On the first topic, here's a take from both sides of the spectrum: photojournalist M. Scott Brauer from DVA Foto explaining his support for allowing Winter's story "A Grunt's Life" in the contest, and counterpoint by newspaper photojournalist Chip Litherland on his blog detailing his feelings against the images and their ramifications. For his own part, the photographer Winter's own thoughts can be read in a posting on the NYT's Lens blog.
I'm gonna try to avoid spending too much time wading into an argument about the Hipstamatic because frankly I think discussions about technique are kinda boring and can sometimes miss the larger point. In short, my personal feeling is that if you want to limit the dialogue to the specific parameters of admissible technique, then the Hipstamatic is basically no different than, for example, photographs using night vision technology, photography utilizing infrared film e.g. Richard Mosse, or even a photographer's use of a warming gel on the fill flash (a long-held practice among photogs at National Geographic, likely considered one of the pantheons of traditional photojournalism). And all of these techniques have resulted in images that have historically won awards in photojournalism-oriented contests.
Making arbitrary demarcations as to what is/isn't considered acceptable imagery for visual communication can only aid in accelerating the disconnect between photojournalism and its readers/viewers -- especially in the younger, more tech-savvy demographics. This may perhaps be a situation of photojournalism stubbornly clinging too tightly to its traditions and conventions, even as they rapidly become outdated modes of communication. This isn't to say that the singular photograph has completely lost its intrinsic power -- if anything, I'd argue that in this age of video and moving imagery and the rapid flicker of visual stimuli through TV, internet, cell phones, billboards, advertisements, consumer products, etc., the frozen photograph has the ability to take on even greater impact: to force the reader/viewer to slow down, to look longer, and to contemplate.
But the important difference to see now is, in context of the rising ubiquity of the visual sources mentioned above, press photographs are no longer considered to be such a lone authoritative beacon like they had been 30/40/50 years ago. The ways in which people interact with, experience, analyze, and learn from images has changed drastically, and seems likely to continue evolving at a rapid pace.
Which is why its almost a bit pointless, this predictable annual ritual of hand-wringing in photojournalism circles. Meanwhile at this very moment, readers/viewers are more likely engaged in analyzing and digesting still photos from Mubarak's resignation in Egypt, not caught up in arguments about how the images they consume are created or disseminated... even if, frankly, maybe they should be -- and here is where the week's other photojournalism controversy, Michael Wolf's award in World Press, comes directly into play (as does the Egyptian revolution too, actually).
If you know me or this site, you know that for a while now I've been a pretty big fan of Michael Wolf. So yes, I will attempt (with objective intentions) to make the case that his A Series of Unfortunate Events is a valid award winner in the category of Contemporary Issues (because I also believe that it wouldn't have fit as well or stood as powerful in any other category in the contest) -- and further, that the body of work itself as well as his admittedly provocative act of entering it in World Press, are poignant, symbolic, and highly appropriate at this juncture in photography.
here with the British Journal of Photography, and here on the street photography site Seconds2Real. In both, Wolf talks about photojournalism (which he used to consider his work to be), street photography (which he somewhat does/doesn't consider his work to be), and more details about the background and concept of the Google Street View series.
What's pretty clear here is Wolf's technique: in one sense he has performed a virtual version of street photography a la Winogrand, and the Street View software functions as a democratic, automated remote camera that the browser can control in ways very similar to a regular camera (zoom in/out, pan left/right/up/down, etc.). And then the final image-making occurs when Wolf sets up his camera on a tripod and clicks the shutter. Wolf describes his approach in the BJP interview:
"I use a tripod and mount the camera, photographing a virtual reality that I see on the screen. Its a real file that I have, I'm not taking a screenshot. I put the camera forward and do an exact crop, and that's what makes it my picture. It doesn't belong to Google, because I'm interpreting Google; I'm appropriating Google. If you look at the history of art, there's a long history of appropriation."So, technically, as to whether or not A Series of Unfortunate Events fits some mutually agreed-upon definition of "photojournalism", it might be possible to say that Wolf is acting as a quasi-journalistic documentarian whereby the Google technology itself is the subject of his documentation. In other words, in a way he is documenting the fact that Google software has captured these images -- placing less emphasis on the images themselves or his own capturing of them. Photojournalist Matt Lutton from DVA shares his thoughts here on the photojournalistic merits of Wolf's series.
Addressing the notion of appropriation, Wolf is very correct that it is more or less an acceptable practice in the art world, made famous through the works of Richard Prince or in Sherrie Levine re-photographing Walker Evans' Depression-era images, just to name two examples. So if it becomes an issue of ownership, then shouldn't there also be questioning of another series awarded in World Press this year -- the 3rd place Arts & Entertainment winner by Amit Sha'al? Those photographs also include the use of another photograph (presumably not belonging to Sha'al) within the photo, that Sha'al has selectively manipulated through composition and cropping. Intriguingly, it appears that what Sha'al's winning series actually hints at are the limitations or potential pitfalls of how photojournalism represents reality -- in the case of that series specifically, the topic is historic sites in Israel.
1) the proliferation of images in the world today, particularly online, and
2) the consequences of that deluge of images in terms of personal privacy.
On the first point, Wolf says in the BJP interview:
"Our world is full of images. Its part of the future of our imagery. We have to deal with this [emphasis mine] -- curate them or incorporate them into our work."Just through the web alone, or even through photography-centric sites like Flickr, there's access to millions of photographs at any moment and on any subject imaginable. The artist Penelope Umbrico addresses this topic in many of her works, one of the most well-known being Suns From Flickr (which for example at the 2008 New York Photo Festival included the piece 3,221,717 Suns From Flickr (Partial), 3/31/08, where the title is a comment on the ubiquity of collective content as seen through search results on the web -- a 2007 version of Suns From Flickr counted only 2,303,057 in its title, meaning that the number of available images online had increased by nearly a million in a year's time). Read her artist's statement for more info.
2nd place Portrait Stories award in World Press this year went to Wolfram Hahn for his series about self-portraits for social networks, images of people creating photos of themselves to be uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, etc.
So what are the ramifications then if we're willing to accept -- indeed, contribute to -- this massive visual catalogue online? We surf the internet knowing that our privacy (both in terms of private details such as credit card numbers and contact information, as well as our visual representations through the photos we place online) is somewhat surveilled or compromised to an extent... and to what degree are we okay with that? I think this is a major purpose of Wolf's Street View projects, as they reinforce our potential loss of privacy through imagery online. Even in the public street, all photojournalists and street photographers already know there is essentially no legally guaranteed right to privacy, and that image-makers are free to more or less photograph at will. Now Wolf has reminded us that through online imagery there is also a right to photograph in the streets virtually, thus adding that cyber element to privacy invasion.
As a quick side note for some added context, there have been many other photographers who've used Google Street View to create images to varying degrees, among them the artist Jon Rafman, and Doug Rickard (the brains behind the photography site American Suburb X) with his recent book A New American Picture.
Josh Harris. An internet pioneer who got rich before the dot.com bubble burst, Harris then developed an acute interest in the effects of technology on individuals and created a series of controversial human experiments that incorporated webcams and various forms of surveillance. His work culminated in the film "We Live in Public", which you can see the trailer for below, or, fittingly, view in its entirety online here.
Lastly, in terms of Wolf's submission and World Press itself, I think A Series of Unfortunate Events perfectly fits the guidelines of that specific category, Contemporary Issues. As detailed in the paragraphs above, he is prompting a multi-faceted dialogue about a number of just such contemporary issues in both society AND photography today (and how they're interconnected). If the ultimate goal of photography is visual communication, then I think Wolf's series has done so effectively and with brutal timing. By those criteria his award seems wholly legitimate. I give credit to the judges for recognizing the complexity, poignancy and importance of the points being raised in his work.