The photograph as document – Project 1: Eyewitnesses – Exercise

Exercise

Look up some of the examples mentioned above [Syria, Abu-Graib, the London bombings] online – or any other news photographs of emergencies.

Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Write a list of the arguments for and against. For example, you might argue that these pictures do have a degree of objectivity because the photographer (presumably) didn’t have time to ‘pose’ the subjects, or perhaps even to think about which viewpoint to adopt. On the other hand, the images we see in newspapers may be selected from a series of images and how can we know the factors that determined the choice of final image?

Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log before reading further.

I decided to look up images relating to the civil war in Syria, and to categorise them as objective/subjective. This didn’t really work, because although an image could appear objective at first glance, the more I read in to an image, and considered its context within the news or documentary, the more  subjective the image became. So instead, I’ve selected a series of images form differing viewpoints in a bid to analyse and debate their objectivity/subjectivity.

http://fair.org/blog/2013/08/30/on-syria-intelligence-and-evidence/FireShot-Screen-Capture-599-World-News-8_27_-American-Warships-Moving-Closer-to-Syria-Full-Episode-World-News-with-Diane-Sawyer-ABC-News-abcnews_go_com_watch_world-news-with-diane-The above image is a screenshot from ABC news (the American version of BBC news), which has been used as a stand-alone photograph on the FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) website. It accompanies an article about how the US government had accused president Assad of using chemical weapons, which was then reported on by many mainstream news agencies as though the Syrian government were guilty, despite there being no evidence. The image is used to highlight the connotation of guilt, portrayed by the western media.

Given the Western origin of the image, and America’s foreign policy in regards to Syria, I think there can be no doubt that this is a subjective image. It has been selected from an unknown length of video footage, with the express purpose of making Assad look like the bad guy. The accompanying text within the frame makes a direct statement which is strengthened by the portrait of Assad, in a pose that can be associated with dictatorship and military rule (which is emphasised by a military presence in the background). The strong glare, and finger wagging could be taken to represent defiance of the UN, which again is emphasised by the presence of the UN flag in the background.

http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/syria-s-assad-says-will-cooperate-with-un-peace-plan-if-rebels-halt-violence-1.4215654051155799Assad will co-operate with UN if Rebels lay down their arms

This photograph shows a different side to Assad, and to his regime. Taken by and for the Official Syrian News Agency, it is pro-government in its context. This image is taken from a different cultural, and more importantly, political viewpoint. Assad looks relaxed, is more casually dressed, showing that he is comfortable in his home country (no less than 3 flags are in the picture). He looks approachable, and reasonable. His people are engaged by him, and he is addressing the people via the media (talking into the microphone), but at all times he reminds us that he has military might (pointing towards the soldiers who listen to him loyally). The caption gives meaning to the image but on higher political level. Like the first image, this could almost be classed as propaganda. Because of the context, this image is highly subjective, but if were not published in this news article, could it be viewed as objective? Had it been taken by a western photo-journalist, or a member of the public on a camera phone, would it be objective? The position of the photographer, and the room he/she has around them makes me think that his is a very official visit, and that the photographer was working to a brief, which would make objectivity impossible. But, I could be wrong. This could be nothing more than an opportunistic snapshot, made subjective only by its context.

http://www.warchild.org.uk/syriasyria-appeal-news-header-588x330   This 3rd image is used in the context of a Poster for a charity organisation. The picture has a specific purpose, and because of this context, again cannot be objective. That is not to say that when the original picture was taken, it was not taken objectively. Here, the text anchors the images meaning. War Child are “appealing” to us, our sensibilities, by stirring our emotions so that we feel compelled to help Sam (the website names the subject as Sam). It could be that this was a fleeting moment caught on camera, after all, it’s not likely that Sam was posed for this image, so is it objective?  My instincts tell me that this is a composite image, and that Sam has been juxtaposed with the bullet ridden cars to illustrate the plight of children in Syria.

http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/03/02/inside-the-syria-revolt-up-to-date-pictures-of-the-war-blasted-cities-destoryed-in-the-conflict/black-smoke-is-seen-after-an-explosion-set-on-fire-a-oil-pipeline-at-bab-amro-near-homs-city/Black smoke is seen after an explosion set on fire a  oil pipeline at Bab Amro, near Homs cityBlack smoke is seen after an explosion set on fire an oil pipeline at Bab Amro near Homs city.

The photo above is part of a set of images, documenting the effects of the conflict on the people and the country. The publisher is a Western news organisation, but appears very unbiased. This image, along with others in the set do appear to be objective. There is a lack of soldiers, and fighting. There are no political connotations, despite images of children protesting. Instead, we have a view of the effects of the conflict, which affect the country as a whole. It could be argued that this image is the result of the photographers/editors subjective sensibilities. He/she has chosen the vantage point, focal length and composition/crop for a reason. In this instance I believe that reason was to document the size and scale of the subject. The caption anchors and reinforces the message and its objectivity.

http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4708025/Shell-of-a-close-one-as-unexploded-bomb-pokes-out-of-road.htmlreuters_syria_fighting_19Dec12-975x650Shell of a close one. A huge bomb pokes out from a road in war-torn Syria yesterday after amazingly failing to explode. It was fired into a rebel area in Damascus, landing just a stones throw from family homes.

I like the above image because I think it shows how the context of an image can affect its objectivity. Published by our very own The Sun newspaper, the text tells us that this location is a residential area in Damascus, something that we could not have determined from the image alone. No normal person is going to remain in close proximity to an unexploded bomb for longer than they have to. We can therefore surmise that this photo was taken “on the fly” in order to record what was seen, most probably by a citizen journalist. The Wonky horizon and poor composition add to this sense of realism, authenticity and objectivity. It is only by the addition of text that this becomes a subjective image. We are told that the bomb was fired at Rebels (by that naughty Assad regime), and that it was fired into an area occupied by families (with no regard for life) which strengthens our support for the Rebels. What’s funny about this photo, is that it is exactly the type of photo I would take as a Bomb Disposal Officer for inclusion in my report after conducting an Explosive Ordnance Reconnaissance. From the shape of the tail fin (even without the Cyrillic script) we can see that this bomb is of Russian origin. It is an Air Dropped Weapon, meaning that it has been fired from an aircraft (which is a capability the rebels do not have). It has not fully penetrated the ground, indicating that it is a General Purpose Bomb, of approximately 1000lb’s. The explosive to weight ratio for a GP bomb is 60-80% – Taken in this context, it becomes 100% objective.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19769056Fierce clashes in Aleppo, Syria   An injured rebel fighter is seen here being helped to safety in Aleppo

This last image is a bit of a contradiction. I consider it to be largely objective, despite its context. Within its place on the BBC website, the image is pro-rebel. It highlights their struggle and suffering in an attempt to sway public opinion for help/intervention in Syria. This image was probably chosen from many. But, from a photographers perspective, I can see that his image was shot with a telephoto lens. The perspective is flattened, and the crop is tight. This indicates that the photographer was some distance from the subject (for safety?), and that the moment was probably fleeting. This is backed up by the poor lighting. We can see large amounts of noise where the shadows have been lifted in post-production, or where a high ISO was used to ensure  a sharp image. Together these elements connote documentation and truth over any predetermined meaning.

I’m currently of the opinion that a photograph can only be truly objective under certain circumstances. The photographer must be objective within his/her approach, that is to say that they must not make any conscious decisions other than to capture the moment as it appears at the time, and the context must not bias the photographs meaning. As soon as the photographer decides to omit something through composition, or decides to communicate something through the photograph, objectivity is lost. The photograph must also be viewed objectively. Objectivity can be lost depending on the viewer. Each viewer will read an image differently based on their own beliefs, culture, experiences and visual language which can make an image that was made with purely objective intentions, become subjective. I’m also of the opinion that if an image is created for any purpose other than to be purely a record or document, it becomes subjective. In fact the more I think about it, the more I think it’s impossible for a photograph to be objective. Every photo exists for a reason, and has therefore been the subjective creation of the photographer. I have no doubt that during this course, I will question this belief of objectivity repeatedly.