December 18, 2015

Last Friday Round Up of the Year - 18 December, 2015

On this week's post, the last for 2015, three very special books are reviewed - Purple, Brown, Grey, White, Black: Life in Death by Daniel Schumann; The Middle of Somewhere by Sam Harris; and Moments of My Life by Konrad Winkler. Plus an interview with Gina Martin on collecting photography books.

Wishing all my readers a happy and safe festive season and a wonderful new year. Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up will be back on 22nd January, 2016. Next year I'll be inviting photographers to submit work for particular themes - hope, love, peace, the environment are some of the topics I'd like to explore. Let me know what you are interested in seeing.

All the best
Alison Stieven-Taylor

A Passion for Collecting Books - Gina Martin

National Geographic’s Gina Martin has been collecting photography books for close to a decade. During that time she’s amassed an impressive collection of around 720 books, many of which are signed and personalised. A number are no longer in print, and have become highly collectible – like her most expensive single purchase, Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol's Sabine. But Gina doesn’t collect to sell. These books are keepers.

Gina fell into photography when she joined National Geographic 16 years ago after working in politics for many years. When she moved into National Geographic Creative, the agency side of the business, her interest in photography began. But it wasn’t until she joined the team at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph (held in Charlottsville, Virginia) that her interest really piqued.

“When I started to work for LOOK3 it really opened me up to work outside of Geographic. I was very Geographic driven at that point and when I joined LOOK3 I was able to expose myself to other types of photography,” she tells me from her office in Washington DC.

That was around 2007 and since then Gina has invested in all manner of photography books. She says her taste has changed along the way moving from the large stylised publications of the big publishing houses to works that are more unique and published by boutique houses or more often by the photographers themselves.

“I am not a big fan of your typical coffee table photography book. The work is beautiful, but the design is not that interesting. I am more likely to buy a Todd Hido book than a Salgado. I love anything Alec Soth produces whether it’s in newspaper form or a tiny little book, anything Alec Soth does I think is brilliant. I love Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers, it is one of the coolest designs I’ve seen. Don Weber’s Interrogations is another one. I love the size and the design of it. Jason Eskenazi’s Wonderland is just beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Those are the kinds of books I collect.” 

Two Rivers Carolyn Drake (above and below)

Gina is a great believer in crowdsourcing and has supported numerous book projects, which she says is one approach to starting a collection. “With Kickstarter (and other crowdsourcing platforms) you are donating money and you are getting a book. If I can donate $50 to help a photographer with their project and get a book out of it, I think that’s a great way to start collecting. You have to support your community when you can. I really believe in supporting photographers and that’s how I get a lot of books”.

Other ways to boost your photography book collection is through attending festivals and book signing events. “If I am going to see a photographer at a book signing then I make sure I get that book. I buy a lot of books in Perpignan (at Visa pour l’image) as they always do book signings and also at LOOK3 - you know who the three main artists are going to be so bring your Nan Goldin or your Alec Soth books down there. You get to meet them and get them signed and I think that’s a cool thing. If they write something personal, whether it was great having a drink with you at LOOK3 or whatever, I love it”.

While Gina doesn’t look at her books every day, she often has the opportunity to go through her collection. “I do have photographers visiting all the time, I had four last week and that’s when it usually happens. I’ve had photographers come because they want to be inspired or they are looking to publish, so I pull books off the shelf to show what I like”.

Gina’s had bookshelves custom-made to house her collection, but she’s already being squeezed for space. “I’m just getting creative in where I am putting them,” she laughs. “I might have to clean a few out at some point, some that I’m not really attached to. I could probably get rid of 20…maybe”. 

Gina colour codes her collection

For insurance reasons Gina keeps a spreadsheet of all her books noting the name of the photographer, the title, the ISBN, how much it cost and whether it has been signed and personalised. “If my house goes up in flames I need to show that I had a collection. I take a photo of the front page of the book with the signature so I have a record because it’s worth a lot of money. Books don’t go on the shelf until they are on the spreadsheet. It’s a little work, but it’s a great reference...I looked for a book once for two hours, and I couldn’t find it. So I looked it up on the spreadsheet and it wasn’t there. I could have sworn I owned it. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I do now,” she smiles.

In closing I ask if she has a favourite book. “It is hard to choose…one of my favourites is Jason Eskenazi’s Wonderland. I love Chris Anderson’s Capitolio, and those I've mentioned before - Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers and Don Weber’s Interrogations. I have a signed copy of Eggleston’s Guide and that was kind of a coup for me to get that signed. I love Stanley Greene’s Black Passport, it’s a beautiful story. I rarely read the books, but I read every word of that one. Same with Eugene Richards’ War is Personal. But I don’t have a favourite favourite”.

Purple Brown Grey White Black: Life in Death – Daniel Schumann 

This is a beautiful book and an equally beautiful story. German photographer Daniel Schumann spent a year photographing nine residents at a hospice, documenting their journey and drawing focus on how we as human beings deal with the inevitable; death.

In Germany young people have to do Civil Service instead of Military Service. Schumann chose to undertake something he knew little about and had never had exposure to; working in a hospice. “I wanted to work with people. I am really thankful that I had this opportunity to work at the hospice – without the civil service I would never have had an idea to work there. It has influenced my ideas about life and my photography”.

Following this compulsory year of civil service in 2002, Schumann studied photography returning to the hospice four years later to being his first long-term project. Schumann sought permission from all those he photographed ensuring he asked only those who were able to make a considered decision about participating in the project. As the project unfolded family members were also involved in various capacities – a son held a reflector to provide Schumann with a softer light in which to photograph his mother. A wife called to let him know her husband had passed away and to ask Schumann to photograph him. 



“I followed each of them as long as possible – some I photographed only a few times and others over a whole year. With this project I am trying to show that every age of these people is very individual and that everybody deals with their situation very differently. Some are very peaceful and relaxed and have a feeling they have done everything in their life they wanted to do and are supported by family. Others are really struggling and are afraid of dying”.

I met Schumann in Sydney earlier this year where he was exhibiting this work for Head On Photo Festival. I asked him what it was like to photograph these people knowing that the end of his story with them would be their death?

“Civil service prepared me so I knew what would happen, but of course every time you get to know somebody it will be a loss when that person dies. It will be sad to lose this person. Photographing these people after death was a way for me to say goodbye and through this project I have found photography is a very good way for me to deal with and understand the world around me.” 



Throughout the book Schumann uses photographs of the forest in its four seasons to break the story. He says his intention here is to give the reader the opportunity to pause and think about what they’ve just seen and to also remind us that in nature there is birth and death with the changing of the seasons. “That’s absolutely normal for us to see every year. I want to propose the idea of trying to see our own decline in a similar way, as a natural process, to not have the feeling about death being something completely abstract and terrible. It happens to everybody of course…although I have no idea how I will view death when I get old”.

There are many things to like about this book. In particular the fact that Schumann chose only a few people to follow and has photographed them frequently throughout their journey, delivers an intimacy as well as clarity on the evolution of each individual’s experience.

Schumann, who also designed the book, says he chose to feature portraits in chronological order “so you meet people again and again. It was important for me not to focus on the decline of the person, so not to show their portraits all in a row where you focus on how they look. It was more about focusing on the personality of these people by not being able to compare them directly. To show more too of the cycle of life and how people are coming and others are going and how each of these situations are very individual”.

In Purple Brown Grey White Black he follows one woman, Ulrike, over the year and her portraits are interspersed throughout the book. He tells that she was an artist and knew what photography could do in expressing how she felt. “She had ALS so she couldn’t talk very well, but she told me she was using my photographs to communicate to her children what she was feeling“. 


Schumann has treated each person with dignity and it is uplifting to see that he has captured their personalities rather than just their illnesses or their isolation – so many who go into a hospice are shut out from the world, their dignity stripped with the failing of their bodies and minds, their individuality forgotten in the pace of hospice routine and modern medicine.

“When you go into a hospice you are drawn out of society. Nobody is going there if they don’t have to. I think especially for this reason people said yes I want to be photographed because I was saying I am interested in you, I care about the situation you are in, you are still important.” That’s a fabulous, and important message.

Visit Daniel Schumann's website 

The Middle of Somewhere – Sam Harris 

The “moment between moments” – that is what photographer Sam Harris says he was looking for in his quest to photograph family life. In his second book The Middle of Somewhere, it is this undefinable element, that unspoken something that makes this work so engaging, taking it from a collection of personal moments to a universally understood story.

The Middle of Somewhere, which won book of the year at the Lucie Awards this year, follows on from Harris’ first book, Postcards from Home, which documented life with his two young daughters.

In this new book, published by Ceiba, Harris extends the story to allow an insight into the family’s journey that saw them leave London, travel through India where their second daughter was born, and finally arrive in rural Western Australia where the now live in harmony with their surrounds. 

This story doesn’t follow a chronological order, which is part of its appeal. Interspersed with the photographs of his daughters at various ages and engaged in everyday pursuits, are snippets of writing inserted on paper that is reminiscent of a diary - post it notes stuck on a page, an excerpt from his wife Yael’s journal. A pictorial travelogue also features, again reproduced to evoke the idea that we are looking at a personal notebook. These design elements become conduits to a deeper narrative drawing the reader into an immersive experience as Harris and his family’s life unravels before us. 

The Middle of Somewhere is brilliantly edited and beautifully designed. It’s concise without losing its richness, the texture and weight of the paper and the luminous colour of the photographs allow the story to lift from the pages and for the images to take on a life of their own. It is a wonderful next step in Harris’ evolution as a photographic artist.


Moments of My Life – Konrad Winkler 

Another book based on personal experience is Moments of My Life - Konrad Winkler from M.33. Melbourne photographer Konrad Winkler has been taking photographs since the 1960s. In this book each photograph is paired with text that serves to explain the image through personal anecdote. It is written in a voice that suggest the author is having a chat with you over a beer or a coffee and that gives the book an idiosyncratic edge that really appeals to me.

As with other M.33 publications Moments of My Life is a quality production and its clean design by Jason McQuoid allows both the images and texts to receive the attention they deserve.  
In 2013 Winkler spoke of this body of work saying, “This is a (book) about photos; about why we take them and what they mean to us. It is about the photographs that we use to confirm and validate our existence; that help us remember both the significant as well as the insignificant events of our lives. We often remember things, not because they are important, but because we have a photo that we like and that makes us happy. What these images will mean to us in the long run, time will decide and many will be discarded. The text explores this connection, and is as important as the image, even when it slightly misrepresents it”. Moments of My Life really resonated with me and is highly engaging.


December 11, 2015

Friday Round Up - 11 December, 2015

This week on Friday Round Up more book reviews kicking off with Australian photojournalist Andrew Chapman's Political Vision, David Hlynsky's Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain, Jiang Jiehong's An Era Without Memories, Anahit Hayrapetyan's Princess to Slave and David Shield's War is Beautiful. Next week an interview with avid book collector Gina Martin from National Geographic and another eclectic mix of books.

Book Reviews Feature:
Political Vision – Andrew Chapman

‘Those who were there will be reminded in an instant, not only of the men but of an era, and of a drama whose last act had yet to be played out. Those who weren’t there, but who want to know what it was like, will find in those photographs a fertile place to start.’ – Don Watson

More than four decades of Australian politics can be found between the covers of Andrew “Scoop” Chapman’s latest book, Political Vision, which documents many of our nation’s leaders on the political trail dating back to the early 1970s. Author, screenwriter and speaker Don Watson, who was Paul Keating’s speechwriter and adviser during the 1990s, has written the foreword.

Beyond the world of photojournalism, Chapman is known for his best selling book Woolsheds, which has been reprinted numerous times. He agrees that shearers and politicians are two disparate subjects, but he’s been attracted to both throughout his career. “Photographers are collectors,” he says by way of explanation.

A student of the now infamous Prahran College, which in the 1970s turned out a number of Australia’s most renowned documentary photographers, Chapman came to photography as a teenager during a period of radical transformation in Australian politics. He was in the thick of it, an enthusiastic amateur with his camera at the ready, attending rallies in his lunch break and capturing the temperature of the nation.

In 1976 he photographed Gough Whitlam, “my first politician”. Next was Bob Hawke then the leader of the ACTU. After an appearance at Prahran College Hawke joined students at a local pub. Chapman was there to document the moment. “I took a photo of him having a beer, a rare photograph I reckon. In those days it was much more relaxed and you could get access to these people”.

After college Chapman worked on various suburban newspapers, where he says he learned the art of having a chat, and making people feel at ease with the camera. During this time he sold the odd political photo, but his big break came when he was asked to photograph Bob Hawke for the cover of Time. After that he became one of the political photographers for Time as well as The Bulletin amongst other magazines. 

Political Vision is as much a who’s who of Australian politics as it is a documentary on cultural shifts and each image carries within it a number of cues that point to what was going on politically and socially. Being the history buff I am that’s where the real interest lies for me in seeing how things were in front of the cameras and what went on behind the scenes, or as Chapman calls it, “looking between the cracks of the process”. As historical documents these photographs depict the trends of the times - clothing, hairdos, make up, architecture, automobiles, cityscapes - making them even more fascinating.

Of those he photographed Chapman says Keating was more difficult to deal with than others, as he was intensely private especially when it came to his family. Kim Beasley was affable and genuinely loved people. John Howard was incredibly polite. So who was his favourite? “I had a lot of time for Whitlam and he changed the landscape, but Keating I saw as a big picture man. People either loved him or hated him, but I always admired him. He was a very polarising character. But he had an idea for Australia and where we were going”. Oh for a political leader today who has half an idea of what this country needs! But I digress.

Sorting through forty years of photographs sounds like a daunting experience, but Chapman says going through his archives wasn’t the onerous task one might imagine and he knew what photographs were going to make the cut almost from the outset. “A hell of a lot of bad photographs go with getting a good one when you are shooting on the fly,” he says. “The good ones stand out and you go back through your files and occasionally you’ll find something that is historically important, but stylistically you know the ones that work. I knew what I had and knew the important ones”.

“Photographically one of my favourite pictures is the Howard family singing – looking between the cracks, Howard is putting this nationalism thing forward, and united conservative family values…that’s my favourite Liberal photo. My favourite labour photo is the one of Keating at an elderly citizen centre. It’s the synchronicity of having everyone in the right place and balanced – Keating, the media having a giggle in the background, the local member trying to get in the photo.”

Chapman is no longer on the payroll of the news magazines, or what’s left of them, but he holds a keen interest in politics. “These days I still get emails from the Liberals. I’ll be having breakfast and there’s an email saying the leaders are in Mitcham or wherever, and I’ll drop everything and go. That’s how you get those shots. I don’t do anything with them anymore as no one is buying them, it's just for my own interest”.

But don’t be fooled that Chapman is in retirement. He’s working on more of his own books with two more due out in 2016, as well as collaborating with others such as friend Adam McNicol with whom he’s recently released ‘Just Like Family’ the History of Rural Finance Bank of Australia, a story about putting farmers out on land.

As we wrap up our interview Chapman says, “For me photography started as a personal project, I worked in the middle and it’s finishing as a personal project”.

Political Vision

Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain – David Hlynsky

Between 1986 and 1990 photographer David Hlynsky took around 8,000 photographs in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, East Germany and Moscow with the aim of capturing the cultural differences between east and west using shop windows as the portal.

Certainly my own experience of visiting Eastern Bloc countries is borne out in Hlynsky’s photographs that depict the lack of signage, the outdated fashions, and the often sparse displays – three loaves of bread in a bakery window, a single pair of shoes, a beauty salon displaying a woman’s photograph next to a bottle of dishwashing liquid, and many stores with photographs or illustrations of the goods they sell rather than the goods themselves.

“In the dying days of the Cold War I saw these windows as a vast ad hoc museum of a great failing utopia,” writes Hlynsky in the introduction. “In 1989 this museum began to close abruptly, without prior notice or fanfare. Borders opened; a new circus came to town.”

This is a quirky collection of around 100 images that captures a now bygone era although in cities like Prague, Budapest, St Petersburg and Moscow you will still find shops that that speak to the days of Communist rule and carry the same idiosyncratic elements of those featured in Window-Shopping Through the Iron Curtain. For those who have not had the experience first hand, this books gives a unique insight into retailing in the Eastern Bloc.

Thames & Hudson

An Era Without Memories: Chinese Contemporary Photography on Urban Transformation – Jiang Jiehong

This book is so much more than a collection of images that document the rapid urbanisation of China’s cities over the past three decades. It is a social and artistic dissertation on the cultural impact of China’s urban progress often at the expense of its people, told through the eyes of various artists as they respond to the changes in their cities. 

CHEN Qiulin, I Am An Angel

CHI Peng, Sprinting Forward

The most significant revelation in An Era Without Memories is that over the past thirty years there has been mass destruction of historical buildings in favour of new constructions, the Maoist maxim ‘no construction without destruction’ still at the forefront of urban development. Those areas that have not been destroyed are shadowed by new constructions that have risen to shut them in. In many cities people have been moved on to make room for new developments for the nouveau rich, with the original residents relocated as areas become gentrified. 

MU Chen, Landscape as A Will

The book is divided into four thematic chapters: Ephemeral Cities features work by artists who have witnessed the transformation of their cities; The Otherness of the Real focuses on the reinterpretation of the real; An Alienated Home explores how rapid transformation changes perceptions of home; and Memories Invented reimagines scenes from a lost past. 

WANG Chuan, Day Dreams, Windy

YANG Yi, A Sunken Homeland, Nanjiao Residential Building

ZHUANG Hui, Longitude 109.88-¦ Latitude 31.09-¦
An Era Without Memories features 132 illustrations as well as essays by Jiang Jiehong with an Introduction by Stephan Feuchtwang. While the writing is at times overtly academic and somewhat convoluted, this book presents a curious collection of images that when viewed in context present a unique inside view to the sprawl of affluence and the urbanisation of China.  

Thames & Hudson

Princess to Slave - Anahit Hayrapetyan 

This book tells a little known story of what life is like for many Armenian women, who as children are treated like princesses and as adults like slaves. It is a brave story for it is the first time a female photographer has raised her voice against domestic violence in a country where women's rights are virtually non-existent. 

In Princess to Slave Anahit Hayrapetyan reveals the harrowing stories of five women who have suffered violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws - often the mother-in-law will viscously beat her son's wife with planks of wood, rolling pins, metal and burn her. Verbal abuse is constant and these women live in abject fear and poverty.

In the introduction to the book Hayrapetyan says "I heard a number of stories about family restrictions and violence against women even when I was a child. There was a girl in our neighbourhood whose father had killed her mother, but we didn't ask her questions about it. It was a forbidden topic. As I grew, the number of stories of control and violence I heard grew as well. I started seeing them in a new light as my peers and close female friends were confronted with the problem."

She says the catalyst was learning that one of her female relatives had suffered a miscarriage because she'd been forced by her father-in-law to do hard physical work even though she was pregnant and carrying twins. At the same time Hayrapetyan heard this story, a sensational trial came to pass in Armenia - that of 20 year old Zaruhi Petrosyan who had been brutally beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law.

This trial became a benchmark and galvanised NGOs in the field to form the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women. While there are few support services for abused women and there is still no standalone law declaring domestic violence a crime in Armenia, slowly women are beginning to speak out. 

In Princess to Slave Hayrapetyan shares her experiences of meeting women who have been abused in personal anecdotes that make the book even more compelling.


I read about Mariam in the online newspaper ‘Hetq.’ I called the editor and he gave me the name of her village. At the time I was pregnant with my first child. All night I wriggled around in bed thinking about what I would tell them when they opened the door at my knock. I set off early in the morning. In the village no one knew what had happened to Mariam. I asked around and found her house. I knocked on the door and she opened it. I don’t even re member what I said. I only remember entering the house. We talked together and I told her stories of other women. I told her about the Women’s Resource Center and about the possibility of finding support.

Mariam’s husband had taken her to St. Petersburg, where he and his mother badly abused her. They tortured her physically, beating and burning her, and psychologically, hiding calls from her family and telling her she was abandoned even though her father was searching for her. She escaped after ten months. Mariam’s father was working and had the money to hire an attorney. Mariam was the first to speak out about what had happened to her and to seek justice. Her case caused a public outcry, with competing demonstrations outside the courthouse. She was extremely brave and succeeded with the help of many supporters. Now, she works in a shelter. We see each other from time to time."

The book features text in both English and Armenian with a foreword by Lara Aharonyan, Director of Women's Resource Centre of Armenia. The design is sympathetic to the subject matter and some stories of abused women are told in verse juxtaposed against photographs of young girls "princesses" and the abused women.

It is Hayrapetyan's hope that her book will aid in bringing this draconian treatment of women out of the shadows and help to bring light to the darkness. Princess to Slave is a remarkable and important book.


David Shields - War is Beautiful 

In War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamor of Armed Conflict American writer David Shields contends that the New York Times (NYT), one of the most august newspapers in the world, has been complicit in promoting war through the conflict images it publishes on its front page.

Shields frames his argument through analysing 1000 photographs from the Iraq and Afghanistan incursions that have appeared on the front page of the NYT since October 1997 when the paper first began publishing colour images on page one. In War is Beautiful he codifies these images into ten chapters - Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pietà, Painting, Movie, Beauty, Love and Death – claiming images easily slot into each of these categories.

In the same way an image needs a caption to be fully understood, it’s necessary to look at the definition of each of the chapters as outlined in the book to grasp Shields motivation. Only then does the proposition become clear.

“Nature: military action becomes a habitat, the preserve of masculine desire for war. 

Playground: war is the playground that authorizes the male psyche to exercise its passions. It’s also the dangerous arena into which the Times sends its employees to win awards and promote its brands.

Father: Within another culture the American warrior is presented as protection and relief from chaos. 

God: The military commands the globe.


Pietà: War death = Christ’s death on the cross. The process of removing the body from the cross and battlefield is sacred. Mourning is always muted and respectful. Hysterical grief is banned. 

Painting: War stuns the senses to the point that its portrait needs to be painted over and over. 

Movie: The positing of action heroes, video games and special effects in cinematic stills…Technology and art erase the body’s grotesque disfigurement and death. 

Beauty: Portraits of the other: the occupied and displaced, mostly women and children, beauties seeking salvation. Male sacrifice is consecrated in these faces. 

Love: Proximity to death, which marks the separation between military and civilian life is unmistakably erotic. Like sex, war is a force that gives us meaning.

Death: The machine rolls on; the war dead incarnate the immortal epic.”

In explaining these categories Shields says, “It is almost as if the Times has a very limited repertoire in which they say ‘okay you guys we need a photo today of war as movie’. I must have found 70 photos which comported to war as outtakes from glorious war movies and I could have done the whole book as war is cinematic, war as movie”.

“In my analysis very few, if any, front page A1 pictures since October of 1997 have conveyed anything of the horror, the cost, the consequence of war. To me as many as 700 of those photographs I analysed can be read as beautified and sanctified, glamourised and glorified war.”

The exercise has clearly been painful for Shields who for decades was an avid supporter of the paper. He says he feels like the NYT has let him down and that he has been duped. On the one hand the paper has conveyed scepticism about the war through its editorials, and on the other it is has used photography to actively support war. “For over 20 years I’d get up every morning and read the paper, but I began to realise I was consuming war porn. Basically these images were hiding in plain sight, ostensibly covering war, but they were actively promoting it and that seemed to me extremely insidious”.

Shields acknowledges that photography has been used as a tool of propaganda for more than a century. “Yes of course media and government have been in complicated conversation, but there is a famous American phrase which is ‘journalism is supposed to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted’. I think the Times pretends to subscribe to journalism as the Fourth Estate, and in American fantasy there’s this idea of journalism being a crucial antagonist against the government”.

Had the images in question been published in a right-wing paper there would be no argument to mount says Shields. “I found myself truly baffled wondering what these pictures are doing on the front page of the Times when they seem to me to belong on the front page of the New York Post or USA Today or some other Murdoch megaphone”.

He continues. “It’s almost as if all of these images, all of these photographers and photo editors have become comfortable with a stylised gesture toward war, but never a real grappling with the war. Real journalism is supposed to upset readers, but these photographs are pure wallpaper, they’re almost screensavers in which people just glance and go ‘oh yeah that’s someone’s tank and it’s a sunset, and there’s a fireball and it’s kind of pretty. Okay now let’s move onto the rest of the website or the paper’. I say it is almost like the New York Times is selling this idea of war not being hell, but war being heck, or not even heck, war is heaven. I haven’t ever served in war or been in a theatre of war, but this is a complete fiction that obviously the Times is selling for economic, cultural and political reasons”.

When images are taken out of context, as is often the situation with front-page photographs, the narrative can be lost. This is a source of frustration for photojournalists who having taken multiple images of an event, know that a publication will choose only one to run on the front page. Often this photograph is the most sensational or aesthetically pleasing depending on the message to be conveyed.

In years gone by the NYT led the world in its brazen coverage of conflicts such as the Vietnam War. When the Eddie Adams photograph of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, shooting Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem, came down the wire on 1st February 1968 John G. Morris was the paper’s picture editor. He made the decision to run the image on the front page of the paper, a move that was echoed by other newspapers around the world. This image is now considered one of that war’s most iconic, but Shields contends the NYT of today would never allow a photograph of such brutality to appear on its front page.

This is the crux of Shields argument. That the NYT has rescinded its role as the Fourth Estate and is in league with those it is meant to keep honest. Although the publication of the Adams photograph also had political connotations and one could argue that is the case with every iconic image, Shields’ concerns raise interesting questions in relation to future readings of history and the role of the visual news archive.

Shields acknowledges, and praises, the sacrifices that many photojournalists make, but he says the aesthetic of many of these images make them “immediately forgettable. They are so beautifully composed and so strikingly absent of any human viscera that the net affect is that you immediately process it as beautiful, you process it as war and process it as essentially harmless. I’d go even farther and say these pictures make us almost worship war, these pictures amount to a kind of, to me, military recruitment poster. At the very least they make war seem glorious I think”.

In the Introduction to the book Shields quotes President Lyndon B. Johnson who said about the Vietnam War, “I can’t fight this war without the support of the New York Times”. Shields follows LBJ’s quote with his own: “A Times war photograph is worth a thousand mirrors.” Expanding on this he says, “I was trying to make the point that these pictures carry an immense amount of refraction and reverberation. I don’t think readers of the Times can say if you don’t like the pictures too bad. I think these pictures set the political and cultural agenda for America, for the English speaking world, for journalism, for participatory democracy”.

He continues. “There was a famous case during the Reagan Administration when the TV show 60 Minutes ran a supposedly revelatory documentary piece on the Reagan Administration’s manipulation of visuals. 60 minutes compared the reality of things to the Reagan visuals. Later the Reagan Administration called 60 minutes and said thank you for the 15-minute commercial because no one pays attention to the actual words, all people pay attention to are the images. I thought that was such a cautionary parable. The Times might run statistics for the American soldiers who died that particular day, but what really enters peoples reptilian brain are these incredible sanctifying, glorifying, glamorising, beautifying and desensitising images”.

Images can be beautifully composed and lit and still convey an important message, but the homogenisation of imagery is also a concern. Due to its popularity photography is being mooted as the new world language, but the proliferation of images being uploaded and shared conceals the trend that puts forward a narrower view of the world. We may believe there are more images than ever circulating in cyberspace, but many of the mainstream news services run the same, or similar images, which are then repurposed and shared on social media platforms. While Shields does not address the idea of homogenisation specifically, the images in his book point to a common aesthetic emerging in conflict photography.

In conclusion Shields says, “I do think it’s a crucial part of being an assertive citizen in western capitalist democracy to read against the proliferation of images. I think it is unlikely that any of us is going to turn off the flood of images that are on the web or whatever, but if you could be an aggressively intelligent and deconstructionist viewer you are half way toward an educated public”.

“It’s not so much that the Times let us down, but that we all let ourselves down. I should have been more sceptical early on, it took me an unconscionably long time to realise how war was being sold to me under the guise of journalism. These pictures gain immense cultural traction and people might agree with the book or disagree, but the ripple affects of these pictures is gigantic.”

All photos: From War is Beautiful by David Shields, published by powerHouse Books.