September 9, 2013
by Stuart Franklin
I hadn't visited Visa pour l'Image for about 10 years. It's impressive: a tribute to the dedication of Jean-François Leroy to keep the thing going - the 'thing' being an impassioned rebuke at the world at large for not taking seriously or publishing the many great images that are taken by committed photojournalists each year. Photographs that could, Jean-François would argue, make a difference if only they were published and people would engage with what's happening 'out there'.
Whether war photography has or has not made a difference was discussed by a panel of photographers, old and middle-aged, from David Douglas Duncan (97) to Yuri Kosyrev (50), and including John Morris, Don McCullin and Patrick Chauvel. The main message from the panel was that war photography had failed to change anything. "The same old, same old", they concurred. The several-hundred audience participants couldn't challenge the assertion, nor its underlying logical fallacy, because there was no opportunity to raise questions, correct errors or generally become involved. That was a pity.
I remain perplexed at the panel's conclusion, and also at Don McCullin's claim, during the discussion, to be "ashamed" of the photographs he has taken of conflict. The logical fallacy arises because of the claim that in failing actually to stop all war, photography has failed in its apparent mission. But that would be like saying that because people are still dying from malnutrition, malaria and bad water every day then charitable giving and overseas aid have failed. Absurd.
It belittles the enormous risks that photojournalists take in conflict areas. It's insulting, I feel, to the commitment that so many photojournalists today are making, in being witnesses to the horrors of war, to suggest that they, or those who have set out perilously before them, have changed nothing. Just to take one example: if the world had not been a witness to the images of the Holocaust at the end of World War Two then the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the ensuing protocols banning white phosphorous, collective punishment, and so forth would not have happened.
There may be no red lines anywhere without the power and impact of photography, even as the horror continues (and I can understand how war photographers can be frustrated by so little apparent change). I remain perplexed by those who have come back with compelling images of war and speak about their "shame". It is honourable work to report and to be a witness of misfortune, provided the intent is to make a difference and limit humanitarian disaster.
As a footnote, another aspect of Perpignan disturbed me. Right next to Don McCullin's exhibition - one expressing the horror of war - and including, printed huge, Gilles Caron's 1970 photograph of Don from Vietnam - I found a tented photographic exhibition doubling as a recruitment campaign for the French army sporting images of the exciting and tough life in store for anyone wanting to "Devenir Soldat" - to steal the show's title: 'to become a soldier'. Images showed men and boys in tents, sleeping out in the open, the outdoorsy thrall of soldiering. The same show was installed a few metres from harrowing images of Syria at another site. So, yes, I was perplexed in Perpignan.