File this under "WTF were you thinking, prestigious Magnum photo agency?" [Edit, 22 February 2013: This, I now know, is the wrong question. Or, at least, the wrong first question. CNN initiated "War and Fashion," not Magnum. It was CNN's idea. See the comments below from Magnum photographers.]
In what can only be a desperate attempt to keep its brand visible (and, perhaps, earn a few bucks), Magnum has teamed up with CNN for an online feature called "War and Fashion." [Edit, 22 February 2013: "Teamed up" is probably the wrong phrase, and "can only" certainly is. "Cooperated with" would be better. But I cannot explain why this feature didn't raise red flags in the agency before it was published.] Here's the idea: We're supposed to learn something from looking simultaneously at the work of Magnum photographers who have photographed both war and fashion. Yep, images of death and destruction and glamorous frivolities are supposed to say something significant about one another.
The idea is as offensive as it is absurd. There's no denying that the photographers -- Christopher Anderson, Paolo Pellegrin, Jerome Sessini, Alex Majoli -- have made powerful, deeply moving images of war and suffering. Their fashion photos certainly do the job, as well. But bringing the two together can only be a crass effort to build Magnum's brand and generate traffic for CNN's website.
[Click on the image to see a larger version.]
How to explain Magnum's willingness to compromise its integrity? It's directly related, I think, to the crisis in photojournalism. Agency revenues have fallen off the cliff. Jobs for photographers are all too scarce. Nobody's quite sure what to do next.
The ideas of Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian activist and political philosopher, can point the way. In an effort to explain the political turmoil that led to the rise of fascism, he said that: The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Gramsci was writing about a very different sort of crisis -- there are no fascists here. But, as Steve Jones has suggested, his ideas are certainly useful when thinking about crises in, say, popular culture. That is, we shouldn't be surprised that morbid symptoms appear as photographers and photo agencies struggle to adapt to the crisis caused by decline of newspapers and magazines and the rise of the internet, social media, and citizen journalism.
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Paolo Pellegrin, one of the photographers whose work is featured in "War and Fashion," has asked me to post this response. I'm happy to give him the space.
I fully understand that no photographer, artist or author can completely control the presentation of his or her work, or the critical responses it will elicit. That said, in this case I feel it is important for me to note that I strongly disagree with both the thesis of the article and the use of my pictures in it. I have sometimes shot fashion in the past, and enjoyed doing so. But as someone who has spent a lot of time -- too much time -- witnessing pain and suffering in war zones, I think it is disrespectful to those suffering in conflict areas, and inconsistent with my mission as a documentarian, to aestheticize suffering by drawing formalistic equivalencies with fashion photographs.
Conflict photography is an extremely complicated subject on its own. It is something I think about, and struggle with, everyday. I have a lot of questions that I am always working through, but one thing I'm fairly certain of is that "fashion" is not an appropriate critical approach to the work.
[Edit, 22 February 2013: In an email, Pellegrin has asked me to add this: "please make clear that I was not interviewed for the CNN story: I was in the Republic of Congo and did not even know about the story until after it ran.]
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Christopher Anderson, another one of the Magnum photographers whose photos appear in "War and Fashion," has asked me to publish this response:
Let me make something very clear:
This was NOT a collaboration between Magnum and CNN. This was wholly conceived, initiated and executed by CNN. This was an interview BY CNN OF four photographers who happen to be members of Magnum Photos.
I agreed to be interviewed about my work and answered the kinds of questions that frankly I am asked quite often. Magnum staff filled a legitimate image licensing request by editors at CNN just as they fill dozens of such requests each day. It is not common journalistic practice for the subject of an interview to have editorial control over the article for which they are interviewed.
I will leave it to others to debate whether or not CNN's article has merit or was in bad taste. I would certainly be the first to state in no uncertain terms that comparing war and fashion is tragic and pointless. But in fairness to CNN, I would argue that this article is not about comparing war and fashion, but rather is an examination of how images are made and how a photographer's experience shapes those images. I can certainly understand how some were offended by the use of these subjects to illustrate that point, but I certainly do not believe that their intent was to cheapen the suffering of others.
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Anyone with a even passing knowledge of Magnum's history will find Anderson's words deeply ironic. One of the reasons that Robert Capa and his friends and colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Roger, David Seymour, and Bill Vandivert created Magnum, in the late 1940s, was precisely to give photographers more control over how their images were used.
Someone at Magnum has lost the plot. Someone gave CNN permission to use the photos and forgot to ask (or didn't care) how they would be used. Someone -- in this photographers' collective -- has forgotten (or never understood) how easily a hard-earned reputation can be damaged.
[Edit, 22 February 2013: Christopher Anderson has strongly objected to these last two paragraphs, emphasizing that CNN's request to license the photos was routine and legitimate. I accept that this was the case. CNN did Magnum a disservice. But the irony of the situation doesn't disappear. The photos were used in a way that make at least some of the photographers uncomfortable and that has tarnished Magnum's reputation.]
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Christopher Anderson makes important points below. I'm happy to give him the last word.
Let me attempt to clarify the continuing confusion as it seems I was not clear enough.
I personally gave permission for my photographs to be used to accompany an interview with me which I also agreed to. I assume that the other photographers did the same but I will not speak for them. But giving permission to use my photographs and agreeing to be interviewed does not mean that I collaborated in either the conception, planning or execution of CNN's article. Nor was I aware or in control of the tone or angle of CNN's article. I was not given nor did I ask for final approval of the article as a condition of my participation as this is simply not standard journalistic practice. Obviously I stand by any statements I made in the interview (and I do not feel I was misquoted by CNN) and I am fully responsible for the existence of my pictures of both the subjects of war and of fashion. But it never occurred to me to compare these pictures for aesthetic similarities. Nor did it occur to me at the time that someone noticing a similarity in pictures that I made in different contexts was inherently offensive. Quite frankly, there has been some element of that comparison by virtually every journalist by whom I have been interviewed. And as with any of those other interviews (which also had permission to use my pictures, but somehow managed a less offensive tone in the resulting article than CNN) I did not write the article nor did I (or Magnum) have any part in initiating it or controlling it's tone.
I fully understand how CNN's article is offensive to many. And I obviously agree that there is a debate to be had about the context through which we create, view and discuss images and the appropriateness of how to best do that. Like many other things, I think the internet is a flawed venue to have that extremely nuanced and sensitive discussion. Twitter even worse. But if it is to take place, I would just like to correct the record as a starting point: Magnum did not partner with CNN to create this article. Yes, I am solely responsible for giving permission for my images to be used, and yes I agreed to be interviewed. But contrary to the internet meme and the tone of this blog and its headline, this was NOT a "cobranding" partnership by Magnum with CNN. I assume that most readers do not usually hold the subject of an interview responsible for the opinions of the journalist who conducts the interview. I am not sure why the same logic was not applied in this case.