Discreet views of barbarity

Witness to History - Body Horror

November 6, 1998

On the first day of this year's Conservative Party conference a photograph was published in The Guardian showing William Hague and wife Ffion on their way to the opening of the conference. But the photographers did not just hang around outside the conference hotel on the off-chance of seeing Mr Hague - given security considerations he could well have gone by car - this was a planned "photo opportunity". In other words, the photographers would have been told where and when to assemble in order to catch "spontaneous shots" of William and Ffion, arm-in-arm, making their way to the conference centre - and indeed that was precisely what the photograph that appeared in the next day's Guardian showed. Nothing unusual about that, except that this photograph showed William and Ffion plus 30 or 40 photographers and journalists scrimmaging on their way along the front at Bournemouth.

It did not have to be like that. Cropped in conventional style the photograph would have shown William and Ffion enjoying a bracing stroll along the front, anticipating a day of lively debates (acting is now an essential prerequisite for the successful politician - and his or her spouse). Instead, between the photographer and the editorial production team, it was contrived to show the artifice behind the photo opportunity; but in what sense was the Guardian's photograph "truer"? Would a more conventionally cropped picture, showing just Hague and his wife, have been "untrue"? After all, the couple did walk to the conference along the front and he was smiling: the fact that he was accompanied by 40 photographers does not detract from the truth of the original statement. In other words both the conventionally cropped photo and the Guardian version were both "true".

This paradox is just one small example of a much larger issue that forms much of the subject matter of these two volumes, albeit in very different modes. John Taylor approaches photojournalism from an art and design perspective, but his familiarity with arguments from a much wider range of disciplines is impressive. However, it is a pity that a volume with such provenance should be, literally, so difficult to read. The typeface is unnecessarily small - some pages run to over 600 words - and the use of illustrations is disappointing. First, there are just not enough of them - some photos are described but not reproduced. Second, there is an inconsistency between the positioning of photographs and the text that describes them. Hence a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing is required by the conscientious reader to get some sense of the author's argument.

Having said that, overall this is a very useful contribution to the literature. It ranges confidently over a number of important issues that the practice of photo-journalism brings to the fore - issues such as how photo-journalists strike the balance between the highly graphic images they capture against the public's understandable reluctance to confront blood, guts and gore over the breakfast table. Taylor is concerned too about the selectivity that takes place in virtually every decision involved in the reproduction of a photograph in a newspaper - from the initial decision as to what to commission, through those split-second decisions by the photographer as to where to point the camera and when to press the shutter. Decisions by the picture editor about which photographs to discard and which to use and then, finally, how to crop them and what text is to be used to accompany them.

This decision-making chain plays a major role in defining the nature of the pictorial world that is reflected back to us through the pages of newspapers or, for that matter, on our television screens. Taylor argues that far from photographers and editors setting out to shock and titillate readers by the use of extreme images they err, if at all, too greatly on the side of caution.

Taylor's claim is that journalists are overly concerned about the sensitivities of their readers and, a result, give a distorted view of the world by showing too little rather than too much. The classic example of this is the censoring of images that took place during the Gulf war. This, initially, was a result of the tight control exercised by the American and British military authorities over the movement of camera crews and photographers and over the transmission of their photographs and video tapes in and around the area of conflict. But two events in particular brought the censorship issue into sharp public focus - the bombing of the Baghdad air-raid shelter and the so-called "turkey shoot" of retreating Iraqi forces on the road from Basra to Baghdad. Both television and the press greatly restricted the images of these events that they used because they believed the pictures were too shocking for public consumption. But war is shocking, argues Taylor, and readers should have been shown the full, or at least a fuller picture. (Taylor's section headings are poignant - "The unbelievable cleanliness of war" and "The body vanishes", for instance.) His conclusion is justifiably harsh: "Civility sits uneasily with war," he opines and goes on to ask, "how would the Holocaust be remembered if it existed only in 'civil' representations - those which were most discreet? What would it mean for civility if representations of war crimes were always polite? If prurience is ugly, what then is discretion in the face of barbarism?"

"Discretion in the face of barbarism" is not a charge that can be levelled against Russian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, although given his Jewish background the relative paucity of images depicting the Holocaust in this volume is striking. Nonetheless, this is a stunning collection of photographs, mainly from the second world war, from one of the Soviet Union's most distinguished war photographers. Some of Khaldei's second world war images are as famous as Robert Capa's photo of US marines raising the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima. In practical terms this collection has a shortcoming similar to Body Horror - for despite the plethora of photographs the reader is required to undertake much page turning, in both directions, in order to be able satisfactorily to relate the text to the pictures. Such mechanical matters are significant in this medium, for by their very nature photographs are far better viewed in direct relation to the relevant text.

But textual criticisms aside, what this aesthetically satisfying collection, and its fluent accompanying text, provides is the sharp realisation that much of Khaldei's work, along with Capa's and perhaps most other war photographers, contains almost as much artifice as reality.

What is perhaps Khaldei's most famous photograph - the shot of a Soviet soldier raising the Russian flag over the burnt-out Reichstag building in Berlin - was only made possible thanks to the flag that Khaldei had brought with him. Another of his most striking images, that of a line of Soviet troops marching across a river and framed in a way that puts them in near-perfect symmetry with their own reflections, involved much repositioning by the troops before Khaldei was satisfied with the image. Nonetheless, I would argue for the essential "truth" of these photographs, for it is not dissimilar to the Hague-in-Bournemouth scenario - a Soviet soldier did raise a Soviet flag over the Reichstag - does it matter who supplied the flag? And as the soldiers were crossing that particular river - is it significant that they paused and realigned themselves to create a better composition?

The results of Khaldei's "productions" are stunning. For these photographs do not just relate a dramatic narrative of the second world war, admittedly as part of the "heroes of the Soviet Union" genre, but also provide a series of powerful and moving visual images. This is art and propaganda working hand in hand. Taylor might argue that this makes Khaldei culpable, as part of the process that seeks to disinfect, and make acceptable, the experience of war. That might well be the case, but that does not mean that in the process the photographer, in this case Khaldei, has not brilliantly caught a moment of truth - someone's reality - and also created a series of remarkable images.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Witness to History: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei

Author - Alexander and Alice Nakhimovsky
ISBN - 0 89381 738 4
Publisher - Aperture
Price - £.00
Pages - 94

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