Faculty Panel Discusses Documentation of Violence

Daniel Hautzinger, Staff Writer

What is the value of photography? How does an image become iconic? Does photojournalism reveal the truth? How has digital media changed our relationship to photography? These esoteric questions were the basis of three brief lectures and an insightful discussion last Friday afternoon.

In the last event of a three-day symposium titled “Documenting Violence: Photography, History, Memory,” Professors Sebastiaan Faber, Wendy Kozol and Geoff Pingree each elucidated some of the problems of photojournalism and tackled iconicity in photography.

Professor Faber of the Hispanic Studies department examined the careers of Robert Capa and Agustí Centelles, photojournalists known for their work in the Spanish Civil War. The two provide a revealing example of how much the biography and fame of the photographer matter in determining the value of a photograph. Striking similarities exist between Capa and Centelles and their work; they even occasionally show up in the background of each other’s pictures due to photographing the same places and events. Yet Centelles’s work sells for about a fifth of the price of Capa’s, solely because his fame is less.

Issues brought up by Professor Faber concerning the divorce of photojournalistic images from their context were then elaborated upon by Professor Kozol, of the Comparative American Studies department. Parsing work by Vik Muniz and Binh Danh that involved photographs of the Vietnam War, Professor Kozol pointed out how photos are often stripped of their context and fulfill the opposite of their original intent.

In the last lecture, Cinema Studies Professor Geoff Pingree screened a brief part of The Return of Elder Pingree, a film he is working on that describes his experiences in Guatemala as a Mormon missionary and the different way he viewed the country when he returned later in life, more knowledgeable and mature. In the powerful scene shown, he tells a story of hearing gunshots and coming upon the bodies of the victims. Clearly struggling with the experience, he recounts the strange numbness and uncertainty that came over him as a result of his inability to frame the situation in any sort of context.

The most fascinating part of the event was the discussion that followed, moderated by Assistant Professor of Art History Sarah Hamill. Several audience members began to join the conversation, including several other professors and Susie Linfield [OC ’76], who had lectured the previous day. Like dinner party conversation with professors, each participant used their considerable knowledge and particular areas of expertise to refute, question, expound and philosophize. The conversation covered whether images can be iconic in a world with Google images (consensus: single, quality images are now less important than a large amount of photos powerful in the aggregate), the difference between iconic images and iconic moments, how we can be “responsible” towards an image by learning its real context and other tangents.

At one point, Professor Faber teased Professor Pingree, describing him as “speaking in aphorisms.” Yet those aphorisms were very telling, and Professor Pingree was able to sum up the whole discussion in four words: “Images don’t tell themselves.”