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COLORS has been a favourite of mine since their PRISONS Issue #50. By chance I picked up a copy of the Spring 2013 COLORS magazine, Issue #86 MAKING THE NEWS.

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.

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Front cover

COLORS magazine first fell onto my radar last year when reviewing Broomberg & Chanarin’s work. It cropped up again in March when I delved into Stefan Ruiz’s early career. All three were creative directors in COLORS continually rotating roster of aesthetic leadership.

Based in the north Italian town of Treviso, COLORS is part of the publishing activity of Fabrica, Benetton’s communication research centre. Benetton’s searing brand-making hit my young retinas with its controversial United Colours of Benetton (billboard) ad campaign of the early nineties.

Besides Saatchi and Saatchi, Benetton was the only time in my childhood I was aware of the names behind billboard products. That is an assumed level of cultural penetration, but I’m working from precious memory too much to determine its significance.

[As an aside, Enrico Bossan Head of Photography at Fabrica and Director of COLORS Magazine was co-curator for the 2011 New York Photo Festival. He also founded in 2010, which delivers without no-nonsense video interviews with photographers.]

The 50th edition of COLORS (June 2002) focused specifically on prisons. From the introduction:

With over eight million people held in penal institutions the prison population is one of the fastest growing communities in the world. In the United States, a country which holds 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the world population, prisons are now the fastest growing category of housing in the country.

For COLORS 50 we have visited 14 prisons in 14 countries and asked a difficult question: Is it possible to rehabilitate a person back into society by excluding them from it? We spoke to murders, rapists, pedophiles, armed robbers, thieves, frauds, drug dealers, pick pockets, high-jackers and prison wardens. In most cases the stories we heard confirm one thing. That prison does not work. In COLORS 50 we ask the inmates themselves to suggest alternatives.

The magazine is 90 pages of portraits and interior landscapes. I came to this collection of work late (in my research here at Prison Photography) and in many ways it challenges many of my former presumptions. This edition is a precursor to the “VICE-aesthetic” celebrating the battered and broken, and I’d be happy to dismiss it if it weren’t for the long-form statements made by the prisoners, which are printed with care and without censorship.

The issue includes bodies of work by photographers I was previously unaware of including Juliana Stein, Vesselina Nikolaeva, James Mollison, Charlotte Oestervang, Suhaib Salem, Federica Palmarin, Mattia Zoppellaro, Ingvar Kenne, Kat Palasi, Dave Southwood, Gunnar Knechtel, Pieter van der Howen and Sye Williams. I will be featuring selections of these photographers over the next few weeks.

I bought the paper edition, but you don’t have to as the entire Prison/Prigione Issue 50 can be viewed online.

Above all, while browsing the images and stories of the magazine, I am really pressed into thinking about the ease with which a commentator can politicise and argue against the prison system in America, but be flummoxed when asked to appreciate prison systems elsewhere. Benetton uses the common theme of incarceration to raise questions, but I am at a loss to think of common answers to tackle the pain, blood and damage done to individuals in their lives before, during and after imprisonment.

At a surface level this is car-crash photography; a look inside worlds we’ll never know, but at its heart it is a call to think about the nature of humanity and to think about the capacity for humans to kill, to survive, to get addicted and to repair and to forgive.

Back cover


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