I was (surprisingly) invited to give a talk about ethics and photojournalism at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) a few nights ago. Here’s the link:
Last week I read that a new biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish Foreign correspondent, had accused him of inventing a good deal of his work. The biographer, Artur Domoslavski, observes that Kapuscinski “consciously built on his status as a legend” and “extended the boundaries of reportage far into the realm of literature”. I read this in Delhi online and, somehow the process of reading these allegations on a computer screen made me smile with irony. It made me think just how far we think we’ve come in journalism and reporting but perhaps just how little we’ve progressed. Let me explain.
I have few heroes in photography, but I held people like Kapuscinski, like Chatwin and Lewis et al as great writers that I could read as much for pleasure as literal accuracy. I don’t read Polish and so the details of Domoslavski’s allegations are a little hard to substantiate but they are not new. There has been a great deal written about Kapuscinski in the last decade: how he was a spy, how he was a womaniser. Much of it to me smacks of a jealousy and a pettiness and the disturbing tendency in modern life to have an icon to smash. We live in a celebrity culture controlled by big business and advertisers that have a financial stake in selling things – people – as commodities. That requires constant banality and revision. This week, ‘failed celebrity actress recovers from drugs’. Next week, ‘failed celebrity actress caught having an affair’. Orwell called it Prolefeed. What all the commentators have failed to mention is that Kapuscinski, when not filing tight wire reports for the Polish news service, was working within the tradition of his own hero, Herodotus, whose books he kept close by for all of his career. Herodotus drew upon an earlier oral tradition of story-telling and interpreting the world from his travels. Sometimes, he wasn’t strictly accurate (‘dog headed men, gold digging ants and flying snakes’ spring to mind) but that wasn’t necessarily the point. The Histories are as much about him as they are the events that he describes: he was interpreting the world politically through the prism of the mid fifth century BC. Kapuscinski was writing during the Cold War and cleverly subverting his masters when he was able to by speaking directly of the warmth and humanity of those people that he met. We are all constructs of our position on time. Plutarch‘s description of Herodotus’ work is vicious:
“He’s a dangerous Barbarian lover (a great heresy at the time) who praises foreigners and denigrates the most ‘solemn and holy truths of Greek religion with Egyptian humbug and fairytale”.
and of course misses the point entirely. Kapuscinski, like Herodotus was evidently no saint – it may be that he polished quotes, ‘tidied’ sentences but I wonder if that mattered: he was writing what he called ‘literary reportage’. It’s a way of understanding the world – to be able to breathe others’ air – you’re meant to believe what you are being told, but not in every literal detail. What we know for certain is that the world has lost a great reporter and a great writer: a man that suffered terrible hardship and was a conduit for the story of the later half of the twentieth century through his travels.
Which brings me back to the title of this post. Last week a photographer, Stepan Rudik was disqualified from the World Press Photo competition for altering an image. Rudik photoshopped out an offending foot from a frame but he also savagely cropped the picture and converted it to black and white. To be fair, it isn’t a million miles away from what Eugene Smith did with his Haiti pictures – except perhaps in intention. Smith was working in not a disimilar way to Kapuscinski – attempting to change the world by showing itself to itself (albeit with some literary license). Rudak was trying to win a prize which has somehow (and very sadly) become the defining element of a successful photojournalistic career. My contention here is not that Rudik was wrong or right (and I honestly feel rather sad for him) but that as photography and journalism stumbles further into the abyss of uncertainty and change, the move by the World Press jury looks a little like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. As photography is neutered by loss of magazines, funding and status, the industry relies increasingly on young freelancers with digital cameras to cover the world. Cheaply. Perhaps it’s my age but I see an erosion of professional standards, ethics and training. As a young photographer I aspired to those in Magnum, Network, Rapho, Gamma etc: the business was difficult to break into and there were identifiable mentors. No longer. It’s a free for all. We’re all journalists now and as far as I can see, there’s an ocean of visual mediocrity masquerading as the best of photojournalism – heavy post-production, a snapshot aesthetic. Easy frames – boring frames. There’s an army of young photographers treating the Developing world as an extended gap year in which to launch their careers into a media that they have no understanding of. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant a generation covering war by treating ’embedding’ as the norm.
Of course we get the industry that we deserve in a way. If we clamour for the pap of celebrity then we shouldn’t be surprised if journalistic standards fall. That’s why this is a defence of Kapuscinski. As a master storyteller he was entirely aware of what he was doing but had the intellectual rigour to understand the context that he was working within. It’s a lesson that photographers more than ever need to learn.