South Bronx - David Gonzalez

I love the south Bronx - a fascinating place with many wonderful people and a remarkable history. I always like it when I get the opportunity to visit and work in the area. The talented David Gonzalez has a bunch of photographs from around 1979 in a slideshow on the NY Times Website today. Well worth a look and also a listen.


This week I have been teaching. It has been fairly intense and I have learned (relearned?) two important lessons:

1 - I have a vast amount of knowledge.
2 - Still I know nothing,

Police Powers

Much has been made of the new terrorism laws in the UK and their use in preventing photojournalists and even tourists from taking photographs, so it's a breath of fresh air to read this notice being circulated. If you plan to take photographs in the UK, it might be a good idea to carry a copy of this notice around with you. Importantly it states that the police have no power to delete images or destroy film and have no power to prevent you from taking pictures unless they suspect you of being a terrorist. Of course, they police are often a suspicious bunch by nature, but at least they have some official definitions of a terrorist and this notice will help you defend your position as a tourist/journalist/artist/not a terrorist...

Much respect goes out to the British Journal of Photography and the NUJ for championing photographers rights in this regard. Good work, keep it up.

Healthcare Reform

This isn't completely photography related, but it is an issue I care a lot about. Having moved to the U.S. from the U.K. I can attest to both the positive and negative aspects of both Public and Private health care. One thing I do strongly believe however is that basic health care coverage of a good standard should be a right and not a privilege. Call me a socialist terrorist if you like but it is something these people don't appear to understand.

image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. caption: Protestors hold signs during an anti-health care reform rally August 14, 2009 in San Francisco, California (via BAGnewsNotes)

I cannot honestly see what the objection is to the proposed health care reforms in the U.S. Most objections I have heard are absurd both in tone and content and appear to be more bigoted uninformed posturing than actual serious offerings to the debate.

This past weekend I read (in the NY Times - so obviously it would be instantly dismissed by anyone on the right as the propaganda of the liberal east coast elites) two incredibly sensible articles that - without going into depth on the details of the reform - neatly laid out the case for why reform is necessary.

One was by Sarah Lyall, an American writer living in Britain. One was by Barack Obama himself. As an aside, though I regard Obama as a conservative rather than a socialist, it is a pleasure to have an American President who can actually convey issues in an erudite and intelligent manner. A giant leap in the right direction shall we say...

Slightly Out Of Focus

If you're in the market for some vintage magazines, I just came across Slightly Out of Focus, an online store stocking such fare. Get to see some great photos the like of which would never probably never have published if taken now because they might offend people's sensibilities or some such bullshit.

A word from the wise

'The real horror, to me, lies in the fact that there is absolutely no vehicle in American journalism for the kind of "sensitive" and "intellectual" and essentially moral/merciless reporting that we all understand is necessary - not only for the survival of good journalism in this country, but also for the dying idea that you can walk up to a newsstand (or a mag-rack in Missoula) and find something that will tell you what's really happening ... or at least what a certain group of editors honestly believe is happening, based on whatever mix of truth & facts & madness they've managed to rip out of the mire.

What is happening all around us (or at least around me - and I travel a lot) is a sort of tandem nightmare in which there are fewer and fewer examples of the kind of journalism you say is necessary... and meanwhile more and more people are using that scarcity as an excuse or maybe even a good reason to turn their backs (or heads) on journalism entirely. The people I deal with most often - for good or ill- simply don't relate to newspapers & magazines. They might scan a daily paper for something specific - something they're looking for - but the idea of reading the daily paper for news or general information, as I do, simply doesn't occur to them. A lot of them read the paper, but it's more for amusement than wisdom.'

Hunter S Thompson, in a letter to Tom Wicker, New York Times Washington Bereau Chief. June 18th, 1971.

One man and his gun

Truly, honestly, can someone please explain to me why healthcare reform is prompting people to compare the Obama administration to Hitler and Nazi Germany, or why this guy feels the need to turn up to a rally with a 9mm and a placard referencing a quote that overtly threatens murder and is used (actually misused) by a far right white supremacist group? It appears that in the land of the free the right to threaten murder is more important than the right to preserve life.

By the way, seeing as some commentaters have brought up the issue of political statments involving firearms and the right to bear them, we're not talking personal defense or even civil rights here. No one is threatening this guy's life or liberty. When armed militants marched on Washington in the 60's under the banner of The Black Panther party that was a political statement. They were literally fighting for their rights to be recognised as equal to their fellow citizans.
Some perspective on the issue is required; this is a debate on healthcare goddamn it!

Please take this man's gun away from him before he shoots a president, or a kid picks it up and shoots another kid, or anyone gets shot in fact. Unneccesary in the extreme. Even Britian's Daily Mail newspaper - not known for it's liberal and tolerant slant - found the story to be incredible. Check out this, if you want to hear the man speak.

William Kostric wears a 9mm pistol as he stands outside
a town hall meeting on health care held by Barack Obama.
Photograph © Joel Page/AP

Talk to The Times: One in 8 Million

The 'One in 8 Million' Series in the New York Times is a great example of how to do the audio slideshow well. (I will do my damndest to avoid calling it multimedia for as long as I can!)

Now the newsroom staff have gone online to answer questions about the series, which is worth a read for several reasons. Here are a few of them;

1 - To see how many skilled people are actually involved in the production of these pieces. The myth being pushed in many journalism circles these days is that as a lone journalist struggling to survive in this industry you have to go out into the field with four still cameras, two video cameras, a host of microphones and audio recorders, three cameras with HD video capability and a notebook for good measure, and that you have to take the pictures, record the audio and shoot the video all at once and edit it before bedtime. Not true in this case. It takes a whole team amd a long time. As it should.

2 - Stories are difficult to do. Possibly my favourite quote "We're perpetually trying to break into neighborhoods and ethnic communities that are less visible, less predictable, less familiar — but it's hard."

3 - There is lots of people doing this, and doing it well. Not only are there a wealth of people's stories, told through these slideshows, but this kind of series is not unique to the Times. Check this one from Brazil for example. (Could someone with knowledge of Portuguese translate for me please!)

4 - Multimedia (oops) might well be the future.

5 - Then again....

Liz Lock and Mishka Henner

A couple of weeks ago I was taking with a couple of people about social deprivation and was using the word 'estate' to describe places where there is often an abundance of this situation. The Americans I was talking with began to look very confused until I realised that 'Estate' means something very different in the US than it does in the UK. In the US the word still refers to a piece of land owned and managed by persons of wealth, whereas in the UK it has become synonymous with public housing built after WWII and often neglected thereafter - similar to what in the US is often referred to as 'The Projects'.

Via the always worthwhile Duckrabbit I came across the work of Liz Lock and Mishka Henner. They are director and chairman of the excellent Redeye organisation but I hadn't seen their own photography before. Much of their work deals with the people and places of the post industrial north - specifically Manchester and the surrounding areas. I grew up in a town not far from here and the photographs represent an environment I am very familiar with and as such they have a particular resonance for me. Check out their website.

Amy and Nicola, from the series 'Hinterland'

from the series 'Borderland'

On Edgar Martins, Or, Thus Puked Zarathustra

You know I really tried to stay out of this debate surrounding Edgar Martins apparent digital manipulations but yesterday I had a brief conversation with a colleague on the importance of ethics in relation to a journalism class I am going to be teaching. Then I got sent a link to the NY Times lens blog which has in turn a link to Martins' reply to the whole debacle.

I read this and the bile rose. The guy is incapable of admitting his deception (and let's be clear - it was a deception) and apologizing.

I'll try and ignore the insane amount of pretentious waffle as it's really not worth the effort to examine. Suffice it to say that it reads like a bad piece of undergraduate art theory (ie very bad indeed) and is probably only there to confuse people into thinking that he is actually really intelligent. The phrase 'Your Jedi mind tricks will not work on me boy' springs to mind.

Anyway, let's start with this little quote:

It is my view that there was a clear misunderstanding concerning the values and rights associated to the creative process, which made a renown publication such as The New York Times Magazine commission an artist such as myself to depict a very specific view of reality without taking the necessary measures to ensure that I was aware of its journalistic limits. On the other hand I did not see these as a valid boundary. It is quite plausible that two parties might start on an assumption that there are no-misunderstandings.
I did not present the work as something it wasn't nor did I obscure or conceal the relevant constructions and originals.

Ok. There are so many holes here I don't know where to begin. Perhaps I should point out that the NY Times contract is very specific in that '...all Work submitted to The Times and that the Work will be original and unaltered.'

That is a direct quote. Now there is an unwritten agreement that some colour correction, toning and dodging/burning is allowed but any competent photographer knows the limits here. Cloning, mirroring, digitally adding or removing elements is not allowed. Pretty much everyone knows that - even non professionals, so the little misunderstanding Martins refers to is surely on his part only. In fact his statement that he did not see these journalistic limits as a valid boundary (his words) tells me that he is well aware of these guidelines and deliberately chose to ignore them.

That would suggest a deliberate breach of contract to me. If I were on the Times editorial staff I would be spitting fire at what is basically an accusation that they weren't clear with him on their ethical guidelines.

Skipping over some more bullshit on meta photography and the representations of the real, we come to the line that

Photojournalism has never felt the need to challenge or contravene certain rules, aesthetic or ethical.

I'm sorry but this blatantly isn't the case. Photojournalism has struggled with aesthetic and ethical dilemmas since the beginning. There are books and articles galore on the subject. Put down the art theory book for a minute and go to another section of the library.

Then we have

In a society where visual communication prevails, the transparency of the camera promotes unattainable expectations. As Peggy J. Bowers rightly observes, this does a disservice to the public. ‘And it contributes to a voyeuristic culture who use and view images carelessly and gratuitously.’ 5
It is my view that this attitude towards Photography also does a disservice to Journalism.

What 'the transparency of the camera' is supposed to mean I have no idea - it is one of those phrases that sounds fine but actually means nothing. However the quote he references about carelessly and gratuitously using images is one he should perhaps pay more attention to himself. His own sentence following that is one I would fire straight back at him.

And moving swiftly on through a whole load of nonsense about symmetry and fire we come to

Discussions about process are all but irrelevant in today’s world.

Um.... No they are not.

And then;

I see Photography as a complex medium that concerns wide latitude of processes and mechanisms.
I, for one, am happy that my images will once again be viewed with a degree of ‘skepticism’. Perhaps now the focus may shift from ‘how’ to ‘why’ (...eventually anyway…).

I too see photography as a complex medium, however Mr Martins, we are asking you the questions how and why already. I am not only skeptical about your images but about your whole damn attitude.

Near the end of this little regurgitation of half baked philosophy and vague responses we come to this:

I recognize that when the contract between author/newspaper/reader is broken it negates the newspaper’s raison d’être and alienates its public.
Regardless of whether our starting points may have differed, regardless of whether I may or may not have embarked on this project with intentions to produce a completely factual approach, regardless of what my decision making process may have been throughout the production and post-production phases of this work, regardless of whether I may have been the right person for the job, the question which I believe to be most relevant to ask is this: in the same way as journalists derive their authority from a binding relationship to truth, would it have been possible for an artist, such as myself, to render his views obsolete and tackle this project in any other way than its present form?
I suspect that, if I had done this, I would surely have misrepresented my work, moreover the viewer.
I fully understand the need to protect journalism and its ethics.

Well, quite frankly I don't believe Mr Edgar Martins does fully understand the need to protect journalism and it's ethics, and if he did realise that when the 'contract between author/newspaper/reader is broken it negates the newspaper’s raison d’être and alienates its public' then perhaps he would have not given a damn about his own personal work and it's misrepresentation (whatever that is) and done the job he was hired for, which he clearly understands but chose to ignore.

Let me outline the main problem here. I understand that photography's claim to truth is a tenuous one and the subject of much debate, but there is a certain limit within which we can trust photography to represent the world we share albeit one that changes constantly with each single photograph - what I choose to omit from the frame, when I choose to press the shutter, where I choose to position myself etc all are a manipulation that lead to a constructed view of reality.

However, as a journalist it is my duty and responsibility to represent reality in a way that provides a certain truth in that the viewer has to trust that it is an accurate representation of a situation and an event. This relationship between photographer and viewer in regards to that exact level of trust is fraught enough with potential misunderstanding and misrepresentation without me going in and manipulating the image with such blatant fraud as cloning, removing and adding elements and mirroring. Isn't it enough that fashion and advertising and the celebrity and lifestyle magazines erode our understanding of photographic representation with their constant alterations and manipulations of the 'real'. Isn't it enough that they are doing untold damage to this relationship of trust between the journalistic photographer and the viewer? Do we really need an artist such as Edgar Martins to come along and do a documentary assignment, manipulate the images to the point where they are essentially lies and then tell us it is his intention to open up a debate about the very nature of photographic representation of reality? The debate has been raging for a hundred and fifty years and this adds nothing constructive to it

Seriously. I am insulted that he thinks this aspect of his work is more important than his contractual obligations and moreover his obligations to his viewer. Frankly it is this kind of self centered selfishness that all too many artists are guilty of and raises my heckles beyond belief.

My job as a photojournalist relies on trust. Trust with the viewer, trust with the subject and trust with my editor. I don't care if the subject is a dying human being, a celebrity with a huge PR machine or a building or a landscape. Trust is paramount. Without it, I cannot properly work. What I come away with will be at best woefully incomplete and at worst an outright lie.

So, in closing, I'd like to thank you Edgar Martins for further eroding that trust and making my job harder than it already is. Perhaps now you can go back to the gallery circuit and quote Nietzsche to a naive and doe eyed young art student at an opening over a glass of cheap wine. Some of us have real work to do.