Three photo books illustrate challenges journalists, others face
By Stephen Wolgast
It’s always been true that the world changes. The last few years have shown us that it doesn’t always change for the better, at least not in the short term. Lately, when journalists aren’t reporting on dysfunction globally, they’ve been the subject of breakdowns in business models and trust.
Seeing the Nobel Peace Prize handed to two journalists in countries where journalism is a dangerous occupation was a bright spot, but three recent books demonstrate the challenges faced by journalists and everyone else.
Let’s start with the big question: What’s the price of freedom of speech — and of the press — today?
For American businesses operating in China, the answer may come down to revenue.
When Kodak posted to its Instagram account photographs by Patrick Wack of Xinjiang Province, in China, supporters of Beijing’s policies that suppress Uygher culture called foul.
Kodak had promoted Wack’s photos, which were shot on Kodak film, for their aesthetics. After removing the photos, the company blamed the posts on a “supervision loophole,” according to The New York Times.
Getting caught up in a disagreement about politics isn’t unusual for journalists, and getting a smack-down from the Chinese government can’t be surprising for Wack. One of the points he makes in his book, “Dust,” is the growing surveillance of Uyghers in Xinjiang.
The government uses tools that big data makes possible, including facial recognition, cellphone monitoring, DNA harvesting and video surveillance, writes Dru Gladney, an anthropology professor at Pomona College, in an essay in the book. Wack’s photographs, taken over three years, show how the Muslims’ domes and crescents, and women’s veils, went from ordinary sights on the streets to total absence, replaced by Chinese flags and banners bearing Communist Party slogans.
Like most controversies, this one has an effect opposite of the Chinese government’s intent. Published in Marseille, France, “Dust” is now known worldwide. Readers may be drawn to it because Beijing dislikes it, but the photographs are revealing for other reasons.
Wack started his project in Xinjian in 2016 working in the 4 by 5 format. The proportions, roomy compared to a 35 mm frame, give the eye more space to explore and review the faces, plains and architecture in Wack’s compositions.
The images take their time revealing their individual stories. Most of them are taken from a comfortable distance, delivering views of the scene around his subjects instead of zooming in for a quick emotional payoff. Then there’s the lighting. In the outdoor photos, daylight seems to fill every crook and crevasse evenly, minimizing the darkness of shadows and bringing details to the viewer’s eye.
By the end of his time in Xinjian, his compositions take on some urgency and feel more purposeful. He switched to the more energetic proportions typical of a 35 mm frame, helpful at a time when he had to elude Chinese authorities.
After Kodak removed Wack’s photos, the company said its Instagram page is used to promote film, not to be a “platform for political speech,” raising questions. When is a photograph political, and can a photo be nothing more than pretty? Even sunsets make statements about the environment.
Whatever they point their cameras toward, photographers document change every day. What some call progress, others call an affront.
Free speech advocates would also point out that Kodak’s decision to forbid political topics is itself a political one: Kodak has five businesses registered in China, The Times reports, suggesting that its use of Instagram is not simply about “promoting the medium of film.”
Wack, like the best photojournalists, promotes the dignity of the individual. That’s a political idea too, one thousands of years old but still unwelcome to some authorities.
By Patrick Wack
176 pp., €47, André Frère Éditions, 2021
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