Lee Grant – Photography Blog

The Wars Within…and Without

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Reading my trusty ABC news this morning, I saw this picture taken by a local Reuters photographer in Pakistan (something else to do with localised militant clashes):


Courtesy of Reuters

What I find particularly interesting about this image are the cameramen in the background. I wonder what the ‘militant’ was thinking being surrounded by such a circus? Did the photographer himself get annoyed by the fact that other photographers and journalists were in his frame, ‘ruining’ the aesthetic and potential power of his shot? (The kind of thing I might get irritated by!) This image certainly got me thinking about a range of issues, not least of which is one I’m especially interested in: the transaction between photographers and the photographed. But more on that later…

Looking (and really seeing) this picture, one can deduce that the world is indeed a bizarre place. One in which the media wields considerable power; where militants might ‘perform’ for a bunch of journos who in the process unwittingly – or not? – affect the behaviour and thus actions of protagonists who are effectively determining their own histories! (Who then has ownership on these stories??)

I’m aware that this isn’t unusual. When I watched the documentary War Photographer about James Nachtwey, I was disconcerted by the crowds of journalists that accompanied certain events (such as the depicted discovery of a mass grave in the Balkans). Was this really how historical and political events were being covered? Every dog for him/herself? A regular circus? My impressions of excellent journalism were challenged. Whilst I understand that they all have a job to do, the process – from my perspective at least – seemed quite…. farcical. And herein lies the irony since the situation being covered – genocide – was indeed a grave one. I wondered how those affected felt about the contingents of media hanging around? Getting the story out to the world is all well and good for those that can leave the hellholes of such war zones. Discomforting consumers of print or TV press, over their morning breakfasts may also be righteous, but does it really make any difference?

(I am not trying to detract from the incredible work that so many people in the press do. I do however believe that there are many complex issues that should be discussed more readily, particularly in the context of the media as a beacon of ‘truth’ and that as ‘thinking’ citizens we should monitor our own consumption of the media and think further about how our interpretations of recorded events frame our worldviews.)

Following on from my last point of whether or not any real tangible difference can be made, I read somewhere that after decades of covering conflict the highly esteemed British war photographer, Don McCullin doesn’t think so. His point being that despite 30 years of photographing humanity as it’s worst, things haven’t changed much.


Don McCullin – Dead North Vietnamese Soldier, 1968 (Courtesy Goss Gallery)

I remember when I first saw this photograph. I was about 20 years old and it shocked me – it was so rudely an anti-war statement. That the so-called ‘enemy’ was portrayed as a human with his own loves and life was illuminating and at the same time the waste of such a life, devastating. The emotional and gut response that defines his work – and compels the viewer to really look – is surely what makes him such a brilliant photographer?

There are some interesting interviews on the web with Mr McCullin. I was piqued by BBC radio presenter John Tusa‘s question:

Did you ever see yourself as a propagandist? Did you think, what I show people…
... will change things?
Yeah, I mean… absolutely. I think, what would be the purpose of me not being a propagandist if I went and leaned over some poor devil who was dying and starving, and what have you, and not making a statement for him. It’s like going back to the soldier. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted people to see. And you know, from a point of view as me as a person, who was not a sophisticated, educated, Oxbridge person who came away with all kinds of degrees; I was totally raw, from Finsbury Park . So, you know, I had to be careful not to be seen as a pretentious, kind of whippersnapper that was trying to make a big name for himself and yet couldn’t put two words together. It didn’t matter really. My eyes were my voice, and my eyes were the journeys that we, myself and my eyes and my feelings, travel through and we brought back these images. We put the images down, and that was my job done really. I didn’t have to make a statement about it. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think Mr McCullin answers the question as directly as he might have. To be fair, the questions were rather banal and choppy and more about McCullin himself rather than the point of his images. It is probably best to read the interview whole if you feel so inclined.

Also after following various threads about McCullin, I found mention of a contemporary female war photographer, Christine Spengler. I’m always excited to discover these women as there seem to be so few (who are as esteemed as other mostly male war photographers). Interestingly, like the late Catherine Leroy, Spengler is also French. Listen to some interviews with this remarkable (yet little feted photographer) on Lens Culture.


Christine Spengler – The Western Sahara. Nursery of the Polisario Front. 1976.



Written by Lee Grant

July 4, 2007 at 7:42 pm

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