Posts Tagged ‘Veracity’

War Photographer

In Ethics on August 12, 2011 at 4:04 AM

War Photographer

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From  an aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

 War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy  


Guns and Medicine – The Nuba Mountains

In Ethics, Photography News on April 8, 2011 at 10:39 PM

                                                                                           Photograph: Photographer Jack Picone in Sudan en route to the Nuba Mts.

Interview with Jack Picone

by Nanne Op’t Ende

(Interview extracts from Nanne’s book, Proud to be Nuba)

Jack Picone, born in Australia, based in Bangkok, is an internationally renowned documentary photographer and conducts The Jack Picone Photography workshops (see his website He made two trips to the Nuba Mountains, in 1994 and in 1996. In an interview he tells more about his experiences in the Nuba Mountains, about his own work and about the role of photographers in general.

JP: I became fascinated by the Nuba after seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s photos. My research led me to SPLA commander Yousif Kuwa Mekki and we struck a friendship. In 1994 he was ready to give me permission to go in to the Mountains, but he wanted me to take guns for him. We would have these clandestine meetings in Thorntree Hotel and he would be in his room with his armed guards and he kept saying ‘but you have chartered a big aeroplane (DC-3); I have given YOU access: why won’t you take the guns for ME?!’

After explaining to him that this was compromising and leaning just a little to the side of unethical for me as a photojournalist, I suggested to him that I could take medicine for his people… When he finally agreed I was relieved, and at the same time I was a little disappointed that my first chance as a gunrunner would not get off the ground. Several days later on the apron of the airport my plane was ready to go but no shipment of medicine had arrived. I was forced to fly without it.

NE: What did you expect to find when you went in?

JP: My expectations of what I might see were a mixture of images from the past (by Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger), and a more contemporary idea of what it would be like in 1994. I researched the area fairly thoroughly but it was still a ‘locked’ expanse of geography and had been for approximately fifteen years. There was a dearth of accurate information from inside the mountains.

In a story telling sense: the idea that a noble group of people living in a very remote region, which was a closed door to the rest of the world, fuelled my imagination. It gave me a powerful desire to go there; document their lives and tell their story. I so much wanted to see how their world had changed in the time that eclipsed since Riefenstahl and Rodger had been there.

George Rodger was in the Nuba Mountains in 1949; Leni Riefenstahl first came there in 1966. Both felt they were documenting a vanishing world. Did you have a similar feeling in 1994?

Absolutely. I knew things were changing at a hyperbolic rate in the Sudan and by extension the Nuba Mountains. And even though I would only be able to spend an insignificant amount of time there, it would be valuable in terms of making a visual record of things as they were at that precise time and as they actually changed. It can be arrogant to act as an ethnographer, but it is several generations later, when people are trying to remember what the actual cultural norms of a particular ethnic group were, that photographs with accurate text and captioning become an invaluable resource for the current and future generations. I call them visual footsteps.

NE: I appreciate the intimacy of your Nuba photos: you are close to the people and they are all right with that.

Your observation is correct: I was close to the people I photographed – as much as someone like me, from a completely different world and culture, could be. I took a lot of time with the people, and in general worked hard at getting a rapport with the elders of the tribe, and showing the appropriate respect. I enjoyed sitting down and talking to the people and hearing their stories. Mind you, some of it got lost going from English to Arabic to their tribal dialect, and back again!

I went very slowly with them. Each trip was for a month and on each trip I was ill. The first time with infections on my feet, so I could not walk and hence quite a few images are shot from a low angle. The Nuba made some wooden crutches for me to get around on. Some days they would just take me out and plop me down in the middle of the village, where I would shoot images of their daily routines.

On the second trip I contracted malaria, high up in the mountains, and I believe I almost died. I was delirious for a week and incredibly ill. I had all the right anti-malarial drugs but sadly none worked.

I did not have to pay anyone to take their photographs. Most of the images were just gentle, subtle scenes of the Nuba going about their daily 
life. The shots of the girls dancing, were made during a ritual rain dance.

What was really interesting was how Islamic the Nuba were in the lowlands. But the higher I trekked up the mountains the more, ‘original’ they became. The Tochjo were particularly unaffected by introduced religions and philosophies. They said that they had not seen a white man ever before. There were some funny scenes at first including the young girls with their elaborate tattoos who ran away screaming when they first saw me. When I enquired to the elders as to why? It transpired that they had said, ”where did you find him in the river?”, because to them, I had no pigment in my skin and the river had washed it a way.

Another interesting dynamic was that they had never seen a camera before. They were not frightened by me taking a picture; they just saw me putting this black box in front of my face, and could not understand why I would do this?

NE: You were fascinated by Riefenstahl’s photos of the Nuba. What do you make of her iconography in her relationship to her work as a film maker for Hitler?

JP: There are similarities between the two. Photography is very subjective, so it is open to individual interpretation, but in both bodies of work I feel that there is an iconographic style imposed by Riefenstahl. I don’t feel her pictures are reflective of the Nuba and their unique way of life. The images can be beautiful at times, but they are almost sculptural, and seem heavily romanticized in composition; turning the Nuba into an artwork, an object of curiosity.

The images to me are not intimate; I don’t see a personal connection between her and the Nuba; I don’t see this empathy, which is usually evident when a photographer has established a rapport with his/her subject. On both trips I had some confirmation of this from different older Nuba, who expressed an unhappiness about the way Riefenstahl had got them to do things over and over again, until it looked perfect in the lens. One elder said she had made the entire village go out and do a rain dance in the wrong season, because she would not be there at the time it was usually performed.

Photographers tend to be divided into two camps about this practice: those who don’t see an issue with – as Susan Sontag put it – ‘falsifying reality”, and those who consider it deeply unethical. I fall into the latter group.

Several years later Riefenstahl, after seeing my images published, sent me a letter inviting me to Germany, so I could meet her and tell her about my experience with the Nuba. I declined the invitation, much to the confusion of journalist friends of mine, who were saying it would be such a great chance to be in dialogue with the woman who it was suggested aws Hitler’s lover. I just felt uneasy of the prospect of being in the same orbit of an woman who was that close to Hitler… in retrospect it was probably a mistake not to go.

Nuba women return to the village of  Tochjo, Nuba Mountains Sudan.  © Photograph by Jack Picone

NE: In your brief accounts of your trips you mention seeing a lot of violence, wounded people, burnt huts etc. I have not seen many images capturing this reality; at least you haven’t selected any for your web galleries. Why?

JP: There are several reasons for this, but the one which was of greatest importance to me was that I really wanted to photograph the extraordinary culture of the Nuba, i.e. stick fighting, wrestling, body scarification, tribal dancing, music and animist practices. I knew these cultural practices were changing for a raft of reasons. One of the most obvious at the time, was that the Islamic Khartoum government found the culturally complex practices of the Nuba primitive and barbaric. They were on a fast track to Islamize them and modernize them. I wanted to see how far they had got with this policy, and record what the Nuba were still doing within this context of cultural practice, as a record for posterity – as idealistic and ambitious as that may sound.

The policies that the Khartoum government was imposing at the time, were implemented through intimidation: attacks by the Khartoum government soldiers; burning down of villages; raping women and sending men to ‘peace camps’. In my opinion it was tantamount to genocide.

On a pragmatic level: when I was trekking into the Nuba Mountains, we moved between the warring sides of the Khartoum government troops in the north and the SPLA forces mostly in the south. In a practical way, if we wanted to make it into the mountains we had to avoid the fighting in the lowlands. We achieved it, although at times we walked through villages that had been destroyed, and in darkness in the early hours of the morning we were forced to flee, when one village was riddled with gunfire.

The last reason there are few images of death and destruction, I am afraid, is a more personal and indulgent one. I had spent years covering war in different countries in former Yugoslavia, Africa, and Soviet Central Asia. I had seen too much death of local populations; friends I had worked with. I was very disillusioned, especially about African wars-were mostly things never got better. I would see corrupt dictatorships get toppled, and for a fleeting time there would be hope, but soon the previous sadistic dictator would be replaced by yet another corrupt dictator and the ordinary people would continue to suffer and perish.

I really wanted to photograph something positive about Africans and Africa. And even though the Nuba were in a hard place, I saw this amazing resilience and beauty in them. I wanted to photograph them that way, to illustrate their extraordinary ability to endure and strive to survive under such diabolical circumstances. In my opinion they have a unparalleled spirit of perseverance. In short I wanted to photograph hope – not very objective I am afraid but I believe in hope.

NE: In 1997 a German doctor, when asked what he thought of the situation in the Nuba, just said, “Goma was worse”. You have been to so many areas of conflict what did you think about the situation in the Nuba Mountains?

JP: ‘Goma was worse’: what does that mean? Every area of conflict is different, with its own inherent pathos; destruction; danger; political and social complexity. How does one measure which one is worse? Should I say: ‘when I was in Rwanda when the genocide was actually taking place: that that was worse then the attrition of what is happening in the Nuba Mountains?’ Is a short dramatic war with great human cost and suffering worse then a long forgotten insidious war as was taking place in Sudan?

It seems to me to be pornographic to make that comparison in the first place; it is almost suggesting it is a competition. In either situation, I would not like to hazard a guess. I just feel in either situation that on a micro level, the suffering and human loss for the ordinary person, especially for women and children, is immeasurable and is not quantifiable in human terms.

NE: You often document violence, death, poverty, disease…did you ever feel that you couldn’t take it anymore – that you had to quit?

JP: All the time… Photographers and journalists go to areas of war zones for a raft of reasons. When I first went to a war zone, it was because I had read too many novels about war. A book by the author Laurie Lee, was the final catalyst for me going; it was a true story about the Spanish civil war, called: ‘I walked out one mid summers morning’. The way he wrote about his experience seemed so essentially romantic in terms of adventure and experience.

A month later I was lying in a ditch high on a mountain in Armenia during the civil war, with a sniper on an opposing ridge doing his best to kill me. I remember being face down in a concave hole on the side of a mountain, listening to the sickening whirl of well placed high velocity bullets. I thought I was going to die any second but felt oddly calm. I escaped and felt invincible, and went on to cover that war and a further eight wars several times over. I had other near death experiences in far away places and lost friends and colleagues along the way.

I later developed a more passionate belief in wanting to document the cost of war; the innocents of war: women and children. This still remains important to me today; to keep telling their stories and giving them a voice, seems imperative. I don’t believe photographers or journalists can change or stop wars, but they can create awareness of the people caught up in wars. We still have the ability to remind society that these people are in distress and in need of help. People are fragile, human fragility concerns me.

It seems to me that your appreciation of human resilience is growing with the years. Is there some sort of turning point, a moment when people cease to be victims?

I think my appreciation of human resilience has always been there; it is probably just a little more evolved now then before. I have always been completely humbled by the way many people in unimaginable circumstances in conflict zones, show such extraordinary courage, stoicism, adoption and resilience. I often pondered that with my relatively privileged middle class background in tow, if I would be able to behave in such a dignified and comparable way? Sadly, the answer is quite clearly ‘no’. It takes a special courage and fortitude that I know I don’t have.

I think the turning point, where people stop being victims, is when, because of the extreme situation they are in, the only choice left is an instinct to survive. To be a victim in an extreme situation of upheaval, conflict or oppression, is confirmation of resignation and defeat. Giving up is paramount to dying.

NE: Is a photographer ever more than a witness?

JP: I feel it would be delusional and naive if a photographer thought his or her photographs would or could change the world. But to have an impact at times: I believe this is still alive and well. I have many stories on a micro level where my images/reportage have had a positive impact on people, both in the short term and the long term. One of them is the result of my trips to the Nuba Mountains.

After several weeks of living with the Nuba, and documenting their lives, I was forced to leave, because I had contracted malaria. The Nuba had been driven into extreme poverty by the Khartoum government, who oppressed them. They were living in a very original way: no roads, no electricity. On my one hundred and twenty mile walk out, I passed village after village with poverty stricken people who had also contracted malaria; many where dying of the disease.

Back in Nariobi, I went to see various NGO’s, one of whom was Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), and told them of the dire circumstances the Nuba people where in. This resulted in MSF flying emergency supplies (especially anti-malarial drugs) into the area, and soon after they started implementing a long term project in the region.

There is a lot that can be done on a micro level to have impact, indeed a positive and rewarding impact on people we photograph that can be profound. Everybody looks at the top of the mountain but at times it is good to look at the foot of the mountain, things can be found there as well.

Anyone who has gone to the Nuba Mountains agrees that it is a special place, with special people. How are the Nuba special to you?

I first learnt about the Nuba because they are depicted in hieroglyphics on tombs in Egypt. They were taken there as slaves, and were guards to the pharos in life and death (they protected the pyramids that the pharos were interned in). Although there are fifty-odd different sub groups, who vary physically, they tend be aesthetically striking people. Their customs and folklore are varied; elaborate and complex. They are proud and noble people, with a strong sense of community and they have a natural affinity with the land that they inhabit.

On a personal level: they were warm, curious, generous (although they had little) and caring. I witnessed their stick fighting, wrestling, dancing, scarification and harvest festivals. But probably my most enchanting experience was an old woman explaining the elaborate tattooing of women, and why it was they did it. She said the tattoos were made at three stages: when a woman forms breasts (on her arms); when she first menstruates (on the back and shoulders), and finally when she gives birth (on her stomach). For me, just that this idea exists is extraordinary, and that its importance is confirmed in such an elaborate ritual, suggests a complex and special culture in the first place. Each woman was tattooed differently, which was a statement of adornment as well. Each woman was a walking, living, breathing canvas of abstract art.

NE: You said you would like to return to the Nuba Mountains; is it an unfinished story?

JP: Yes, I would like to return. I felt an affinity with the people there. I have friends there and I would like to take images back to them to see and have. I felt an affinity with the landscape, the light and space. In many ways it felt like a very spiritual place. From the point of view as a documentary photographer it is very important to keep going back to groups of people you are documenting, delving deeper into their lives; trying to understand their concerns, their needs and their hopes.

The Nuba Mountains was a very difficult place to access on a regular basis, so it is still an enigma for me. I want to learn more. The story is very much unfinished; my visits were only the beginning of a dialogue. There is so much more to be told about the Nuba.

To see more of Jack’s work and find out more about The Jack Picone Photography Workshops please visit his website:


In Ethics on February 5, 2011 at 2:40 PM
Now in an era of magazines and newspapers that are heavily laden with a content of commercialism and lifestyle… are we also transforming our visual story telling and subjects into mere commodities?

Amongst photographers in Australia and internationally the idea of ‘setting up’ images is a contentious one. The camps are clear, those ‘for’ and those ‘against’.  The question being asked is, “Is it ethical to be setting up photographs that are part of a journalist pursuit?”


Dignity is a rather formal word-perhaps not one we would even apply to ourselves very often. In the dynamic between myself as a photographer and the subject of my photograph, I take it to mean the essence of being human-an equality that is shared by both the photographer and the person in the image. If the photographer understands – an equality that he shares with the subject, however dire the circumstances surrounding the subject, it can be reflected in the image. This is not so much about empathy, or sympathy (which can be impossible in some cases or sentimental in others), but about respect. There is a degree of detachment to respect: the eye of the photographer is able to work and to interpret without projecting emotion onto the subject. Even though the photographer may feel revulsion, shock or pity for the subject, none of these emotions has a place in the image. If the humanity of the subject is appreciated, observed and captured, it will speak to the viewer. Thus the photographer isn’t working to convey his own emotions as somehow more important then the subject. Neither is he working to ‘give’ the subject dignity, which is a patronizing concept in itself. The honesty of the image simply allows the subjects to speak for themselves, and in giving the subject a voice, the photographer gives space to their dignity.

When the photographer fails to respect the integrity of the subject, there arises say, as by example the temptation to move, manipulate, enhance or otherwise alter the subject in their situation in order to serve the interests of the photographer. The photographer may think he is doing the subject a favor by presenting them in a certain way, but this approach is simply dishonest and deprives the subject of their dignity of simply being as they are. We have to understand the difference between being deprived of dignity in the situation and looking undignified in the image. It isn’t always obvious in the image that someone’s dignity has been compromised during the shoot. If a starving person is asked by a photographer to hold out their hand for food, the image will be effective and show desperation and hunger, but the dignity of the person has been abused during the shoot. Even with a dead person-if you move the body to make a better shot-maybe no one will ever know but you have abused the dignity of that person. Respect and dignity are the private contract between photographer and subject at the time of shooting, so in the end it is up to the conscience of the photographer as the whether he carries with him the intention to respect the integrity of the subject.

This distinction between visual dignity and private dignity is very important because in many extreme situations of poverty, disease, war or drug addiction, people appear to have no dignity left at all. You can’t make them look dignified however hard you try. The act of turning a camera on people is inherently invasive. In the real world there is no road map or instruction manual for working in these situations. Best intentions can be compromised because you are not in control of the moment you are recording. Unfolding stories can often be multi-layered, complicated and fast moving but the least you can do is have the intention of not aggravating the situation of the subject.

I have observed where the situation allows, approaching people with respect and building a rapport with them is part of the process that leads to maintaining dignity. On a micro level being aware of the culture and customs of the people you are working with is sound methodology-understanding breeds respect.

Time can be your most precious commodity. The lack of time in the increasingly hectic schedule of news photographers is one of the greatest enemies of excellence and integrity in reportage images. Lack of time can compel photographer’s to construct images because they cannot wait around for them to arise naturally. While the causes of these situations are well understood, the net result is that the photographer pre-conceives the image and executes it accordingly. The subject becomes a mere commodity, and the truth of their situation is overridden by an artificially dictated scenario. This scenario may be essentially harmless, it may even be an accurate representation but it isn’t a true moment, and as visual journalism it is essentially meaningless. It is the equivalent of a journalist writing an interview without actually interviewing the subject. It’s basically dishonest and disrespectful to the subject.

There is a growing culture amongst editors locally and globally to commend photographers for setting up shots that do a great job of illustrating stories. This is especially true when the subject of the story is seen as ‘boring’. Regardless of the debate over ethical issues, this approach actively works against excellence in documentary photography and completely misses the point of the fundamental brilliance of being able to freeze a moment in time with a click of the shutter. No matter how banal a real moment may appear it carries inside it a profound seed precisely because it is original and will never happen in quite the same way. It is the central challenge of the photographer’s art and craft to be able to find that originality and translate it onto film or in a digital file, in a way that is not boring.

To avoid the moment in favor of a constructed moment deprives the photographer of the practice of developing insight. Without insight, a photographer’s work will never lift above the mundane. The practice of ‘setting up’ images discourages the cultivation of insight and instead cultivates the attitude that the subject is a commodity or prop to be used in achieving a pre-conceived result. This in turn works against the realization of the subject’s dignity.


In Ethics on February 5, 2011 at 2:25 PM

Below is a response to a question I field often from student photographers and emerging photographers. My answer is personal and everyone has a different interpretation of the question. I hope it is useful on some level.

THE QUESTION: Should I pay for taking photographs?

MY ANSWER: To pay or not pay for a photograph is a big philosophical can of worms. Many of the answers to the question posed here also depend on the context in which the image is being made. Note, I say, ‘made’ I think a photographer ‘makes’ an image she or he does not ‘take’ a picture. As a professional photojournalist and documentary photographer, I personally do not pay a subject for a photograph. It is unethical for me to do so. It reduces the act of photographing to a mere commercial transaction, the bold exchange of commodities. I somehow feel photojournalism and documentary photography should transcend that. It has the potential and at times has indeed been a powerful medium in creating awareness and effecting change in an advantageous way for people in challenging circumstances. Paying, also creates a culture of when an important social issue needs to be documented by a photographer that it turns into a ‘pay as you go’ dynamic that not only stunts any creative process but also beckons the question, well if these images were paid for what is their integrity in terms of their content being truthful? Yet another big philosophical can of worms.

My personal approach in photographing in socially sensitive situations is to shoot candid moments first (because I am well practiced people often don’t know I have photographed them but it is more then that – it is also that this is where the most uncorrupted and beautiful moments can be documented) and this is where some of the most poetic images are to be found. I don’t feel like it is stealing something or deceiving anybody, I simply feel I am making a photograph and documenting social history, something we are all part of and something I have not objected to when I have had the camera turned in my direction. I will shoot first, then I will join people, strike a rapport with them and wait until they are comfortable with me being there and continue to make images in a fluid way. Sometimes this can happen vice versa as well. One has to remember there are many situations where people really want you there to document their lives which sounds great but often this has its own layers of disadvantages as well.

In short, a photojournalist or documentary photographer can find themselves in morally complicated situations and there is not always a definitively right or wrong answer. What I do is always have the ‘intent’ to leave my subject absolutely intact with their dignity. This way I keep my integrity. It works most of the time but sometimes, in complicated situations it backfires.

Are there crooked lawyers who will do anything to take you to the cleaners? Sure. Are their human rights lawyers working for little money with the utmost of integrity trying to improve the lot of challenged and compromised people in the world? Sure. It is the same with photographers; it is the same in all professions – it is the big bad world we all live in.

Postscript. I can count the number of times on one had in a twenty year career that I have paid for photographs. I know how hard it is not to pay, if you are a caring human being it is natural to want to help. Recently, when I was photographing a young Burmese sex worker I went out afterwards and bought her food, cloths and toys for her little boy. I am human.