The idea for this reflection on photojournalism stems from a series of crumpled notes from lectures given by Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), the father of the Beat Generation. I thought about what I wanted to write for a long time, trying to avoid yet more recriminations on the crisis of the media, and it was those notes that brought all the pieces of the puzzle together.
During a lecture held at the Naropa Institute in Colorado in 1975, Ginsberg analysed the poetry of William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), describing its style, its literary qualities, its rhythm and the peculiarities of the historic period in which it was written.
Williams’ poetry breaks with the classic mould, favouring modern, direct language. It is based on the observation of reality, describing scenes with language free from long-established stylistic gimmickry. Ginsberg read Nantucket as an example.
Flowers through the window
lavander and yellow
changed by white curtains-
Smell of cleanliness-
Sunshine of late afternoon-
On the glass tray
A glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which
a key is lying-And
the immaculate white bed
Nantucket could be the description of a photograph or a painting, perhaps one painted in New England, with its warm, low light reflected by the ocean. In fact, the first images that came to mind having read the poem were of some works by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), painted between New York and New England. Over half a century later, the unique light depicted in these canvases inspired “Hopper Meditation”, a photographic work by Richard Tuschman (1965). Tuschman is an American artist who reinterprets the atmospheres of Hopper’s work.
The literary citations could continue with the works of Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), who in Five Groups of Verse, an appendix to the novel By the Water of Manhattan, published a poem that is the exact literary transposition of 11 AM by Edward Hopper, and Green Bedroom #2 (4AM) and Green Bedroom (Morning) by Richard Tuschman.
She sat by the window opening into the airshaft,
and looked across the parapet
at the new moon.
She would have taken the hairpins out of her carefully
and throw herself on the bed in tears;
but he was coming and her mouth had to be pinned
into a smile.
If he would have her, she would marry whatever he was.
A knock. She lit the gas and opened her door.
Her aunt and the man-skin loose under his eyes,
face slashed with wrinkles.
“Come in,” she said as gently as she could and smiled.
What the work of Williams, Hopper, Reznikoff and later Tuschman had in common was not an artistic style, nor an intellectual trend, but the poetry of the scenes they described. This was the result of an attentive, receptive process of observation of reality which bears some similarities to photojournalism.
William Carlos Williams was a doctor with a passion for photography passed on to him by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a mechanical engineer and the founder of so-called “artistic photography”, released from the shackles of reportage to create images with a beauty not necessarily connected to the reporting of events. Charles Reznikoff had studied journalism at the University of Missouri and quickly realised he wanted to use words to describe the world in verse, rather than to write news reports. Edward Hopper, despite holding a diploma from the New York School of Art, earned his keep by working as an advertising illustrator for 45 years.
Though these figures were profoundly different, they shared an acute capacity for observing the reality of day-to-day life. This can be seen in their attention to detail, their use of light, their descriptions of people, as in this other poem by Reznikoff, which is as vivid as a painting, a photograph or a fragment of a scene filmed with Tonino Delli Colli’s trademark lighting style.
It is a story and the details provided help us to achieve a deep understanding of the protagonist, his environment and his social status.
The shoemaker sat in the cellar’s dusk beside his bench and sewing-machine, his large,
blackened hands, finger tips flattened and broad, busy.
Through the grating in the sidewalk over his window, paper and dust were falling year by year.
At evening Passover would begin. The sunny street
was crowded. The shoemaker could see the feet of
those who walked over the grating.
He had one pair of shoes to finish and he would be through.
His friend came in, a man with a long, black beard, in
Shabby, dirty clothes, but with shoes newly cobbled
“Beautiful outside, really the world is beautiful.”
A pot of fish was boiling on the stove. Sometimes the water
Bubbled over and hissed. The smell of the fish filled the
“It must be beautiful in the park now. After our fish we’ll take a walk in the park.“
The shoemaker nodded.
The shoemaker hurried his work on the last shoe.
The pot on the stove bubbled and hissed. His friend walked up and
down the cellar in shoes newly cobbled and and blacked
When I think of the Italian authors that have struck me for their meticulous observation of reality, I think of the journalist and traveller Tiziano Terzani (1938-2004); Mario Dondero (1928), a legendary figure in Italian photojournalism; and the photographer Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000), a trained typesetter who became one of the most internationally acclaimed artists in the world.
Their work reveals an unmistakeable – almost reverent – attention for the human condition. They are attracted by what they describe and the empathy they feel is tangible. They understand people and do not limit themselves to defining them using the standard stereotypes imposed by society, by governments, by the police or by research centres or institutions. All three search for the poetry in life, whether beautiful or painful; the love and dedication they have for their work is clear to see, as is the synergy that allows them to connect deeply with other people. Mario Giacomelli even adds rhythm to his photography with verses by Eugenio Montale, Emily Dickinson, Sergio Corazzini and some of his own work, thus creating truly authentic masterpieces.
Marco Pesaresi (1964-2001) is another artist who managed to create poetry via images. I remember the first time I saw one of his works, set in Rimini. I thought immediately of Fellini.
Pesaresi made me think of the melancholy poeticism of certain scenes from I Vitelloni. You could see his extraordinary involvement with his subjects because of the way he tenderly and lovingly observed them, and because he didn’t just limit himself to watching them and reproducing them using the established style. It is an unexplainable thing – you either have such qualities or you don’t – and you can instantly recognise whether an artist is genuinely involved in the story they’re telling or if they simply want to be noticed.
In this first case, details and descriptions emerge from the backdrop of the events and the facts, today so omnipresent that we barely pay any attention to them. As Gay Talese (1932) puts it, “news dies tomorrow”. Yet a description of the human condition, offered after an attentive, profound process of observation, lives on eternally, because it reflects the story of our society at that moment in time. One could write at length about the assonance between different artists and art forms, such as the photography of Stieglitz and the poetry of Williams, or the photography of Pesaresi and the cinema of Fellini, but the fundamental thing to highlight is that all were influenced by the “poetry of real life”. They were able to observe it and then reinterpret it through their art and their moral and human values. Observing means exposing one’s own sentiments and viewing events from a different perspective, with greater attention. It is a process that requires time, research, study, sensitivity, a desire to put yourself up for discussion and an awareness that our own certainties may be found wanting. It requires you to open up to the subject and allow it to become part of you. It leaves you vulnerable, but in my opinion it is the only way to tell a story without risking it being sterile.
People must deliberately practice this slow process of observation over time. The failure to do so has spurned the photojournalism crisis everybody now speaks about. It is a crisis that involves all of the contemporary society that has progressively reduced our ability to observe with attention and reflect in order to be able to better understand an event, a situation, a story. And the media has been the vehicle via which this hurried attitude has spread throughout society.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the pioneer of the Beat movement, studied the works of Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov, who in the early 1900s – as part of his studies of behaviour – devised the concept of conditioned reflex. Kerouac understood just how unimaginable the possibilities for conditioning minds were, defining both communism and the TIME LIFE group as “extreme evils of society”. Kerouac was among the first to realise that the modern media could describe reality without observing it, instead merely distorting it to suit a political and commercial logic that had little in common with the aforementioned artists’ way of working.
Ever since the 1960s, the rise of television – with increasingly excessive narrative trends based on driving up ratings rather than producing quality content – has moulded the way we impart information, resulting in the decline in reflection we see today. When the Western press dedicates headlines and stories to the threat of Islamic terrorism without using the same emphasis for the serious attacks that have occurred in Russia, or to the fact that ISIS established itself in Iraq after the installation of pro-Western governments and the subsequent implementation of rush domestic policies, it irreparably conditions the thoughts of millions of people who – without even reading a newspaper – see them on show at newsstands and on round-ups all over the world. When an earthquake strikes in Bangladesh the photographs of the bodies are all over the news for days, but the same bodies are not shown when a Western country is affected (read Italy and L’Aquila), the subconscious message is that the lives of others are worth less than ours. By reawakening feelings of guilt, they want – using the notion of help as a pretext – to justify the continued interference of the West in developing countries.
In The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) urges Africa to stop blaming “her collapsed infrastructure, unemployment, drug abuse, and refugee crises on colonialism”, and while recognising its historic implications, encourages it “to think and act autonomously, learning from its own errors”. The Western media, however, often push opposite buttons that justify assistance, aid, intervention. The consolidation of geopolitical and economic positions, in other words.
The Vietnam War and the protest movements that sprung up in the United States at that time, some as a result of what was being shown in the media, were the watershed moment that eventually gave rise to the current communications model. An overly independent press would compromise hegemonies that could not afford to be risked.
During the first Gulf War, in the early 1990s, a large part of the Western media coverage was orientated to favour the point of view of the American coalition. Those who opposed this did so more for ideological reasons than due to having seen the point of view of Iraqis on the ground. It was all but impossible to observe the effects on the civilian population. The enemy was demonised and the battles shown as if they were some sort of show. It was the first war to be broadcast live and to see the use of so-called smart bombs, though in reality these were only used to a minimal degree.
With time, this communications model has favoured unpopular decisions relating to further military interventions, in a crescendo of superficiality and alienation that has recently reached social media, where important, complex issues are relegated to the number of likes and retweets each post receives.
As if this wasn’t enough, much of the investigative journalism carried out now receives subsidies from the same economic and financial power groups that – at the same time – contribute to creating the social problems that journalists should be reporting on; even worse is the fact that in order to secure funding for a project, you have to explain the argument you wish to pursue in advance, denying you the open-mindedness and freedom necessary to be able to look at the facts in an unconditioned way.
This way of producing content is the antithesis of journalism.
Writing, justifying and evaluating a project thousands of miles away from the scene, before heading out into the field not to investigate but to search for confirmation of what you have already presented to the board funding the project, is a method of producing information that is quickly spreading. I believe this to be an abomination being passed off as journalistic reporting.
Where has this deterioration come from?
I have asked myself this question many times, especially after the war in Libya, when I was able to work side by side with many colleagues and reflect on their different levels of sensitivity.
The intellectuals that gave rise to the Beat movement between the end of the Second World War and the 1950s defined American universities as capitalist breeding grounds that didn’t encourage the discussion and comparison of ideas, but rather attempted to homogenise our vision of society to a well-defined model. This concept is at the basis of the thinking of Noam Chomsky (1928) who, in a recent interview with Alternet entitled “How America’s Great University System is Being Destroyed”, explains that starting from the 1960s, the transformation of universities into organisation schemes becoming increasingly reminiscent of business corporations has severely limited debate, creativity and the ability to investigate, observe and experiment. Sixty years later, Chomsky confirms what Kerouac had perceived. And once again, the observation of reality is at the crux of these reflections.
Academia has shaped people that are increasingly detached from reality, when life experience and critical analysis should have been the basis of their education. A few weeks ago, something happened that is indicative of the level of alienation that we have now reached. A law student at Harvard asked her professor to refrain from teaching laws relative to rape cases because this could prove distressing for any students who had suffered sexual abuse in the past. The incident, which was reported by Greg Lukianoff (1974) and Jonathan Haidt (1963) in the Atlantic (The Coddling of the American Mind), is just one of hundreds of cases looked at by Lukianoff via the Freedom for Individual Rights in Education association, which ensures civil liberties are respected in the academic sphere. Another example is the petition signed by students at Columbia University asking for trigger warnings to be inserted in courses on Greek mythology and Roman poetry, given that these areas often feature many cases of rape, sexual abuse and racism, topics which could be sensitive for some students.
It’s not hard to imagine that with this class ruling our society, it will become harder and harder to find people capable of pausing to observe reality and describe it for what it is. An education that does not include open confrontation with diametrically opposed – even painful – points of view cannot help but create an acquiescent, self-referential society that produces information designed to propagate specific, well-established schools of thought. It is a far cry from the information produced by the figures cited at the beginning of this essay, who observed and described the world as objectively as possible, but without overshadowing their feelings and emotions. Anyone who does my job is well-aware that certain professional impulses are linked to egocentrism and personal affirmation over other colleagues. We like to be the first to speak about certain subjects, we prefer to work with people with whom we share points of view and that reinforce our role of control during the execution of a project. The playing field has moved from the discussion of people’s stories to a desire to affirm a concept approved by our society.
The recent migrant crisis, with two opposing factions doing battle through the medium of propaganda, is a sad example of this. Slogans like “let’s take them all, let’s abolish borders and let’s call them by a different name”, or “let’s send them back and help them in their home countries” reveal the lack of critical observation, free from cultural or ideological influences, or vested interests. The slogans are repeated because information is passed down by demagogues with a disregard for international law, which should simply be respected by governments and peoples.
I’m increasingly convinced that, now more than ever before, we need information that is less sensationalist, more reflective and more in-depth. We need information that speaks to people’s souls rather than to their impulses, information that is capable of reawakening our curiosity, our love for the truth and our sense of responsibility via reports focused on people’s stories and not just on the facts.
But to do this we need to have the time to observe and to get to know the people we have in front of us. Reportages such as Invasion Prague by Joseph Koudelka (1938); Few Comforts or Surprise, Below the Line by Eugene Richards (1944) and “Curse of the Black Gold” by Ed Kashi (1957) are increasingly rare, because they are only possible if you know the subject at hand inside out, with an understanding that you acquire over a long stretch of time, not a week or two. It is especially difficult to make this sort of work if a journalist is too tied to the market and is trying to please those with the power to finance projects.
In this regard, one of the most significant works that I have seen this year is The Geography of Poverty, by Matt Black (1970), a photographer from Los Angeles. Abandoning the stereotype of America as an advanced, affluent country, with pockets of poverty scattered in a few rural and urban areas, such as Appalachia and Harlem, Black went on an 18,000-mile trip to circumnavigate the United States. He found that he came across areas every two hours where between 20% and 55% of the population lived below the poverty line ($23,850 total for a four-person family in 2014). Black was undertaking critical research based on the observation of people’s lives within an economic system that no longer manages to support those who – through their work – contribute to the wellbeing of a limited bracket of society, something that in and of itself is already reprehensible. Black’s reporting was carried out by travelling for months around 70 cities, being with the people and telling their story, far from the shiny web documentaries that people watch distractedly on the underground, serving to further impede us from making meaningful connections. His work describes the social conditions of 45 million United States citizens right now in 2015, and how their situation is entangled with the issues of migration, environmental pollution, the use of the earth’s resources and industrialisation.
To do this job you need time, and time is a resource of which we have increasingly little. But it is our choice as to whether we accept this type of information or, as authors, we wish to buck the trend and once again begin to tell the story of people’s lives through their human condition, the only thing that truly matters when trying to get to the bottom of a story, because it reflects the state of a society in that precise moment.
So more than a crisis of photojournalism, in my opinion this is about our limited ability to observe and perceive reality without filters, whether these are represented by commercial, narcissistic logic or by intellectual and emotional frameworks created by decades of conditioning, something also perpetuated by the academic world. Only we can be the parties responsible for this deterioration.