The first photo: a fireman, a woman, and a child wait on the top-floor landing of a fire escape. Smoke purls from the windows behind them. As the gallant-eyed fireman reaches for the approaching rescue ladder, the woman and girl hug one another, their faces wounded by fear. In the second photograph, the fire escape has buckled and detached from the building. The fireman dangles from the ladder while the woman clutches onto his legs, in the postural arrangement of trapeze swingers. The little girl is not anywhere in view. We see in the third photo that the fireman is safely on the ladder, but the woman and little girl are floating, halfway into their fall, arms and legs gravity-splayed. The woman’s expression is eerily serene, as if already resigned to her fate. The final photograph (above) shows the woman and girl suspended in mid-air, like Degas ballerinas; the girl faces the camera with her arms outstretched, her pajama bottoms inflated with the wind of her fall. The woman plummets headfirst, a hideous, limb-tangled descent into oblivion. The woman, a nineteen-year-old named Diana Bryant, died on impact, but her two-year-old goddaughter, Tiare Jones, landed on Bryant’s body and lived.
Originally published in 1975 in the Boston Herald and taken by Stanley Forman, who thought he was merely documenting some gawk-worthy scenes from a heroic rescue, the photographs are so expertly composed and nakedly harrowing that they resemble film stills from a Hollywood blockbuster. And despite its disquieting content, Forman’s work, known simply as “Fire Escape Collapse,” was reprinted in over four hundred U.S. newspapers. The response was uniformly negative, as most readers thought the photos were opprobrious and obscene, on par with the tawdry muckraking and bone-jostling sensationalism most often disseminated by such journalistically dubious organs as the National Enquirer or the New York Post. Readers argued that Bryant’s privacy had been invaded, that publishing these photos was just a strategy to boost paper sales. One reader wrote the Chicago Sun-Times: “I shall try to hide my disappointment that Miss Bryant wasn’t wearing a skirt when she fell to her death. You could have some award-winning photographs of her underpants as her skirt bellowed over her head, you voyeurs.”
In her essay “The Boston Photographs” (1978), Nora Ephron—the warmhearted screenwriter of some of our most saccharine romantic comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail)—submits a decidedly chilly argument in favor of Forman’s images, one that stands in crisp disagreement with the public opinion. Ephron attributes reader outrage to the simple fact that Bryant died. Had Bryant lived, people would have instead marveled at the aesthetic excellence of Forman’s work. This is why she thinks publishers shouldn’t be leery of printing photographs of death, since such squeamishness is “merely puritanical.” In the end, newspapers were justified in printing “Fire Escape Collapse,” but not because the photos documented a newsworthy event, evinced something characteristic of slum life, or portrayed the dangers of fire escapes. Rather, they warranted publication because they were “great pictures, breathtaking pictures of something that happened.” To Ephron’s mind, it is a photograph’s aesthetic excellence—and not the newsworthiness of its content—that merits its publication.
It turns out that Ephron wasn’t alone in this belief. “Fire Escape Collapse” won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and was later dubbed the World Press Photo of the Year.
I teach “Intro to Critical Thinking” at a small college in Wisconsin, and every semester I assign “The Boston Photographs” in an attempt to generate the sort of life-altering discussions that Robin Williams inspired in Dead Poets Society. While I’m embarrassed to admit it, I construct most of my daily lessons with the hope that my students will be so roused by the exercise that they’ll climb onto their desks, lock eyes with me, and recite Whitman’s “Oh, Captain, My Captain” with vim and vigor. It’s at this fulsome display of student approval that I always imagine myself smiling coyly and giving a little bow before exiting the room. It hasn’t happened yet.
All but a few of my students are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, meaning most of them uttered their first words and shed their Huggies around the same time they learned to point and click. Bright and self-assured, albeit still emotionally swaddled by their helicopter parents, they happily attest to the fact that many, if not all, of their formative years were spent gazing at pixelated screens, which perhaps explains why during my lectures they oftentimes possess the bovine impassivity of cinema audiences. And yet what worries me most about these digital natives is how readily they accept Ephron’s formulation as true—obvious, even. When I ask them to write an essay about Ephron’s argument, the students overwhelmingly defend “The Boston Photographs,” and while most of them resort to specious logic and gooey clichés (“a picture is worth a thousand words”), the better ones posit a more interesting idea—one that evolves Ephron’s argument from a claim about aesthetic admiration (they should be published because they are “breathtaking photos”) to one about the telos of photojournalism. The top students posit that “Fire Escape Collapse” warrants print because it precipitates an emotional response in the viewer. Consequently, the aesthetic excellence of a photo—i.e., its capacity to achieve artfulness or beauty—is permitted, necessary even, because it helps to garner viewer pathos.
It’s discomfiting to think a photograph of death could be “beautiful” or “artful,” but as Susan Sontag points out in Regarding the Pain of Others, even the most troubling images can strike us as astonishing—perhaps even as excellent:
That a gory battlescape could be beautiful—in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful—is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins. To acknowledge the beauty of the photographs of the World Trade Center ruins in the months following the attack seemed frivolous, sacrilegious. The most people dared say was that the photographs were “surreal,” a hectic euphemism behind which the disgraced notion of beauty cowered. But they were beautiful…
Indeed much of the vitriol elicited by Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man,” an AP photo published on September 12th, 2001 in newspapers around the country, was due to the fact that it possessed obvious aesthetic attributes—its sense of symmetry and scale, the way the tower perfectly frames the falling person. The photograph freezes in still frame a single millisecond from an unfathomable horror and repackages it as an icon of either American bravery or desperation, depending upon your interpretation.
Images like Forman’s “Fire Escape Collapse” and Drew’s “The Falling Man” achieve what we might call an accidental aesthetic brilliance, since there was no way those photographers could have purposely stylized these photographs to achieve their most striking attributes. Rather, the images were captured with high-powered cameras that can document multiple frames per second, and were later selected by an editor for their special aesthetic appeal. But such newsroom decisions, coupled with the advent of digital technologies, have spurred an increasing trend among photojournalists to intentionally aestheticize reality in order to create “great photos,” a tendency that would be sanctioned by my students’ argument that beauty helps to elicit viewer emotion. But at what point does the aesthetic excellence of the photograph eclipse the depicted event, or, worse, distract the viewer from inquiring into what happened?
The importance of this question becomes most acute when what we’re talking about are carefully stylized photographs that stagger the border between journalism and art. For instance, on December 16th, 2012, the New York Times Magazine ran a photo-essay entitled “The Color of War,” which featured Richard Mosse’s photographs of the conflict in the Congo. The Times notes that for the past two years Mosse has been “documenting what he calls ‘The Hobbesian state of war,’” and that he uses infrared technology to “reveal camouflaged troops and buildings, as well as produce the pink tints in these pictures.” The chosen subject of the two-page-spread is a gravel road that vanishes into a steroidally fertile forest.
Flanking the road are lines of M23 rebels, who appear to be patrolling the Virunga National Park. The infrared film presents these men as faceless silhouettes, some of whom stand at nervy attention while others slouch at ease. The soldiers’ roadside arrangement and the oneiric color-palette make the photo an arresting aesthetic achievement. While the road is a drab gray, the approximate color of a dead tooth, the infrared filter has stained the trees a Seussian pink, as if the surrounding flora had been treated with food coloring. A small-print caption offers the reader a few bits of supposedly relevant trivia:
Number of persons displaced by current conflict around Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo: 130,000. Estimated death toll related to violence in Congo, 1998-2008: 5.4 million. D.R.C.’s percentage of the world’s reserve of coltan (used to make cellphones): 64. Year Kodak Aerochrome III Infrared film was discontinued: 2009.
Mosse’s work is, I’m sure, meant to be disruptive. And yet when I first viewed “The Color of War” I felt that his eye-poppingly gorgeous images were ethically and emotionally disorienting in ways that I couldn’t for a second believe he had intended. Perhaps the caption, which suggests that the year Kodak discontinued Aerochrome film is just as important as these other appalling statistics, offered a hint as to what was bothering me. What exactly was I looking at?
Here’s something that’s weird but true: a photograph is unlike almost every other art form because it isn’t merely a representation of the world; it is a record of the world. Such is the form’s indexical ontology. When we look at a photograph of a tree, we see the physical reality—the miraculous interplay of physics and light—that transpired at the exact instant the photographer activated the camera. Unlike a painting of a tree, which is a stylized representation of the object, infused with the artist’s sensibility (and, probably, his or her tree-related feelings), a photograph records and ratifies the existence of the actual tree. While the precision of a photographic index depends on a number of factors—the camera in question, whether the photographer used a filter, the extent to which the photo was treated during darkroom emulsification or digital processing—a photograph still serves as a reliable document of reality.
Of course, the history of photographic manipulation has made the claim to indexicality shaky at best. Even before the digital revolution, manipulation was accomplished with gouache paints, kneaded erasers, charcoals and airbrushes. Pre-exposure effects—executed in the dark room—were just as crude: splicing and rearranging negatives, double-exposing photos or scratching out subjects. (Pertinent bit of trivia: in the early 1860s, a photographer grafted Abraham Lincoln’s head onto John C. Calhoun’s body to create a now-canonical portrait.) In the last thirty years, a whole nomenclature of digital technologies has made the photograph’s status as an index all but obsolete. In the early 1980s, photographers doctored their pictures with Quantel Computers’ Paintbox and Scitex imaging stations, but by the end of the decade Adobe had sent both of those primitive editing programs into commercial oblivion. Now, programs like Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Corel Photopaint and Pixelmator can be used to finesse images to such an extent that it can be nearly impossible to ascertain the faithfulness of the image.
And yet, even though we are on some level aware of these manipulations, we still tend to trust what we see in photographs, perhaps because it’s hard to repudiate that dusty, old photographic dictum: “The camera never lies.” This might explain why, despite mammoth advancements in digital technology, photographs remain the most unquestioned and effective of documentary technologies (just think of how vastly different our response would have been to the Abu Ghraib scandal if all we’d had were field reports).
Such assumptions are most problematic in the realm of photojournalism. Newspapers and periodicals claim to transmit objective information about contemporary events, and we instinctually trust the camera’s verisimilitude, expecting in good faith to approach a newspaper photograph as an authentic document of something that happened. And photojournalists are acutely conscious of that public trust. Here’s Howard Chapnick—founder of the worldwide picture agency Black Star and the author of Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism—warning photojournalists about the perils of manipulation: “Credibility. Responsibility. These words give us the right to call photography a profession rather than a business. Not maintaining that credibility will diminish our journalistic impact and self-respect, and the importance of photography as communication.” And Chapnick isn’t some harebrained purist. These kinds of journalistic standards have been codified in the National Press Photographers Association’s (NPPA) Code of Ethics, which cautions photojournalists against manipulating images “in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”
So here’s a question: Are Mosse’s photographs misleading? Is the submerged concern I felt upon first viewing them now bubbling up to the surface as a realization of Chapnick’s worry? Certainly Mosse’s series doesn’t lead the viewer to believe that something stood in front of his camera that in fact never did; in that sense, his work is not a classic case of photographic deceit. But maybe there is more than one way to fail to “communicate,” as Chapnick puts it, the truth of the photographed subject. Perhaps Mosse’s infrareds actually enact a more insidious manipulation, where the aesthetic enhancements ensorcel the viewer with a fever-dream landscape quite distant from the real horror taking place in the D.R.C. While adding or excising objects from photographs are blatant misrepresentations of events and obvious threats to the profession, this isn’t the only way a photographer can be unfaithful to his subject.
Here is a portrait of a father holding his young son. The family stands on a patio, looking out on the rubble that their East Coast town has become. There’s a stony grimness to the father’s expression, the kind of vacant resignation seen in the faces of those who have weathered baffling disasters. The New York Giants insignia is stitched to the left breast of his bright blue jacket. His hair is cupreous and newscaster-swooped. Barnacled to his side is a boy of Gerber-level cuteness. The child is coy, turned away from the camera, about to burrow his face into his father’s neck. But what is most beguiling to me about this photograph is not the family’s stoic grief. Instead, what preoccupied me upon initial viewing was a question: Is this really a photograph? Its lines are gauzy, like they might have been brushstroked with acrylics. The father and son are seemingly unaware of the camera, a nod to Diderot’s thematics of absorption. Meanwhile, the oily tactility of the photo’s pixilation—a digital craquelure created by the Instagram filter—resembles the lacquered surface of a Rembrandt. And the mise-en-scène invokes a Madonna with child.
The photograph comes from Radcliffe Roye’s Hurricane Sandy series, images that were published on the New Yorker’s website in November 2012. No one would deny that Roye—a Brooklyn-based photojournalist with self-proclaimed “painterly abilities”—has a gift for yoking austere subjects to lurid colors in a way that furnishes seismic artistic effects. His website states that he’s “inspired by the raw and gritty lives of grass-roots people, especially those of his homeland of Jamaica. [He] strives to tell the stories of their victories and ills by bringing their voices to matte fibre paper.”
For me, Roye’s aesthetic ingenuity flatly contradicts his role as a photojournalist, and the “painterly” qualities of his work end up undermining, rather than intensifying, the communication of the family’s plight. And I submit that there’s something unsettling, if not soul-sickening, about seeing a family that has been ravaged by disaster and has lost everything, and then thinking: “Wow, this is a beautiful photograph.” But this is exactly the kind of moral hazard that is involved in aestheticized photojournalism, which interprets someone else’s tragedy as beautiful. It calls to mind the way eighteenth-century aristocrats collected Baroque paintings of beggars and peasants to chronicle the exotic lifestyle of the lower class. In his essay, “Notes on the Photographic Image,” the French philosopher Jacques Ranciére argues that the very beauty of these paintings (see right: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melon) aimed to elevate their subjects out of their poverty, giving them the same artistic status as Olympian gods. As a result, the paintings presented the “common aesthetic neutralization of the social hierarchy,” blinding the viewer to the very real suffering of the working poor and exonerating him of any part he may have played in causing it. In this case, the viewer feels absolved because Murillo’s painting makes poverty look like a beautiful life.
This might begin to explain what’s wrong with the argument that the aestheticization of photojournalism is permissible whenever it helps to garner viewer pathos. The problem is that there exists a vital difference between an aesthetics that communicate and an aesthetics that reimagine a harrowing reality. Roye beautifies his subjects in such a way that it becomes distressingly easy for me to fool myself into thinking that these Hurricane Sandy victims aren’t in immediate need. And so the beauty of the photograph, as Sontag puts it, “drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document.”
Please be apprised that I’m not so Pollyannaish as to suggest that every piece of photojournalism should inspire us to stop whatever we are doing, haul ass to our cars, and burn custom rubber to the nearest disaster site in order to lend an altruistic hand. As far as I can tell, photojournalists generally have a less sexy job, and that is to offer an enfranchised public faithful records of what’s happening in our world. Their role is to provide a context for public awareness and civic accountability, something that is indispensible to the health of a democratic society. All of which might explain what’s so concerning about Roye’s photos, because when we are seduced into seeing hurricane survivors as objects of aesthetic appraisal, it can numb our sense of responsibility—as citizens, as human beings—to these tragedies.
This concern takes on a new dimension when we click through the entirety of Roye’s Hurricane Sandy series. In shot after shot—of storm-incinerated towns, survivors toting rescued dogs, a ship pushed onto land by ravaging winds—reality has been stylized with gorgeous palettes and a sense of staged arrangement. The skies alone in these photos are utterly lovely, enough to make you swoon. Roye’s low ceiling of cumulous clouds is flecked with a sooty granularity and softly infused with impressionistic lavenders and blues, recalling the sullen London sky in Monet’s Houses of Parliament. What’s more, these scenes of devastation and ruin, distilled through the Instagram filter, are given color schemes that are themselves so mesmeric and captivating that the feeling I get is primarily of wishing I had been there, the ludicrousness of which highlights yet another peril posed by the aesthetics of reimagination.
It’s not just that the aesthetics in these photos are so captivating that they divert our attention away from the subject and place it on the prettiness of the medium—though they do—but also that they seem designed to evoke an emotion or state of mind that is either starkly antithetical or wholly irrelevant to the set of feelings we would otherwise associate with their content. In these cases, the photographers reimagine their subjects to the point where we are no longer prompted to countenance the very real suffering of those depicted, or to consider the geopolitical forces that might have created such suffering in the first place.
And this might go some way toward explaining why my students tend to use vapid abstractions (“gorgeous,” “pretty,” “cool”) to describe Richard Mosse’s Congo. One student, upon first viewing, submitted an especially trenchant comparison between Mosse’s D.R.C. and the Technicolor of Oz. And it’s true: Mosse’s photos transport us to a netherworld of beauty that makes us feel as if we have been beguiled by a pleasant and whimsical dream.
It seems important to recognize that Mosse’s intention wasn’t to pacify our moral anxieties or perform an aesthetic legerdemain. In his interview with the Liverpool Daily News, Mosse opines: “I was looking for new forms to represent a very old and tired war which no one really cares about anymore.” In other words, these lurid landscapes are meant to estrange us from our usual response to the surfeit of Congo-related news coverage, to wake us from our perceptive slumber. Which suggests that, in the end, our choice is between his kind of photograph and not thinking about the events in the Congo at all.
Three things immediately come to mind: first, my students’ responses to these photos suggest that Mosse’s effort to estrange us from the stolid response we usually have to journalism actually has the opposite effect and ends up simply estranging us from the conflicts his photos purportedly “document.” What’s most distressing is that while I silently click through this photo-essay up on the classroom projector, measuring my students’ reactions, none of them know nor ask what these are photographs of. This montage of Mosse’s work arouses only a chorus of dead descriptors and a spirited discussion of what kind of filter was used here—i.e. Instagram or Hipstamatic—which lasts a good five minutes before I step in and settle the score, explaining that it’s infrared film. When I do offer a compendium on just some of the horrors that have recently occurred in the Congo—horrors that (it’s worth mentioning) my students claim to know nothing about—they report feeling a little queasy about having been duped into a psychological state of whimsy and color-drunk hebetude.
Second, the very fact that the journalistic response to Mosse’s Infra series has been humid with praise for the glitzy prettiness of the photos themselves (ABC News: “Beautifully violent”; Time Out Paris: “His radical approach colors images from the war in the eastern Congo a bright candyfloss shade”; Irish Times: the work throws “us into an hallucinogenic, surreal world that in some respects recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now”), as opposed to focusing on how the photos help convey the exigencies of the Congolese situation, would seem to announce the failure of Mosse’s objective to spur viewer engagement via gross aestheticization.
And, finally, Mosse’s claim that our culture’s image saturation compels photojournalists to beautify tableaux from the ugly flux of real life only contributes to the ever-increasing tendency to snow over the border between news and entertainment, suggesting that our capacity for apprehending and empathizing with the world’s glories and horrors can only be sustained when such events are presented with a pixelated finish.
Don’t get me wrong: beauty, in and of itself, does not deactivate a photograph’s communicative function. There is, of course, a lot of aesthetically excellent photojournalism that succeeds in transmitting states of mind that are pertinent to its subjects. These photos utilize what we might call an aesthetics of communication.
For instance, have a look at “Nicaragua 1979” by Dutch photographer Koen Wessing. The photograph is a black-and-white shot of a rubble-strewn urban intersection, populated only by Catholic nuns and Nicaraguan soldiers, though the two demographics don’t much interact. It stands as a salient photojournalistic achievement precisely because its aesthetic virtues—the gorgeous depth-of-field, the symmetry of soldiers on either side of the passing nuns—distract me in no way from comprehending what took place at that hour of that year in that part of the world. In fact, the aesthetics actually go far in helping me understand the socio-political climate of the Sandinista revolution, insofar as they describe the causal malice the Catholic Church directed at the Somoza dynasty. What’s more is that this hackle-raising juxtaposition of the guns and the nuns, this visual dissonance between the secular and the spiritual, helps convey the pathos of a country reduced to mayhem by war: everything here shrinks to a death toll and the promise of paradise that comes after. In short, this is a photograph that communicates—rather than reimagines—the reality it depicts.
The same holds true for Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man,” even though this is a bit of photojournalism that is, for me, very difficult to look at. Rather than reincarnate the tragedy as an artistic dreamscape, the aesthetics of “The Falling Man” actually convey the horror of that day. What is both strange and upsetting is that the man, as he free-falls between the Twin Towers, looks relaxed, almost insouciant. He is in the approximate posture of someone leaning James Deanishly against a brick wall or on the hood of a car to have a smoke—an attitude that somehow seems to embody the relative comfort enjoyed by Americans before the events of that morning. Except this is a photo of man falling upside down. It’s the photo’s enjambment of this calm, carefree posture and the inevitability of the man’s death that produces an emotion that seems kindred to the total panic, the psychic terror, the doom and confusion, the plain old little-kid fear I felt that day. This photo captures the before and the after, and in this way it eulogizes our swift and unwanted entry into a new era, a vexed and violent decade punctuated by mayhem and war. The seeming impossibility that a photograph like this even exists mirrors in some way the impossibility of planes colliding with buildings and people jumping to their deaths and the tallest buildings in New York collapsing into plumes of rubble one September morning.
Whatever other relative differences exist between Drew’s “The Falling Man” and something like Mosse’s “The Color of War,” we must acknowledge that there is a serious variance in how their aesthetics set out to affect us. Drew’s communicate. Mosse’s reimagine. Drew brings us reality, and Mosse leaves it behind.
It’s this distinction between the aesthetics of communication and the aesthetics of reimagination that can account for the weird antipathy that Mosse’s and Roye’s works enkindle in me. Mosse’s Pepto-Bismol pink and Roye’s digital acrylics announce that these photojournalists privilege their own aesthetic visions over the realities they claim to document. And this is especially incensing when the subject of the photograph is suffering and when the seriousness of that suffering gets obscured by the photo’s gorgeous distortions. Such instances of photojournalistic reimagination demonstrate the potential conflict between the deliberate effort to make “great photos, breathtaking photos,” as Ephron calls them, and the communicative function that makes photojournalism a necessary and worthwhile profession in the first place.
But maybe we, as a culture, don’t have the time or the energy to make such distinctions anymore. Consider the public’s wildly different reactions to Drew’s and Mosse’s respective photographs. In his essay, “The Falling Man,” Tom Junod notes how, within days of publishing Drew’s photo, “[p]apers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to the Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography.” And yet, only a decade or so later, Mosse’s work gets roundly acclaimed as “gorgeous” and “appropriate.” Why is this so? It cannot simply be that Drew’s image is more horrifying, or because his work shows someone dying and Mosse’s photos don’t. In fact, if you click through Mosse’s work on the New York Times website, you’ll eventually find an image of a dead F.A.D.R.C. soldier lying on a desolate road that curves through dense stretches of Candyland forest. The soldier is splayed out on the gravel, as if he fell from a terrible height.
Perhaps it is because the people in Mosse’s photos live halfway around the world and so their suffering seems proportionately remote? Or maybe we have become inured to this type of aestheticization? Maybe the abrupt ubiquity of Instagram and other digital stylizing devices has allowed us to constantly re-imagine our own lives to the point where something that happened only moments ago can get tinted with the patina of history, aged with the waterstains of nostalgia, or deported to the landscape of a pastel fantasia. But I’ve been trying to suggest that there’s something more urgent and concerning going on here, a conflict between two modes of presentation. One approach clears the way for reality to come to us. The other claims to fetch us from the basement of our complacency but actually just takes us by the hand and leads us to a glass window so beautifully stained that we can no longer see out of it. The difference, here, is moral before it is artistic. After all, it’s disturbingly easy to interpret suffering. To look at it, though, to simply bear witness, is more difficult—for it is then that we risk coming away hurt or humbled or changed.