Exercise 4-5: The ethics of aesthetics

Chaskielberg - TURKANA_07

Read the WeAreOCA blog post the ethics of aesthetics, including all replies to it, and write a comment on both the blog page and in your blog.

The issue of aesthetic in relation to documentary photography have been a recurring theme throughout the course. Earlier on I noted these two quotes:

“To aestheticize is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it.”

Ingrid Sischy “Good Intentions” (article on Sebastião Salgado, the New Yorker, 1991. Cited in Levi-Strauss, 2003: 5) in Levi-Strauss, D. (2003) Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics. New York: Aperture.

“The ills of photography are the ills of aestheticism.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 438)

Allan Sekula – On the invention of photographic meaning (1975) in Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

I find it fascinating that the Turkana photographs of Alejandro Chaskielberg can be lamented as ‘too beautiful’ and ‘not real’ when the black and white images of famine in Sudan by Tom Stoddart are at least as constructed, if not more so – the only difference is that Stoddart’s austere black and white is the accepted ‘language’ of serious documentary. Could an explanation of the responses shared by many to the work be that the uncomfortable feeling they experience and concerns about ethics are more about their personal unease about how these images make them feel?

An example of a photographer that deliberately uses a strategy of aesthetic beauty in his work is Simon Norfolk. Norfolk was initially a ‘traditional’ photojournalist working in 35mm black and white. He is someone who is politically engaged and has chosen to work outside the traditional media, funding his practice through print sales. He would now call himself a landscape photographer who uses beautiful imagery as a “tactical approach” to reach a wider audience. For example, his image of the North Gate of Baghdad in 2003 is reminiscent of Corot or Pissarro, the beauty of the photograph disarms the viewer and it is only when they look closely at the detail, tanks in the background for example, they realise this is a place of violence. Norfolk describes this as creating a full stop or pause, it is a way of drawing in the viewer by seducing them into a place where a conversation can take place. (See interview with Simon Norfolk here.)

When we accept that NGOs are in the business of raising as much money as possible, it seems logical that they would use the strategies employed by advertising. Is it that much of a stretch to then think of these images as propaganda? Why is it possible to separate the ideological intent of media outlets while those of NGOs are less easy to identify? I find the comments made by Jo Harrison from Oxfam in the thread fascinating, particularly these:

“Oxfam runs a strict photographic policy where our images must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen. We are not about flies in the eyes of small children.”

These comments make it clear that the intention is never about objective photographic truth (if such a thing ever existed) and I welcome the conscious move away from stereotypical images of famine (“flies in the eyes of small children”.) However, for me these images still reduce a complex and multi faceted issue to a simplification – and that is the heart of the matter. I see no moral problem with the use of Chaskielberg’s images for this campaign, if anything, that they are aesthetically beautiful is a benefit. My concern is wider and represents a trend that difficult problems in world affairs have to be reduced to simple narratives in order to be understood by a western audience.


Coomes, P. (2012) Alejandro Chaskielberg’s pictures by moonlight. BBC News website. 18th January 2012. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-16592383 [accessed 25th September 2018]

Kramer, A. (2012) Alejandro Chaskielberg’s moonlight pictures: too beautiful? Oxfam America First Person Blog, January 26th 2012. Available at: https://firstperson.oxfamamerica.org/2012/01/alejandro-chaskielbergs-moonlight-photos-too-beautiful/ [accessed 24th September 2018]

Navarro, J. (2012) The ethics of aesthetics. WeAreOCA, 24th January 2012. Available at: https://weareoca.com/subject/photography/the-ethics-of-aesthetics/

Norfolk, S. (2008) Simon Norfolk’s best shot. The Guardian, 23rd October 2008. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/23/photography-iraq [accessed 25th September 2018]

Rankin (2011) It’s time to fix the world’s broken food system. The Guardian, 14th October 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/14/rankin-broken-food-system-kenya-drought-famine [accessed 24th September 2018]

Watkins, R. (2012) In pictures: combating drought in the Horn of Africa. Developing Pictures Blog. Available at: https://developingpictures.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/in-pictures-combating-drought-in-the-horn-of-africa/#comment-121 [accessed 24th September 2018]

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