A+ Truth & Terror

Photographing Horror

13 Mins read

By Sebastian Blum and Anna Alegre. 

Taken in 2015, the iconic picture of Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old Kurdish refugee child drowned on a Turkish beach, became a symbol of the humanitarian Syrian crisis. Marking a triggering point that led to a short kind of global awareness, it is now considered to be a symbol of one of the most terrifying crisis of the 21st-century.

At the core of the debate that followed the publication of Kurdi’s photos, the moral and ethical decisions taken by the different newspapers editors became of central importance. However, the discussion focused mainly on editorial decisions and excluded the moral dilemma photojournalists have to face in their everyday work.

To highlight the difficult ethical decisions faced by photojournalists, we talked to Christoph Bangert from Germany and Antonio Ruiz of Spain,who are both renowned in their field.

They expressed a great passion for their work and emphasised the high ethical standards they aim to fulfil: in order to clarify the importance of their work and the its social role within a media environment where companies are competing for public attention and taking editorial decisions based mostly upon financial success.

Christoph Bangert, born 1978 in Daun, Germany, studied Fotodesign at the college of higher education in Dortmund and photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in New York. He worked among other places in Afghanistan and Iraq, documenting the war for the New York Times. In his book War Porn (2014) he questions the self-censorship of photographic work in areas of conflicts.

Interview by Sebastian Blum.

Why did you decide to dedicate yourself professionally to photography/photojournalism?

As for many of my colleagues it was more an accident, I firstly studied a smattering of mechanical engineering, but it was so horrible, I thought: “This can’t be everything, I have to find something different”. I always liked to photograph and was enjoying travelling around Europe, doing Inter-rail and taking pictures. Then I just created a portfolio and applied to different universities and it worked out in Dortmund. I started to study there, enjoyed it a lot and got on pretty well with the people there and soon realised that I wanted to become a photojournalist. Being always interested in political issues I decided to photograph them. One thing led to another, I made an exchange for three weeks in Palestine and Israel, which was really exciting and from then on things went further and further.

When did you decide to deal with war and conflict areas, this seems to be slightly unconventional at first?

As I said, I always was interested in political issues, politics. I wanted to see different places. It started with Palestine and I realized how interesting it is circulate around both sides. It went on and I realized there and after my study, that I am able and willingly to work in difficult situations. Afterwards, I was in Afghanistan and worked on my portfolio and received my first assignments. But it was more a kind of a first experiment. Journalism is still an interesting mixture of theory and practice. One should have a high intellectual aspiration but it is still something really manual – you should just try and make it, it is a really great combination of both elements.

How did your career start then: for what media did you publish?

Before my studies, I did an internship with the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and worked as holiday cover during one summer as photographer. It was a brilliant education and I had my first published pictures, but mostly in the Rhein-Main-Zeitung, the local and regional newssheet of the FAZ.

I continued studying, firstly in Dortmund and soon in New York, while still having some small commissions for the FAZ – one time in Afghanistan as well -until I had the big chance to work for the New York Times in Iraq. This was my first really big commission and I continued to work for them in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, I used to work for Stern, Neon and the Neue Züricher Zeitung.

Do you think photojournalism changed since you started working in the field?

Well, yes, but the change was not as radical as in the 15 years before. Everything was in decline but it had already started before I started working. The “golden years of photojournalism” were between the 1970s and 90s – good commissions, long commissions – photojournalists were quite well paid then. Today it is way more complicated, but that doesn’t mean that there are not possibilities. I think you should find the right mix out of publications for online and print media. It is necessary to work in still pictures as well as in video whereby one can focus on something. Sometimes, I produce some smaller multimedia stories, but it is not my major thing, my speciality is still photography, the still image. There are some colleagues who are producing more audio-visual material and less photography. You have to find yourself a little bit – it is difficult but not impossible.

You talk a lot about self-censorship – can you remember the first time you hesitated before taking a shot?

Yes, that happened quite a lot, but you have to force yourself to do it. It happens frequently that you are not allowed to photograph or somebody says you: “Put your camera away!”, but in general, people rarely tell me that they want to be photographed. Most of the time, you can take pictures as people agree with that. But if you are allowed and people agree, you have to take the picture. You can’t say then: “That’s too much for me”, or something. You has to be strict with yourself and say: “I am not here for my private pleasure, I have a commission. I am here as journalist and I have to work as professionally as I can”. What happens afterwards with the pictures is a different question, but the work has to be done. We have to report properly and to take photographs of what we experience.

However, there are some colleagues who have a different point of view, but I personally believe that you have to photograph everything, if you are allowed to – if you don’t manage it, you have no business there. Providing the pictures to the editorial team is again a different question. But still, in certain situations I hesitate as well. There is this one picture of this elderly man, covered by horrific full burns. I had to overcome myself, I didn’t want to take it at first but it is an important image. It reflects the situation in Baghdad then, when many civilians were killed by bomb attacks. It was not only a terrifying image, it stood for what happened there in this time.

Some days ago the attacks in London took place. Some mobile photos were published of people lying on the ground, surrounded by pools of blood. What do you think about it?

I think it is important to distinguish. This is “breaking news”,a tremendously fast kind of journalism. There were those pictures by a Reuters photographer as well – it is really important who is the author of the picture.

There is a big difference between somebody who makes a picture with his mobile phone and a professional. In this case the difference is not that big at all. But if we talk about pictures, taken in a different context, somewhere in Aleppo, then it is important who made the picture and why. Can we trust this author or not? In such a situation like London, there is not such a great difference, it is crucial that we don’t think in single frames.

Everybody is able to take a single picture of an extreme situation like that – it is actually quite simple. It is more important, more interesting and more substantial, if we work with a series of pictures. Most mobile photographers don’t work with series – they only have one spectacular single frame.

I believe that only in a series, set in a context, do such extreme pictures of victims of those attacks make sense. The context can be other pictures, an image series about this attack, but it could be text as well. Pictures can’t stand on their own, they always need a context, created by the form of creation. Still, there is a difference between an online and a print publication. Even online publications can evoke different representations: the manner of presentation is decisively important!

So you are in favour of a broader storytelling?

Correct, if you integrate your work into complex reporting, you can publish such pictures and you can say: “Okay, it was a part of what happened there”. But showing those pictures in isolation would be a catastrophe and has nothing to do with journalism. These are just shocking images with no further function.

You have to confront extremely emotional situation. Is there an emotion for you which is particularly hard to record? 

Emotions are actually easier to record, facts are difficult. Capturing emotions and displaying emotions, photography does that particularly well; hate, intimacy, desperation, grief. Photography does that pretty well – and the still image frame does better than moving pictures, because it is still. You can always come back to the same picture – it is a medium which encourages reflection. It is going to be difficult when it comes to facts. There is the moving picture, including audio and subtitle and the precise text itself, which means photography is a really open medium, leading to different kind of interpretations. We need a context to explain the facts.

So it is nearly impossible to take neutral images? 

Yes, you can’t take neutral pictures anymore. Emotionless pictures don’t exist at all. I don’t believe in being neutral or trying to be, that is not the strength of photography. Things are extremely complex and this is the power of photography; it is open and many people can connect with it.

Doesn’t this contradict the “claim of objectivity“ of journalism?

Journalism finally is getting away from it and I think that is a good thing. We should speak less about objectivity and neutrality, and start to talk about honest reporting, reporting that corresponds with the experiences of the journalist on the spot.

We talked a lot about emotions. Last year the image of the Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi appeared across nearly all global media. How would you evaluate the media’s handling of the refugees crisis? 

You can’t assess this generally. Photojournalism is always made by human beings, being subjected to different kind of political pressures and mistakes. Journalism is really chaotic and this is a good thing. Regarding the Aylan Kurdi picture, I found it interesting that it was shared a million times online and even though millions of people have already seen it, the German media still agonise over whether they can publish it or not. That confused me, I thought it was a really good image, touching emotionally, but not the kind of picture that shows something really explicit. You can’t see his face. It was definitely an acceptable image. It has a clear function, it was the right picture at the right moment, maybe this explains the success of the picture. It became iconic, not because the picture was that strong. It was the right picture for the right time and it became a symbol of that time – the symbol of the flow of refugees. An impressive picture, which surely had to be printed.

For you as photojournalist who is used to working in conflict zones, such an evaluation seems to be obvious, I think it results out of the personal conflict.

Yes, sure, I have a completely different experience. But this showed me again how the benchmark varies and how we censor ourselves, if we are reluctant to publish such a picture. The argument against is obvious: it concerns the right of the own picture, the dignity of the victim, the dignity of the child, the family. Sure, this is all correct, it has always to be weighed up and should not be lost sight of. But one should always ask in such cases, when their dignity was hurt? Wasn’t it earlier, when they suffered during this war? You have to weigh things against each other – what is the purpose of the image and what are the rights of the depicted person. In this case the function of the images is surely what is important.

Antonio Ruiz studied Fine Arts. As a photojournalist he has worked with publications such as El Mundo, ABC, Le Monde, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Corriere della Sera, Clarín Magazine TIME, Magazine TIME, EFE, France Press and Periodismo Humano. Currently he is collaborating with El Pais in Spain and the most recent award that he has wone is the photographuic prize Light against Racism SOS Racism 2017. The theme of his photographs centre on migration, specifically on the Europes’s southern border.

Why did you want to devote yourself to photography, and to photojournalism in particular?

I have always identified very strongly with social movements, in the struggle against injustice. Photography is a powerful tool for the public denunciation thinks that are wrong and that need to be put right.

What themes do you address and why? What is the subject of your work?

Currently I am very focused on what is happen with migration on the southern border of Europe. There are no specific subjects; what is happening in the streets is hard to ignore.

In what publications do you generally work and what kind of work do they ask you to do?

Currently I am working on El Pais and I occasionally do work for Periodismo Humano and El Salto, a new publication that has been around for just a few weeks. As a freelance I am usually trying to sell my pictures but if something of interesting is going on in a place where I am working, I may get a commission.

What photo reportage have you done?

I’ve done many photo reportages – perhaps I can concentrate on recent years. Fatima’s Hell. Inside the cult of hate, Without a burka I don’t want to live, Music is the Devil’s flute, Spain is no country for refugees, Don’t say that you are Syrian, Melilla’s best porters, Melilla, Europe’s first barriet, and so on.

What do you think of photojournalism in the press currently about the treatment of Syrian refugees? 

Photojournalism began when a picture was enough to tell a story; later images with captions became news and this seems to be continuing in the social conflicts that are taking place in our time.

The media has focused strongly on events in the Middle East. Like a contagious illness spreads, the wave of empathy and solidarity suddenly seized a great part of society. Fine, you certainly have to be happy about this social and humanitarian movement that Europe felt towards Syrian refugees but I can’t escape a feeling of confusion at the lack of empathy and the solidarity with people fleeing other ways from other parts of the planet, in this case from Africa.

In the last three years, of the 36 wars across the world, Africa is the continent with the greatest number. It is clear that these are forgotten conflicts and the victims are invisible to the rest of the world. In this context it is really strange that we don’t use the word ‘refugees’ for sub-Saharan people who climb the walls of Ceuta and Melilla.

Have there been editorial decisions that have affected your work and the reality or objectivity of your photographs? And what do you think of the decision?

There are always editorial decisions. Everything depends on the interest that the public has at that moment in a particular news story. Sometimes they change cover stories about matters of social importance for news about sport.

These are subjective decisions. My personal interest in a particular story may be different from that of other people. I don’t judge them.

Have there been photos of yours that have not been published because they were counter to the editorial line of a particular publication? If so, can you give an example?

Fortunately I have never had problems of this sort as the news stories published with my photographs have been on the journalistic issue of the particular moment.

What image do you think magazines transmit of refugees/immigrants with the pictures that they publish. What image do you think they are trying to transmit? What should they transmit?

From my point of view, the depiction of refugees depends on the country in which news of similar impact is published. It isn’t the same in countries in which stories of this sort are not affected politically; information is not the same in Hungary and in Chile.

In photography everything depends on the filter that a newspaper uses for its photography section, if it has one. These sections are usually run by picture editors who have a shared opinion on which pictures are best suited to a story.

Have you faced ethical and moral questions in your work? Do you remember which was the first one? Can you tell us about it? How did you reach a solution – in other words what did you do to take a decision that was moral and ethical?

Well, not only do you have to be okay with the things you are photographing, you have to love what you are doing. It is about explaining to people and helping them to understand what has happened before your own eyes. Photojournalism is intimately bound up with a social commitment to show things that are going wrong and things that are going right. It is simply about common sense.

Have you ever self-censored? For example, stopped taking a photo or decided not to send it because you were 100 per cent sure that it would not be published?


Now most people have smartphones, in situations like the attach in London, photos are taken of victims, which are explicit in that you can see faces, wounds and blood, and the media publish them. Do you think this is a good thing? 

Society’s means of communication are developing rapidly and unfortunately this has led to a certain lack of empathy towards victims of, for example, a terrorist attack. There is no doubt that sensationalism is a constant issue. There are many people who protest against images of this sort but at the same time want to look at them. It’s hypocrisy, pure and simple. Of course we can criticise the lack of professionalism of certain media that see no problem with using images taken by people who have no professional training in journalism.

What is the emotion that is most difficult to capture in a picture?

There are no difficult or easy emotions, because every picture you take is in a way a picture of yourself. It depends on your own personal emotions.

Has there been a picture that you wished you had not published because it caused you a lot of pain? 

No, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone into this profession.

I have read some articles that you published on Facebook on the precarious life of a freelance. Could you tell us how you see this state of affairs, with regard to prices paid for reporting or photographs or journalism generally?

In Spain, photojournalism is not taken seriously, unlike in countries like the United States. So there are really good magazines there. Without good pictures, people won’t read the news.

How has photojournalism changed since you started?

In the digital era at lot has changed. It is more immediate and this can seem good but it also produces a lot of mediocre work.

Images by Christoph Bangert and Antonio Ruiz. 

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