Thursday, November 1, 2018

Photography, Journalism, History

Photographs are true. As far as that goes. An unaltered photo depicts in correct perspective what was in front of the lens at the moment the shutter was pressed and is, as far as that goes, absolutely truthful. Photographs are not truth. There are things outside the frame, things that appeared earlier, things that appeared later. Indeed, there is, literally, an entire universe that lies outside the frame.

John Edwin Mason, a card carrying member of the cult of Edward Said's Orientalism complained on twitter recently about a photograph that appears on the cover the NYT Magazine. They've published something on the conflict in Yemen, and included in their coverage is a picture of a malnourished little dude, naked, held by some people wearing what appears to be hijab. One assumes that the people are women, possibly relatives, and the little dude is malnourished and insanely thin as a result of the conflict.

Mason and Colberg get into a little mutual stroking, as they are wont to do, talking about how problematic this picture is, how it evokes the White Savior, etc and so forth. Interestingly, they seem to agree that it's a failure of knowledge and wisdom on the part of the NYT photo editor responsible, although it's a bit tough to tell on twitter of course.

Let's back up a little.

I don't know the details, but I would bet my bippy that the conflict in Yemen is one of those fractally complex piles of shit that 1000 pages of dense research and analysis would not suffice to unravel. The "truth" here most likely stretches across the globe, and back in time 1000 years. It is, certainly, another Sunni vs. Shia pissing match. It is probably related to the fact that the Saudi rulers are, culturally, narrow minded genocidal savages. Their enemies (which is everyone, but in this case it is the Houthis) are probably also a very difficult bunch of rebels, terrorists, whatever. I assume that if you kept digging you would find somewhere in there various tribes of Bedouin shitheads who were killing one another with camel thigh bones 1000 years ago over some argument having to do with a melon.

Without a doubt, buried not very deeply, is the American hegemony's love affair with Saudi Arabia, and the American military industrial complex's desire to a) consume materiel and b) test out their weapons systems on other people's bodies.

And so on, you know, it probably goes on forever in all directions. So this this is probably a mess.

To report on it, you have to frame it. You have to, in the manner of a photograph, "crop" it to what you see as the essentials. If you behave as a responsible journalist, or a responsible historian, you will end up with something that is in many ways like a photograph. Everything you say is true, what you have placed inside your "frame" is true and accurate. Because you are responsible, and care about truth, you have made a good faith effort to "frame" the story in a way that captures what is essential, in a way that gets at the underlying reality of the situation. You are trying to create a summary of the situation in 1000 words that more or less lines up with the result a team of scholars would arrive it in their 10,000 page magnum opus.

As a journalist or historian, this is the goal. You're not achieving it. Not if you're the New York Times, nor if you are John Edwin Mason, nor if you are Jörg Colberg, nor if you are Andrew Molitor (although in the last instance you will at least be pretty.)

There are fundamentally two ways you can disagree with journalism, with history, or with a photograph.

The first is if the piece is outright false. You read it, you look at it, and you glean from it some statement of fact which is factually wrong. The photo clearly depicts a victory when in reality there was defeat. The article asserts that nobody was killed, when in fact many died.

The second is when you disagree with the framing. The photograph, while true as far as it goes, has cropped out essential details. Remember, the photograph cannot but crop out an entire universe, and a 1000 words in a magazine cannot possibly explain anything complex. That these things, all of them, are radical crops is built-in, inevitable. Given the breadth of human experience and understanding, it is inevitable that some people will feel that essential things are being cropped out regardless of how you frame it.

Mason and Colberg are simply complaining that the NYT is framing the Yemen story in a way that they disagree with. They would prefer that the frame instead place the blame squarely on the government of the United States of America, and this is because they are academics in the United States of America and that's how these people signal their virtue.

Note that their preferred frame is, if anything, even more simple-minded and incomplete than the one the NYT has elected to use. Their preferred frame eliminates a vast swathe of material that other people (notably: people of color living in the middle east) would consider essential (e.g. the Saudis are genocidal shitheads, an essential detail in the minds of many a Semite.)

The idea that the NYT is choosing not to implicate the US government through ignorance or incompetence is laughable. The NYT has been for my entire lifespan and probably well before that the willing lapdog of the US government. They are highly skilled professionals. They frame stories in a way that accomplishes many things all at once. Their frames please their readership, which is generally a pro-USA albeit left-leaning elitist. Their frames also please the government bureaucrats who helpfully provide them with with so much of their global news, complete with pre-fabricated frames. They can sell papers and protect their sources at the same time.

Now, it happens that I more or less agree with Mason and Colberg. Our shared government should be implicated a lot more in a lot more things around the world. Not the elected imbeciles, they are 90% irrelevant. I mean the bureaucrats, the machine of government, that massive system of humans and processes and tradition that is hell-bent on any number of extremely weird, perverted, and outright stupid enterprises which we might loosely lump under the head of American Hegemony.

But, I am not so naive as to suppose that the NYT has it "wrong" and that I have it "right," the distinction is that I prefer one framing of the story, one way to "crop," and they prefer another. They prefer, surprise, the way that is most advantageous to them, and I prefer one that advantages me.

This is not some post-modern "there's no such thing as truth anyways" bullshit. There jolly well is truth. It's just big, unwieldy, and largely incomprehensible. It's the cutting it down to comprehensible size that's such a bugger.


  1. Hi Andrew,

    This is definitely off topic, with regards to this post, but here's as good as anywhere to comment. I've been parsing what you have been writing recently regarding creativity, truth etc. against some photos I've shot recently, still lifes, effectively copying some northern European painters. They were taken with specific purposes, namely for advertising our business (a small pub-restaurant, which specialises in craft beer and traditional northern German 'cold' supppers.)
    There is the subject, there is what is and is not in the frame, but also - what does not apply to documentary photography - a dynamic of what is in front of the camera (arguably a 'static' with a still life), but still something is happening there when you're arranging the thing or things, at least while they exist. (I confess I ate some of the ham and did definitley drink the beer.) While I'm a crap portrait photographer and don't like to comment much on things I'm terrible at, I expect there is also a dynamic between the photographer and the subject.
    I'm not sure exactly what this thing is. Whether it is creative or not is I think, up for discussion, however. In my case, I don't think it was creative per se, it was more mechanical and reducible, as I was trying to re-create something, with more or less success. I had what I wanted to achieve available (both from memory of viewing some of the originals, and what was on my laptop screen) to compare with the last effort of arrangement and lighting. To provide an analogy, I was translating a work, rather than writing a new text.
    The interaction between what is in front of the camera and the photographer is only there when some sort of staging is taking place though. I find that interesting.

  2. The New York Times is certainly not THIS government's lapdog.