2010
01.17

Haiti.
…I’ve just observed several minutes silence thinking about what comes next, which is probably the most honest response to the scale of suffering, death and calamity in Port-au-Prince. Other than adding some dollars to the relief fund and uttering ‘those poor buggers’ while shaking my head in bewilderment, it doesn’t seem there is much else to do.

The media response to catastrophes is always fascinating, however, and I am compelled to respond. A journalist’s role amidst so much death and chaos is (arguably) vital, and it is also revolting. ‘Arguably’, because I think citizen journalism could provide society with all the information and images that we need to know what is happening in Haiti, and to prod us to help in whatever limited ways we can.

How many photographs of women weeping over the dead bodies of their children do we need to see so that we might comprehend the situation and respond?

‘Revolting’, because journalists drive an economy that thrives on tragedy. Regardless of how many photographs, films and words are needed, there is a market for them, especially in the middle of a typically slow news month. This difficult relationship between the need for information (visual and otherwise) and a media economy that sells ads by wrapping them in tragedy is not new. But digital technologies that foster citizen journalism add a sharp new edge to a question that few people seem to be asking: how should journalism respond to catastrophes like Haiti?

Much of the news I’ve seen on Haiti has been good, and I’m thankful for it. Some of it has been atrocious, and that is to be expected. The ABC news coverage on Friday evening included a woman who survived for two days trapped under a collapsed building. As she emerged from the rubble an American journalist could be heard asking if she was ‘happy to have escaped alive.’ Does that journalist really need to be in Haiti?

And what of photojournalists? Photojournalism was once a craft through which the world was ‘discovered’ through weekly news magazines, however there is no longer much of the world, or of human nature that has not already ‘been seen’. Despite the extreme and chronic poverty of most Haitians, there are no doubt thousands of cameras and camera phones in use in Port-au-Prince. The photojournalist’s specific role is no longer to provide visual evidence of events, but to compose beautiful images of the unfolding misery, chaos, death and – hopefully – resilience of the people who are living it.

In the first half of last century Walter Benjamin wrote that photography had “succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment.” The uncomfortable relationship between aesthetics and care in photojournalism is not a new one either. But when the 2011 World Press Photo exhibition comes to Australia hopefully the striking images from Haiti that we will no doubt see will communicate something unexpected, or provide some degree of unseen human context to the events.

It is here that I believe we can find a more ethically sustainable role for journalism in response to catastrophic events. If citizen journalism can create (and is creating) the news, than journalists might be liberated to look beyond headlines and the news cycle to give analysis of, and context and meaning to the events. Haiti would then be transformed from a news headline to a country with an extraordinary past, a challenging present and an uncertain future; a country with its own musical rhythms, its own foods and flavours, its own ideas and its own questions for the world.

The best article I have read on Haiti appeared on the comment pages of the Guardian. ‘Our role in Haiti’s plight’, written by British professor of philosophy Peter Hallward, is challenging and informative, and the reader responses to the online version of the article are what prompted me to write this. Here are a couple of responses to the article:

‘We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Haitian politics when we know there are still enough people alive to give a shit. But now is not the time.’

‘You can’t bring history into this. That was then, this is now. I stayed up half the night watching the news about this, and I’m not interested in what the US government of yesteryear did. I want to know what I can do to help now, even if it’s a small and relatively insignificant contribution to a disaster fund.’

The people who wrote these appear to be sincerely concerned about what is happening in Haiti, but their comments display a misunderstanding of both the role of the journalist and the nature of the media. It is always the role of the journalist to provide context, to provoke thought and, if necessary, discomfort. And the only time when it is possible to publish articles about an issue, or country such as Haiti is when that country is already making headlines, usually for horrific reasons.

2009
11.13

News is created every second, and I don’t just mean events, but the reporting of events. Our global pulse has tachycardia. We have information flowing through our veins, and most of it has no consequence to our day-to-day lives.

On Margot O’Neill’s ABC News blog exploring why the impending catastrophe of global warming has failed to connect with our collective psyche – at least enough to trigger us into action – she quotes a statistic from Al Gore’s latest book that claims most North Americans are exposed to 3000 advertisements daily.

Perhaps a few of these adds will connect with the person. That is what they are designed to do. But most probably won’t, because connection requires time for reflection. The same is true of news. The numbers of elderly men and women who calmly read their daily paper as they throw breadcrumbs to pigeons in a park are dwindling. I hope the poor pigeons don’t starve, and I hope our hearts and imaginations don’t starve, too.
surprise
The Internet has achieved the commendable goal of making time and space irrelevant, or close to. If I choose, I can know what is happening in many remote corners of the globe at almost the exact time that the events occur, or very soon after. Wonderful, truly. But time is important, especially when we consider how information is received.

The Uprooting is long, and laden with information. It demands time – though the amount of time is entirely up to the individual. Time on the Internet is said to be like dog years because it passes seven times faster than normal time, which makes The Uprooting even longer, and even more demanding.

I am perhaps delusional in the hope that some people, perhaps even many people will explore the webpage with a sincere interest, but it is a calculated and necessary gamble. If people are to connect to the stories we tell, the information we deliver, journalists must find ways of making time matter again, of slowing it down. A reader needn’t throw breadcrumbs to the pigeons, but hopefully she won’t be doing ten other things at the same time, either. Hopefully she will find time to think, and to reflect.

Photography freezes moments in time and brings them to our attention. It has always been an art of reflection. More than ever before, it must also be an art for reflection.

2009
10.25

not sand yet_72
The Uprooting was born as a concept, an experiment in communicating a complex issue with a broad, global audience. My motivation was two-fold. The first was to explore the issue of forced displacement in Colombia and create awareness about the issue, both in Colombia and abroad. The second was to pioneer an online documentary aesthetic that gives greater depth and story-telling potential to photojournalism.

With the help of talented friends I have been able to produce something that closely reflects the original concept that I dreamt up, though some things have had to change along the way.

Sound was always the mystery dimension, as I had never worked with it before. I had originally intended for ambient sound to play a larger role in the documentary, and in Colombia I tried to record ambient sound for every photograph I took. Sometimes this was simple: images of children reading or splashing in rivers have an obvious sound dimension, but what sound does a couple holding hands make?

The original idea was that each photograph would have its own ambient sound-scape that would begin to play as each image appeared on the screen. Music and lateral thinking would fill the gaps where no obvious sound could be found, I had thought, but in the end I chose to make a distinctive soundtrack for each of the three chapters, instead of an ambient sound track for each photo, for technical and usability reasons.

I want people to engage with the material to the extent that they want, to create their own narrative. Many users – or interactants, as I think of them – will only choose to skim the surface, clicking from one image to the next. Having a half-hatched sound scape constantly beginning and abruptly ending as each new image appears would be frustrating for the interactant, I realised. The chapter sound tracks provide continuity and character to each chapter, and the placement of an icon for the best ambient sound within the relevant photos gives the interactant more content options to explore.

The bulk of The Uprooting’s content is audio, and all of it is in Spanish. It was only when I was producing the content that I realised that the project’s most important audience is in Colombia, as that is where greater visibility and comprehension of the issue can best make a difference to the lives of the displaced. And it’s a good thing, because The Uprooting arguably works much better in Spanish than it does in English.

The English version of the project is text-heavy – although hopefully the short chunks of information help the interactant digest the content little by little – however Spanish speakers will likely enjoy The Uprooting more because of the accents, phrases, slang and expressiveness of the voices that do not always translate well into an English text.

Upon seeing the project for the first time, a Colombian friend commented that The Uprooting is highly critical of the government. He is right, it is critical, but this was not premeditated. My intention from the outset was to explore the issue as much as possible from the viewpoint of the displaced, who are the protagonists in the story and the people least often heard in the Colombian and international media. The documentary material that emerged as I spent time with displaced people, community leaders and academics in Colombia contained a great deal of anger towards the government, as well as towards the guerrilla, the paramilitary, landlords, and multi-national corporations.

The Uprooting is critical of many people. If the Colombian government appears to be the main target of peoples’ anger, it is only because the State is held responsible not only for displacement – in many cases – but also for the humanitarian response, or lack thereof.

When I began the project I was unaware that in 2004 the Colombian Constitutional Court had declared President Uribe’s response to the crisis unconstitutional; I was unaware that demobilised paramilitary and guerrilla soldiers are given ten times as much social assistance as the people they displaced; I was, in fact, unaware of more than I knew, but that is why I wanted to produce the documentary. Had I have had more time, help and money to work on the project, perhaps the content would have been more ‘balanced’, although balance was never a goal.

Thinking back on my original concept, there is much that might have been, but in the end I’m happy to put my name to what has finally emerged.

2009
10.21

Is 28 years-old, grew up in the Australian bush, and is married to Clara Natalia Zuleta, who grew up in the Colombian bush and currently looks rather like a teapot (they’re expecting their first child any minute now); Ben enjoys music, books, trees, rocks, fruit and cycling to work – though he likes cycling anywhere other than work a lot more; he produced The Uprooting as part of a Journalism Honours Degree at the University of Technology, Sydney, although the project has been bubbling around in his head ever since he lived in Medellin for 15 months in 2004-2005; Ben sings to himself when he is alone, is prone to crying when watching a good film, has stuttered mildly since he was a kid and in the last three minutes seems to have developed the odd habit of writing about himself in the third person. Despite all this, he doesn’t feel like a complete social outcast. In fact, Ben likes people quite a lot.

Ben’s email is barachala@gmail.com Please feel free to write him an email – for any reason – or to leave a comment on this blog.

Cheers…
IceAndSky

2009
10.21

The Uprooting is largely inspired and driven by questions surrounding ethical practice: How can photojournalists employ the unique interactivity of the Internet to communicate complex stories with a global audience? How can we give voice to the human subjects of our photographs, and context to their situation? How might photojournalists use our work to facilitate conversation between the observer and the observed?

The Uprooting is in many ways a clumsy and limited response to these questions, but – for me, at least – it is an important step, and the production process has generated new ethical and practical questions that I would not otherwise have considered.

One of the most constant and valid criticisms of photojournalism is its tendency to convert complex events, and even people into a single representative image. Often, the audience will have no other points of comparative reference (though this is decreasingly the case in our image-saturated digital environment), and the symbolic power of the photographer – the power to represent and frame reality for others – is therefore profound.

One of the ideas behind The Uprooting is enabling human photographic subjects to tell their own stories with their own voices. That is, to represent themselves. But this ambition is inevitably truncated by the limited time and energy of the photojournalist (who is now acting at least as much as a curator, or author, as she is as a photographer), and also by the demands of the online platform.
I recorded nearly 30 hours of interviews with the people who appear in The Uprooting, and with the academics, community leaders and journalists who I interviewed to provide greater context to their situation. From those many hours, I had to condense peoples’ stories into one minute sound bites; I had to crop and edit, and piece together a mosaic of voices that might successfully communicate what each person wanted to say, but also the deeper truths that illustrate what it means to be forcefully displaced in Colombia.

My symbolic power, once again, is great. In fact, I have wondered at times if my symbolic power is not even greater than that of the traditional photojournalist, for I am now in charge of not only images, but the voices that will be attached to those images. There are several cases where this is particularly so.

The third last photograph in The Uprooting is of a 15 year old prostitute, who I have named ‘Isabelle’. The image is cropped to protect her identity, but thinking back on the many photographs I have seen published of young girls in similar situations – such as Spanish photographer Kim Manresa’s beautiful work, Infancia Robada, depicting vulnerable street kids and young prostitutes in Brazil – I wonder if I would have felt as compelled to crop the photo if her voice was not attached to it. The cropped image maintains Isabelle’s fragile, girlish body, but the full image – with her looking directly into the camera, almost as though speaking to it – is considerably stronger.

Maira_crop

I wanted to publish Isabelle’s face, but opted to tread lightly. In the afternoon we spent together, I explained how the image and audio would be used, and she consented. It only occurred to me afterwards, however, that Isabelle may never have used the Internet, and may have no comprehension of its potential reach.
Isabelle is telling her story to the world, and it was important that her story be heard. Thousands of displaced girls and women prostitute themselves – or are prostituted – to help feed their families. The least I can do, it seemed to me, is protect Isabelle’s identity.

There are many other children who appear in The Uprooting. The displaced population in Colombia is young – the average age is less than 18 – and my photos represent this. But speaking with children about their experiences was not something I felt comfortable, or qualified to do. That’s why, in almost all cases, a photograph of a child has a testimony of an adult relative.

A similar issue presented itself with Colombia’s indigenous population. Very few indigenous women or children speak fluent Spanish, and I was therefore limited to speaking with indigenous men. That is why, again, photos of indigenous women and children are accompanied by male testimonies.

MujerEmbera

Producing The Uprooting has forced me to constantly probe my own approach to journalism, and I am thankful to those who have questioned my practice along the way. The future of photojournalism – and journalism more broadly – can only ever be what we are doing right now, which makes reflexive, critical practice all the more important. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m pretty happy to be surrounded by so many good questions.

2009
09.27

I’d like to bring attention to a beautiful photo-essay that is worthy of constructive criticism: Christopher Anderson’s ‘Capitolio’ – an essay on life in Caracas – on the multimedia website of the Magnum photographic agency.

Capitolio combines stunning photographs with equally impressive post-production and an emotive musical soundtrack. If journalism were a bakery, Capitolio would be the shiniest glazed tart in the window display, an eye-catching piece of artistry amongst the bread sticks and pies.

The public responses to the essay reflect this, and more. Dozens of Venezuelan expatriates praised the photographer for showing the misery of ‘their’ people under the Chavez dictatorship. Many people congratulated Anderson on his superb photos – with good reason – and several sober Venezuelan voices asked where the dignity of their vibrant people had been hidden amongst the dark images. How could Anderson abuse his privileged position as a photographer with the world’s most renowned agency to say so little in such an extravagant way about life in Caracas? How dare he, they asked?

I like Capitolio because it is beautiful. It is a brilliant example of how photojournalism can be used to communicate the world to the world in the digital age, but it is also a dangerous example, and one that needs to be bettered. It communicates little, and the scarce information that does emerge fails to explore the political intricacies of Venezuela’s fascinating political climate. Capitolio is a tart with no filling.

Linear slideshows – a series of photographs set to a soundtrack – are often flawed for this reason. They are poignant and succinct, but tend to lack context and plurality – something photojournalism has always been criticised for.

When well employed, the slideshow format can be informative. The best example I have seen of a truly investigative slideshow is ‘Kingsley’s Crossing’ by French photojournalist Olivier Jobard. This photo essay traces the journey of a 23-year old lifeguard in Cameroon from his small coastal hometown in West Africa to France. The essay is published on the website Media Storm and is 21 minutes long.

Applying the common logic that time on the Internet is like dog years – seven times faster than real time – Kingsley’s Crossing might seem impossibly long, but it is so well told that the viewer is unlikely to stop the story short. According to the director of Media Storm, Brian Storm, 65 per cent of viewers watch the entire story.

Olivier Jobard’s photos are not as beautifully crafted as Christopher Anderson’s – in my opinion, at least – but his essay is satisfying in a way that the shiny spectacle of most slideshows rarely is.

Kingsley’s Crossing lends itself to a linear format because it is a voyage; it travels from here to there, from beginning to end in a logical way. Expecting a linear documentary format to effectively communicate ‘life in Caracas’ is asking much more of the photographer, however. Perhaps too much.

How to communicate complex subjects in a way that is aesthetically provocative and satisfying is one of the key questions driving The Uprooting. Photojournalism must be beautiful in order to be effective – even photos of war and famine are judged for their aesthetic value – but it must also convey truth. Photojournalists have the digital tools to pioneer a documentary form with both beauty and substance. It is time to move beyond spectacle.

2009
08.20

In less than 48 hours I’m leaving Colombia to return to my wife, my unborn child, my family and friends, my job and my studies in Sydney. The long process of editing the material – sometimes frustrating, always rewarding – is well under way, and it occurs to me that for the last 10 weeks I have not been working as a photographer.

Very little of my time in Colombia has been dedicated to photography, though the hours when I have had the camera in my hands have been fruitful. Hyperphotography – photography that goes beyond the two dimensional frame – demands a juggling act of recording interviews, ambient sound and music, and coordinating and mapping the story and the way in which it is told. I would have liked to dedicate more time to photography, but I’m cooking this stew for the first time, and the unfamiliar ingredients are the most demanding.

The Uprooting is an audio-visual documentary that is mine to curate, but not necessarily mine to tell. There are, I think, several hours of audio and text for people to explore within the images, or hyperphotographs. I don’t know who will see and hear the story, or which parts of the story people will find, or take the time to explore. There are many poetic gems hidden within.

Throughout the project I have introduced myself as a journalist and a photographer, but I’m not sure that either title quite hits the mark. I’m an author of something…

A conversation, perhaps? I hope so.

parejaManos

2009
08.16

It happened several years ago, in the peasant farms surrounding the town of Ituango, Antioquia. For years the FARC had come and gone as they pleased, asking for food and shelter in the earthen homes of the simple, working people who lived there. And requests were demands, because in war, weapons have the final word.

The Colombian army knew where the FARC were hiding. It was only a matter of time before bullets would smash the silence that had reigned for months. Jesus was working his fields when it began, cutting sugar cane and building a worker´s hunger that he expected to appease, soon, with the pot of beans that Maria was preparing in the woodfire kitchen outside their home. But the strange sound of bullets grazing the cane spears turned everything to white. Fear fills bellies with an emptiness that leaves no room for anything else. Fear for his life. Fear for María.

The army soldiers and FARC guerrillas had positioned themselves on either side of their two hectare property.  Bullets of every calibre cut the cain, and smashed through the home´s thin mud walls. Jesus scrambled towards the small gully that might be his only protection. Maria ran inside their home, seeking psychological refuge if not a physical shelter, and tried to crall under the bed. But Maria is a big woman. She didn´t fit. Lying beside the bed, weeping and exposed, Maria waited two hours for the battle to end.

When darkness fell, Jesus and Maria left their home. Beds, pigs, gravestones, chickens, orchids and cutlery, they left behind. Uncut cane. Uneaten beans, they left, for ever.

2009
08.14

Newspapers, photojournalism agencies and magazines are losing money, or are bankrupt; media moguls are decrying the death of traditional print media, and the withdrawal of funds from quality journalism is slowly making the prophecy self-fulfilling; ‘The Future of Journalism’ conferences are held in Sydney and Bogotá, where journalists who wrote their first articles on type-writers speak nostalgically of news values and independence  – “it´s all about how many different ways I can tell a story now, without consideration of quality or relevance” –  and journalism students complain that they are being used as  slave labour during their internships and work experience posts.

And yet journalism courses continue to be in demand. A strange mix of pessimism, hope and passion is at play; and there’s much to be hopeful about.

When photography was invented, people declared the death of painting. How could artists hope to render reality as accurately as this new photosensitive chemistry? But photography liberated artists to depict realities that no camera could capture. Surrealism, Cubism, Modernism and so many other isms were born.

enchanted forest_72

In a conference last night a young Colombian woman asked where her journalistic sources would come from in the digital age, given that Juanes, Shakira and Juan Pablo Montoya can all now communicate with the world via twitter, facebook, blogs, etc.

And what an exciting question! How wonderful it would be if journalists were liberated to focus on news instead of celebrity and gossip. Colombia has 44 million voiceless people with stories to tell. Journalists work with evolving forms of technology, but the craft is not about technology, or money, and it is not about journalists. We too often forget this. Journalism is about the people it serves.

I grew up around artists who paint with expensive oils, handmade brushes, ten-year old overalls and boots with holes in the toes. Art came first, but I never went hungry. With few exceptions, the journalists who attend conferences to discuss the bleak future of their craft will go home to warm homes and square meals. We work to  make money, but when there is no money we must still go to work. Because, like art, journalism is a canvas that demands truth.

The world is in dire need of truth. Journalism is far from dead.

2009
08.06

flauta

Since they arrived in Medellín two months ago, 22 year-old César and his wife Lucía have survived by toiling in city buses, the workplace of thousands of under-employed Colombians who sell sweets, pens, toothbrushes, or – like César and the flautist in this photo – perform for the captive audience. While César sings rap songs about violence and youth, Lucía walks up and down the bus selling wafer biscuits.

Hugging César’s forehead and sitting on his shoulders as he sings is two-year-old Geraldine, who accompanies her parents from bus to bus for up to ten hours a day.

After hearing César sing, I invite the family to walk to a nearby park to record some of his songs. While César and I talk and record his music, Lucía plays with Geraldine, running between the slippery dip, the swings, and the  seesaw. Her laughter and joy provide an incongruous but perfectly Colombian background to the rap songs’ angry lyrics.

Twenty minutes later, when César and Lucía begin the walk back to the congested road to continue their work, Geraldine clings to the ladder of the slippery dip with a determination that brings tears to my eyes…