Two controversies relating to photojournalism cropped up this summer. The first concerns American photographer Ron Haviv, a veteran war reporter, from Bosnia to Libya. One of his photos – a desert dug up by the tracks of a tank that, in the distance, catches on fire – was used by arms dealer Lockheed Martin for one of its advertisements, headed by an assertive slogan : “Moving Targets Have Met Their Match.” The contradiction is clear between the cynicism of the manufacturer and the humanistic spirit of the photographer, which has been reaffirmed many times in his public interventions. Suddenly the image no longer relates the horror of war, but the cold efficiency of the weapons. The photo was not stolen ; it was bought – with the consent of Ron Haviv’s agent, obviously. Is this just business or is it a betrayal ?
The second controversy was provoked by the American monthly Vogue. Pathetically, the editor-in-chief presented her apologies to her readers for having published a glamorous report on dictator Bachar el-Assad just prior to the bloody repression that struck Syria. These images of a beautiful, rich and happy family provoked an even greater sense of unease in that they were taken by one of the legends of photojournalism, James Nachtwey. For more than thirty years, Nachtwey has made Robert Capa’s maxim his own –“If the photo is no good, it’s because you are not close enough” – risking his life with rare courage on countless occasions. Did he compromise himself for a dish of lentils ? The debate opposes the guardians of deontology and the defenders of a profession under threat, often reduced to taking jobs that make ends meet in order to fund dangerous expeditions. The scrutiny of Ron Haviv and James Nachtwey poses the question of the limits that photographers must respect. Above all, it stresses to what extent the roles were reversed. Photojournalism is journalism : telling true stories and taking stock of reality.
Journalists are first and foremost the ones who go to see for themselves and bring back an account. Journalists’ stories are essential to our understanding of the world. We build on them. They allow us to interconnect events, providing a certain coherency amid the chaos of the world and an understanding of what is really happening.
Photography is in its element when it comes to telling stories. Images are deeply imprinted in our minds, while the gaps between two shots provide the mystery and magic of suspended time. This is why photojournalists rapidly entered the pantheon of journalism. Unfortunately, competition from television or online videos, as well as the commercial and financial logics that have gradually been imposed have denied them their role as ‘story providers’ in favour of a role as illustrators or provocateurs. Either they feed into a bank of mass-produced images to accompany standardised productions at low cost ; or they create a few isolated and radical images, for the front page, galleries or posters.
If photojournalists sometimes lose their way, it is because their compass has been removed. However, there are many of us – the success of 6Mois proves this – ready to devour their work when they return to the sources of their trade. This is the connection that we firmly resolve to cultivate. Happy reading.
Laurent Beccaria, Patrick de Saint Exupéry,