An interesting debate arose during the three-day conference “La Fotografia in Italia” at Forma, March 18-20 in Milan. Almost every round table had something to say about the flood of gut-wrenching pictures and the lack of reportage on anything other than disasters, Third World tragedies and exploitation of children. Some very interesting stories came out of it…
An easy target for photojournalists
During the week-end I attended a very interesting conference in Milan, “La Fotografia In Italia”, at Forma. For three days, participants had a chance to hear quite a number of critics, photo-editors, school directors, festival organizers, collectors, art dealers and photographers. One of the themes that emerged and seemed to touch a raw nerve in many of those present, was the fact that the majority of features on the market cover tragedies.
Raffaella Carretta, the editor of Gioia, was the one who broached the topic saying that she couldn’t stand pictures of poor Indian kids and the like any longer. Her statement provoked a few raised eyebrows, but most of the other participants expressed opinions similar to hers. Someone said that disasters and misery are easy targets for photojournalists, especially when they are shot in the Third World, because you can get exotic images with a high emotional charge. Images of disasters closer to the First World (where the readers usually are) are not entertaining, they are scary. On top of that, in order to narrate with images a reality closer to that of the readers, you need to master photographic language. It’s more difficult. A few photographers reacted saying that they produce what the market asks for. Someone said that photojournalism is there to reveal the ugliness of our world and documenting various aspects of tragedies is right and proper. Mara Campana, director of Bauer photography school, raised her hand to share an uncomfortable truth: misery is photogenic.
The aesthetic of the tragic
So… filthy dying kids photographed in a remote Third World environment seems to guarantee a strong visual and emotional impact. That’s why many photographers are busy with horror stories. Mara Campana comment reminded me that professional photographers are not the only ones who feel compelled to point their camera at suffering subjects, amateurs do too. The favelas photo-safaris are an expression of this trend.
As I already shared in this blog, I am not a fan of the aesthetic of the tragic and I don’t like the tendency to transform the afflictions of our world into an entertaining product. I definitely prefer photojournalism that is inspiring. But in the distressing panorama of today’s information industry, anything not related to the celebrity culture or to a disaster seems to get very little space. I guess that this topic alone would deserve a three-day conference of its own.
A way to document reality
Anyway, at the Forma conference, Magnum photographer Ferdinando Scianna delighted the public with several anecdotes from his career, including one about the time he went to cover an earthquake and a fellow photographer on the plane took a doll with a smashed head out of his bag. The photographer confided that the prop was always in his luggage when he covered natural disasters so that he could place it here and there in order to add some drama to a picture. After narrating this episode, Scianna made his point of view very clear about the importance of seeing photography as a way to document reality and not a tool to create spectacular or tragic images. He also mentioned – among others – the controversial Kevin Carter picture of an emaciated and exhausted little Sudanese girl collapsed on the ground with a vulture nearby ready to move in. Apparently Kevin Carter waited 20 minutes with his lens trained on his suffering subject, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings (it didn’t happen) in order to shoot a more dramatic image.
An excessively spectacular voyeuristic dimension
On Sunday, the last day of the conference, photographer Andrea Micheli of Photo Aid shared his point of view: it is important to keep documenting what happens in our world, but there is no need to dwell on the runny eyes of a kids with flies on his face or an inflated stomach. It is possible to narrate the same things while avoiding the pathos of pitiable and rhetorical images. I had the impression that most people agreed with him—I certainly did. And probably also Denis Curtis, director of Contrasto as well as one of the organizers of the Forma conference. He recently commented on Vogue.it that in the winning images of World Press Photo “there is an excessively spectacular voyeuristic dimension”. When he looks at the Jodie Bieber portrait of the Afghan girl whose nose was cut off by the Taliban, he thinks about Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl. What Denis Curtis points out is exactly what I call the “aesthetic of the tragic”.
Rushing to portray human suffering
In the past months, several photographers have commented on the results of the World Press Photo contest. Russian photographer Vladimir Vyatkin, for instance, wrote a very mordant article that every photographer should read. About new photojournalists he stated, “Many of these adventurers appear to have no training in photography at all. Having grasped the basics of auto-focus, they rush to portray human suffering, attempting to find a niche in the hierarchy of international journalism.”
His words raised another huge problem: today’s photographers face huge competition and not a lot of opportunities. At the Forma conference, this topic was only briefly mentioned, but I heard a desire to get into it from a few photographers in the audience. I appreciated Enrico Bossan, the head of Fabrica’s photography department, when he brutally stated the naked truth: first of all, nowadays there is not much money to count on; second, if you are a photographer you need to invest in yourself, keep studying, update yourself constantly. Terra Project photographer Rocco Rorandelli took things even further by telling us about the results of a survey among photojournalists. It seems quite a few interviewees stated that if you want to be a photojournalist, you’d better have a second job. His words reminded me of the pragmatic and controversial article by Jim Pickerell published in Black Star Rising: “Sorry, Photography Students, But It’s Time to Find Something Else to Do”.
Adapt and evolve
If you read my blog on a regular basis, you know that my online activity is very much focused on the epochal change we are going through. Apparently, in this evolutionary process, only those who are able to adapt and evolve will survive. At the Forma conference it would have been nice to find some deeper discussion of the hard times photographers are facing. But so much else was covered that we didn’t really feel the lack of it too strongly.
All in all, the conference was really interesting. Next year a second edition is waiting for us, coordinated by the newly-born Rete Fotografia, a heterogeneous web of institutions that are now connecting to bring out the value of photography in all its various expressions. Congratulations Forma!