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The art of photojournalism

Over the past 10 years, photojournalists have increasingly captured the attention of the art world as their powerfully affecting images cross over from news agencies to gallery and museum walls. Pernilla Holmes reports

April 05 2014
Pernilla Holmes

The sun beats in through the window to where elderly men are sitting on the floor, their faces lined with deep looks of mistrust and uncertainty as a slightly younger man reads from a note in his hand. The lighting recalls a touch of Dutch Old Master paintings – the textures richly hued – and the general narratives are layered. The image could have come from any time in history, but for the giveaway photo of Afghanistan’s current president, Hamid Karzai, leaning against the wall. Apparently, there hasn’t been time to hang it yet.

“This may have been one of the last pictures I took in Afghanistan after nine years of regularly going there,” says renowned photojournalist Moises Saman, who frequently works in the world’s harshest conflict zones and whose pictures appear in such publications as Time magazine and The New Yorker. “It was in Helmand Province, 2010, in a small village that had been liberated from the Taliban just a few days before. This was the first time the elders were meeting with the new government-installed chief.” Pressed a little on how he intended it to read, he ventures, “It represents the circle of nothing getting done. Leaders change, come and go, but the local people are still suffering.” Such images, with their beauty, universality and distinctive auteur-like qualities – even those with very disturbing subjects – represent the increasingly fine line between art and photojournalism.

Photojournalists have long had a romantic mystique about them, and with good reason. Risking one’s life to capture images that reveal what is happening behind the headlines is extraordinary. These days, however, as Pieter Hugo, Zanele Muholi, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky and others create artworks in documentary-photography formats and photography is widely accepted as a valid artistic medium, certain photojournalists are also increasingly capturing the attention of the art world. In fact, the word “photojournalist” is out of vogue, giving way to the wider umbrella term “documentary photographer”, which crosses over into both spheres.

In November, Tate Modern will mount a show called Conflict, Time, Photography, featuring works by Stephen Shore and other “artist” photographers alongside such renowned photojournalists as Don McCullin, Simon Norfolk (King Amanullah’s 1919 Victory Arch at Paghman) and Jim Goldberg (Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008). Meanwhile, War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath recently finished a tour of US museums, including Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It featured shots by some 255 photographers, “any one of which would be something we would have in the museum’s collection”, says Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the exhibition originated.

Last autumn, Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool held an exhibition of works by the late Tim Hetherington, who was killed alongside fellow photographer Chris Hondros during a mortar attack in Misrata, Libya, three years ago at the age of 40. Hetherington’s images also feature in contemporary art collections such as that of Miami-based billionaire Martin Margulies. Commercial galleries such as Yossi Milo in New York and Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris mount shows and sell works by crossover artists such as Hetherington or Luc Delahaye respectively.

“I don’t really draw distinctions about what’s art,” says Margulies, who exhibits leading contemporary artists in his warehouse conversion in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District (The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse) and whose collection also includes works by such well‑known photographer/artists as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Jeff Wall. “I look at Tim’s work for its wonderful aesthetic and the stories it tells. I saw his photos in a magazine, tracked him down, called him up and asked what his goals were and then if I could buy some work. He said yes, and I bought 10 pictures he had taken in west Africa.” Yossi Milo Gallery confirms that the works (from about $5,000) sell well to art and specialist-photography collectors alike.

Hetherington’s best-known images featured in the Open Eye Gallery show You Never See Them Like This, taken during his long‑term project to document the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, which also resulted in the Oscar-nominated film Restrepo, co-directed with Sebastian Junger. They spent two months with the soldiers, doing all the things they did in times of both boredom and combat, earning camaraderie and respect that enabled Hetherington to take remarkably intimate photos. The title is a quote from Hetherington, as he described seeing sleeping soldiers. “They look innocent and vulnerable – like a 19-year-old might look sleeping in his own bedroom,” says exhibition curator Lorenzo Fusi. “It’s very different from the strength and power the military normally tries to convey. These images talk across borders and beyond their specific contexts to larger ideas of masculinity, humanity and what it means when we send young men to war.” Hetherington himself, who also made video installations about the soldiers, said in an interview before he died that these depictions were important to him because “often soldiers and symbols or representations of soldiers are claimed by the far left or far right to mean a certain thing, and we do these young men an injustice in not digesting fully their reality”.

Trying to distinguish between art and documentary photography quickly leads to a murky series of vague distinctions and then their many exceptions, and is somehow always unsatisfying – partly because these images are often so powerful and affecting that whether one adds the label of art or not seems almost petty. However, broadly speaking, and unlike most artists, documentary photographers strive to be objective recorders of real events and don’t meddle with their pictures. And usually they are working on assignment (though the same could be said about the greatest Renaissance masters, for example). Yet within those parameters, photographers such as Hetherington, Saman, Alex Majoli, Simon Norfolk and many others, including doyens of the field such as Robert Capa and Don McCullin, develop their own aesthetic and ways of telling the stories in front of them – which is why editors and viewers, and now art curators, regard them so highly.

Tate Modern’s curator of photography, Simon Baker, homes in on the difference between trying to capture something as it happens, which is frequently what we find in newspapers, and the more reflective images taken after an event, which will be the focus of the gallery’s upcoming show, suggesting a relationship with the photographer’s intention at the time of taking the image. “Photojournalists are paid for what they do and work to tell a story. Removing images from that context and putting them in a museum can be controversial. But the boundary has always been much closer and more porous than people think.” Open Eye Gallery’s Fusi – who, having been international curator of the 2010 and 2012 Liverpool Biennials, is known for working with cutting-edge contemporary artists – declares, “There’s a famous saying that goes something like, ‘If an image doesn’t need a caption to be understood, then it’s art’. That works for me; it’s about a work’s universality.”

“There has always been a tremendous crossover,” says Sophie Wright, cultural and print-room director at Magnum Photos (fine photographic prints start from about £1,000), an agency started in 1947 by such seminal figures as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson that represents many of the world’s leading photographers. “Cartier-Bresson, for example, was as much a surrealist as a documentary photographer. But there’s no question that over the past 10 years we’ve seen a huge upswing in the number of photos being purchased by art collectors, especially in economically emerging areas such as Brazil, the Gulf, China and Hong Kong.” In response, Magnum has formed an international Collectors’ Circle, providing a way for them to collaborate creatively. This also offers an exclusive list of top collectors’ first choice of Magnum photographers’ images and a selection of talks and other events to help broaden their knowledge and networks.

Among those whose work is being collected – and exhibited in museum shows – is Italian documentary photographer Paolo Pellegrin, winner of numerous high‑profile photography awards, whose work (from $3,500) often has film noir-ish tendencies, with evocative architectural framing and reflections. “I was always interested in humanistic photography,” he says. “There are many highly charged moments, but it was never about that pursuit for me. This kind of photography has a strong relationship with history, and this was a way for me to observe history myself with a purpose.”

Among his well-known images is one taken in Tyre during the Israeli/Lebanese conflict of 2006, as Lebanese civilians fled from the bombardment in the south, showing a mother and daughter looking out of a car window. The girl’s expression, a mix of fear and grit, is framed by the car and the trees from the world outside reflected in the window. “The car stopped for a moment and I got this shot,” he recalls, noting that he often takes many, many photos to get his best ones. “It’s the kind of photograph that most interests me, in that of course it’s about what happened that day, but also it speaks about a condition in general – what it is to be forced to leave your home. Photography has this capacity both to be precise and to contain an echo of something larger, where life penetrates the camera.” There are times, however, when subject overwhelms style. Pellegrin’s photos of the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan depart almost entirely, aesthetically, from his other wide-ranging series.

Well-known to the contemporary artworld is Luc Delahaye, who started out working for magazines such as Newsweek, before making a shift to a highly detailed large-format camera when taking his images, making large-format prints and showing mainly in galleries. He still goes to the same kind of dangerous locations, but there is something about the high-definition and exquisite colour achieved that lends works such as Ambush, Ramadi, 22 July 2006 a frieze-like timelessness, something like a distillation of the moment captured. His image of the Security Council, 2003, shot at an angle from above, Baker describes as “looking strangely like a last supper while also giving an incredibly dynamic sense of space and things happening”.

Though not always, the mainstay of documentary photographs is devastation and the suffering of others – whether directly or indirectly, intimate or widespread – and for some the arguably voyeuristic fascination this holds for viewers carries with it ethical concerns, especially when taken out of context. “It’s such a grey area,” says Saman, author of the image of the elders in Afghanistan, whose other workplaces have included Syria, Kosovo, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, El Salvador and Iraq – where in 2003 he went missing for eight days, having been thrown into Abu Graib prison in the last days of Saddam Hussein. Saman has had numerous gallery shows and books made of his work, and his recent images of Cairo, from fighting, dead or dying protestors to boys playing football on the street at night in defiance of state-imposed curfews to the metal frames of chairs left over in a burnt-out Christian church, are some of his most beautiful and difficult. “I have no problem displaying my work in a gallery if it raises awareness among a different audience, and I judge no one, but personally I’d have issues with selling it for a lot of money. I’d have to give it to an NGO or something. To me, the work is primarily about raising awareness; it can feel a little distasteful when it then comes to sales. I never call myself an artist.”

Tucker, who included Saman and Pellegrin works in the touring War/Photography show, dismisses the idea that the shift in context from newspaper to museum is problematic. “We’re showing very tough but also beautiful images – like the Kenneth Jarecke image of an incinerated Iraqi,” she says, referring to a 1991 photo of a dead soldier, charred and slumped over in the cab of his truck, with a harrowing expression still evident on his face. AP initially regarded it as too disturbing to print, but The Observer did run it, and it later became one of the most famous images of the first Gulf War. “The colours of the work are beautiful, and there’s an undeniable push/pull attraction that you can’t help but feel,” says Tucker, drawing comparisons with the effect of looking at Rubens’s The Rape of the Sabine Women or Benjamin West’s battle scenes. “These kinds of works pose important questions and make us address them on a human level. One lady came and stood in front of the Jarecke for a long time and said ‘Americans did not do that.’ Yes they did, and these works challenge us to understand that and many other complexities.”

As much as these works allow space for contemplation of events, humanity and stories for viewers, it’s hard not to wonder about the state of mind of the photographer who witnessed these and much worse scenes that don’t get published precisely because they are too upsetting. “How I respond, and what motivates me to do it, is very different now from when I was starting out at 23,” says Saman. “It doesn’t get easier. You don’t harden to what you’re seeing and the ‘what if something goes wrong’ factor weighs heavier as time passes and that statistical probability goes up. But so does the sense of commitment. By now I almost feel a responsibility to tell these stories.”

Pellegrin says if anything he feels more sensitive as time passes. “Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘I don’t want to take this picture.’ It’s the sound of your moral and ethical being, which is ever changing. I love what I do, or at least can’t imagine doing anything else. But these days, every time I get all my equipment together to go, I wonder if it will be the last.”

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Photography