Culture Wars: Shooting straight
What is photojournalism? What is news photography? There is a sense among photographers that 'real stories' are not possible any more, as publications limit their demands to celebrity pics and stories spun by PR executives. It was with this question in mind that I approached the Anthony Suau exhibition at the South Bank Centre, titled Beyond the Fall: the former Soviet bloc in transition 1989-99. Suau notes that his work, 'although praised by editors, remained largely unpublished in the USA'. He explains that 'the Western media focused more intently on profitable stories such as the Clinton sex scandal and new digital and information technologies'.
Here is an exhibition of serious pictures - a brilliant show of sophisticated, beautifully constructed images. Some almost surreal, some subtly bleak. Others are funny: notice the Mafia victim lying on a trolley waiting for surgery smoking a cigarette. Elsewhere, two small figures dwarfed by huge machinery appear to be pushing against the Earth itself. And there is not a PR woman in sight.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the exhibition comes from the way Suau has made wide pictures work with the subject in the middle distance. A wide-angle lens, normally considered to be less than 50 millimetres, creates space between foreground, mid-ground and horizon, which can be difficult to compose with. Photographers often use wide-angle lenses to go in very close and fill the foreground with the subject. Yet on occasions, Suau effortlessly stands back, placing his subject in the middle distance and making an empty foreground work. See the picture of the horse galloping or the Russian stretcher crew carrying the body of a dead comrade from an armoured personnel carrier under the ruins of a church in Chechnya. These pictures are serious photography. There is pain, death, deprivation and war, as well as life and humour.
A colleague was critical of the exhibition - he thought that Suau did not tell a story, and that it was all a bit 'arty'. It is true that the chronological layout of the exhibition is ill-considered. But the charge of artiness v journal- ism is raised in the use of inkjet prints on art paper rather than conventional photographic prints. The porous character of the art paper makes the ink bleed and softens the images. The pictures are black and white (bar a few that are colour but look like old hand-tinted art prints) and with this treatment look more like distant art objects, like pictures from the middle of the last century, rather than contemporary documents.
This brings me back to the initial question: what is photojournalism? This exhibition is about life, not celebrity trivia. The subject is fascinating and a 'real story'; the stuff of gritty journalism. Yet somehow we are distant from the participants in this story. Is this a simple question of technique, or of being too arty? Or is it that for photojournalism to evoke strong passions it requires our existing passions to be strong?
Black Volga, Moscow, 1993
Central Grozny after weeks of shelling by the Russian military, 1995
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000