Posts Tagged 'picture'

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.


Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.


The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.


Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.


Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.


But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.


Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”


Staring at the big picture


By Harry van Versendaal

Photo-sharing app Instagram last week announced it had reached the 100 million-user milestone. Jennifer Trausch is one of them. But the Berlin-based artist much prefers to make her instant photographs using a refrigerator-sized vintage Polaroid camera.

Trausch, 36, can normally be found operating one of the five such machines, built in the late 1970s by the former US tech giant, at her studio in Berlin, where she moved this January after spending a year in Paris.

Before moving to Europe, the Ohio-born artist lectured and made photographs at the 20×24 Polaroid studio in Manhattan, where she was director of photography for about eight years. In a daring project that spanned from 2006 to 2011, Trausch, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, took the vintage camera out of the comfort zone of the protected studio environment and onto the rural roads of the American South to shoot poster-size, black-and-white pictures of fairs, auctions, bars and rodeos – a project that gave birth to her well-received “Touching Ground” exhibition.

From Germany, Trausch is currently trying to spread the love for instant photography, putting much of her time and energy into Impossible Works, a Berlin-based nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, a company that manufactures new instant film for Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films.

Trausch was recently invited to Greece to participate in the jury of the 4th Cedefop Photomuseum Award – a 5,000-euro prize granted to photographers from all over the world by the EU’s European Center for the Development of Vocational Training and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography in the context of its PhotoBiennale.

During her stay in the northern port city, Trausch delivered two two-hour workshops at the museum on the basics of working with Impossible Project instant films with a variety of cameras and film types.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Trausch discussed her love for large-format photography and the particularities of her work in the digital era.

What drew you to large-format photography? What do you think is special about the 20×24?

I started out in photojournalism / documentary photography, so I really began my career shooting with small- and medium-format cameras. In 2001, I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to use the 20×24 Polaroid camera, and I have been working almost exclusively on large format ever since. I like how laborious shooting with big cameras is, how much attention you end up giving to each image.

Large cameras, especially the 20×24, also demand much more out of their subjects. The 20×24’s grandiosity makes people look into it in a different way, perhaps because it commands a certain kind of respect as a human-scale object. With the 20×24, there’s always a limited depth of field, and the way the world falls off behind the focal plane can be quite surreal, soft and graceful.

The 20×24 instant prints also have a material, painterly quality that is all their own; it is the sharp detail of a 20×24 negative in a contact-print, mixed with the softness of a print made by the diffusion transfer process.

How are you able to carry around and work with such a big and heavy machine that was meant for indoor use? Is it a hindrance?

The 20×24 Polaroid cameras – there are five original units built in the late 1970s – each weigh 105 kilos, so I had no choice but to find a way of working that was relatively easy. For my “Touching Ground” project, I chose B&W film since the film is fast enough that I could work in most conditions without extra lighting or equipment. I tried to simplify the shooting process so that it was just the camera, film, black cloths to keep the light out, and my assistant Kimberlee Venable and I.

I tend to not like when too much credence is given to the technical side of photography, as in what equipment or techniques were used for a certain effect, but I have to admit that in this case the camera had a huge influence over what we could and couldn’t do. Sometimes it held us back as the camera couldn’t always go where we wanted it to go (on a rooftop or on an oil rig) and other times it was exhausting to push it up muddy hills or to lift it over train tracks. Taking the camera out and setting up always took a lot of effort, which added a certain pressure on each shoot to get things right.

This also meant that when I didn’t “get the shot” I hoped for, it felt much more devastating because of the extreme physical effort it took to set it up in the first place. Perhaps if I had had more hands to help we wouldn’t have felt this pressure and disappointment so much, but I really preferred to work without a giant crew so that the process with my subjects could be intimate.

What are your favorite themes? What kind of things do you like to photograph?

I am interested in the idea of place, the culture and traditions surrounding a particular place at a particular time, and whether I can take you there to feel it.

For me this is always a mix of portraits, landscapes and activities that are indicative of that place. Sometimes it is specific to one environment, such as my “Skateland” series, or in the case of “Touching Ground,” it’s about a much broader portrait of regional American culture.

I also am interested in the idea of sensations in photography – whether images can elicit the physical sensations of being there for the viewer standing in front of the final print. It is always my goal to make images where you could almost feel the heavy humidity on your skin, hear the leaves rustling, or taste a swamp’s scent wafting through the air.

Could you tell us a few things about the Impossible Works project?

Impossible Works is a nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, the main manufacturer of instant films today. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films. We accept proposals from anyone looking to use and challenge the instant medium.

How does it feel taking photographs with a huge, slow and hard-to-move analog camera in an age when people upload thousands of pictures a second on social media that it takes them all of a second to frame, and their friends all of another second to “like”?

The process of working at 20×24 definitely creates a different kind of image, in the attention that you and your subjects inherently end up giving during a shoot.

The final prints can be shared as you work, in all of their incredible scale and detail, which transforms the building of an image. While this can partly be equated to sharing digital files online or during a shoot, it’s pretty easy to lose the fine, subtle details of an image looking at it on a glowing screen or on the back of a digital camera.

I do share some of my images online in similar ways to many digital photographers, but only as a teaser, not as an end to themselves – I don’t think you can really experience the work until you’re in the room with the original full-size prints.

Do you own any smaller cameras, and, if so, do you like using them?

Yes, quite a few. I use them mostly when I am traveling, which these days is quite often. When I am traveling, I test a lot of Impossible Projects small-format materials on Polaroid SX-70, 680, and 110B cameras, mostly for sketching out ideas.

But in general I’ve gotten quite accustomed to working on a larger ground glass and seeing my images upside down. I think this is the way my brain is wired these days.

Girls on film

By Harry van Versendaal

A Korean schoolgirl is about to lose a finger in a cruel initiation rite; a line of marching students willingly commit mass suicide wading into the waters of a river; two girls brace for a duel on a rooftop.

These are snippets from “Girls in Uniform,” an art project crafted by Hyun-Jin Kwak, part of which went on display this month at the Technopolis cultural complex in Athens.

Enigmatic and captivating, the images seem to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, the interaction between the subject and the structures of power that come to shape the former’s norms and behavior.

Kwak’s schoolgirls are subjected to systemic power. But, operating from inside the cracks in the system, they too get a chance to exercise their own power on others. Depicted are acts of sexual experimentation, cryptic rituals and psychological and physical violence.

The uniform, tightly wrapped around the body as well as the mind, becomes a tool and symbol of constraint — yet, at the same time, also a shield offering that cozy sense of belonging. This is, after all, a paradoxical world that we live in.

Born in South Korea in 1974, Kwak now lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. Launched in 2003, “Girls in Uniform” is an ongoing project that includes series of photographs, sculptures, installations and video works, some of which are still in the planning stages. Shown in the context of the Athens Photo Festival at Technopolis, a former gas factory on Pireos Street, Kwak’s exhibition was organized by the Swedish Institute in Athens and curated by Jan-Erik Lundstrom.

Kwak spoke talks here about the allegorical universe of her girls in uniform.

The images of your “Girls in Uniform” project are beautiful but unsettling. They could be read as an attempt to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, between free will and control. What message are you trying to get across?

Personally, I don’t think they are so disturbing. I guess it’s more about how actions and behavior deviate from what we expect from these young female subjects. On a more general level, I think the question of social relationships between individuals and their environment appears in quite different shapes in every society. My project is based on questions about the nature of social relationships between the individual and society, and how these are reflected in different social environments. I am interested in the sociological aspects of being and being formed as an individual, and in the question of identity.

I would assume that the uniforms worn by your characters in the pictures serve as a metaphor — the uniform in the mind, as it were.

Yes, that’s true: The girls serve partly as a metaphor for someone or something in transition; so it doesn’t have to be about age, it is also about time. These subjects are incomplete and unstable, but highly charged.

The uniform stands for uniformity, conformity and repression. At the same time, anonymity can give you a sense of security and be a driving force behind action.

There is a strong conflictual element between the two, but also a possibility to establish alliances in complicated conditions.

Why are there only women in your pictures?

I realized that I created a kind of group of alpha beings and there was no room or necessity for both genders in this project. Since I am one, I can fully grasp women as social and political beings and use this as a main subject and put it in such a context. I do not have the same confidence with men as such a subject.

Is your theme a bridge that connects your two backgrounds — East Asian and Northern European? Does the power to conform exist in both societies/cultures but merely in different forms?

There are different uniforms and codes of conduct that we all carry in any society and culture. The school uniform is a metaphor for a larger concept.

Meanwhile, the project is also a reflection of my biography. The methods and order I have used, the choice of location might say something about me. In the beginning, I tried to reconstruct the mental stages and patterns of behavior in Korean society. These were influenced by the relationship between rapid economic growth and ethics in recent Korean history. The first phase of the project relates to the South Korean educational system and the transition which occurred during the democratization of the country in the early 1980s. The Korean school uniform for girls allowed for an investigation into the processes of socialization, where different aspects of power structures, oppression, transgressions and an awakening sexuality were staged and made to confront each other. These aspects reflected, to varying degrees, the breaking points between the sternly authoritative and repressive system and the country’s recent openness at a time of strong economic and technological development, which also allowed for an individualistic consumer culture and an expansive cultural life.

As relations between the individual, the uniform (second identity) and society are not an exclusively Korean, or Asian, concern, the work acquired a new and expanded geographic and psychological meaning in its later phases. Even though school uniforms exist all over the world, and are actually more of a rule than an exception, their role within my project has become more and more metaphorical. This later part of “Girls in Uniform” also reflects my own biography, as my art is based in Sweden in order to explore environments in Europe.

In the photographs we see constructions of events/narratives that are parallel to the commonplace. Many of the locations/scenes in my works can refer to Heterotopia. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental.

These choices of settings are central. I want the photographs to possess a theatrical quality at the same time as they refer to documentary (or psychological portraits). More and more, the project has developed into studies of elements in settings where the historical and architectural aspects are of considerable importance.

In my photographic staging at these locations, my use of models, props and the situations they are involved in are all employed in relation to the history of the site, for deeper relations between the story line and its visualization.

If your work is indeed a critique of conformity and identity formation in modern societies, I guess a counterargument would be that top-down identity-building provides some of that necessary glue that keeps a society together.

This is very true. As one who was born and raised in one culture while residing in a very different one, I may see more of these differences and problems. The very idea of this difference may be the starting point of the project.

I am not trying to say one is better than the other. Striking a balance between these seems quite a utopian idea at times.

But sometimes, what we may think as necessary glue to keep things together can easily turn into concrete that sucks you in and buries you.

Finally, it looks like you take a lot of time and effort in selecting your locations and staging your shots. Does that not contradict your message, in some way?

My choice of locations is carefully made, as you say. They do not only serve as a backdrop, but also help create certain emotions by using the atmosphere and possibly also the history of the site. I don’t think this can be done in any other way, nor is it contradictory. On the contrary, I believe it largely contributes to the theme.

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