‘Photography Is Not In Crisis , We Are

Text by Scott Caruth

In the summer of 2013, the residents of Kafr Qaddum, a small village near Nablus in the West Bank, woke up to find a series of photocopied flyers pasted over the village walls and tied to its lamp posts.  They contained out of focus, grainy images of several of the village’s young teenagers above a message from the Israeli army that read: “We are the army. Watch out. We will catch you if we see you or we will come to your house.” The images had been taken by the IDF using a telescopic lens at one of the village’s weekly demonstrations against an illegal Israeli settlement nearby, the establishment of which blocked the main route to Nablus.  The boys in the photographs were not in any way more wanted by the IDF than anybody else at the demonstration. They just happened to have left their faces uncovered at the wrong time. Remaining anonymous is so inherent to the culture of Palestinian resistance that ‘Molatham’, the term used to describe its participants, translates literally as ‘to cover up one’s face’.

As an activist working in a context where photography can be as instrumental of a tool as weaponry in the oppression of a population, I was forced to confront the multitude of implications that both the camera as an object and photography as a medium embody.

The camera had an immediate and physical relationship with the nature of the non-violent, direct action based principles we worked to uphold in the International Solidarity Movement. By utilising our physical presence we hoped to obstruct or de-escalate violence towards Palestinians. Our camera’s presence delivered the message to soldiers that more eyes would witness their actions than ours alone.

On the flip side to this, our cameras could not escape the inherently intrusive and at times suspicious characteristics that they embody. During training we heard stories of activists using their cameras at the wrong time and having them smashed to pieces as a result. It was crucial to discern between documenting moments that could act as an extension of our solidarity work and those that could compromise it entirely.

One experience in particular illustrated the wider implications of the use of photography in occupation.  When maintaining a presence at a school route where only weeks before 27 school children under the age of 15 had been beaten, blindfolded and arrested by Israeli soldiers on their way to school, a soldier looked at my camera and remarked that I “only wanted to take pictures at a specific angle to make the military look bad”. He went on to suggest that I could simply set a photograph up at a specific angle creating the illusion that the rifle resting on his hip was in fact being held at the head of a small child. It struck me that the situation had been so normalised to the soldier that he thought I would have to manipulate the scene with my lens to make an occupying army’s presence at a children’s school appear negative. But what struck me on a deeper level was that the soldier had unwittingly alluded to the wider implications of photography’s relationship with the occupation.

With editors looking for images that quickly grab attention in competition with the unfathomable quantity of images circulating the globe today, photojournalism is increasingly becoming the pursuit of dramatic and instantly gratifying images that are often devoid of context.  Images of extreme acts of violence, such as suicide bombings, have become the main visual narrative of the occupation, yet are rarely grounded within a wider historical or political context that may allude to why such events occur in the first place.  In fact the word ‘occupation’ itself is routinely omitted from the news stories that run alongside such images.  In the winter of 2013, Israel flooded the Gaza strip by opening its dams, an act of war that wrought destruction to property and agriculture akin to that of Israeli military strikes but failed to generate the sort of imagery required by today’s media culture to feature on any of its mainstream outlets.  The crippling of the Palestinian economy, the theft of its water resources, the implementation of laws that obstruct their rights to movement and education are all constant, yet largely invisible, components of the occupation which demand much more consideration from a photographic point of view. It is no coincidence that the most widely criticised of Israel’s policies – the apartheid wall – is the most physical manifestation of its ideology.

By adhering to photojournalism’s dogma of objectivity and neutrality, photojournalists regularly fail to communicate the ultimate irony of occupation: that there is no balance, no two sides, merely the omnipresence of Israeli domination over every single aspect of Palestinian existence. When this fact is cast aside in pursuit of an argument that appears to be ‘balanced’, we wander further and further from the reality that is paramount to reportage of any kind.

The IDF is as concerned with the strength of its arsenal as it is with making the occupation a photogenic one. This can be seen in its official Flickr page.  It is impossible to tell whether the military exercise’s depicted are real or staged, but the video game energy is seductive nonetheless.  Instagram-like filters are applied to images of young Israeli troops walking through fields, laughing in group exercises or parachuting from the sky, in the saccharine, nostalgia-inducing way employed by most western military recruitment bodies. Needless to say, the sentiment carried by these images does not resonate with my experience of the IDF and would probably seem especially surreal to the Palestinians that encounter them on a daily basis, who somehow fail to appear in a single photograph on the Flickr stream. The photographs are in constant competition with official reports and statistics, widely available on the same digital platform, which offer a much less flattering picture of the IDF. The Flickr page is constructed in such a way that makes information like the fact that the equivalent of one child has been killed by the IDF every three days for the past 13 years seem absurd and difficult to believe.

Resting within a well-tailored façade, the IDF then turn their cameras on the Palestinian resistance, forcing them to adorn themselves with balaclavas. Synonymous with criminality, the balaclava-laden images of demonstrations in the West Bank are susceptible to travelling through the looking glass to further flatter the IDF’s constructed projection. If the Palestinian Resistance had a Flickr, what would it look like? It’s hard to imagine that it would pander to the victim/terrorist polarity the media has accustomed us to.

My experience fell within the wider context of an on-going paradigm shift from the prevalence of the professional photojournalist to the amateur/citizen photojournalist.  Advancements in camera technology and social media have brought first hand documentation of events by those involved with them to the forefront over those sent to alien situations for the first time with a presupposed agenda informing their image making. One consequence of this shift is the increasingly common speculation that photography is in crisis. I disagree with this entirely. If the digitalisation of images has resulted in a departure from documentary photography’s status as ‘fact’, then this is only indicative of how non-sceptical our viewing of photography has become and how we have come to take for granted that a photograph alone can provide an objective, impartial depiction of an event.

Furthermore, it can only be a good thing if this paradigm shift has awoken us to the extent to which our worldview is mediated by images over rational discourse or critical thought.  Amongst other absurdities, the culture of decontextualized, image-centric media manifested the grounds on which the US and UK governments felt comfortable declaring war on an abstract noun, ‘terror’, with photography playing an instrumental role in this.

As an emphasis is being increasingly placed on interpretation, and as photojournalism is now regarded less as transcription of events and more as a nuanced and contested phenomenon, it would seem to me that, rather than being in crisis, we have been given an opportunity to save photography from becoming a self referential and hollow means of documentation.

This shift has also created space for photographers to act as more than passive observers of the events that they are documenting. With ever decreasing financial incentives available for photographers, our vision is pried away from the narrow lens of viewing events in terms of briefs, thus generating the freedom to explore spaces as we experience them and not as others tell us to see them.

Self-publishing provides a platform to consciously disengage from the tropes of the mainstream media process.  Instead of pandering to a culture that parasitically jumps from images of one crisis to the next, by working independently we reclaim the space for the experimentation with and contemplation of photographs. And by doing so we reinstate all of the qualities that are inherent to the medium, primarily the quality that the possibilities are endless.

Originally Published In ‘Undercurrents’ 2014

Scott Caruth  is an Artist who lives in Glasgow. This text is is from his self published book Charm Offensive. You can find out more about him on http://scottcaruth.co.uk/ and this text published in conjunction with the 2015 October TalkSeePhotography event with Alice Myer  and Alison Phipps from GRAMNet. Featured Image by Alice Myer