Exercise 4-3: Documents of conflict and suffering

Listen to Don McCullin talking about his exhibition ‘Shaped by war’ on Radio 4’s Excess baggage: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00qlgzg

Read the articles ‘Walk the line’ by Max Houghton (Foto8, issue 23, pp. 143) and ‘Imaging war’ by Johnathon Kaplan (Foto8, issue 23, pp.142-3)

Write down your reaction to the authors arguments.

Don McCullin appears to have a world weariness as he discusses his work with John McCarthy in the Radio 4 programme ‘Excess baggage’. He speaks of being driven to photograph war zones, a drive he describes as a combination of energy and anger, and how he has seen extraordinary things, both beauty and horror. He dismisses the way photographs of war like his are sometimes elevated in their importance with the comment that the last thing someone who is starving and in shock needs is a photographer, and yet, he also speaks eloquently about his ethical approach and how he tries to find humanity in the most inhumane circumstances and work with compassion. The comment he makes that he does not carry his life’s work lightly demonstrates his internal conflict about the value of his work and the acknowledgment of the personal toll that the places he has been and things he has seen have made on him.

Johnathon Kaplan is a surgeon, author and photographer who has documented some of the areas he has been to on voluntary medical assignment. He likens the skills of the photojournalist to those of the surgeon – “part learned, part intuitive”, “anticipating complications; planning for contingencies; responding to problems”, and, while some aspects of each can be advanced through study, ultimately, being both a war surgeon and war photographer can only be learned by going there. Kaplan states that he is often asked for pictures that he personally regards as little more than “medical pornography” and his ethics prevent him from providing these – he scathingly argues that the commercial media is only interested in commodifying whatever sells. The article ends with an anecdote detailing how Kaplan was asked to contribute images of surgery to a book on the effects of landmines and the work of the teams that attempt to clear these. The images were dropped by the designer, a decision Kaplan agreed with, on the grounds that the violence could put off potential buyers and the value of the rest of the publication would be missed. He ends with the question of what kind of images of the human body are acceptable for publication, which is a legitimate one and clearly something he has strong feelings about himself, as well as obvious experience. I find the example he uses preceding this problematic however – it seems to me to be a predominately commercial consideration and although I am sure based on good intentions, the resulting book must surely be a sanitised depiction of what is an extremely violent and harrowing issue. There is also a suggestion that the compassionate, possibly middle class, audience for the book on land mines needs to be protected from the true horror while others (the term commercial media used earlier in the piece has connotations of low brow popularism) need to be prevented from enjoying the images in a base, titillating way.

Max Houghton makes many interesting points about the ethics that picture editors need to grapple with on a daily basis, and the problems associated with this as we begin to consider it. For example, showing dead American soldiers is completely taboo while grisly images of ‘others’ are reproduced as triumphant trophy images, for example, pictures of Uday and Qusay Hussein on the front page of The Guardian in July 2003. Another example centred around objections to the famous ‘falling man’ image from the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre twin towers, the reason being that the family of the jumper may be distressed by it. This same ethical stance was not extended to the photograph of a dead Taliban soldier by Luc Delahaye which shows a clear and obvious differential – it is not the violence portrayed that is the issue but the consideration of the audience that is important, the insinuation being it is okay to show violence against ‘others’. Houghton quotes Independent on Sunday picture editor Sophie Batterbury, who states, that gory pictures are not good at telling a story as the only emotion they provoke is revulsion which distracts, rather than illuminates the tragedy being illustrated. He then describes an instance where a particularly harrowing image of a mother in Kenya lying on the ground, bleeding to death in front of her visibly distressed son was justified because the journalist managed to find out about the victim and provide a context that was lacking from the image by itself which he describes as “merely illustrative”. I think there is genuine belief in the arguments presented by Houghton in his article, but I feel uncomfortable that these are also a little too neatly tied up. The depiction of war, suffering, violence and the disparity between how western/developed world residents are shown (or not shown) versus the general rule that suggests it is okay to show graphic images of people from foreign/developing world troubles me. The whole issue of the interplay of power relationships, both of media companies, government and non-governmental agencies is lacking from the piece and probably the heart of the matter. When Houghton suggests that photography is inherently flawed in being able to tell a story by itself he is correct, but, he is talking about single images here shown in newspapers and the same argument can be applied to headlines and ultimately, I find his argument somewhat simplistic.


Houghton, M. (2008) Walk the line. Foto8, issue 23, March 2008 (pp. 143-4) Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto823kaplanhoughton [accessed 6th June 2018]

Kaplan, J. (2008) Imaging war. Foto8, issue 23, March 2008 (pp. 142-3)Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto823kaplanhoughton [accessed 6th June 2018]

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