BY Mark Mordue in Culture Digest | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

Shoot First

An Australian photography festival highlights the relevance of photojournalism at a time when the medium is in crisis

BY Mark Mordue in Culture Digest | 12 MAR 09

Stefano de Luigi, 'Blindness', 2004-6. Courtesy: the artist and VII Network.

‘I smell dead people. Do you?’ The Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont is sitting in a London bar with another ‘conflict photographer’ who admits to the same problem. No matter how many showers they take, no matter how often they wash their clothes, no matter how many miles are put between them and their work in Afghanistan and Iraq, they still smell dead people all around them.

It’s five years since I saw Dupont in a rage at the opening night of Reportage, the photojournalism festival held in Sydney. Dupont’s photos had been poorly cropped for the big screen, but worse than his anger was the look in his eyes: a bugged wildness reminiscent of James Woods’ character in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) or Dennis Hopper’s unforgettable scenes in Apocalypse Now (1979), both of which depicted the gonzo ‘reality’ of the war photojournalist as a whistle-stop away from madness. It didn’t surprise me to hear of his near-death encounter with a suicide bomber in Afghanistan last year, something he coped with by continuing to photograph the event as he walked around bleeding – only mildly wounded but traumatized by the deaths of the 15 people he was travelling with. Today Dupont is no longer interested in ‘just being an ambulance chaser’ – he was even calm in his role as Guest Curator for the 2008 Reportage festival. ‘Yeah,’ he quipped, ‘I came back as the curator, because they cropped my fucking photos.’

Dupont was excited because ‘it was the first time the event could truly be called a festival’, with seminars and talks, an associated exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography and the inauguration of the $10,000 Reportage Nikon Photo Documentary Grant. The festival also included a ‘cinematic showcase’, a cross-section of the best photojournalism in the world today: in-depth visual essays and storytelling that, for the most part, you would never see in newspapers or magazines. Highlights included: John Moore’s ‘Pakistan on the Brink’ (2007), a series that depicts what Moore describes as ‘the Talibanization of Pakistan’, including a sequence on the unfolding assassination of Benazir Bhutto which won him the 2008 Photojournalist of the Year Award from the National Press Photographers Association of the United States; Seamus Murphy’s ‘After Kennedy: A Look at American Values’ (2005–7), a lyrical, Kerouac-inspired road trip into contemporary America that Dupont describes as ‘pictures of feeling rather than pictures of shock’; Stefano de Luigi’s ‘Blindness’ (2004–6), a stunning series of photographs highlighting the living conditions of blind people throughout the developing world; and Dean Sewell’s ‘The Water Gypsy’ (2007–8), which documents a homeless man’s life as he moves along the waterways and squats of Sydney over the course of a year.

Founded in 1999 by Dupont and photographers David Dare Parker, Jack Picone and Michael Amedolia, Reportage was little more than a glorified slide night before Jacqui Vicario took over as Director of the event, developing it into what will be the biennial centrepiece for photojournalism as an art form in the Asia–Pacific region. The event has grown at a time when photojournalism is in crisis. The days of the pictorial feature essay and mass-market magazines such as Life (which ceased publication in 1972) are long gone. The golden age of photojournalism from the Spanish Civil War through to Vietnam – an era when a single image had the power to zero in on the public imagination and ‘win the war of hearts and minds’ (as American government propagandists of the 1960s put it) – is also fading. Tim Page, who inspired Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now and who is now a demonically Zen resident of sunny Brisbane, says: ‘Reportage is the perfect aquarium for all these desperately swimming fish. We refuse to give up the ghost.’ But the valiant rhetoric has a David-and-Goliath ring to it.

The print medium is in decline as it copes with online competition, falling sales and ageing readers, surrendering itself to sound-bytes and softer news in keeping with lifestyle and marketing concerns to capture a younger and supposedly more easily bored audience. News organizations are moving towards having all their ‘photographers’ shoot on digital video for streaming over the Internet. Although the technology of HD digital video cameras is still years behind the quality of stills cameras, it is already possible to take ‘grabs’ from a video for stills reproduction that adequately serve online and basic newsprint demands.

Slide shows online are meanwhile thinly tolerated and celebrity-skewed if possible, while ‘multimedia’ is the infotainment buzzword, with photojournalists pressured to mix stills with video and sound (interview fragments, ambient environmental recordings and voice-over, all of which will be used at 2008’s Reportage). According to John Moore, ‘this can sometimes make you feel as if you are competing with yourself. Instead of doing one thing well, you end up doing three things in a mediocre way, recording sound while you are seeing great picture opportunities pass you by.’

Moore is not opposed to such innovations, and in mini-documentaries such as Frontline Helmand, filmed in the field ‘live’ with British troops in Afghanistan in 2007, he demonstrated where this recombination of stills, video and sound can take online news. But it’s obvious where his heart lies. You don’t film video the same way you frame and shoot still images, and most photojournalists still believe in capturing a moment for consideration over and above the multimedia hype. Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography at Associated Press, told a Mediabistro conference in New York last year on ‘The Future of Photojournalism in the Digital World’ that ‘There’s something magnetic about the power of the still image … even in this day of video and 24-hour TV news cycles, something about a still photo allows you to concentrate and absorb it.’

As photojournalism moves online and out of the print arena, much-vaunted multimedia news and documentary websites such as the New York-based MediaStorm are emerging as beacons. MediaStorm’s founder, Brian Storm, calls the blend of stills with recorded sound ‘captions on steroids’, a neat slogan, but the working photojournalist also needs a goodly dose of financial adrenaline to help us see the bigger picture.

This crisis in working conditions and exposure has been intensified by the so-called ‘citizen photojournalist’ – basically anyone with a mobile phone or digital camera who is on the spot as events are unfolding. In the past few years this has meant anything from the tsunami in South-East Asia to the London bombings to the leaked snapshots from Abu Ghraib. News events – both on video and in stills form – are increasingly likely to come from amateur sources. Sooner or later this raises the question of reliability: who is supplying these images, and how ‘true’ are they? So far the sheer speed at which events are covered is serving as a security screen, but a fear remains that a major news organization will be badly burnt, despite talk of software programmes that will eventually detect if anything has been digitally altered.

It’s our visual culture, then, that has become the battleground. What separates the great photojournalist from the orgy of incidental images we now swim in may well be the storytelling impulse itself: the desire to bring a feeling and a meaning to the moment. Seamus Murphy observes that ‘how you say something is often as important as what you are saying, especially with images.’ In response to debates about aestheticizing suffering he says, ‘I don’t think it’s any less truthful to make something poetic or beautiful. Is it aestheticizing suffering, or are you actually giving people more dignity? Hopefully a beautiful picture will draw you in. Hopefully it haunts you. And because it haunts you, it doesn’t leave you.’

Mark Mordue is an Australian essayist, editor and poet. He is the author of the travel book Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, Hawthorne Books, Portland, USA, 2004. His favourite Western is High Plains Drifter (1973).