Erina Duganne, Photography After the Fact, pgs. 57 70, Beautiful Suffering, Williams College Mus. of Art/U. of Chicago Press, 2007
In this essay, the author discusses the work of Luc Delahaye in the context of his portrayal of war zones, especially those in Iraq, Afghanistan and the occasional G8 Summit in Genoa, for example. Duganne goes into considerable detail when talking about Delahaye’s work which portrays stark and very disturbing images of war and conflict violence especially when this is compared to natural still life photography. The article deals with Delahaye’s capacity to capture images which make the news in more ways than one and which also manage to create discussion especially on the inhumanity of war and the way this is digested and portrayed.
Duganne explains how some photographers have reverted to traditional still life techniques in their quest to portray certain graphic images which attempt to break the news. The photographs which form part of the exhibition ‘History’ are chiefly taken with a 35mm camera lens manufactured by Linhof and here Duganne delves deep into the angles of the shots and how Delahaye manages to conjure a sensational image without too much of an effort. However the main comparison that Duganne seems to elicit here is the fact that through reproduction in the news, a photograph loses its meaning accordingly whilst when it is displayed as an art exhibit, its sense of timelessness increases and it is much more capable of eliciting reactions and artistic appreciation.
In the section titled ‘Evidence’, Duganne explains that Delahaye is very much experienced in the way with which still life photography may lose its imagery and meaning when reproduced in newsreels and newspapers. Through his work in top news magazines and newspapers such as Newsweek and The New York Times, Delahaye has first hand experience of how the image can be dehumanized and taken back to a simple imprint. However his photographs have always elicited strong reactions from readers especially those which appeared in Newsweek depicting the Russian situation and the suffering through work.
With the exhibition ‘History’, Delahaye attempted to free himself from the shackles of photojournalistic work describing himself as an ‘artist’. However Duganne argues that the distinction between the two is not so easy and that Delahaye remains essentially a photojournalist although his work has matured quite intensely from its early beginnings.The ‘Taliban’ pictures are definitely a case in point since Delahaye’s documentation of the last Taliban offensive and the subsequent deaths and violence which are depicted quite starkly in his range of photography on the subject are actually examples of superb photojournalism although one could also argue that these are art as well.
Delahaye argues that the images which he has taken in the exhibition, ‘History’ need to be seen in a different way and not just a portrayal of simple news events. However the manner in which these images tend to shock is also of paramount importance since it reveals a photographer who is attempting to convey a message with his photographs, albeit with certain violent effects that show a shocking visual aspect to all that is contained there. In fact when interviewed by Duganne, Delahaye insisted that he wanted his work to be portrayed as reticent and personal, reaffirming the view that the photographs are images which should be pondered over and not taken as a simple capturing of a particular event. Of course there are problems with such photographic essays since these will always be viewed in a certain sense as depicting particular news value since Delahaye ahs always been associated with his work as a news photojournalist.
Interestingly, Delahaye’s work in History has been compared to other photographers who have chosen dead bodies as their subject. One particular exhibition is by Sally Mann which was reproduced for The New York Times in 2000 entitled ‘What Remains’ where the images of bloated and decaying bodies elicited a strong reaction from art critics. The debate which is ongoing indicates that photojournalism can be accepted in a context of violence whilst when art is in the equation, the debate turns around on its axis and is totally different. Mann’s photographs were intensely criticized by Sarah boxer also of the New York Times due to the fact that some of these were doctored to produce maximum effect. This cannot really be compared to Delahaye’s work where the photojournalist produces images of striking reality although these can also be described as art. Duganne sets much store on the transformation of Delahaye’s work from photojournalism to art and how this has been resisted by some critics and commentators. Although this is a very debatable argument, the article does seem to imply that most of the changes made by Delahaye in his style of work are intrinsically cosmetic but the end result is that one can only give an opinion on a photo when faced with a moral dilemma. Are the images portrayed trying to convey a message or are they art in the very sense of the work. Thus the great question once again sets itself. What is art? If one were to analyze Delahaye’s work on a purely aesthetic and visual sense, this would merely be described as a photographic reproduction but when one observes it holistically, it does attempt to convey a message, in this case the message has to do with the pity and horror of war and how this educes humans to nothingness. In that sense, Duganne observes that Delahaye’s work has reached its intended goal and conclusion.
Duganne delves much deeper into the credentials question, can an artist be described as a journalist or vice versa? Interesting she recounts an incident where Mann wanted to photograph some bodies at a mortuary but was denied access on the pretext of being an artist. When she returned and presented her credentials as a photojournalist she was allowed to enter and take photos to her heart’s content. His shows that an artist has restricted parameters in which to operate if described as such whilst a news journalist can gain access to areas which are restricted to the common mortal. Of course this is the same with Delahaye, he was allowed access to the war zone in Afghanistan to take photographs without any sort of restrictions due to his press credentials. If this was not the case, he could never have taken the images as he took them and that is an obvious advantage for his work.
Duganne then brings up the interesting point of dignity in death. She mentions an article by Susan Sontag where it is argued that the faces of European and American dead are usually obscured due to respect for their families but this is not necessarily the case when depicting the dead of other nationalities. This enables photojournalists to be perhaps more crude and inhumane when it comes to the dead of other nationalities as is the case with Delahaye’s portrayals of the dead Taliban. This moral dilemma is something which seems to preoccupy Duganne and she sets much store on the issue when comparing Delahaye’s work with Mann’s grisly images of anonymous dead. There is another moral dilemma here, are the dead really subjects for artistic expression? Duganne is non committal on this but she cites Delahaye’s work as a prime example where subtly and artistically creative photography can actually dignify the dead. For the anonymity and fairness of death is actually given some meaning and personality by the dead Taliban soldier who appears to meet his Maker with a certain amount of dignity in this remote and wild place.
Duganne then compares Delahaye’s work with another photojournalist, Alfredo Jaar who also finds problems with expressing himself in the photojournalistic field. Obviously this is another topic for debate and here we are once again brought face to face with the familiar themes where the photographer has to ask him/herself what is the real meaning behind the imagery and the photographs themselves? The debate then turns to preserving thememory of those photojournalists killed on assignment or in action and the restrictions placed on the photojournalist in carrying out work. Essentially Duganne argues that this is the main difference between a photojournalist and an artist. The former is restricted by the exigencies and requirements of the news media and what is requested by the editor whilst the latter can express him/herself to the heart’s content without fear of editing. The issue of censorship also comes in here but essentially an artist is free to delve into various topics without any need of restraint. That perhaps is the intrinsic struggle which is faced by photojournalists when they express the wish to become artists.
The comparison between Delahaye’s work and Alfredo Jaar’s Serra pelada series is also very apt. In the latter the photographer took several hundred photos of workers who were toiling away in terrible conditions in Brazil’s largest open pit mine for gold. The irony of the situation was not lost on Jaar and the photographs are an intrinsic testimony to the incredible and horrible suffering that these workers were made to endure. In a sense the wheel has turned full circle here since Delahaye is portraying the dead who have gone to their final resting place far from all wordly cares whilst Jaar is portraying a living hell that is work in the gold mine.
The installations created by Jaar out of his work asa photojournalist in the Brazil mines can certainly classify as art when viewed from a human standpoint. He brought the unimaginable suffering that these workers were enduring to the centre stage and that is acknowledged full by Duganne. There is a fine line between photojournalism and artistic photography but these exponents have certainly refined both aspects and up to a point have made the intertwine with each other.