© AP Photo, File, Abu Ghraib Prisoner Abuse, Baghdad, Iraq, June 13, 2006

Images of Protest in a Digital Age

Camera-phones were introduced in 2001. Five years later 3.8 billion hand-held devices were sold, with 1.8 billion last year alone.

Mobile camera-phones had found their way to the consumer on a worldwide scale. A fast calculation tells us that, a minimum of one trillion photographs are taken each year.

Today, every civilian has the potential to be a photojournalist. In combination with social media, it has had enormous social and political consequences. When this image was released by CBS news in 2004, it changed the entire political landscape and massively shifted the perspective of photojournalism.

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The great challenge to the photojournalist is access—being there where it happens and documenting the human condition at important moments in our history. That challenge is now realised by other means, as we are (immediately and perpetually) overloaded with information and images from every corner of the world. With the most problematic part of the job—the on-the-spot newsfeed—done by amateurs today, the photojournalist can concentrate on the bigger task, which is to work as an autonomous unit who observes the world from the shadows of unfolding events. The independent professional photojournalist attempts to look beyond the surface of the news, while trying to reveal a so-called ‘objective reality’.

News photography has become an industry. The goal is to sell emotional images, as they are easy to consume. Now that news is part-made by citizens, photojournalism can be freed. Photographers can travel unencumbered, with an investigative mind, a sharp eye and original analyses that raise more questions than answers, without pretending to hold greater knowledge or access to the truth. To show a world that cannot be denied, where iconography is not necessary—the world as bad as it is. It is a type of photography that can be trusted, because a photographer is aware that his medium is manipulative and makes no attempt to try to pass it off as truth. His pictures are never one-dimensional; and always paradoxical. Photographers like this exhibit on the web or in books and museums, where art and design will support the power of his photography. The imagination and experience of the reader is the other thing that brings about the existence of a story.

Of all the low-fi photographs taken by American soldiers—the guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—only one springs immediately into my mind. Snapshots were unintentionally leaked. The apparatus of military censorship failed—a slip-up with devastating effect. A prisoner on a box, electrical wires running to his arms, his face covered with a hood was shown to the world. In the image, his hands are spread like Jesus on the cross—a gesture we all immediately identify—so it is no coincidence that the photograph has become an icon of American dominance in Iraq. As my career progresses, I turn further and further away from the iconization of suffering and violence described through clichéd visualisation. War is multi-layered, highly complex and has many possible perspectives or readings. The media and the reader (especially on the internet) have an obsession with wanting only to browse the reflection of their own world or experience. We look for confirmation of how we think the world works, without being willing to accept alternatives. The Bush administration would disagree with the argument that the Abu Ghraib photographs are an actual representation of US domination and occupation in Iraq. The Iraqi people were appalled by the images sexual content. The torture, on the other hand, was no surprise to them. [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 16, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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