We are truly pleased to host Ruben Salvadori’s reportage, Photo journalism Behind the Scenes, on PlanetNext’s website.
When we came across this piece on the Internet, we were immediately struck by its significance because of the insight it offers into a crucial feature of our own work. Something all journalists are aware of, but seldom, if ever, bother to speak about: the fact that facts per se do not exist.
The presence of an observer defines the way any event will be seen. And the presence of a reporter will define how that event will be known to the public. The fact reported or portrayed is actually but one ‘version’ of a fact. Underline “one version.”
Any event is such a complex amalgam of details that no eye could possibly catch it in its entirety. Any witnessed event will always be just a part of a whole, the part seen from the angle afforded by or given to the observer’s position. This happens every time we read a report or see a picture. And if we show that report or picture to a friend, a new version will be immediately born under the new observer’s eye.
This is not just philosophical musing.
Not if we think that the presence of an observer actually ‘defines’ an event to the extent of ‘creating’ the event. The observer, even if external, can not simply be neutral. This is what Salvadori so aptly points out.
When in his reportage we see a youth standing in defiance, stone in hand, face covered, flames and smoke in the background, we normally assume he is in the midst of a raging battle. But, as Salvadori shows, that may not necessarily be the case, because there may be no battle at all at the time the picture is taken. The subject is simply posing for the camera. Partly because it serves a propaganda purpose, partly because he hopes that the publication of that picture will gain him his 15 minutes of fame. And the photo reporter goes for the snapshot because the picture is in any case representative, symbolic enough to tell the world about the war he or she is witnessing.
Every photographer knows that choosing a frame is always a very constructed act, even when it becomes spontaneous through experience. The light, the shutter speed , the distance to the subject, the elements in the background, the ideal lines connecting the subject to those elements in a geometrically harmonious way… The event thus portrayed is then not just a version, but an ‘interpretation’. More so when the event portrayed is staged. Such awareness is of crucial importance in our age overloaded with dramatic images.
As semeioticians, from Roland Barthes to Jean Baudrillard, have argued whatever happens on a stage, or within the frame of a picture or a video, confers an aura of drama to a portrayed subject. Which is why we can react so emotionally to fiction, even when we know it is only fiction. By reverse logic, unfortunately, even real tragedies, when recorded, turn into ‘tragedies portrayed’, into ‘just dramatized’ events, thus losing some of their heartrending content.
Salvadori’s work has even been criticized for demeaning the role of the photo reporter. But no one denies how dangerous and sometimes heroic that line of work can be. And any criticism only goes to prove that the observer may not be catching the whole of Salvadori’s work, but taking in only a version. The one afforded by his/her own viewing angle.
The theme is explored in depth by the Spanish journalist Arturo Perez-Reverte in the novel El Pintor De Batallas (The Painter of Battles). This narrative is about a war photo reporter who –after losing his lover while taking pictures in a war zone and while he is close to his own death from some illness– leaves his work and dedicates his last days to painting in utter solitude. But while he is about to finish a giant mural of a battle, he receives an unexpected visit that forces him to confront his past. The visitor is a former soldier whom the photo-reporter-now-painter had once happened to portray in a war zone. The picture of the soldier’s face was so dramatic that it made the cover of a world renowned magazine, and won the reporter a prestigious prize. Among those who appreciated the snapshot, though, there were also the soldier’s enemies who made a point to take revenge, turning the soldier’s life into an endless nightmare and eventually destroying all he ever cared about . The eye of the photo reporter, that is, devastatingly changed the soldier’s life, creating events well beyond the portrayed event. Like the emblematic butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon forest and causing a series of events that unleash a storm in the Urals.
In sum: the picture we take is actually the picture we make, the one we create, even when we believe that we are simple witnesses.
Reporters in war zones risk their lives to tell us what is going on and without their reports we would be much less informed. We should, and we are, grateful for what they do. Thanks to their work we are aware. But as the old adage goes: there is more to a picture than meets the eye. What we see is not what is, but what we are shown. And that always originates from a perspective. Hardly truly objective, and not necessarily innocent.
Ruben Salvadori is a 22-year-old Italian photographer (www.rubensalvadori.com). He is about to graduate with dual majors for a BA in International Relations and Anthropology/Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
Exposed to various different cultures since childhood, Ruben uses photography as an academic aid for his anthropological research. He mixes his academic background with a visual documentary-style approach to gain in-depth, empirical research results through his images.
Experimenting with both still images and video, his visual research ranges from ancient rituals and disappearing cultures to modern groups’ dynamics and stigmas within society.
PHOTO JOURNALISM BEHIND THE SCENES
The media industry demands dramatic images, forcing photo journalists to seek out and portray drama in their subjects, even where circumstances lack it.
The public, on the other hand, is constantly overwhelmed by images portraying certain sides of a conflict, but often fail to consider a crucial element behind the scenes: the photographer.
This project aims to play with the creation and destruction of “drama” by breaking the taboo of the “invisible photographer”. By including him in the frame, it shows how the image-production process can generate similar photographs that are often over dramatized. In addition, the huge presence of the media turns the conflict into a show in which the photographer has his own role in choosing the dynamics and
thus becomes an actor.
This photo essay is a form of self-criticism by a photographer who became disillusioned by photo journalism after seeing how photo agencies push many colleagues into a hedonistic approach which does not encourage them to consider how their presence influences the events they witness and how their images are produced.
Photojournalists often deal with some of the nastiest issues in this world; they cannot afford not to think about the impact of their work.