Issue #86 is a cracker of an issue: North Korea, Al Qaeda’s film production house, surveillance, Tahrir Square, El Narco Blog, Pakistani drone attack survivors’ photographs, Will Steacy’s photos of a dead Philadelphia Inquirer and James Mollison’s images from Sierra Leone; the issue deals with heavy topics and uncomfortable imagery.
Also uncomfortable, is the scene of Fabienne Cherisma’s corpse atop a collapsed cement rooftop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on the 19th January, 2010 (one week after the massive Haiti earthquake). The scene was captured by multiple photojournalists, whose images COLORS features over 4 pages. They are online here.
The photographs and the circumstances in which they were made are very familiar to me. Between January 27th and April 8th, 2010, I published a fifteen-part series (beginning here) about the photos and photographers activities. In short-shrift, from a desktop in Seattle, I uncovered the similar photographs by scouring the wires, agency websites and news feeds. I interviewed a dozen of the photographers on scene.
The scene of Fabienne splayed out was — and remains — stark. It is one of the more indelible images to emerge from the natural and social disaster. So, the image was known but it’s dissection and the placement of multiple photographers’ works was done by me. My inquiries accelerated the image and the stories into the public sphere (the posts remain the most visited of Prison Photography; approximately 240,000 page views all-in-all). If my work had not put the story of Fabienne’s death and its photojournalist treatment into the spotlight maybe the awards that came later for three of the photographers would?
I was surprised to make the discovery of those images of Fabienne within the pages of COLORS. More than that, I was bothered. Why was I perturbed? I don’t own the images and I certainly don’t own the story. I’ve not been wronged.
In short, the problem for me is COLORS treatment. They could not have researched the piece without being aware of my 15-part series. COLORS doesn’t deal with the issue in any depth. In fact, they rely on the images to drive the segment and then raise the question of ethics without really providing their own position. Of the images Nathan Weber’s image of the photographers surrounding Fabienne’s body is printed larger and with prominence. Are we incited by the image? Has COLORS forfeited a nuanced handling the images, and thus the story?
Prison Photography was the first to publish Nathan Weber’s image; without doubt that was the image that launched many hyperbolic statements about the depravity of Western photojournalism. So, maybe if I hadn’t contacted Weber directly and asked him specifically about the circumstances perhaps he would never have sent that image to me … or anyone? That’s a question for Weber.
I guess, at heart, I am protective of the story. There’s so many sides to the coverage of Fabienne’s death that I don’t like to see it reduced to an over-simplified “it-was-wrong/it-was-what-it-is” argument. COLORS barely takes us past that.
Finally, I am bothered by COLORS‘ passive use of an abbreviated Weber quote that describes the circulation of the many images of Fabienne thusly:
“Even though grouping together is common for photographers in dangerous situations, many in the international photojournalist community were unhappy with having “their laundry aired in public.”
Prison Photography was the root and the source for the extended debate about these pictures. I brought the issue to the international community. All the feedback that I received for my digging and analysis was, without exception, positive. Readers were thankful to have had the scene looked at from the multiple angles, appreciated my interviews with the photographers, and understood more deeply the complexity of the situation.
No one felt that I was hanging-out photojournalists or photojournalism to dry. Pick any laundry metaphor you wish, it was not my experience reporting the story that people were upset. To suggest that the photojournalist community was irritated by having this public discussion is, frankly, insulting.