Image Making on the Periphery of War: A Comparison Between Photographers Working in the Genre of Photojournalism.

This essay will compare and contrast two images by photographers producing work within the genre of documentary photojournalism. War photography is a mainstay of the genre, but the boundaries of war are not as neatly defined as the conflict imagery we’re used to seeing suggests. For this reason I have chosen images which detail events before and after war, visions of how and why as powerful as any mid-battle reportage. Sebastião Salgado’s image of a firefighter in the oil fields of Kuwait will be compared with Georges Merillon’s photograph of grieving Kosovan women.

Oil Wells Firefighter, Sebastiao Salgado, 1991

Oil Wells Firefighter, Sebastiao Salgado, 1991

By considering why each photograph was made, where it was presented and whether or not the images were intended to serve a specific function, I will explore how the photographers’ approach to image making influenced the final work and whether their intentions had an enduring effect on the way the images are viewed. I will consider whether these images exist as objective testimony and if so, whether that testimony serves a purpose or whether they function as ‘entertainment’ in a news saturated culture.

Vigil funeral in Kosovo, Georges Merillon, 1990

Vigil funeral in Kosovo, Georges Merillon, 1990

Salgado (b.1944) spent his early years studying as an economist and by 1971 was working in London for the International Coffee Organisation, during which time he travelled to Africa on missions affiliated to the organisation; moved by what he saw he began taking photographs. Becoming preoccupied with these images Salgado left his career behind, returning to Paris to work as a freelance social documentary photographer. Merillon (b.1957) worked with the Gamma photography agency receiving two World Press Photographer awards and the European Fuji Award. He went on to become editor at Gamma before leaving to work on collaborative projects with other photographers in 2006. (Merillon, 2013)

In Salgado’s black and white photograph fire leeches from the ground to the right of the frame as a lone firefighter approaches, a protective chemical spray arcs into the image from the right; the sky is black from smoke and a sense of choking heat radiates from the page. The fire and chemical spray create a haze of light which dominates the entire picture, two equal but opposing forces in momentary stalemate. Around the source of the blaze we can see twisted metal, another fire burns on the horizon this is indeed an apocalyptic scene. In the context of Salgado’s ‘Workers’ series of photographs, we understand the fire to be a burning oil well, a bookend to the first gulf war. As oil burns out of the ground corporations stand to lose millions of dollars, they are reminded that workers are needed in order to protect their wealth, a moment of parity; for their part in this war for oil many of these men will return home millionaires. Salgado’s envisages the worker as a warrior, but here he is commodified in a battle to protect a commodity. The photograph is rich with the symbolism of conflict: workers fighting fires as one war ends and another begins; burning oil a visual metaphor for the power of the corporations, or perhaps for the lost blood of Iraqi, Kuwaiti and American soldiers; black and white, a power struggle representing good versus evil. Beyond all doubt the picture is visually stunning, a monumental and unashamed testimony to man’s willingness to risk all in a bid to tame the elements.

Merrilon’s "Vigil funeral in Kosovo" shows a group of women gathered around a young man, he is covered by a sheet and his eyes are closed, one woman’s face is turned to the sky as she cries, her arms shaking in front of her, the other women look, or reach toward her. Window light spreads across the image from the right hand side of the frame, creating a sense of depth which pulls us into the picture, we’re transported into the room and feel an immediate sense of both intimacy and voyeurism. The light in the photograph creates richly coloured tones across the faces and clothes of the women, the viewer is reminded of works of art hanging in a gallery - this could be a Rembrandt, Vermeer, or a scene from a Caravaggio. However this is not high art, and we’re reminded of our presence as an observer, or intruder by the unrelenting stare of a girl to the right of the frame, her gaze makes us complicit. In Regarding The Pain Of Others Susan Sontag notes:  “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, "off guard." (Sontag, 2003, p38) - Vigil Funeral does not allow us to passively ‘look’ at the picture without the scrutiny being returned. The photograph is especially poignant given the knowledge of the deaths and war that followed in Kosovo; indeed French artist and filmmaker Pascal Convert argues that Merillon’s photograph was first valued (and lauded by 1990’s Press Photographer of the Year award) on its aesthetic merits, as an imitation of western Christian archetypes of painting, before becoming testimony to the atrocities of the Bosnian war when viewed post NATO’s 1999 intervention (Convert, 1999).

The two images document events at the periphery of war; Salgado’s post-conflict image was taken days after the end of The Gulf War, whilst Merillion captured a single event, a moment in Kosovo’s long descent into war. Both photographs convey an immediate sense of something raw and powerful. Merrilon’s moment captures everything that it means to be human: life & death, love & loss are laid bare on the page, the viewer’s reaction is immediate and visceral as they are compelled to look at this scene. Salgado replaces emotion with awe, showing man pitted in a battle against the power of nature; despite the blistering heat and danger to life and despite the backdrop of war, he chooses to make his image monumental, beautifully toned and expertly composed. The events documented almost certainly happened (that is to say they were not staged for the camera), however they comfortably occupy the territory described by Martha Rosler’s essay in The Contest of Meaning. Rosler suggests that whilst the liberalist origins of documentary photography are all but gone, it continues to serve a social function by acting as a reminder of fear and uncertainty to the middle/upper classes - it’s both “flattery and warning”. (Rosler, 1992, p306-307); these images did little at the time to further the cause of the subjects, Kosovo descended into War and the West continues to wage wars over oil.

That Salgado and Merillon view their work as photojournalism, reportage images for use in the press to document a story, belies their status as lauded objects. Salgado goes to some length to stress this in an interview: “These pictures of workers tell stories .. in the pages of El Pais .. My work is not art and I certainly don't think of myself as an artist: it is reportage.” (Glancey, 1993). However, despite protestations and original intentions these images have been elevated to the status of art as summarised in Regarding The Pain of Others, “So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art—and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers” (Songtag, 2003, p78).

Each photographers’ approach to producing their work was very different, Salgado’s image is one of a series of hundreds from his ‘Workers’ project, a six year tour of the world conceived to document manual workers in an increasingly post industrial age. In the introduction to Workers Salgado makes it clear that he aims to illustrate the nobility of the people he photographed, he describes sugarcane workers in Brazil and Cuba as warriors - the Cubans proud of their war effort and rewarded by their boss (the state), whilst the Brazilian warriors are described as day labourers, delivered by truck to the battlefield, part of the production mechanism of large companies. Salgado also uses his introduction to Workers to raise questions around production in the developed world, he states that “the developed world produces only for those that can consume .. the remaining four-fifths, who could theoretically benefit from surplus production, have no way of becoming consumers”. Despite seeing a world in crisis of first world excess, third world need and the ruin of the second world’s socialist ideals, he suggests that mankind must build a new world and “adapt, resist, believe, and survive” (Salgado, 1993).

Merillon’s image is perhaps more in line with our expectations or preconceptions of photojournalism. He travelled to Kosovo in 1990 with no translator or escort, to document growing tensions between the Yugoslavian government and Kosovo Albanians over the erosion of the region’s autonomous status. After witnessing minor protests he followed a news camera crew to a nearby village where they were shown the scene that was ultimately made famous by his photograph (Koch, 2009, p106).

Herein lays the fundamental difference between the two approaches, Salgado worked to his own schedule, choosing when and where to shoot. He knew that he was making a book and that this image would be one of many, he had the luxury of time to execute his ideas and time to build a narrative for the final viewing. That Salgado makes his intentions so clear in his introduction calls into question the documentary nature of the series, instead it is ladened with the overt intentions of the photographer and his world view. Conversely Merillon worked in the moment, a chance encounter leading to his iconic image. Despite different approaches there is, perhaps, a shared motive - as stated by Sontag, “The hunt for more dramatic (as they're often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value” (Sontag, 2003, p19).

The images serve multiple purposes: They are beautiful to look at and have therefore received prizes or become objects of art, they represent the coming together of the photographer’s vision, opportunity, and the viewers’ desire to access information about a world beyond their own boundaries. They are symbolic of the effect of conflict from both a female and male perspective: Women grieve for their dead sons and husbands, whilst the men enjoy the spoils of war, or indeed are responsible for war in the first place; in this way the texts are a powerful indictment of the nature of war.

By asserting the function of their images as photojournalism Salgado and Merillon must acknowledge the commercial imperative of such work, and in doing so must aim to produce work which is suitable for the medium, i.e. saleable, the images must shock, entertain or in some way illicit the attention of the consumer. Salgado’s stated aims are rich with the language of Marxism, however the final destination of Salgado’s work (the coffee table book, the gallery) is incongruous with the ideology, Workers treads a fine line between celebration and exploitation of the post industrial worker. It seems clear that the progression of his work from camera to high culture was calculated, perhaps inevitable and that his photojournalistic intentions cannot surface under the weight of his polemic approach. Conversely Merillon sought and delivered a ‘news’ photo that depicted a scene of universal suffering which strikes an immediate chord in the viewer; it is difficult to imagine a more raw photograph and its immediacy lends credence to the veracity of the image.

Photojournalism exists in a complex space with conflicting aspects of truth, aesthetics,  meaning and saleability, it is apparent that despite the different approaches and motives both works are able to exist in the space of art and photojournalism. The images carry rich symbolism and have powerful connotations addressing themes that are immediately recognisable by the viewer, this ability to seek out and identify the humanistic traits of a story and capture a representative image is the principle skill of the photojournalist.

Biography

Convert, P - Pietà du Kosovo (no date) [Internet] Available from: http://www.pascalconvert.fr/histoire/pieta_du_kosovo/pieta_du_kosovo.html. [Accessed 25 February 2013].

Glancey, J (1993) Workers, warriors, heros: Sebastiao Salgado's 'Workers', now on show in London, is an epic account of the world of manual labour. But what does it tell us? [Internet] Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/workers-warriors-heros-sebastiao-salgados-workers-now-on-show-in-london-is-an-epic-account-of-the-world-of-manual-labour-but-what-does-it-tell-us-1467573.html [Accessed 23 February 2013]

Koch, R (2009). Photo Box. 1st ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Merillon, G (no date), Biography [Internet] Available from: http://www.georgesmerillon.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=27&Itemid=30 [Accessed 23 February 2013]

guardian.co.uk, Biography: Sebastião Salgado (2004) [Internet] Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/sep/11/sebastiaosalgado.photography2. [Accessed 01 April 2013].

Rosler, M (1992). In, Around, And Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) in: Burton, R The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. 6th Edition. The MIT Press, pp303-342

Sontag, S (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador.