Caught in the Act: Re-Thinking the History of Photojournalism

June 21-24, 2009 at the Château la Bretesche, France

When the war in Iraq is over, its abuses will perhaps be best remembered by the release of several photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, showing the torture of prisoners. Although one might think that the business of torture would defy the need to bear witness photographically for reasons that range from the ethical to the practical, the American soldiers clearly were compelled to record their acts, suggesting that if a picture does not exist, it truly means something did not happen. Even lawless acts that would have been better hidden (from the perspective of the perpetrators) are now part of the visual record. Taking pictures, printing pictures, and consuming pictures have become the key means through which we know the world. And yet, we know relatively little about “photojournalism,” the field that has produced our image-based news.

Although our own current sense of globalization is dependent on the internet as the mechanism that has “shrunk the world,” the centrality of the image in the print news since 1900 has been central in developing a global and “international” frame of reference about the news and has shaped the development of the web with its heavy saturation by photographs. Perhaps no technology has done more to alter the visual landscape of modernity than the mechanical reproducibility of photographs within the mass press. Photographs, because they offer a literal trace of a person or object that was once present in the world, appear to bear witness rather than merely “represent.” As historian of photography, Gisèle Freund remarked, “Photography opened a window, as it were. The faces of public personalities became familiar and things that happened all over the world were his to share. As the reader’s outlook expanded, the world began to shrink.” While the “decline of the newspaper” seems to be upon us, the news image, both still and moving, in weekly magazines, on television or on the internet, is flourishing. Why did photography become the key anchor for delivering the news? How have its formal qualities, limitations and possibilities, shaped what we think of as news? How have institutions such as international photo-agencies come to play a central role in the dissemination of news images? How have certain images become “icons” and what role have they played in subsequent image making? The rapid transformation of the news that is currently upon us demands that we reflect upon the development of our naturalized assumptions about images and their relationship to recording the present as news which eventually becomes the record of the past.

The papers in this colloquium will cover a diverse set of problems and media. From Parisian late-nineteenth century illustrated revues and turn-of the century newsreels of the San Francisco earthquake, to the mid-century development of “classic” photojournalism practiced by such people as Weegee, to the development of the paparazzi and, finally, to the digital age in which everyone has become their own news source, the conference will offer a century-long look at photojournalism. Like photojournalism itself, a range of topics will be covered; from disaster to war, to everyday life images of children, to fashion and the glamour of the paparazzi. The colloquium will attempt to advance a collective history of the photojournalism while suggesting new ways for its examination that benefit from insights gleaned from the interdisciplinary field of Visual Studies as opposed to the insights which Communications has thus far contributed to the problem. In particular, papers will address the problem of decontextualization of the press image, its aestheticization and the dealers and museums that have made prints by photojournalists expensive art objects. It will argue that far beyond simply “making the news,” press images have become key components in constructing a global visual vocabulary and are perhaps both the best understood language that, at the same time, has also produced great instances of meanings being lost in translation. This phenomenon of the seeming universal currency of images, combined with its simultaneously local dialects and inflections, will be at the core of the colloquium’s questions because we believe these questions are at the heart of the role of the image in the globalization of culture.

A Colloquium that Builds Bridges across Fields and institutions

This colloquium will bring together for the first time participants who work on these questions from the United States and Europe and Great Britain. These participants also are from different disciplines (History, Art History, Film Studies) and will bring different perspectives to the study of photojournalism. By working together at the Château de la Bretesche, we believe that these papers will make an important intervention in the history of photojournalism. It will also help USC and its Visual Studies Research Lab connect with scholars representing the Institut de l’histoire du temps présent who are creating a Visual History section. In addition, the editor of the journal, Etudes photographiques, is a participant and has expressed an interest in publishing the essays as a special issue of the review.

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