Volume 8, Number 2 (July 2011)
The Mirror of Photojournalism
An interview with Jean Baudrillard at the International Festival of Photojournalism: “VISA pour l'image” , Perpignan, France, 2003.
Translated with an Introduction by Dr. Gary Genosko
(Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay; Visiting Professor, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Canada).
I. Introduction: Jean Baudrillard and Photojournalism
In the interview 'The Mirror of Photojournalism' undertaken at the site of the 2003 International Festival of Photojournalism held in Perpignan, France, Baudrillard remarked that while the photographs on display are treated as 'fragments of reality' both by those who take them and by most who view them, 'the image is a representation of something other than the real'. What this something other may be is embedded in a series of dismissals - the widespread 'victimal' aesthetic that renders viewers overloaded by signs; the image as a call for action that produces indifference by means of familiarization; the professional discourses of photojournalists that concern themselves with economics, technologies, rights, but not the ontological status of the image. Baudrillard's provocative thesis is that photojournalism is somehow beyond representation.
Although Baudrillard has here and there in interviews claimed to have no interest in the role of the photograph in journalism (Hegarty: 142), he admits taking pleasure in attending the annual Perpignan Festival and its potential to surprise him. Although he does not discuss specific works on display there, Baudrillard does remark that photojournalistic images like the so-called "Madonna in Hell" photograph from 1997, otherwise titled "Woman Grieves after Massacre in Bentalha" by Algerian war reporter Hocine Zaourar for Agence France Presse (AFP), 'offer victims the mirror of their distress before dispatching the image to the "other side" to be commercialized and consumed' as global commodities (or at least as prize winning photos - in this case the World Press Photo of the Year - considered collectible by the Newseum alongside the cameras used to take them). In other words, this bearing witness generates a 'fetishism'. Indeed, he also wonders whether pictures of violence in Rwanda and Baghdad are 'photography' - as opposed to images in which the subject (photographer) disappears and 'something arrives from elsewhere' (Hegarty: 144).
Baudrillard's sense of photography is heavily influenced by the writings of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida and the 'punctum' consisting of a foreign element that involuntarily arises in the image and touches the viewer. Baudrillard, too, wants to discover just such a punctum in the 'image' and suggests that this does not exist in photographs that trade poetry for realism (documenting, confirming - the 'mirror of events'). At times Baudrillard suggests that few if any contemporary photographs realize this ambition (see Baudrillard and L'Yvonnet: 90).
A further salient issue concerns how Baudrillard understands the 'festival'. In interviews on photography, he often comments on the event itself but in vague terms: "I often go to the major international photographic exhibitions, but all of these photographs - with the possible exception of press photographs, and even these - are very aestheticized, very calculated, very carefully composed and so on, and that sort of photography is really of no interest to me" (Zurbrugg: 35). Yet, he keeps going back. Clearly, Baudrillard expresses a certain amount of ambivalence about photojournalism, on the one hand holding out hope for the press photograph while doubting its capacity to deliver the impact of singularity that he attributes to the power of the image; on the other hand, the photographic festival appears to be both the kind of conventional venue that would limit access to the kind of experience Baudrillard is describing, yet at the same time it holds out the promise of a certain charmed encounter.
Why Perpignan? Baudrillard's comments about his specific visit there may be placed in the context of his scattered remarks about 'photo-reportage festivals' (Paroxysm: 93) in general, which may be generalizations from Perpignan. Perpignan is an important international institution for photojournalism and has been held there since 1989.
Le Monde. What brings you to this festival?
Baudrillard. For me, Perpignan is a pleasure, a serious libertinage, a raw source of events and of images through which I wander around in a savage state, letting myself be surprised.
Q. What's your opinion of VISA pour l'image?
B. The local population is not really affected by this event, except in a touristic way, which it understands as an exception into which it has not been initiated and to which it cannot therefore adapt. It's the same at every festival. VISA is primarily a "retour-image" of the photographer on himself as well as on the profession. The festival's referent is constituted by events that have been photographed from around the globe, but even more so by the presence in Perpignan of those belonging to the clan of photojournalism. The photographers reassemble and refer to their mirror.
It's well known that Perpignan is dominated by a 'victimal' and miserable discourse spread by distressing photos. Photojournalism, contrary to other domains of photography, always privileges the spectacular. At VISA I see numerous images overloaded with signs, like the Algerian Madonna, whose fetishism approaches images of starlets. These icons travel the world; they are globalized products. This foregrounding of victims is supported by a pious discourse that sits rather ponderously. It blackmails the spectators to whom distress is displayed and upon whom it is imposed.
Q. How do you assess the work of reporters?
B. Let's leave aside the question of risk taken in the field since they assume it. I would not like to be in their shoes because their position is extremely ambiguous. They are at the same time in the event and outside of it. Their involvement is short-lived. They are apriori in solidarity with the victims and with human distress, but their natural place is on the other side with those who look and do nothing They are irresponsible in the sense that they do not intervene. Their irresponsibility is closer to that of the consumer of photos. They offer victims the mirror of their distress before dispatching the image to the 'other side' to be commercialized and consumed.
Q. What do you think of the acts of bearing witness that justify these photos?
B. Everyone exercises an apostulate, from the media to men of politics, with a heavy dose of brainwashing. There is a form of murder in these press photos. To all these people who are starving and offer their images, we will never be able to pay our debt to them, especially in a globalized economy. These painful photographs are deposits of base materials that drive the info-economy. An act of witnessing is a justification. It exists only if we are living in a time of memory which results in decline and judgment. From the moment when we enter into real time, in which events file past as if in a tracking shot, both time and reflection are short-circuited. The screen has reduced the distance between the event, image and perception. The screen inhabits the imagination. And when imagination is no longer possible …
Q. Returning to the question of bearing witness, doesn't it sever the bond between reality and the press image?
B. This festival, in the manner of the daily papers, wants to anchor photographs in reality. These photographs are not treated as pictures or discussed as images but rather as fragments of reality. They have information tacked on to them; they are given political meaning. In doing so, violence is done to these images of violence. Believing that images can testify to reality generates a lot of illusions. Information is a cold zone that is received as such. The image is a representation of something other than the real. It is a precious object when it accounts for this reality deficit, when it is at once presence and absence. Text transmits much more information.
Q. However, we say that a strong photograph can raise awareness and lead to action.
B. This was said about the Vietnam war, and rehearsed many times. People take action on the basis of who they are, not in virtue of the images they see. The image is bonus.
Rather, indifference holds sway before news photos. They are too familiar to move us. We are accustomed to them. The proliferation of images is such that we have crossed over a critical threshold that prevents a true decoding.
Perpignan reproduces this profusion. The public sees thousands of photos like on a television screen. Points of references are not provided. One sees them pass, unable to judge, distinguish between them, or exclude some. The distance, judgment and pleasure of the image is a dramaturgy in which few participate. The question is so complex that I, myself, no longer know which are good or not. Besides, again, all this suffering is bound to effect us. Rather, the inverse effect is produced: people are aware in a fleeting manner. Photos create an artificial panic that provokes a defensive reaction in the spectator. And when exceptional images remain in a 'truth' without excess, people doubt their capacity to inform.
Q. What would a world without photos of current affairs look like?
B. This would be an environmental deprivation. One would have the impression of being deprived of something, and of knowing nothing of the world.
Q. What does it take for press images to escape from the visual onslaught?
B. First of all they must be freed from the political and aesthetic excesses of information. In order to be moved, a poetic transfer has to happen. It would require that the contents provide the imagination with the means of cutting through the image. I am thinking above all of raw images; I found a few in Perpignan. I am also thinking of those images close to anthropology, which are not formatted by the economy generating them. To avoid contamination, there needs to be an empty space between and in the photos. Warhol said that it was necessary to reintroduce nothingness into the image.
Q. Can an event still generate this type of image?
B. The collapse of the towers of the World Trade Centre. The event is not annulled by the image because, for once, the image is at the heart of the event. The images do not redouble the event but belong to it.
Q. Could professional photojournalists overcome your doubts?
B. Debates about photojournalism concern the profession's economic health, the role of technologies, and rights for images. They never concern images themselves. That's normal. Opening this debate begins the process of undermining the foundations of a profession.
First archived in Le Monde (August 20, 2003) and available online at The European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/articles/le-photoreportage-en-son-miroir-a-visa-pour-limage/#
Roland Barthes (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage.
Jean Baudrillard (2003). "Le photoreportage en son miroir à VISA pour l'image," Le Monde (29.08).
Jean Baudrillard (2001). Fragments: Conversation with François L'Yvonnet, London: Routledge.
Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm, London: Verso. --- (1990) La transparence du Mal, Paris: Galilée.
Paul Hegarty (2004). Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, London: Continuum.
Nicolas Zurbrugg (1997). "The Ecstasy of Photography: Interview with Jean Baudrillard," in Art and Artefact, London: Sage: 32-42.