Battle of Images
Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo
Battles of Images, (2nd, 5th, 12th and 13th March 2013), was a series of talks and screenings this month at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. It was the final program initiated by outgoing director Mia Jankowicz and was curated by artist Shuruq Harb. Thinking of news images as a major export of the region, the series examined, 'the visual culture resulting from shifts in photojournalism towards systems of aid', and it attracted a large audience.
As a whole, Battles of Images brought into the spotlight the unease many of us share when it comes to photojournalism: its compromised, cynical, detrimental aspects, the way it can feed into stereotypes. But of course everyone knows that, as Thomas Keenan pointed out during the talk he delivered as part of the program, 'Nothing can replace the taking of news photographs.'
Keenan, a writer and educator, suggested that governing is increasingly taking place through images – from outright propaganda to 'organizing consent' to surveillance drones. Due to the fact that everybody is implicated, especially those with experience in the field, Battles of Images had many confessional moments.
Renzo Martens' powerful film Enjoy Poverty (2008), with which the series opened, altogether avoids being apologetic: freely utilizing provocation and shame, Martens' obnoxious character mimics the media's exploitation of the Congolese while on a mission to find out if poverty is Congo's 'biggest natural resource'. Convinced that due to the global power structures in place the poverty that exists in the country will not be alleviated, he tells the locals that they may as well just enjoy it.
Photojournalists and NGOs make a living from images of conflict and poverty. In another talk, photographer Leah Gordon mentioned photographing elderly people in Haiti on behalf of an aid agency. Her subjects were grateful because they assumed medical help would follow – but Gordon knew there would be no follow-up. She decided to pay each subject $10, to the shock of the agency that profited from the images. Gordon also spoke of a journalist photographing an open sewer in Haiti in the sprit of informing the world about its existence so that change could be brought about, only to be told by a curious local that this very sewer had been photographed by foreign journalists for some 20 years.
Gordon showed how NGOs alternate between images of desperation (bare life stripped of context and history) and hope in order to continually secure money from donors. Enjoy Poverty highlights how very little of the money generated by poverty and conflict goes to those affected. 'You're not the only beneficiaries, but you have to be endlessly grateful,' Martens tells his subjects in the film.
Another issue is that news images often oversimplify and iconise. In an aside after the series' final event, photographer Thomas Hartwell said that in particular, young photojournalists try to give editors what they think they want, often propagating stereotypes they are in a prime position to counter. In a discussion after Martens' film was shown, artist Asunción Molinos Gordo said we need to think about the images we are not showing, and why, while also examining why we are repeatedly shown very similar images. (Why, for example, are most news images coming from Egypt of street clashes?) An AP photographer tells Martens in Enjoy Poverty that 'they' are 'only interested in negative stories, it's supply and demand. It's a market out there.'
What's more, as well as issues surrounding selection, Gordon pointed out that the image-maker cannot control the image itself. A carefully contextualised photograph she took of two Haitians in carnival costume, for example, once turned up in promotional material for a club night in east London. For Gordon, a way to avoid some of these pitfalls is perhaps to 'take a risk with the prosaic.'
Battles of Images also heard a first-hand account of how images are selected for the world's consumption. In an Egypt-focused panel discussion on a separate evening, Amel Pain, a Cairo-based photographer and the European Press Agency's chief Middle East editor, explained: 'An event has to be relevant and important for a large majority of the country, with long-term social and political implications.'
Agencies increasingly have to use official government handouts, Pain said, which raises the question of when someone or something becomes a tool of propaganda. During Libya's uprising, for example, photographers could not work freely in some areas and had to rely on government tours. On such tours, when the guide said about a corpse: 'Here is a victim of the NATO strikes', there was no way to verify the information. In this light, Pain pointed out that 'Please note that these pictures were taken during a government tour' becomes a useful phrase for captions.
Keenan said photojournalism has been migrating from photo agencies to NGOs, which he suggested are becoming media companies. At the same time, he noted, 'We are increasingly finding that NGOs have a governmental function, especially humanitarian NGOs.'
The question of whether aid is useful at all came up repeatedly throughout Battles of Images. Martens mentions in his film that 70-90 percent of some countries' aid flows back to the aiding country. In Shuruq Harb's performance-lecture that closed the program, she showed a news clip discussing how international aid protects Israel from the consequences of occupying Palestinian territories – international donors fund schools, roads and hospitals, for instance. And when Israel bombs them, those same donors pay for reconstruction. Meanwhile, former head of programming at the Ford Foundation's Cairo office Moukhtar Kocache, speaking alongside Molinos after Martens' film, lamented the fact that, in terms of the arts in the Arab world, 'people are addicted to funding from international donors.'
Keenan, who discussed an exhibition he co-curated called Antiphotojournalism, put forward several examples of alternative photojournalistic practices. He mentioned photojournalists who became disenchanted and self-critical, such as Paul Lowe, and artists such as Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, who embedded themselves with the British army in Afghanistan but captured 'photos' by simply exposing sections of photographic paper. In this, they mimicked the act of photojournalism but without the production of any representational imagery. Keenan mentioned archival projects in which 'the iconicity of the image is swallowed up in the mammoth unfolding of the archive,' citing The Book of Destruction compiled by the Hamas-run government after the 2008-9 assault on Gaza and written about by Eyal Weizman. He also brought up examples of crowd-sourcing or citizen journalism.
During the panel discussion, videographer Simon Hanna discussed how Egyptian authorities and media outlets have worked to make people doubt images, so that anger at aggression by the security forces dissipates into confusion. Harb pointed out that since the 18 days of Egypt's uprising, when there was a familiar enemy and a clear strategy, the audience has changed (it is tired, over-saturated with images) and the situation is more complicated. Media biases are not so clear anymore: you don't know who to believe. Artist Rana El Nemr, in the audience, pointed out that with this oversaturation, the value of images has decreased.
Molinos said we have to ask ourselves who are we producing images for. As Pain said, as makers and consumers of images we have to consider our roles and the systems we are part of, whether we are supporting the global power structures that lead to radically unequal distribution of wealth.
Battles of Images mostly dealt with how images coming out of third-world or conflict-torn places are used. Harb's contribution, in response to a series of photographs takenby Hartwell for the World Bank called Palestinian Authority 1998, adjusted the balance toward the look of images themselves. She showed a selection of Hartwell's photographs of everyday life and talked about her own, teenaged experience of the Oslo period. 'The thing that attracted me to these photos is that they were the beginning of selling a normal Palestine, the notion that there was a potential for a state,' she said, wondering if it is possible to see in these images now the problems that couldn't be seen at the time.
Read Jenifer Evans's report on the screening of Renzo Martens's Enjoy Poverty during Battle of Images for Egypt Independent here.