Entering the phrase “occupy wall street” into the YouTube search box brings up dozens of pages of amateur videos of the recent demonstrations in downtown Manhattan. A Google entry of “photos of occupy wall street” brings up pages like this one.
Some of the photographs are by established professional photojournalists like this one from the NY Daily News at the end of September.
But much of the imagery and print coverage surrounding these protests was all but ignored the first week and a half by the traditional news media: the TV networks, the nation’s elite newspapers like The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and even the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times.
Flikr, Twitter, email blasts, Facebook—all the new media that have been the lifeblood of “The Arab Spring,” bringing so much hope in the West to the repressed people of the Middle East and North Africa--- have been rife with an ongoing American story that had not yet been deemed worthy of major attention by traditional media. But from the beginning of the protest you could easily find live video feeds at multiple internet sites:
On Saturday October 1, The New York Times could no longer ignore the demonstrations that were taking place a few miles south of its corporate headquarters at 6th Avenue and 41st Street. The paper did run a page one story in the national edition that attempted to profile the event. But it took the arrest of nearly 700 people later that same day on the Brooklyn Bridge even to begin to focus its attention. On Sunday the 2nd, the Syrian protests made page one above the fold in the national edition while the mass arrests on the bridge were still buried on page 18. Respected financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, in a wondrous sense of disconnect, blithely claimed on CNBC's Squawk Box that only about 80 people had showed up for protests the previous days, even though internet video had clearly shown thousands.
Two weeks later, however, on Saturday October 15 , after escalating national TV and print coverage, The New York Times featured a page one photo above the fold of the national edition, of protestors chanting in front of helmeted NYPD motormen. The story's headline by Michael Barbaro and Kate Taylor read, "Calls Flood In; City Backs Off; Protestors Stay." For the present, the assembled forces remain in place at Zuccotti Park, cleaning the walkways and collecting trash--- and setting up ever more effective personal communications systems for the occupiers themselves and for the thousands of engaged people outside the park perimeter, throughout the city, the country, (where demonstrations have been spreading to other cities) and now, even to other world capitals. Also on Saturday, the "Occupy LA" march from Pershing Square to City Hall was up to 15,000 strong according to CBS--- with no violence or arrests.
Whether many of these demonstrators are congenital discontents, nihilists, ageing hippies, veteran WTO Davros pranksters, or represent the opening salvo of a new American grass roots protest movement, is (depending on your media source) arguable. It is not my intention to dig into the merits or lack thereof of the protests themselves in this essay. What is clear in the field of play is that there are indisputably new forces here and around the world storming the gates of the media fortress by using social networks, text messaging and video. Just as low cost, high-rez video DSLR cameras are transforming the motion picture entertainment landscape, these same devices (not to mention iPhone video) are changing the way we (especially young people) are encountering unfolding real life events as they are occurring.
Many of us are children of the print and newsphoto era, of professional journalists like Dexter Filkins, Seymour Hersh, Ryan Lizza, and Sebastian Junger, of photojournalists like James Nachtwey, Ashley Gilbertson, Lynsey Addario, and the late Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, whose stories and photos conform to the schedule dictates of established media. There is not only aesthetic style in their words and images but a sense of some judgment and mediation, so that we can hope to at least partly trust the integrity of their mission as professionals. In a free-for-all, no-holds-barred environment of the new, instant, raw media, we know we must engage a sensibility of caveat emptor. We feel unhinged facing a communications miasma where there are no ready gatekeepers and where our cell phones may be routinely invaded by unscrupulous lowlifes from the Murdoch empire, or where personal emails are routinely hijacked by cyber-crooks in Russia or Nigeria, exploiting a tempting link from a trusted friend, that if we dare open it, immediately unleashes a virus into our laptops .
These thoughts were very much on my mind as I prepared to have my once a year museum walkthrough with a new group of AFI Cinematography Fellows. The past several years I have met with the Fellows and cinematography teachers Stephen Lighthill and Bob Primes outside the entry of the Getty Museum rotunda; this year Department of Photography director Judith Keller joined us. I normally give an orientation and historic introduction to the current photo exhibition before we set off inside to see the work. Past treks have included Irving Penn’s early “Small Trades” exhibition and a major retrospective of the Weimar portraits of August Sander, who was called by Janet Malcolm in a recent profile of Thomas Struth in the New Yorker, [maybe] “the greatest portrait photographer in the history of the medium.”
The most recent Getty photo exhibition, which closed a few days after my walkthrough with the Fellows, is titled simply--- “Cuba.” It is a look at the history of photojournalism in Cuba from Walker Evans’ visit in 1933, the revolutionary period of the late 60s and 70s, to that of three contemporary artists. The show was the subject of a blog essay I posted shortly after the opening.
The Getty Cuba show was a tantalizing mix of traditional photojournalism, propaganda, and personal vision. As in the films of Erroll Morris, the lines between documentary, re-creation, and fiction are blurred; where the similar intersection of traditional print and photojournalism with newly developing personal, amateur media will take us in the future--- is anyone’s guess.
My own unresolved perspective is that as a photo collector I am drawn to silver or (increasingly) archival inkjet prints of the images that most move me in their "bearing witness" of true events, even as I sit at the computer keyboard and call up video and photos of a problematic reality and mostly mundane aesthetic value, simply because they are so immediate and accessible. What the longer range consequences are of being inundated with banal images that simply record an event without context, as opposed to giving you informed perspective and empathic experience--- well, that is also anyone’s guess—and grist for a head to head dialectical confrontation between critics of photography such as Janet Malcolm, Luc Sante, and the late Susan Sontag. For my part, I will simply link back here to several of the blogs of this past year, and one from the year before, ones that have addressed the men and women of professional photojournalism, ones who have themselves, as much as their work, been in the news.
The most painful of these to examine again, but still the most vital and raw, is the subject of an essay I posted on April 25. It discussed the death from a rocket attack in Libya of two of the most respected American photojournalists of our time, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros.
Even now, five months away from their deaths, I come close to tears thinking about them. I felt a kind of irrational but real aesthetic link to Hondros for his passionate love of classical music, especially the symphonies of Mahler; I had met the lanky and very tall Hetherington and his partner Sebastian Junger at a reception at the DGA last February for their Oscar nominated feature documentary, Restrepo. Here is the link to that essay:
And a link to the final images Hetherington made:
Two weeks before, I had posted a piece about the photos of Lynsey Addario, one of the noted women conflict photographers working today.
She and reporter Tyler Hicks, along with two other journalists, had been kidnapped and held by Kaddafi army forces early in the fight to liberate Libya. Several weeks later, freed, she was in Los Angeles visiting her sisters in nearby Silverlake. Carol and I met with her in our home.
We spoke about our mutual friend, Jehad Nga, a Libyan/American photojournalist who had also been captured in Libya and who had been harshly interrogated. Being a Libyan, he barely escaped with his life. I had previously written several blogs about Jehad. He had been first to inform me about Joao Silva’s traumatic injury from a landmine explosion in Afghanistan the same day Jehad and I were on an ice field set in Anchorage for the feature film now titled Big Miracle. Producer Steve Gollin had engaged Jehad for a few weeks of special photography on our film. I then wrote a piece about Silva, the only member of the infamous South African Bang Bang Club that had until then escaped serious injury or death.
Shortly before Jehad was taken captive, I posted a photo essay of his personal photos not directly associated with the film assignment, photos he had made in Barrow, Alaska, when he accompanied Peter Collister and our second unit crew to the northernmost city in North America. Jehad had worked in Third World hellholes, including the pirate terrain of the Somalia coast. Even here in the frozen Arctic, he sought out images that juxtaposed the hardscrabble reality of life on the tundra with strangely placed but poetic images of the detritus of consumerist society.
One of the great collaborative bodies of work that has come out of the fog of the war in Iraq is the journalistic work of Dexter Filkins along with the supporting photographs of his friend, Ashley Gilbertson. They were both embedded with American troops in the battle for Fallujah. Filkins book, The Forever War, and Gilbertson’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, are a street-by-street, house-by-house descent into the inferno of Iraq. I tried to tie the work of these two men together in a blog from May of last year.
For photojournalists, this year has been one of career altering events. The profession has always been dangerous. But they themselves have always worked, with few exceptions such as Robert Capa and James Nachtwey, in the background, nearly anonymous to all but their editors, a few critics, and their fellow photojournalists. But this year, many of them have become unintentionally the story itself. This is not a position they seek. Even more danger lies therein. It is widely thought that Hetherington and Hondros were not killed accidently but that the RPG that hit them was deliberate. They were the targets.
If you already have seen some of these postings on photojournalists I hope you will look at them again. Even in this new era of instant, post-literate, amateur journalism, the words and images from the most valiant and dedicated men and women professionals give us meaning, insight and empathy into the ever-shifting drama of the world’s most troubled peoples. These artists are messengers from another world, one most of us never hope to visit first hand.
Next week: Part 3 of the past year's essay review: a look at several of the major museum photo exhibitions and profiles of notable photographers.