My friend Phil wrote to me from Kirkuk, he’s researching this story on the Arab-Kurd situation. It’s slow going, but he summarises it all with one sentence. No one wants to compromise, there’s a low level war already underway and things could get more dangerous in a year or two. All sort of grim.
For months now he has wanted to get a photo agency together. It’s a collaborative effort between himself, his brother Chris Sands and Emma LeBlanc.
They wanted to start a small independent photo agency (called Makoto) specialising in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria – the places they live and work.
The idea grew out of a certain frustration over the photography of which we see more and more, particularly on the internet – Images divorced from context, divorced from the world and, in fact, divorced from any real meaning they might otherwise have had.
Too often photos are not even captioned, and those that are don’t always seem to offer enough explanation. They reduce everything to the 125th-of-a-second that the photo was taken in, without offering any of the before or any of the after.
Without this, the images become very disposable. With the glut of photos out there, it just becomes a morass. Click, click, click your way thoughtlessly through to the next link, the next meaningless photo. Everyone seems preoccupied with the image that punctuates the ‘breaking news’ too concerned to be first to really care about the story.
It’s the opposite of what journalism, or photo journalism, or documentary photography – whatever you want to call it – ought to be.
Phil talked to me of how the conception of ‘Makoto’ gleaned inspiration from the book ‘Vietnam Inc’ by the late Philip Jones Griffiths. A man I was fortunate enough to meet at The Frontline Club a few years ago. He says.. “What makes it so important is that his photos were accompanied by these incredible, searing, passionate, insightful explanations. He gave the context. That’s one of the reason it was all so powerful. In that book Philip Jones Griffiths sets out the marker that we should all aspire to, the standard to aim at.”
I have to agree. The internet should not become a medium for shoving out more photos, at a faster rate, skimming ever more over the surface. This desperate need to be first. It should be a way of accessibly going into more detail, of accessibly providing deeper insight. Micro/rapid blogging still has a place to disseminate but micro blogging should not mean micro context.
The photo agency site is also something of a reaction against parachute journalism, which has been really rammed home with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A decent number of photographers who were in Iraq for the war (the war that hasn’t actually finished) have now packed up and gone to Afghanistan, as if somehow one war is interchangeable with the next, as if the Afghans are the same as the Iraqis.
There’s surprisingly little commitment to sticking with a story. It’s as if everyone has Attention Deficit Disorder. Either that or photographers are generally on a mission to collect as many visa stamps as possible in their passports.
Makoto wants to make a point of not being like that; Chris has lived in Afghanistan for coming up on five years. Back in 2005 it wasn’t remotely trendy but he was there, doggedly chipping away at his work. Learning about the people and the place. It’s now grabbing all the headlines but presumably it won’t be in a year/two/three/four from now. But he plans to stick with it. Similarly Phil Sands his brother arrived in Iraq in 2003. He has stuck with it since.
I feel that by concentrating on a place, by trying to specialise, it’ll pay dividends in the breadth and depth of their work, in the details. In a simple way that might show through in a photo essay that has images in it spanning two or three years, not one week or one month.
There’s also a matter of respect. If you are reporting on a place properly, you come to care about the issues, about the people. It’s hard to walk away from that and, if you’re doing your job properly, perhaps you can’t or shouldn’t walk away. That’s also an old fashioned journalistic axiom that is being abandoned – live on your patch. Try to live as close to the story as you can. How many times are Syria stories reported from Lebanon? One British newspaper used to report Afghanistan from Pakistan, for God’s sake, even though the British Army was (and is) at war there. Why not just report everything from London and have done with it?
So, context and commitment. These are their goals. Time will tell if they succeed in coming anywhere near hitting them.
I remember getting Phil an old Nikon 301 and giving him a five minute lesson on ISO’s before he flew to Iraq for the first time. He has worked wonders with that camera and every camera he has had since.. A wordsmith using pictures the right way.
But that’s the other thing about their photo agency. The key idea is that the narrative behind the photos is as important as the photos themselves. What’s the point in a technically perfect photo if it’s just hanging in isolation; at that point it’s just a trivial art object.
We need to know the back story. The subtext. We need the ‘why’ answered. The nasty, irritating, all-important why; that thing that no one much bothers themselves with these days because it just to much like hard work to understand. Again, if the photographer doesn’t understand that, how can the photographs hope to portray it?
This is the reason each photo essay on the site is an essay. They start with a written explanation that anyone looking at the stuff should read. The words say the things the photos cannot. And each photo is captioned. Not in some narrow sense of saying what the picture shows, but by putting it into a context – putting it into a place within the wider narrative whole.
The site is at www.makotophotographic.com
Please spread the word. If we are to protect ‘quality’ journalism when we need it most, we need more sites like this.