Documents of conflict and suffering – Houghton and Kaplan

In the next exercise we are directed to read two separate articles, one by Jonathan Kaplan the other by Max Houghton.

Jonathan Kaplan
Jonathan Kaplan is a battlefield surgeon who is also a journalist, speaker and documentary film-maker. His first book The Dressing Station introduced his work as an air ambulance doctor, battlefield surgeon and ship’s medical officer.He has written two books on his varied experiences: The Dressing Station, won both the Alan Paton Award and the SA Bookseller’s Award. Contact Wounds, ‘describes his attempt to find his place in a world in a time of instability and war, and the way in which his qualifications in trauma and uncertainty have made him a specialist in this century’s changed requirements.’Max Houghton
Max Houghton has been writing on, for, with and about photographs since 2001, specialising in contemporary documentary photography. She secured her first book contract with Thames and Hudson for Firecrackers: Women in Photography. A senior lecturer in photography at London College of Communication Max is a qualified journalist writing for The Guardian amongst others.  First writing about photographs of the effects of Agent Orange in 2001 for foto.com, she eventually became its feature editor and then editor. Her articles are regularly published in FOAM, The Telegraph, Black and White Photography, New Humanist, BJP, LifeForce, BBC, AxisWeb and Photoworks.

Exercise

Read the articles ‘ Walk the Line’ by Max Houghton ( Foto8, issue 23,pp.143-4) and ‘Imaging War’ by Jonathan Kaplan ( Foto8 ,issue 23,pp.142-3)

Core resources Foto8#23_Kaplan&Houghton.pdf

Write down your reactions to the authors’ arguments.

Imaging War by Jonathan Kaplan

When you work a heck of a lot in the English department you can’t just read an article without noticing how it is written and why – contemplating who the audience is, the English Language techniques employed as well as the structure of the piece. I teach students how to minutely dissect non-fiction articles and to look for features of speech within writing. Most newspaper articles are written to inform, possibly entertain and like most persuasive texts use AFOREST. A Anecdotes F Facts O Opinion R Repetition / Rhetorical questions E Emotive language S Statistics T Triples. When considering my response to Jonathan Kaplan’s arguments I couldn’t help but apply this analysis to how he was putting his points across, as much as what he was saying. And I must say he is a consummate writer, every technique is there combined with a semantic field of horrific vocabulary and then a slice of humour to lighten the tone, as he describes how celebrities can potentially watch a ‘voyage up their own arsehole’, before delving back into the serious tone of the article.

But that’s the how…now onto that serious content…

Kaplan’s opening paragraph advises us how a doctor becomes a surgeon through hours of training and skills, which are part learned and part intuitive. This is the first idea that we can also link to photography: the need to be both physically present and directly involved, and it helps to know your subject intimately in order to do the job well.

Rather than initially discussing the images he takes Kaplan introduces us to the ‘Wound Man’

The earliest known versions of the Wound Man appeared at the turn of the fifteenth century in books on the surgical craft, particularly works from southern Germany associated with the renowned Würzburg surgeon Ortolf von Baierland (died before 1339). Accompanying a text known as the “Wundarznei” (The Surgery), these first Wound Men effectively functioned as a human table of contents for the cures contained within the relevant treatise.

This was later updated to include battle wounds and has been updated constantly over time.

The constant invocation of the Wound Man in surgical treatises for over 300 years shows the capacity of this image to bring the reader into the gruesome yet serious space of the surgical professional. But it also speaks to the ability of the Wound Man to capture the attention of any reader who stumbled across him, even today’s most modern viewers: as his recent reappearance in the NBC TV series Hannibal suggests, the morbid wonder he encapsulates still holds true for viewers today, a medieval image catapulted across time into the twenty-first century.

This ‘morbid wonder’ is still with us, as readily shown by websites such as Rotten.com  and by Kaplan’s acknowledgement of editors requesting photographs depicting ‘surgical gore,’ which he regards as ‘medical pornography’ and ‘forensic prurience’, with people gaining lascivious pleasure from them. Although he holds back on the visual gore, Kaplan has no such problems with his written descriptions as he gives graphic details of battlefield injuries caused by bullets, shells and ‘flying pieces of other men.’ Graphic, but I feel necessary to the narrative to ensure people understand the horrors of reality, that war isn’t made anodyne and sanitized . Do we need the images to back him up? I think our own imaginations occasionally do a better (or worse) job.

Photographing his surgeries in B&W for instructional purposes, there is a distinct difference between taking them to educate or for editorial use. Even with these images being factual and not sensationalised, an editor of a book about landmines decided they were too graphic and would detract from the overall message of the publication. Compassion fatigue occurs in certain circumstances where people switch off. The same can happen with gruesome images; people don’t want to see these types of images and close a book or flick a channel.

Kaplan ends his piece with a statement that could also be a question, and one that needs to be addressed, what kind of images of the human body are considered suitable for publication?

Walk the Line by Max Houghton

Whereas Kaplan ends on a question of ethics Houghton opens with a similar point: ‘which images are fit for publication on the grounds of taste?’

As a co-editor this is a dilemma she faces on a regular basis. However, ethics seem to be on a sliding scale dependent on the audience, the examples Houghton gives are that ‘dead American soldiers are a no-no for the US press’ whilst dead enemy combatants, even Saddam Hussein’s sons are fair game. However, Houghton like Kaplan, likes to use dramatic language describing them as ‘decapitated.’ Although they were definitely not pretty to look at, with thick lips, cranial and facial wounds, their heads were still firmly attached to their bodies. Not that that made them any less dead or exploited, but in the interest of factual reporting and the embellishment by the press, I thought I’d point out that photographers aren’t the only ones who could be accused of being creative…this happens often enough for Susan Sontag to point out ‘the quality of feeling , including moral outrage , that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed , the exploited , the starving , and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images’ (Sontag. 1979, pg 19)

So important is this question of ethics that there are talks and conferences, for example one entitled, ‘Picturing Atrocity:Reading Photographs in Crisis’ where academics got together to discuss amongst other things, how we sometimes don’t take into consideration the feelings of the families concerned. How long did it take for them to come up with that startling revelation?

Giving examples Houghton cites The Falling Man and  Luc Delahaye’s Dead Taliban Soldier. However, after researching further, the identity of the falling man has never really been established and although I have no idea if the Taliban soldier ever was, he was so clearly depicted that any family or friends would be left in no doubt. Both men died due to acts of violence yet I find it quite obscene that the latter is described in more artistic terms and sympathy has only been expressed for the former. Maybe the background stories matter? One was an innocent man who went to work and never came back, another was a fighter and knew the consequences of his life choices, both have families whose feelings need to be taken into account. Again it is the same argument, does the ‘greater good’ the ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?’ What did any of us gain from either of these images that words could not have conveyed?

Dressed in a khaki uniform, without boots, the corpse has a grace that almost seems posed. The photograph itself looks like it might have been taken by someone floating high above in a balloon. All time seems to have stopped.

Houghton then uses an image by George Phicipas, of a mother bleeding to death in front of her young child after ethnic fighting in Kenya, to demonstrate differing opinions and uses of image. Originally published in black and white by the Daily Telegraph, it was then re-used by The Observer, in full colour, after one of their journalists traced her identity. The photograph was never published in Kenya, with the argument being that it would more than likely inflame already high passions and  further fuel the violence. Great, we got told a story, so we can shake our heads and maybe say ‘there but for the grace of god go I.’ We found out who the victim was but should we be making money from these unfortunate circumstances? Did the exposé stop the fighting? Did we learn anything of value apart from making a dead body become a dead person? Did the paper help her husband Jeremiah find justice?

Maiuashia’s insistence on a post-mortem examination provides a get-out for any police investigation and an agony for Jeremiah. The hospital will only perform an autopsy if Jeremiah pays and will not release Grace’s body without one. He has been quoted 5,000 Kenyan shillings, about £40 -Jeremiah is a night watchman and does not have that kind of money. On Thursday, he had to give mortuary officials a bribe of 2,000 shillings to move her from the stacks of white bags in the hot storeroom into a space in one of the four refrigerated units. With 36 as yet unclaimed corpses here, relatives in a similar position to Jeremiah are coming in each day, and as money changes hands so bodies switch positions as everyone desperately tries to preserve the remains of their loved ones to buy time to raise cash for post mortems and funerals.

The piece concludes with the alleged use of people with Downs Syndrome, by Al-Qaeda, as suicide bombers. The resulting images did not prove anything, and most were ‘severed heads’. These were not published, and I’d like to think that even if the facial features had proved the allegations, that these would not have been shown, ever.  This would have been exploitation of innocent, vulnerable people in both life and death. I strongly believe that the media need to maintain a moral code when making their editorial decisions, and we as an audience/photographer, need to exercise the same constraint when taking, viewing and sharing images. Even to boycotting certain publications… apparently Liverpool and Manchester have called to boycott the Sun, not due to images but for poor reporting.

Both articles are about journalists using their own moral judgments; although Kaplan seems to take a stance Houghton appears more to give examples and quotes from others, but is never really clear on her position over the examples given.

Moral judgement works up to a certain point, how many of these decisions are profit related who can say, but it is probably a higher priority in some cases. A point also raised in the article is the growing use of social media and despite the press choosing to not display certain images there is very little control over Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses.

There will always be someone who wants to ‘be first’ have the goriest image out there. Sometimes it is just plain stupidity. Otherwise why on earth would the American security services publish sensitive photographs of the Manchester bombing?

Having read both articles and considered deeply my own invisible line, I think my moral compass points in the right direction, although I’ll probably take into consideration more the feelings of the potential audience, especially with the project I am considering for Assignment 3. (yups I wrote this post before completing the assignment for the last section as weather wasn’t being kind to me for outside shoots!)

References

Sontag ,S.(1979) “On Photography”  Penguin Books , London ,England.

Imaging war – Jonathan Kaplan, Walk the line – Max Houghton  http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/Foto823_KaplanHoughton.pdf. [Accessed 24/05/2017]

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jul/24/iraq.usa2. [Accessed 24/05/2017]

http://siasaduni.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/dead-woman-of-naivasha-and-her-crying.html. [Accessed 24/05/2017]

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/feb/10/kenya. [Accessed 24/05/2017]

https://jonathankaplansurgeon.com/ [Accessed 24/05/2017]

http://www.photographyresearchcentre.co.uk/who-we-are/members/max-houghton [Accessed 24/05/2017]

https://publicdomainreview.org/2016/12/07/the-many-lives-of-the-medieval-wound-man/  [Accessed 24/05/2017]

http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/sullivan/sullivan4-10-03.asp [25/05/2017]

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/09/luc-delahaye-war-photography-art [25/05/2017]

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