Over the last couple of weeks, as I wrote about some pretty awful subjects: terrorism, crushing poverty, devastating fires, I was struck by the fact that words fail. After terrible, horrible, horrific, gruesome, awful, miserable, devastating; where do you go? Of course, I’m not an award winning writer or reporter. I say that because I heard some truly amazing reporting by local news last weekend. It wasn’t cliché, hackneyed, or overwrought; just real, raw, and in your face, by people on the scene.
I am thinking that “in your face” may be key here. Another important point is that after the age of radio, in the television era and now in the digital era, commentary is a backdrop, a complement if you will, to image. Even in the radio era and before when all to be had were newspapers with first hand accounts, people clamored for images. Whenever disaster occurred, people wanted photographs.
This is not to say that photographing terrible events is any easier than describing them or that it is not just as easy to fall into the trap of the cliché. Indeed, there are special issues associated with photographing the tragic. Many of us find it difficult enough to photograph random people on the street, how then do you abstract yourself to violating privacy to the point of shoving a camera into the face of someone suffering deeply. And then there are special moral issues associated with photographing tragedy. The first, is one that we have discussed previously – isn’t your first human responsibility to give aid rather than to photograph? The second, is that in a civilized society there are unspoken rules and some things that are beyond the socially acceptable to photograph.
It is in all of this context that when writing yesterday’s blog about the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that I was particularly struck by AFP photographer Munir Uz Zaman’s* image of a woman being rescued by sliding her down a bolt of fabric from the crumbled building. This single image tells everything that you need to know about the tragic event. It is a building collapse, the bolts of fabric suggest the building’s purpose, the desperation in the people’s faces defines the situation, and the woman being rescued tells the personal story. Nothing is cliché.
*If you are interested in this subject it is well worth searching the web for other images by Munir Uz Zaman. A deeply moving example is his photograph of “Rohingya Muslims, trying to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence in Myanmar.” This is again photojournalism at its best.