, see image below) PM is  not suggesting that the Bieber image in question won the world press photo of the year award because of this clever “curatorial/ editorial decision” but just like curating an exhibition, you can juxtapose a mediocre work next to a brilliant work and make the mediocre work appear excellent and I’m sure this “curatorial/editorial” decision further activated the power of the image in question. Listening to Jodi Bieber speak about her intentions when photographing Aisha , PM feels that Jodi was successful , she has captured Aisha’s  beauty and strength in what will no doubt become an iconic image always associated with the dialogue as to the best course of action to take in Afghanistan.

Photo Credit : Steve McCurrys “Afghan Girl”

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One Response to CONFLICTED PORTRAYAL–DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY COMMODIFIED BY CONTEXT.

  1. Geth says:

    When I was in Kabul I noticed a lot of young street kids with blue eyes. Apparently the unwanted offspring of Russian soldiers. Those are hard streets to live on.

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