Conflict[ed] Reporting: War & Photojournalism in the Digital Age

Friday, November 2, 2012, 1:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.
McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke Street West

From Nick Ut’s still shot of the immediate aftermath of Napalm in Vietnam to CNN’s live reporting of the 1991 Gulf War, photojournalism has been credited with making war accessible to civilians. The beginning of the twenty-first century, with its increasing technological developments in digital and social media, has brought further changes to the visibility and portrayal of war. Whether concerning grainy video footage of protesters running in the streets of Iran in 2009 or the images of US soldiers posing with the body parts of Afghan bombers in 2012, images taken by amateur photojournalists have been widely circulated by news outlets around the world and have succeeded in representing conflict in a new and even more austere light.

At times, the relative freedom in which these images were taken sits in stark contrast to the controlled path of embedded journalism, where the professional journalist works in conjunction with the military. These new players, relationships, and communication methods, have raised a number of questions on how photojournalism, through an ever-changing digital landscape, has altered the way we see war. Has the citizen photojournalist helped democratize the media representation of war? What does the adoption of “publish first, validate later” practices for amateur images mean for media ethic standards? And, when thinking of the viewer, how have real-time images of graphic violence altered our perception of current conflicts?

Media@McGill presents a one-day free public symposium entitled, Conflict[ed] Reporting: War & Photojournalism in the Digital Age, which aims to bring these questions to the foreground. The symposium will be part of a two-day photojournalism event held in collaboration with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the McCord Museum.

Event Schedule - November 2, 2012

1:00-2:00 p.m. Peter Maass: Perpetrators and Participants: War Photographers of the Digital Age

When we talk about "amateur" war photography, who are we talking about? In his lecture, Peter Maass will argue that the "amateur" tag is too broad. The photography that has had the greatest impact in recent years, such as the photos from Abu Ghraib, came from a particular subset of amateurs--the perpetrators. Maass will trace the recent and not-so-recent history of perpetrator and participant photography, showing how it has become a major force in the digital age. He will also argue that a key turning point towards amateur war photography was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, when the celebratory frames produced by professional photographers failed to convey the reality of the U.S-led invasion; this was the last gasp of a century-long period in which professionals had a near monopoly on the visuals of war. Drawing on his work as a war correspondent, Maass will further suggest that the messiness of amateur war photography – the shaky cameras, the lack of focus or lighting, the awkward framing – is a strength, in that it gives a more accurate portrayal of what war looks like when you are in it.


2:00-3:00 p.m. Sharon Sliwinski: Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation

There can be little doubt about the growing prevalence of visual technologies. The preferred method for disclosing world events is now, indubitably, pictorial. But if this increasing appetite for images is self-evident, the political stakes are not: How does the fabric of human relations change when the principle medium of expression is images made of light and code? How does this “visual turn” affect the very meaningfulness of human life? This paper will present seven theses that aim to define a new conceptual framework for the contemporary photographic situation. Here “photography” will be characterized as something much more than a technology for producing two-dimensional pictures, indeed, here the medium is treated primarily as an event that brokers relationships between people. In other words, these theses on the photographic situation aim to describe a transformation in the very concept of the political.

3:30-4:30 p.m. Donald Matheson: When the war photographer returns: Exploring reflexive moments in photojournalism

When photojournalists return to conflict zones, and particularly to sites of powerful images they took, their relationship to the real and to the people in those conflict zones changes. In this paper I explore the nature of those changes in an attempt to cast light on aspects of the contemporary cultural and political status of the war photographer. The act of return makes the photographer visible. When she or he seeks to take another image, the authority and power to know embodied in the original image may come into question, as well as the ethical status of the outside observer and the economics of the relationship between image taker and image subject. In some of the situations discussed in the paper, the photographer and others who have made use of the image become themselves interpreted and made accountable. Yet the return of the war photographer is also a moment when some of these tensions can be addressed. The paper argues that studying these reflexive moments can teach us much about what photojournalism is able to mean and achieve in the contemporary world.

4:30-6:00 p.m. Panel: Conflict[ed] Reporting: War and Photojournalism in the Digital Age

Susan L. Carruthers (Rutgers University; author of The Media at War), Louie Palu (award-winning Canadian photojournalist), and Thierry Gervais (Assistant Professor, Ryerson University; editor in chief of Etudes Photographiques)


Speaker Biographies:

Susan Carruthers is a professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, where she has spent the last decade after moving to the US from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She has written widely on various aspects of war, communication, and representation. In addition to numerous essays and reviews, Susan is the author of several books, including "War and the Media" (Palgrave 2000 and 2010) and "Cold War Captives" (University of California Press, 2009). She is also a contributing writer for "Cineaste," and has published several essays for that magazine on film and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Susan is currently working on a history of the United States as an occupying power.

Thierry Gervais is assistant professor at Ryerson University, Toronto and Head of Research at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC). He received his PhD from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris) in 2007. He teaches history of photography and is pursuing research about the use of photography in magazines and the first photoreporters. He is the editor in chief of Études photographiques and the author of La photographie. Histoire, technique, presse, art (with Gaëlle Morel, Larousse, 2008). He is also currently working on a book about photographic illustration and the birth of spectacular information.

Peter Maass is the author of Love Thy Neighbor, which chronicled his experiences covering the war in Bosnia, and Crude World, about the connections between oil and conflict. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012 for a forthcoming book on the ways in which digital technologies and new media can amplify the impact of amateur videos and photos of political struggle. Maass, whose project includes an exploration of corporate and government use of surveillance technologies, has written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and other publications.

Donald Matheson heads the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Dr. Matheson’s research interests include journalism in new media, including during conflict, and communication ethics. He has recently co-authored the book Digital War Reporting (2009) with Stuart Allan. He co-edits the journal Ethical Space.

Louie Palu, award-winning Canadian photojournalist. Palu’s work has appeared in numerous books, catalogues, festivals and exhibitions internationally. In 2009 he was awarded an Aftermath Grant for a project on veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Hearst Photography Biennial Award and Canadian Photojournalist of the Year. His work has been published in numerous publications worldwide including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Paris Match, TIME, Newsweek, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Forbes. He is currently a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow with the New America Foundation.

Sharon Sliwinski is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism. She is the author of Human Rights in Camera (Chicago 2011) and is currently working on a book about the social and political significance of dream-life called Dream Matters.


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