Documents of Conflict and Suffering

Max Houghton “Walk the Line”

Jonathan Kaplan “Imaging War”

Both writers make the point that decisions on whether an image is too graphic for publication is always a personal one. As Kaplan says however, the photographer is likely not to be in the best position to determine the effect on viewers. I found it interesting that Kaplan describes how the editor of the book Kaplan was contributing to wanted to use his surgery photographs but it was the designer who felt these were not appropriate. I would have expected the editor to have picked up on this in the first place. Houghton describes his reaction to photographs of Saddam Hussein’s sons after their deaths, how he felt shocked and that this had crossed his line. Both writers reinforce each other on the point that we all have different lines that we do not want to cross when it comes to seeing images of suffering.

Kaplan’s reaction above was to a newspaper front page, whereas the Houghton’s designer was reacting to images that were planned for a book. Newspaper images are always likely to shock more than a book; we associate newsprint with the immediate now but a book doesn’t have the same sense of immediacy.

In preparing my thoughts for this piece I looked at various books on my bookshelf, and at two in particular. After visiting the Exhibition of Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain in 2019 I bought the accompanying book. I felt that after seeing the exhibition and reading the book I didn’t have the same shocked reaction to the many conflict images as I would have done if they were of contemporary events. This is partly due to the exhibition context as the emphasis was totally on McCullin and his work rather than the subjects themselves. Some of these I remember from my youth when they originally appeared in the Observer, and I’m sure they had more of an effect then than they do here. The images are the same though; displaying them in an exhibition and in a book lessened my feeling of revulsion. I don’t think this is quite the same as Susan Sontag’s point about becoming desensitized, but it may be and is certainly related.

In contrast Harold Evans reproduces many newspaper photographs in as close to their original context as possible. Although the book was published over forty years ago, I found I was much more shocked by some of the images here than I was by Don McCullin’s. That many of these are shown as reproductions of actual newspapers affects the context hugely, and the original immediacy of the pages is still there. In this book the photographer (although credits appear later in the book) is largely ignored, with the focus being on the editorial choices and the anticipated viewer reaction.

Max Houghton’s piece also reproduces a newspaper page showing a graphic colour image of a young woman lying dead next to her crying child. Houghton explains how the decision to use this image was justified by the accompanying writing explaining how the journalist managed to identify the woman. This is important in that it describes how printing a graphic image can be justified, and is an argument covered frequently by Evans.

The coming of the internet has totally altered the way images are provided and received. Newsapers can still provide immediacy, and books can provide thoughtful responses to conflict situations. Gilles Peress’s “Farewell  to Bosnia” is an very thoughtful response, juxtaposing the dramatic with the mundane in a way that highlights how much life has to go on as well as how much it is disrupted. It has to be a very careful decision as to how much influence is given to these two positions; too much mundanity will suggest that there is no real problem, and too much dramatic violence will mak the viewer see the situation as one of unredeeming hell. The success of Peress’s work here is testament to his sensibility and respect. Being able to view this work on the internet is a huge advantage nowadays but that is only because the intended context is largely preserved in serious websites. Other internet sites are not so respectful and can reduce images of war to little more than disaster porn. At https://allthatsinteresting.com/hiroshima-aftermath-pictures one can see a series of otherwise disconnected images of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with no accompanying context, so that everything is just seen as ‘bemused awareness’ in Susan Sontag’s term.

References

Houghton, M. (2008) ‘Walk the Line’ In: Foto8 (23) pp.133–134.
Kaplan, J. (2008) ‘Imaging War’ In: Foto8 (23) pp.132–133.

Merez, A. (ed.) (2019) Don McCullin. (s.l.): Tate Publishing.

Evans, H. (1978) Pictures on a page. Photo-journalism, graphics and Picture Editing. (s.l.): William Heinemann Ltd.  

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