Last night I grabbed the growing stack of unopened issues of Aperture off the living room magazine rack and started in at them. On top was the current issue, which contained an except from Susie Linfield's The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. I'll excerpt from their excerption:
This is a book of criticism, not theory [...] It is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. [...] who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photographic criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them.
Another, longer except can be found here.
I find it telling that on an earlier page of Aperture we're treated to quotes from World Press Photo judges Adam Broomberg & Olier Chanarin's "Unconcerned by not Indifferent" (PDF link), an essay that, in what feels like true Sontag fashion, declares photojournalism as practiced a failure: "...the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images."
Broomberg and Chanarin have a catalog of editorial cliches, much like that collected by Dianne Hagaman in her essay on sports photojournalism while judging the 46th Annual POY competition, "The Joy of Victory, the Agony of Defeat: Stereotypes in Newspaper Sports Feature Photographs." B&C describe a stream of predictably editor-pleasing images:
Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkiesí arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.
To their credit, B&C appear to be more concerned that the industrial mechanism of photojournalism has failed, rather than the power of images themselves. The World Press rules force a streamlined decontextualisation of images, perhaps to make them more credibly "artistic" by insisting that a photo with a caption is inferior to a captioned one -- which is just blindingly blind.
The camera has always been a mechanization of representation. While it's possible to make random squiggles on photo paper with a laser pointer, that's still drawing with photographic materials, not photography. There can be no photo without a subject, without a relationship of the photographer and the viewer to that subject (and in commercial contexts, we must include, somehow the redactive eyes of the editors and publishers and Google search). To strip this away, in journalism, is just astounding.
Okay, photography does not eliminate War, or Suffering. Not with big W's and S's, anyway. But to declare the struggle lost is surely wrongheaded as well. I can definitely say that my own actions supporting Médecin Sans Frontiers (simple, small actions, involving simply writing an occasional checque) were in very large part informed and driven by photographic revelation. Are such victories not enough for the theorists? Must they have all or nothing?
There is a larger trend which is unaddressed by enterprises like World Press: the growing ability for photography in the hands of non-journalists to have an effect that can't be controlled or mediated by professional journalists or their editors and publishers or governments. I'm not just talking about images like those made at Abu Ghraib, where journalists with cameras didn't have access -- but those in the Iranian streets and elsewhere, photos that shot themselves out into the world without the fatherly hand of The New York Times to tell us that they were important.
I'm currently most hopeful about this new path for "photojournalism"-- not really an appropriate word -- as a great leveling force. Does this mean I celebrate the end of the pros? Not at all, and I think there are still many roles for them that play to their strengths. But there is more that an image can do than be a rectangle in a commercial news source.