P2: Photojournalism Aftermath and Aesthetics

Veronica Tello  calls the genre of documentary photography ,which David Campany (2) describes as photographing  the trace of the trace of the event,  Aftermath Photography. It involves photographing places, buildings or other detritus of war or catastrophes after the event. Roger Fenton was one of the earliest photographers to exploit this theme with his photographs of the aftermath of the Crimean War. As a possible explanation for the emergence of this genre of documentary both Tello and Campany agree that still documentary photography has lost its relevance in the age of video.  Video frames can be halted  to freeze the moment and then moved on. Video illustrates what is or has happened at the site of the event.

Hence still photography has moved from centre stage to the footnote of the story. This is not to demean the genre as the work of Joel Meyerowitz at Ground Zero demonstrates. “Late” or ‘Aftermath’ photography is usually strikingly simple. An object or building is usually placed in the centre of the image. However this is not the case with Meyerwitz’s Ground Zero images. They are almost carnavalesque. Meyerowitzs explains in a Channel4 programme (3,4) that he wanted to photograph the aftermath of the twin towers catastrophe so that there would be a record of how it looked immediately  after the disaster. He argued, and I think in this case rightly, that as the site was being cleared so that New York could get on with life and install a memorial to those who had lost their lives, the memory of how it had looked would be lost. If he had not been granted permission, and he was the only photographer to receive permission to enter the site during the clear up, there would have been no official record of the devastation.

The ‘problem’ arises with the aesthetics of this work. No one could deny its stunning beauty. Although Meyerowitz claims that the work created itself, his mastery of composition and light has created magnificent images which were destined for gallery walls and to be printed in a large format book. When looking at such magnificent work we have to ask what emotions are awakened in us. Is the genre a fitting memorial to those who died so tragically or should it be viewed simply as a record? The answers are, I believe subjective. Tello cites Sarah James saying

In failing to produce a confrontation with the brutality of the events that are the focus of aftermath photography these images, … make the event ‘dangerously unreal, strangely theatrical, detached, inhuman’.

Campany argues that aftermath photography

.. is ‘pre-frozen’, its stillness complementing and underscoring the stillness of the aftermath

Meyerowitzs images of Ground Zero are anything but still in my opinion. They are full of colour and shape and movement.

In this Meyerowitz differs from most other Late photographers. Tello comments on Rosemary Laing’s work, Welcome to Australia (2004) , at the Woomera detention centre one year after it had been closed down

it is as if history is at a standstill. Laing arrives too late to capture the decisive moment

It is the absence of people, in this case the detained refugees, which makes her work so poignant. Paul Seawright’s images of Afghanistan also exude an empty stillness. They too are devoid of people. However I do not think we can compare the desert terrain of Afghanistan and the centre of New York in the aftermath of the respective tragedies. I think  it is dangerous to generalise about the work of late photographers working in vastly different regions.

One generalisation which could perhaps be made is that made by Falkner (5)

late photography appears to be marked by an avoidance of instruction; it seems to ‘present’ and ‘record’ rather than ‘comment’.

Falkner’s essay also discusses the work of Kuper and Ophir on the West Bank, Deserted detention centres and bunkers are presented in states of disuse and disrepair. These photographers have followed the ‘rules’ of late photography with their centrally placed theme and stark simplicity. Another photographer whose images follow these simple rules is that of Paul Seawright. His images of Afghanistan are eerily empty of life. One could ask was this terrain always thus. With the general absence of people or buildings and the presence of the detritus of war present in only a few, one could ask if these images could have been made at any time.

I struggle to find a ‘raison d’etre’ for this type of imagery other than to produce work for gallery walls or glossy coffee table books. I believe there is still a place for the still photographer in the midst of war situations. An expression caught in the moment of battle can be passed over on a video. However I believe the proponents of modern war want to manage the imagery that emerges from the battle fronts and discourage photographers from participating other than when they are ’embedded’.

1. Veronica Tello (2014) The Aesthetics and Politics of Aftermath Photography,
Third Text, 28:6, 555-562, DOI:
10.1080/09528822.2014.970775
2.  David Campany. 2015. Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ | David Campany. [ONLINE] Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/. [Accessed 14 October 2015].
3. Reflections Of Ground Zero Part 1a – YouTube. 2015. Reflections Of Ground Zero Part 1a – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8hN-aNWWBE. [Accessed 14 October 2015].
4. Reflections Of Ground Zero Part 2 – YouTube. 2015. Reflections Of Ground Zero Part 2 – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vAZDBDDtz0. [Accessed 14 October 2015].
5. Late photography, military landscapes, and the politics of memory | Open Arts Journal. 2015. Late photography, military landscapes, and the politics of memory | Open Arts Journal. [ONLINE] Available at: http://openartsjournal.org/issue-3/2014s22sf/. [Accessed 14 October 2015].
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