Exhibitions: WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

IN CONVERSATION

Our visitors respond to this 30-second video.

  • Is it ok to have a pretty picture of war?

    — Tuttie

    Tuttie, this is one of those seemingly simple questions that is actually quite complicated. There is no easy answer because we are individuals and our personal threshold for distress when viewing troubling images can vary because of our own traumatic life experiences or because of cultural norms which vary. But let me try to express some thoughts that might be helpful.

    Beauty is a quality that attracts the eye and invites us to look. Even informational images, taken with the intention of straightforwardly recording evidence, use visual language and aesthetic qualities. Photographers who make images about what war does to people are motivated by wanting those who were not in the situation to get closer to understanding. They want the viewer to be able to look, and by looking to see, understand and feel in response to a situation of human suffering that the photographer witnessed directly. Photographers use quality of light, depth of focus, movement, composition, color, framing etc. in order to focus what the viewer sees and to help the viewer feel and connect to a situation which may seem on the surface more surreal than real. Ideally this use of beauty will draw us in but leave us unsettled. If the tension between the form and the content gets under our skin it demands continued reflection on meaning. Captions and testimony provide important context to help expand our understanding. Do we become engaged or do we turn away? Do we ask why and what can be done?

    Tuttie the use of the word “pretty” in your question brings up another point. I’d like to make. I associate the word “pretty “with picturesque, with tamed or domesticated or commercialized emotion. When photographs become sentimental by relying on surface emotion without delving deeper they may become strangely comforting but they also may foreclose deeper exploration. Rather than reaching for the sublime or the uncanny, an image that becomes easily digestible can actually reduce the range of our emotional response and our capacity to understand. A photograph can fail because it does not challenge us enough.

  • How did you first get involved in conflict photography?

    Also, do you often find it challenging or experience feelings of guilt while photographing your subjects? It seems like a very hard topic to separate yourself from.

    Thank you

    — Gabriela

    Thank you Gabriela for two good questions!

    I studied Irish Literature and politics in graduate school so I knew something about Irish history including aspects of conflict there before I ever photographed the situation. But photographing came about in an almost accidental way. It was a visit to Northern Ireland with some graduate school friends during a Christmas break that gave me my first exposure to what it was like living with sectarian political conflict--what it looked like and how it felt. I had friends with family living on both sides of the nationalist and loyalist divide there. My friends couldn't visit each other's communities, but through my photographs they could see the places they each called home. This taught me what a powerful storytelling tool photography can be. This first experience with photographing in a place of conflict showed me that it was possible to start conversation, to open eyes when people are willing to look and curious to learn from each other.

    I do not believe you can be a compassionate photographer if you are not connected on a deeply human level with the stories you choose to tell. We all have points of view and we develop those points of view if we are thoughtful critical thinkers by keeping an open heart and mind, by listening and observing and practicing kindness. Guilt is most often a response when one believes that ones own actions have caused harm to others. We can't always prevent harm. It can be beyond our capacity to change the course of events. But in our important work of recording accurately what has happened, if we also strive to minimize any harm arising in those situations if we respond with compassion and kindness while documenting events or the stories of the protagonists we follow, then while we may face difficult emotions, we will also be better prepared to identify those emotions--anger or fear or sadness-- and find ways to process them and use them to help us to move forward. Anger if it is understood and properly directed can be a tremendous motivational force for doing good. Sometimes an action we might take despite our best efforts may cause unforeseen harm. But this is a part of living and acting in the world. One doesn't have to travel to conflict zones to face such human dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas arise in our own families and communities. If we strive to treat others the way we would wish that we or our families would be treated in similar circumstances, then I think that is a good starting point for ethical decision making.

  • Do you judge through your lense? Or you capture a fact without trying to influence a certain decision?

    — Isaac

    Isaac you've asked a very important and deep question. If we are critical thinkers, both skeptical and compassionate, we are always striving to understand. This may lead us to have opinions. Having informed opinions is part and parcel of being a good ethical journalist. Just as crucial is keeping an open mind so that we might understand layers of complexity or context we had not previously considered. We are always learning things we did not know. I could never adopt an amoral attitude toward injustice. I must feel compassion in my work. I do exercise judgement, but I strive not to be judgmental. I hope that distinction is clear. I strive to be ethical in the way that I approach making photographs of others as well as in choosing the moments to photograph thinking both of the subject and the need for the public to be informed. Context is crucial in this process. Part of what I am trying to do for the reader/viewer of the stories I tell is to give them an emotional connection to the story, to the people and to the context. I want them to imagine what it would be like to be in that situation seeing through my eyes and ears or through the eyes and ears of the people whose situation I am documenting. We need to understand with both the head and the heart. You must always stay true to your own moral compass and also stay true to your heart.

  • When photographing conflict, is it more important for you to take a quick snapshot so as not to miss the moment, or to really seek a perfect composition that will draw in a viewer?

    — Marina

    Marina this is a crucial question that has bearing on issues of safety as well as craft. I try to develop relationships of trust before going into a situation of risk so that I have additional eyes and ears informing my thoughts and feelings. I am more an intuitive thinker than a strategist, but I have learned that it is important to think ahead. You can’t have a ready made plan for all potential situations. But exercising problem solving by thinking through scenarios can give you confidence later when thinking on your feet. Staying calm helps you remain clear-headed, seeking a way to proceed with caution, or finding a safe retreat when necessary. If you are safe and the person you wish to photograph is safe you want to try to make the strongest image you can that shows the situation. Sometimes you must move quickly because you are capturing unfolding action, a moment that will not be repeated. You always should strive for the strongest image you can make that follows journalistic ethics within the limits of the situation. When you have opportunity it is crucial to gather the background story from the person you have photographed and other sources. You may wish to interview the protagonist as well as making an environmental portrait that conveys their situation. After you speak with the person you may be able to resume making spontaneous images. Each situation is different. But however much time you have to make the image it is important to be transparent about what you are doing. Especially when photographing people who are vulnerable. Consent is crucial and you always need to do reporting and information gathering. You must be able to write a caption that describes what was happening. Sometimes appearances can be misleading. This is why reporting and contextual information are crucial to ethical photojournalism.

  • Considering your profession, do you feel it is ever possible to not bring your work home with you?

    — Jennifer

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