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Robert Pledge unfolds the many layers of narrative photography

Speaking with STIR on the eve of the World Photography Day, the co-founder of Contact Press Images emphasises on the role of photojournalism and ethics in the age of digital culture.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Aug 18, 2020

A not-so-chance discovery of the book titled 44 days: Iran and The Remaking of the World, co-authored by photojournalist David Burnett, photo editor Robert Pledge and writer Jacques Menasche, while looking for the photographs of Iranian Revolution for a personal project, prompted my interest to know more about the photo-editor and photojournalist. Both Burnett and Pledge launched the independent photo agency Contact Press Images in 1976.

Based in the city of New York, the agency was established against the political fallout of the Vietnam War. For the co-founders, it was instrumental to form their views on what photojournalism would mean for the new generation. The publications and exhibitions produced by Contact Press Images have time and again reinforced the importance of human rights and challenged totalitarianism to give rise to alternative history. 

Speaking with STIR, Pledge digs deep to find the answer to the most frequently asked question whether “in any form, is photography still important and relevant today?” Along the line, he also traces the major shift the art of photojournalism has witnessed, underlines the significance of ethical practice, among many other things of pertinence to photography for the readers to explore and deliberate upon.

USA 1969. The launch of “The First Man on the Moon” Apollo 11 rocket in Florida | Robert Pledge | World Photography Day | STIRworld
USA 1969. The launch of “The First Man on the Moon” Apollo 11 rocket in Florida Image: Courtesy of David Burnett (Contact Press Images)

Dilpreet Bhullar (DB): As the co-founder of Contact Press Images, you have been a witness to significant changes within the discipline of photojournalism. Would you like to walk us through these shifts experienced over the years?

Robert Pledge (RP): When a half-a-dozen photographers and I, a world roving journalist and editor, from as many different countries, founded in the mid-70s the photography ‘boutique-agency’ Contact Press Images, in New York, the United States had just turned a big historical corner marked both by the end of the exhilarating US Apollo Space Program that had landed the first man on the moon in July 1969, and the brutal and haunting American War in Vietnam that poisoned international relationships across the planet for over a dozen years. This happened against the unnerving backdrop of the Cold War opposing the West to the Soviet Union, since the end of World War II, in a tense ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism.

A new era was just starting that saw the emergence of a second ‘golden age’ in photojournalism. The almost half-century-long dominance in the media of newspapers and the famed mass-circulation illustrated magazines born in the 1920s and 30s — i.e. the first Golden Age — was being substituted by that of television and smaller-size weekly news magazines. Tremendous development in the printing technology was allowing faster and greater visual abundance concerning the news coverage, with colour photography gradually replacing black and white on the printed pages. The galloping expansion of television was generating a tough head-on competition.

Mainstream readers from the western world were finally discovering some of the (harsh) realities, prevailing in the ‘rest of the world' seen in sharp contrast with the manicured imagery of the National Geographic. Freelance photographers, in majority affiliated with the newly formed independent French photo agencies, in the footsteps of the iconic Magnum Photos founded in 1947, took advantage of the now growing jet-propelled airline industry and zig-zagged across the planet to bring back visual stories about anything meaningful happening they could lay their eyes on to investigate.

Federal Republic of Germany 1989. Tearing down the 28-year-old Berlin Wall that divided the country between East and West, on November 9  | World Photography Day| STIRworld
Federal Republic of Germany 1989. Tearing down the 28-year-old Berlin Wall that divided the country between East and West, on November 9 Image: Courtesy of Alexandra Avakian (Contact Press Images)

Over the 44 years of its existence, Contact has faced turning points and major shifts in the field. In the early 80s, the double emergence of CNN’s 24-hour all-news soon-to-be international cable television network and Apple’s 512K personal computer were at the start of an endless technological revolution. On November 9 of 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down after 28 years that separated Germany and the entire world into two blocks. Photographers from both sides would soon be freely crossing a suddenly vanished border, in the discovery of each other’s worlds.

Historically, the most definitive game-changer came about a decade later with the 9/11 terrorist attack against the Twin Towers in Manhattan. The city of New York was abruptly cut off from the rest of the world and closed down for almost a week. Until that day, except the wire-services such as AP, AFP, Reuters that fed the newspapers with transmitted images, all agencies and magazines were still using film that needed to be processed by a lab when exposed before producing prints. Suddenly, all that became impossible. Amateur photographers, who took images with their cell-phones ended-up being the ones able to meet the news deadlines around the world. Not the professionals! In other words, the first steps of citizen journalism.

The photography world metamorphosed from analogue to digital: PCs, cell-phones, digital cameras and scanners, Photoshop, social and professional networks, apps and platforms, but also very importantly by video, a revolution within the revolution. Everything is now instantaneous. 

Photography, the way it had been understood and practised for over a century, has been turned inside out. Today, only those photographers, who are working on longer-term, in-depth and more personal projects with flexible deadlines, have a choice between digital and film. In the latter case, more than often, the work is produced in black and white, frequently with medium format cameras both for aesthetic and editorial reasons. Yet their numbers are decreasing.

Iraq 1991. Iraqi soldier killed on Highway 8 by a US bomb during the Gulf War| World Photography Day | STIRworld
Iraq 1991. Iraqi soldier killed on Highway 8 by a US bomb during the Gulf War Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Jarecke (Contact Press Images)

DB: The works exhibited and published by Contact have continued to emphasise the need to represent human rights issues. When the voice of journalism is calculatedly stifled, what role do the independent photographic agencies play to restore the significance of photojournalism?

RP: The human condition, human dignity, and human rights remain guiding themes in photojournalism. Reality, facts, evidence, truth are feared in non-democratic leaders. 

Some traditional agencies exist and survive because of the depth of their archives. Photographers have to be in charge of all aspects of the process themselves to keep any form of control in an environment that is shaped by immediacy: they have become researchers and travel agents; shooters and editors; they scan and transmit; they have become sales people and accountants; they write the captions and often the accompanying text too; they are journalists and publishers, producers and artists, all at once.

New forms of agencies and collectives are starting to emerge but no definitive template exists in the fluid times we live in. Yet, the purpose remains the same: to investigate, ask questions and report with accuracy and honesty.

This requires knowledge, understanding of the social contexts. The current pandemic has revealed many of the injustices in the world at a time when so many aspire to preserve its beauty and its wonders, continuously battered by industrialisation, urbanisation, climate change, immense health issues, religious and cultural intolerance, and racism. Therefore, photographers and their agencies cannot but keep asking questions and reporting with accuracy and honesty. 

Photographs are ‘small voices,’ the famed American photo-essayist W Eugene Smith often said. Many small voices compounded can make a lot of noise.

USA 2001. Ground Zero: five hours after the September 11 World Trade Center terrorist attack, New York City | World Photography Day | STIRworld
USA 2001. Ground Zero: five hours after the September 11 World Trade Center terrorist attack, New York City Image: Courtesy of Lori Grinker (Contact Press Images)

DB: Photography as a medium of expression could be inherently seen as an art of telling a story. As a photo editor and a curator, how do you select the photographs for a publication or an exhibition that would represent the zeitgeist of the times?

RP: Photography is the most powerful and audible ‘art of silence’ as my friend the late French mime Marcel Marceau once told me.

So, the idea, the concept, the narrative, the message, the style is what shapes the story. Photography is about looking. About observing, about understanding and trying to make sense of an unfamiliar situation, an eye-opening or hidden set of circumstances. Today, where little is left to be ‘discovered’, one needs more than ever, knowledge and context to visually grasp the bits and pieces of the puzzle that will allow you to gather and then offer a broader picture. The passion of the eye, the sound of the images, the emotions they express, and the enlightenment of the brain, are what I am after to guide me in my judgment as a visual editor and a curator.

Everyone is or can be a photographer. Or, one believes. One can indeed be fortunate enough to produce an amazing series of images that might go viral. To be able to do so consistently over many years and decades is a whole other matter. But what digital technology has offered is a broader pool of very talented photographers from all over the world no longer exclusively based in Paris or New York. The practice has become international, less class defined and therefore much more ‘democratic.’ Yet, photography, in reality, is a slow medium. Only time and patience, long-term commitment and perseverance will deliver meaningful work with consistency. 

Afghanistan 2005. After the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan | World Photography Day| STIRworld
Afghanistan 2005. After the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan Image: Courtesy of Stephen Dupont (Contact Press Images)

DB: The question of ethical restrain has time and again punctuated the discussions on photojournalism. Do you think the unsaid line of ethical practice is often compromised to achieve the desired results?

RP: Ethics have been a major issue constantly discussed in the world of photojournalism. Accuracy and privacy, search of the truth and intellectual bias, self-censorship and honesty are some of the recurrent topics. 

The relationship with the subjects photographed, particularly in the situation of great hardship — displaced, refugees, victims of famines or epidemics, detainees of armed forces is crucial. Should the restraint only occur after the photograph is taken: shoot first then decide later what to do with the pictures is indeed a fairly common approach. Others, such as British ‘war photographer’ — a definition Don McCullin, 85-year-old and the only ever knighted photojournalist abhors — will always attempt to get permission to photograph from the subjects themselves, not in writing, but through eye contact. He photographs his subjects in a frontal way, for that reason precisely. In these kinds of situations, his guiding rule is to seek their approval by looking them into the eye and allow their gaze to say “yes, photograph me” before exposing his film. 

History in the making requires not only a strong personal point of view and commitment but also, and above all, strong ethical judgment and moral integrity.

Zimbabwe 2005. Godfrey, 32, victim of HIV-AIDS, is too sick to work and unable to afford the Antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatments. Mbare, Harare | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Zimbabwe 2005. Godfrey, 32, victim of HIV-AIDS, is too sick to work and unable to afford the Antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatments. Mbare, Harare Image: Courtesy of Kristen Ashburn (Contact Press Images)

DB: Well, when we are at the topic of ethical restrain, I would like to ask you about the role of maintaining the critical distance from the subject of the photograph. Is it or not a key to document history in the making?

RP: In photojournalism, the notion of critical distance has been part of the discourse forever in one fashion or another. The technology, at each phase of its development, sharpens the discussion. The invention in the mid-1920s of the 35mm camera changed everything: it allowed one to get close, to become agile and invisible at the same time. The long lenses and later, in the 1950s the commercialisation of the zoom lenses provoked similar debate. 

How close and ‘invisible’ should a photographer be? Is the image all that matters or is sensitivity towards the subjects and the circumstances they find themselves of importance too? And what about the reader? An ‘in your face approach’ can be very disturbing for either or both-photographer and subject. 

Robert Capa’s famous statement “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough” was at first interpreted literally: the closer you get to the action, the actors of a situation, the better the photograph will be in terms of good information. Capa was a smart man, and one with much experience when he professed these words. You cannot produce good photography if you are not close to the subject matter, to your story, if you are not inside and know enough about them to be able to understand what is happening. You need to learn and speak with those you photograph, to become psychologically and emotionally close and more knowledgeable about facts and context surrounding them, which is indeed very much the way Capa practised his own photography. He certainly was not promoting the idea that one should be a daredevil and jump into the fire, as many have and continue to, at tremendous risk. 

Finding the right distance is an essential consideration each photographer needs to address and resolve individually. The issue is as much a matter of sensitivity and ethics as it is of a geographical, physical or psychological nature.

France 2020. Paris pays tribute to the frontline COVID-19 healthcare workers | World Photography Day | STIRworld
France 2020. Paris pays tribute to the frontline COVID-19 healthcare workers Image: Courtesy of Jean-Claude Coutausse (Contact Press Images)

DB: Fauxtography has eclipsed the visual eloquence of the iconic image in the age of digital culture. The terms like ‘viral’ and ‘trending’ have paved the way for a ‘momentary’ response to the images. What kind of changes in terms of - making a photograph, delight of looking at a photograph, photograph as a visual text, the means of dissemination - are you anticipating in the course of next few years?

RP: The statement recently put out by the Open Society Foundation, “about the danger of misinformation (on the COVID-19) — and the necessity of fact-based journalism” applies naturally to photojournalism. 

Propaganda and censorship, picture trafficking and manipulation, all intend to mislead. They are not new phenomena by any stretch, but in reason of the importance and viral speed of social media today, their impact can indeed be tremendously harmful to the truth, memory and history, the very raisons d’être of photojournalism. Today and tomorrow, the same way they were yesterday. 

Click here to read more on the celebration of World Photography Day.

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