Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Q&A with Lauren Walsh

Lauren Walsh is the author of the new book Conversations on Conflict Photography. She teaches at The New School and New York University, where she directs the Gallatin Photojournalism Lab.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on conflict photography in your new book?

A: This is my field of expertise and, broadly speaking, it's a topic that I've been focused on for many years—as a writer, professor, cultural critic, photo editor.

But the book itself began with an episode in one of my college classes at NYU, a few years ago. I was teaching a course that concentrated on conflict photography and ethics.

At one point during the semester, we were studying the coverage of a famine in Sudan in the early 1990s. My students had to read about the history of that famine and about the political forces that shaped it. They studied the photojournalistic and documentary coverage of this crisis and they read critiques of that work.

On the day we were to discuss the coverage of that famine, I put up an image in class; it came from the homework that was assigned to the students.

It's a black-and-white photo taken at a feeding center in Sudan and it portrays a man who is severely emaciated, as thin as you can imagine a person to be. In fact, he is so weak that he cannot stand; he's crawling on the ground. It's a photograph that confronts you with how dire situations of suffering can be.

Just as I was about to start my lecture, a student raised his hand and told the class that the image was a downer; he went on to say that he had plans that night and didn't think he should be made to feel bad by having to look at the photo because he had nothing to do with that emaciated man's suffering.

“I don’t see why I should care about that person,” he said.

In my entire teaching career, I had never before heard a student say something like that. This isn't a required course; all students have elected to be there, studying these issues.

So I was caught off guard by this—by hearing a student articulate what sounded like apathy, this seeming disregard for another person's suffering.

On the way home from work that day, I ran into a friend of mine who is a photographer who covers conflict around the world. I told him this anecdote and expected him to be as stunned as I was.

But he wasn't. Essentially he said: Why are you so surprised? There's nothing provocative about what your student said. I hear this all the time.

It was at that moment that something clicked: If this is a common response, then what is the point of taking and distributing images of conflict?

I set out to do a book that answered that question, and along the way wound up addressing many themes, including: the physical dangers, the psychological tolls, the power of photography in the contemporary moment, the ethical complications of this kind of imagery, forces that acts as censors, and much more.

I did this by interviewing photographers all around the world who cover conflict, photo editors who play a leading role in the dissemination of this work, and key figures at human rights and humanitarian organizations, because those agencies are now leading funders and distributors of this kind of imagery.

There is much value in hearing the voices—the experiences, hopes, challenges—of those who make and publish these images. And of course the photographs themselves can enlighten all of us in the news-consuming public so that suffering and atrocity are not rendered unseen and unknown.

In the end, my goal with Conversations on Conflict Photography is to help readers better understand the mechanisms that bring these distressing but also highly pervasive images to us.

Because a savvy news-consuming audience demands ever better and smarter journalism, which makes for a more politically and socially informed and engaged public—ultimately that benefits everyone.

Q: How did you choose the people you interviewed for the project?

A: It was important to me to have a breadth of voices represented in the book. Historically, this line of work is more male than not and more Western than not.

In my book I wanted to get beyond that, so when planning the structure of Conversations on Conflict Photography, I sought diversity, in many regards. So I interviewed men and women, as well as photographers from both Western and non-Western backgrounds.

I also wanted diversity in terms of experience; there are photographers in the book with 40 years of expertise as well as photographers who represent a younger generation of conflict photography.

And as mentioned above, there is diversity across the industry itself; I interviewed photographers, but wanted to add to this conversation by hearing the perspectives of editors and humanitarian organizations, too.

The plurality of voices makes for a very rich conversation, one that doesn't bog down at all in repetition because there is such an assorted range amidst these individuals and their experiences.

The anecdotes they share are incredible.

For instance, there is a moment during the interview with photographer Spencer Platt when he describes an incident where journalists tried to intervene to help someone and it wound up going horribly awry.

As Platt relates it, some journalists offered a ride to a hitchhiker who was standing on the side of the road, but when the group approached a checkpoint, a commanding fighter manning the point pulled that person from the car and executed him.

That's not the usual conversation when one talks about whether or not to put down the camera and intervene in the moment.  This one takes a very dark turn.

It's also a cautionary tale. Intervention to help or save a person can be more complicated or dangerous than one initially thinks. Platt makes the point that, as an outsider, you have to be very careful in terms of how you interject yourself into situations on the ground.

There's another anecdote where senior editor Marion Mertens, of the French magazine Paris Match, describes the utterly terrifying experience of learning that one of her journalists has been shot in Libya.

But of course she can’t panic; she has to be strategic at that moment and she discusses the practical steps she has to take, very quickly, in response.

Q: Do you see changes in conflict photography in recent years compared to the photography of the past?

A: There are some constants. Since the early days of the camera, there has been documentation of death, destruction, violation. And if we look much further back in time, before the camera, there have long existed depictions of war or conflict, for instance Homer's Iliad, that relate suffering and devastation.

But there any many things that have changed over time, and especially in the recent past.

I think the rise of citizen journalism is a major shift. Now, witnesses to an event can become documentarians because they have the tools (camera-equipped cellphones) in their pockets.

Such documentation at times is incredibly useful and valuable, and means that there are more opportunities to document breaking news events or violations that might occur away from professional journalistic eyes.

At the same time, the average person who may create those images isn't trained in journalistic standards and ethics. Are these images manipulated? Staged or influenced at all? Agenda-based? Properly captioned?

In one interview, photographer Ron Haviv references a real grey zone in terms of who takes the pictures.

He says: “You’re trusting me, trusting that I’m giving you an actual and fair representation of what’s happening. That’s a huge difference from the [rebel] fighter who is shooting a gun, then taking pictures of his friend with a camera and posting them online. We’re both creating images, but which are by a professional trained in journalistic ethics? … This is something I found incredibly fascinating during the Arab Spring, specifically the first Egyptian uprising, the overthrow of Mubarak. I was photographing these guys. They’re throwing rocks, they’re fighting with whomever, and all of a sudden they’re standing next to me taking pictures, and then they go back to fighting. They’re both participants and observers simultaneously.”

Meanwhile, the average viewer, even if he or she knows that images can be manipulated or captions can be inaccurate or falsified, doesn't tend to think about that with each and every image. It's easy to see a photo and believe it is true. 

It is just a fact that more photos are created today than ever before in history. In this sense, it is crucial that viewers learn to be savvier readers of photos.

That's one of my goals with this book—to give the reader the tools to be a smarter consumer of news photos. In other words, if you have a better understanding of this field of work and of how these photographs operate, you'll be better positioned to know which images to trust.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to images of conflict?

A: I see an extension of the pros and cons addressed in my previous answer.

Collectively, we create over a trillion photos each year, so the image landscape is quite crowded and this means it can be harder to pay attention to, or even find, the images that document conflicts.

There will be ever more digital channels for distributing images and probably less oversight of those, so we’re back to a question of which images can we trust. Which takes us back to the hugely important role of media and visual literacy.

And of course this is paramount not just for conflict imagery, but for all documentary images that influence our politics, or our actions and the ways we think.

Another aspect to consider in terms of conflict imagery now and looking into the future is that fact that journalists increasingly face cyber threats and digital security risks.

In her interview in my book, Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian relates her experience of online harassment in the wake of a piece she did in 2015 for Time magazine: “in Iran, I, myself, became the news in response to that publication. …This was appearing all over social media and different websites, like BBC Persian. People threatened me. They wrote articles against me. They called me a spy. They said I would help the US invade Iran. It was very upsetting and scary.”

As far as security risks, that fact that photographers now publish in nearly real-time means anyone—whether combatants, governments, others—who dislike the work can react swiftly and aggressively.

As photographer Spencer Platt puts it, “you have to think about things like digital safety now. You don’t want your phone and contacts hacked; you don’t want your device to transmit your GPS location to the wrong person.”

Beyond that, global leaders are cracking down on “inconvenient journalism”—in other words, news that they don’t want to be public—in staggeringly dangerous ways, for example, by threatening or imprisoning journalists as a way of silencing a free press.

Just think how often we hear the term fake news; at times it’s applied to legitimate reportage by way of “shutting down” that coverage.

All of these things are serious concerns right now and may become infinitely more complicated as we look into the future. The dangers associated with silencing a free press are astronomical.

It’s no accident that, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, journalism is the only industry in the United States that enjoys explicit constitutional protection.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently I’m co-directing, with Ron Haviv, a feature-length documentary film called Biography of a Photo. It’s about two iconic photographs of conflict—one from Panama in 1989 and the other from Bosnia in 1992.

The goal for this film is to animate the life stories of these two influential photographs and to explore the power, both successes and failures, of photography in documenting violations and obtaining justice.

One of the photographs explored in the film was the inspiration for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. Regarding the other, the president of Panama credited it with bringing democracy to his country. You can check out the trailer here: www.biographyofaphoto.com.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My book tackles a heavy topic, but it’s purposefully written to be accessible to everyone, with eye-opening accounts and fascinating anecdotes.

While most of us are not frontline journalists, the impact of this kind of imagery affects all of us, so I think it’s of great value to understand how the images are taken and why they are distributed.

I have started receiving feedback from readers. It's wonderful hearing comments like “This is such an important book” or “I hope all journalists read this because it’s a vital tool for understanding the scope of photographic work.”

Given that the book is meant not just for journalists, but for a very broad audience, it's especially nice when I hear from people outside the media who tell me that this book is hugely compelling and helped them understand photojournalism in a totally new way.  

One reader said, “I’ve learned to see news imagery on another level, and I’ve learned to see the world better.”

You can learn more about my book and my projects at www.laurenwalsh.com. I give plenty of lectures and would be thrilled to have your readers attend one of my talks.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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