…is for good men to do nothing.
Holocaust Memorial Day.
…is for good men to do nothing.
Holocaust Memorial Day.
There are a great many photographers that I admire as photographers, but for the most part it is simply the quality of their output that attracts me. Simon Norfolk is a rare exception, someone who admire not only for the quality of his images, but as much (if not more so) for the thought, reasoning, personal politics and agenda that they are embued with.
I came across this short film today about a new body of work that he has been creating in Afghanistan, that references the work of Eighteenth Century commercial photographer John Burke.
Simon has a very clear idea of what he feels about the events going on in various parts of the world, and whereas many photographers drop in to a place “report” and leave, his approach is to make a statement about his views. It is less the supposedly objective reporting that others may (often incorrectly) believe they are undertaking, and more the subjective response as reporting. As a younger photographer Norfolk was often considered quite militant in his pronouncements. With age and experience his methods have become more nuanced and precise, but he has lost none of his anger and desire to hold a mirror up to the follies of the west. Long may he continue in this vein.
Note: The soundtrack does not start until about 45 seconds into the film.
The news tonight of photographer-filmmaker Tim Hetherington‘s death in Misrata is shocking and upsetting. I had the pleasure of meeting him first about 10 years ago when I invited him to give a talk to the RPS Visual Journalism Group. I remember him to be thoughtful, intelligent and focused, with a clear view of where visual documentary was likely to go. It was clear then that he had a bright future and his was a name to watch.
It is for others who knew him well to write his obituary (although one piece well worth reading can be found here). What concerns me is the gaping hole that is left by his passing, and what his legacy might be. What made Tim unique was not the methods he employed, but the fact that they were coupled with a genuine passion and empathy for his subjects. He was not judgemental, and it showed in his work – it had soul.
I confess I am ashamed by a thought that forced itself into my mind shortly after hearing the news: the well known story that on learning of his client’s untimely demise, James Dean’s agent retorted, “Good career move.”
To modern ears this seems a crass remark, but in an era that predated the soundbite by several decades, it is more likely to have been a quick reflection on the likely effect on Dean’s appeal. Indeed, this effect is as true for rising stars in acting, music and popular culture today as it was then.
It was once also true for photographers: Robert Capa was at the top of his game when he was killed in French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954. He was called the greatest war photographer in the world during the Spanish Civil War, and his exploits during World War II did nothing to diminish that view of him. Moreover, with friends like Hemingway and Picasso, and Ingrid Bergman as a lover, his champagne fueled gambling lifestyle and big heart only served to enhance his appeal. Arguably for Capa generally, and his legacy Magnum in particular, his death was a “good career move”.
But with that thought in my head whether I liked it or not, it necessarily posed the question, does it apply in this case?
Hetherington was unquestionably a talent whose star was in the ascendant. He was nominated for an Oscar for Restrepo earlier this year, a film which had already won the prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year; he took the top prize in the World Press Photo Awards in 2008, and had received countless plaudits since he turned professional in the late 90s. He was widely regarded by his peers as one of the most dynamic and creative people working in photography today.
While the industry as a whole is starting to get excited about “convergence”, Hetherington had already occupied the high ground. He recognised early on that to make a difference it was not enough to shoot stills, or video, you have to grab the opportunities the modern multi-media world offers to get a story across using a variety of tools. Magazines, newspapers, art exhibitions, books, the internet – all have an audience, and the audiences are receptive to the stories you want to tell provided you approach them in the right way.
Hetherington’s genius was that he had started to find a way to bridge those audiences and tell those important stories. None of this was done out of self-agrandissement, but rather out of a genuine desire to give voice to those who are often overlooked. Restrepo (and the accompanying book Infidel) was a perfect example of this. When the public in the UK and America (Hetherington had dual UK and US nationality) became increasingly hostile to the war in Afghanistan, Tim worked with writer Sebastian Junger to show that far from being a simple instrument of policy, the soldiers on the front line were real people doing a hard job in an impossible situation. The point was that if we, the public, have a problem with the policy we should take it up with the policymakers; the soldiers on the front line deserve to be appreciated whether or not we agree with the orders they carry out.
But to come back to my question, when Capa died the world was a different place, and the gap he left was never really filled, not in the same way. With each passing conflict ever greater numbers of photographers have strived to make a name for themselves in war zones, and the impact of the inevitable deaths has been increasingly muted; their names rapidly consigned to history. Hetherington’s death, should be different. It deserves to be if for no other reason than the impact his work was starting to make. But therein lies the problem – it was only starting to affect a broader consciousness than that of photographers and filmmakers alone. Time will tell whether this impact will be the lasting one it deserves to be, but the reality of 2011 is that it is so much harder to make a mark than it was in Capa’s day, and as a result there is a real danger that Tim’s legacy will be left behind by history’s inexorable march and the exponential rise in the numbers of people eager to take his place.
Perhaps we should not be surprised when someone who chooses to spend months in the Korengal Valley dies in a war zone, but his death has shocked everyone. It is a testament to the extremely high regard in which he was held that his name was trending on Twitter (is this really how we now measure a man’s worth?) within an hour of the news breaking, and was the lead item on the BBC by 9 o’clock. Tim was no novice, and he certainly knew the risks in Misrata – his final tweet read:
In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.
His passing will numb his family and friends for a long time to come, and my prayers are with them all. I shall miss his despatches, his images, his films, and his thought provoking contribution to the world we live in. It has affected me more profoundly than I would have expected even though I did not have the honour of calling him my friend.
In the end I do not believe anyone’s death should be written off in the way James Dean’s was, and certainly in the case of Tim Hetherington, with so much promised, it was not a good career move at all.
Look at any forum dedicated to photographers, and photojournalism in particular, and you will find a thread asking for suggestions as to what movies there are about photojournalism and its protagonists. The films are for the most part little more than war porn – action filled adventures full of death, guns, booze and sex, usually with one or more attractive and glamorous heroes toting cameras in the thick of the action.
Well there is a new one about to be released, with the subtle difference that it is based on a true story. The Bang Bang Club is due to have its cinematic release in the United States on April 22 (as yet there is no date for release in Europe). The trailer (see below) promises everything that we have come to expect from these films.
I have no idea, it may actually be very good, but I would hope that it places plenty of empahsis on the fact that of the four members, one was killed on assignment, one committed suicide after finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the fame that came with his Pulitzer Prize with the public opprobrium he faced for the photo that won the award, and a third has recently lost both his legs in Afghanistan.
I know that the surviving photographers have been involved in the making of this film, and it is based on the book of the same name written by both Greg Marinovoch and Joao Silva (the other two members of “the club” were Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek), so one hopes there will be rather more accuracy than is often the case when Hollywood is let loose on the truth. Having said that, it would be folly to suggest that there wasn’t something inherently glamourous about the life the club led. The problem, therefore, is how to convey the story without spurring ever more young and naive wannabes to pick up a camera and head for a war zone in the hopes that some of that glamour might rub off on them. Most of the time it won’t.
I confess I am looking forward to seeing the film, but I would urge anyone not familiar with the story to read the book first, and if possible see the Oscar nominated documentary The Death of Kevin Carter too. At the very least that will give some scope to strip the truth from the good yarn that the film must almost certainly be.
BOOK REVIEW: Afterwar – Lori Grinker
We are all inexorably drawn to war. Tales of courage under adversity, heroism under fire, acts of selflessness and love, men in uniform and the pomp and technology of the military in action. It is at once fascinating, horrifying, shocking and guaranteed to provoke a response.
It is no wonder then, that war has always exerted a pull on photographers. Some go to make a name for themselves; others hoping their work might make a difference. Some go for the rush. Whatever the motivation, they are usually divided into two camps: those who look for the dramatic images of combat in the front line, and those who turn to the plight of the civilians caught in the crossfire.
New York based photographer Lori Grinker has uniquely found a different way to portray war. When the truces are signed and the guns fall silent, the press turns its attention elsewhere, but the sights, sounds, smells, relationships and losses are necessarily etched into the psyches of the combatants. While other photographers have concerned themselves with showing the man within the war, Grinker has strived to portray the war within the man.
Afterwar manages the substantial achievement of personalising the conflicts of a century. Men and women caught in the dehumanising chaos of war are left to reconcile their experiences with their own fundamental humanity. Some meet it head on, others try to file it away, and get on with their lives.
Readers looking for groundbreaking photography or iconic images will be disappointed with Afterwar, but they will also be missing the point. Allied with the testimony of her subjects in their own words, Grinker’s colour photographs achieve something that has eluded every other photographer: they deglamourise war. While each of the subjects is portrayed with incredible dignity the overall effect is unremittingly dark and depressing. War is hell.
Afterwar is elegantly designed, using a reverse chronology to take us back from a taste of the recent war in Iraq through all the major conflicts of the past century to the First World War. It crosses continents, cultures and languages setting each conflict in context. Ostensibly each person in the book represents a survivor of war, but their experiences have necessarily robbed them of something precious, and mankind as a whole is diminished by what they went through. If there is any justice Afterwar will find its way to the desks of all those charged with calling men to arms.
Afterwar, Veterans from a World in Conflict is published by de.MO, and priced at £29.00. Hardback ISBN 0-9705768-7-0. 248 pages.This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal
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