Archive for the ‘The Democratic Image’ Category

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Access

April 21, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Following on from Jessica’s post about accessibility, during the lunchbreak I was speaking to Janice McLaren, projects organiser at The Photographers Gallery. She told of an intern who had recently completed a photography project in China where the children involved had never before seen a photograph, let alone had access to the myriad of images available on the net.

So when we talk about how the internet is democratising photography, we must bear in mind that until the whole world has online access then this debate is only relevant to one sixth of the world.

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Autograph

April 21, 2007

By Jessica Reed liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph just gave a presentation highlighting the fact that if we talk about Democracy in the digital photography world, we should keep in mind that only + one billion people worldwide have access to the Internet. He also talked at length about the (mis)representation of “visible minorities” in relation to the while middle class males’ “white noise” which obstruct access to the global media platforms for an enormous amount of people left voiceless or misrepresented.

You can find more about Autograph’s mission and ongoing work here.

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Having equal access to something cannot necessarily be construed as democratic

April 21, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging from The Democratic Image symposium

Pedro Meyer’s keynote talk was a tour through the development of technology and how this has affected his work and photography around the world.

Here are some facts he threw out:

– The omnipresence of digital means that film costs nothing nowadays. Today we should instead be looking at how much it costs to store the data. The cost and capacity of a hard drive is a better measure of how much photography costs today.

– The price of digital cameras is falling by 30% year-on-year

– The Mexican photagrapher Raul Ortega published a book with funding from the Chiapas government. He printed 4000 copies, 2000 of which remained unsold 4 years later. He then published it as a downloadable pdf on Meyer’s zonezero. 24,000 were downloaded within 30 days.

So, the argument goes, advances in technology (low cost + increased distribution) = more democratic.

Yes, but…

Having equal access to something cannot necessarily be construed as democratic – look at Coca Cola.

The debate continues with a video link up with Bill Thompson after the coffee break.

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Giuseppe di Bella’s stamps

April 21, 2007

by Jessica Reed, liveblogging from the The Democratic Image conference

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As I was walking to the conference this morning I found myself chatting with Giuseppe Di Bella, a French-Sicilian photographer based in London; I hope to get him to blog here this week-end. Talking about the myriad of exhibitions around the city, he asked me if I had seen his work. “Not yet”, I replied slightly embarrassed, “but I will as soon as possible”.

He smiled, “well there’s a really good story attached to my work, something you might like to blog about. It turns out I have the FBI following me around. They find my work to be suspicious”.

And how could they not! Giuseppe used photographs of Abu Ghraib which he then transformed into stamps, sending letters worldwide adorned with his controversial art. “Of course”, he pointed out, “I would also add a real stamp so as not to be accused of counterfeit. But they didn’t like my art one bit. They have been watching my actions closely, and even interrogated one of my acquaintance in New York”.

“Well”, I replied, “… that would certainly make a good blog story”.

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The professionals, the media and the people

April 21, 2007

by Hughes Leglise-Bataille, Paris-based amateur photographer

“Time magazine has voted you “The Person of the Year” for “seizing the
reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital
democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own
game”. So, did you?”

In my native French, the word “personne” means both a person, and no one. By making us all “Person of the Year”, ironically, Time magazine has replaced the individual with the people, offering us as its cover a blank computer screen, like a mirror of billion faces. Is this a faceless crowd, or like these mosaics of thousand of images, does it have some recognizable features ? And most importantly, can we shape it ? After all, in “digital demo-cracy”, there’s the computer, the people, but also the power (kratos): by the people, for the people.

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Trying to tackle this question, I can only draw on my personal experience as an amateur photographer. Covering news in Paris, I’m somehow “competing” with professional photographers from the media, often working side-by-side with them. At night, I quickly select the best shots and upload them to Flickr, with short captions describing the events, so people have the opportunity to discover the images at the same time they appear in the media. The question at that point is: why do they look ? What difference is there, what’s the added-value, how this so-called “citizen (photo)journalism” is complementing or competing with the mainstream, professional media ? I believe these differences can be broken down into four points :

story-telling: for obvious reasons, the paper media can only show very few pictures of an event, often just one or two. But there’s no way one can tell an exhaustive and balanced story with a couple of photos. Therefore, the ones selected tend to be either informative but boring, or spectacular but biased. Even on the main media websites, it’s rare to have a portfolio of more than half a dozen shots. Amateurs have no such restrictions, and can choose to post on their blogs as many photos as they deem necessary to present all the angles of an event, from the mundane to the dramatic.

access: depending on the type of event, amateurs can be handicapped by more or less restricted access to the scene. Without the proper accreditation, some places and personalities are simply off-limit. Sometimes, it’s the publication itself which is legally restricted, a growing trend in France with a recent law officially aimed at the “happy slapping” phenomenon but which in fact, will strongly limit the freedom of citizen photojournalism. The sheer complexity of the logistics also hinders the coverage capacity of an amateur: for instance, professional photojournalists often have a motorbike with a driver to move around.Therefore, citizen journalism is bound to be local. And that’s also where it can beat the pros: by being closer to the community, amateurs are less intrusive and better accepted (eg. the French suburbs where journalists, especially TV crews, have been regularly attacked since 2005).

ethics: beyond the legal framework, professionals have rules, amateurs haven’t. While some may argue that these rules can sometimes amount to a form of censorship (eg. the collusion of political / business interests with the media), the lack of standards in citizen photojournalism is probably more worrying. Image manipulation (so much easier with digital photography), staged photos, bias towards spectacular / violent images, lack of respect for the subjects, etc. are all disturbing. Responsibilities probably lie with all parties: the photographers, the websites hosting their pictures, and the people visiting them.

economics: stating the obvious, amateurs don’t work for the money, while pros have to make a living. However, the digital revolution has dramatically reduced the difference between the two and it’s now relatively easy for an amateur to have the same equipment as a pro, and to get some exposure. Exposure, that’s often what matters for the amateur: it’s not about the money, it’s about the (relative) fame of having one’s name in a newspaper, and/or thousands of visitors on one’s photoblog. The problem is that intermediaries have jumped on the opportunity, promising both the “fame” and (some) money by putting the amateurs in contact with the media. I tend to believe that unfortunately, this is both lowering the quality of the work and its economic value.

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Finally, I would like to mention one important thing: citizen journalism, especially photojournalism, is often mixing up testimonies with journalism. To me, the people sending photos taken with their camera phones of the bombings in London, for instance, are just testimonies. What they do is no different than in the pre-digital age, when they would have told their story to the media. Now, they have the pictures to back it up, but in essence it’s the same process. Photojournalism isn’t just the recording of an image, and owning a camera doesn’t make one a photographer. But maybe it’s the media’s job to raise the standards, and demonstrate what good photojournalism can and should be ?

Thanks to the digital revolution, amateur photojournalism has become available to many photographers (“by the people”) and is able to reach a tremendous audience (“for the people”), but ultimately, does it mean better photojournalism and therefore, better democracy ? Or on the contrary, is it threatening professional photojournalism and forcing it to lower its standards ? From a strictly financial point of view, if the increase of the photographic offer has decreased its value, it seems the only way out is to compensate by increasing its quality. Call me optimistic, but I’m convinced the problem is not with the professional photographers (because they do take excellent photos and because even if you have to make money out of it, it’s not a job you choose for the money), nor with the public (people would learn and appreciate high-quality photos), but with the media owners themselves, who are trying to lower the costs at the expense of quality.

As for amateur photojournalists, I guess that in an ideal world, either they should be good and committed enough to ultimately become professionals, or they can exploit the niche of local journalism, for which they are better prepared than the professionals, and where the investment is lower for the media. But if everyone wants to be the “Person of the Year”, I’m afraid no one will…

Hughes Leglise-Bataille is winner of the NPPA – Best of Photojournalism 2007 awards in the Amateur Photoblog News and Photojournalism categories. Photos featured in articles in Le Monde, le Figaro, LCI (French TV news channel), Salon.com, MAX magazine.

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Selective Democracy

April 19, 2007

by Mary Fitzpatrick, contemporary fine artist

“The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print” Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky

…The same can be said of the visual world including aspects of the gallery world. How many of you are aware that anyone making any work with a camera seeking funding must go through the North West Arts Councils Media department and not their Visual Art department? And how many of you are aware that 95% of the annual media budget usually goes to white male practitioners?

Women are encouraged to apply for funding – but then some weeks later we get a letter from out of the ether pointing out that the competition was tough. They justify it by saying that “photography doesn’t attract women” so that we can try and pretend that we don’t even exist – a director actually wrote this to me after my multiple rejection letters. The names of the award recipients are then jumbled up on their website so you can’t quite work out who has been funded in Media, except if you have a keen sense of smell. Women do tend to get grants in visual arts though most of the major grants over £5000 go to white male artists. One male artist is cited on their website as recently getting two huge grants totalling £65,000 in visual arts. I did gratefully receive one ‘be quiet’ grant at a later stage when I brought ‘the problem’ to their attention.

'Abandoned doll, kuwait'

A few years ago after my many problems with this issue I did a quick audit on five recent years of the Arts Councils funds through studying five years worth of their annual reports. The results were astonishing but unsurprising – 90% to 100% of the Media fund was going in one direction only. Individuals who were funded were often given very large grants and at times double grants. At least 90% of their funds was going to male applicants only – nearly all white applicants. More often than not there would be only one small grant to a female photographer each year – if that.

The message I got through this is that they believe that the white male visual world is somehow superior and more deserving of support. Let’s not forget that this is public arts money. We are filtered out and reprimanded at the very early stages of any potential projects or exhibitions. In fact we are cleansed out to make way for the pure photographic visual residue. I myself was told at a meeting I “would never be funded to publish, exhibit or to buy equipment” by a female Media officer. In fact they even asked me why cant you be more like “this male photographer from London”. I’m not actually a photographer, but a fine artist.

I did a quick audit on some of the curated exhibitions utilising documentary such as ‘Making History – Art and Documentary from 1929 to now‘ at Tate Liverpool. If you look at this particular catalogue there are 71 images, of which 9 are by named female practitioners. However, if you looked at the actual exhibition space itself the male artists exhibited large bodies of work and often having their own rooms, whereas the few women in the exhibition had far less actual wall space. Probably 90% or more of the actual wall space was devoted to white male art and documentary practitioners. The show should have really been called ‘a white male view of Britain’. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the curator was female.

This strange phenomenon is carried over into the Chinese Art show also at Tate Liverpool in which there is only a single female artist. An invigilator at the show told me the female curators couldn’t find any women in China making art. What they probably meant was that they had in this instance been kept creatively invisible through the various filtering processes that lead to ultimate selection and that this is still sadly a global institutional problem.

In the archaic cultural world – for we do have another world – we are filtered out and largely kept invisible at most stages of the visual colonial selection process. Like the ’so awful it was really funny’ Pollock film I watched the other night, in which Lee Krasner (the painter) meets Jackson Pollock (the painter) and from that moment onwards we only see her only standing in the doorway carrying the laundry basket, cooking or gasping at Pollocks’ genius whilst he paints throughout. At the end of the film -in small credits- we are told that she did actually carry on painting by way of minor hindsight.

Battlescene, Kuwait

In contrast I had 9000 hits to my website last month  from all over the world. Visibility is key. The website assures more visibility, which equals having a voice. You can’t just keep saying we’re all rubbish at what we do. These digital means allow me to do a massive body swerve around the institutional men and women who all work to maintain the higher visual good in this country. I can move around those power points I’m supposed to be filtered through and cleansed out of and still come out visible on the other side. I also work and exhibit a lot outside England. I was well supported by both Arts Councils in Ireland – even the Irish Government supported me.

Whilst I am aware that things have changed radically for us and there are many high profile women artists working today – I remain vigilant of the archaic colonial attitudes that still persist especially in elements of photography per se. We still have predominantly all male photography departments across the country. Digital technology is also relatively inexpensive and widely available too as are the many inexpensive printing options that have also become widely available to us. The media age gives us a lot of options, and I can reach a global audience. Marvellous. The funniest irony for me though, is that my work is motivated by and dealing with the aftermath of those very colonial mechanisms that seek to silence me as an artist. So it remains to be seen whether my blog is also filtered out – the truth hurts doesn’t it?

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The good, the bad and photojournalism

April 18, 2007

by Eivind H. Natvig, photojournalist currently stationed in South Asia

The idea of everyone being a photographer is wonderful as long as we remember a few things: we live in an unpredictable world, and the value of our contemporary history being documented for the future is immeasurable. Events potentially being recorded as more people have fairly high quality camera equipment and great technical skills -at least in the western world- is an incredible development in itself. In the part of the world where I reside this is not the case: even the local media can be overshadowed by the expensive equipment of tourists walking by, hiding in expensive hotels when violence erupts.

My main concern with photojournalism today revolves around ethics. In my opinion to be able to call anything journalism, you also have to be able to explain how the material has been acquired. What is being emphasized in the photographs, and why? This is the essence of it all. There are many insecure professionals out there shooting what everyone else is photographing, but I am positive many do not even know why they point the camera where they do. How will the amateurs know better than professionals in the chaotic situations we face regularly?

There are also known incidents of “photographers” who promise changes in this part of the world to the people they shoot. They spread false hope and deceive people in crisis. It’s important to know what to say and how to behave, what to shoot and what not to shoot when dealing with human beings. Sadly a lot of foreigners I see here seem to forget that their subjects are human beings.

As far as I understand, the “citizen journalists” have spawned from a desire to get other news than what the established media feed them; personally I’m thrilled that people care. But I am not alone amongst professionals who have dedicated our lives to this, and we need to eat. Unfortunately, the same public that wants something else is not buying enough magazines. To some extent citizen journalists can offer some form of competition to the established photographers working in the western world. Free photographs available through FlickR for the sheer pleasure of being published as an amateur might tighten the budgets for buying photography or hiring photographers, but the potential for the viewing public to win from a photographer on every street corner is incredibly positive.

The greater events and catastrophes need compassionate, caring and professional individuals with a spine to tell stories without submitting to the propaganda and directives of playing parts – and not forgetting the human beings while doing so. Photojournalism no longer is about pointing and shooting, and objectivity has been pronounced dead and should be buried for good. But perhaps it should be about storytelling, rather than just registering an event.

We seekers of the truth should embrace others doing the same, as long as the individual rights are never forgotten.