Paul Seawright – Journalism and Art in Conflict Photography

2015-01-23_16-03-41-wrThe course notes suggest that we look at Sectarian Murder (1) a series by Paul Seawright, a Northern Irish photographer and artist, in which he looks at the landscapes where sectarian murders occurred during the Northern Ireland conflicts on the 70s. We are also guided towards a short interview published by The Imperial War Museums (2) where he talks of his approach to this type of post conflict photography. I found another, and rather longer, film based on a lecture given by Seawright in 2010 (3) which explores the same subjects in more depth.

Sectarian Murder

A small number of photographs from Sectarian Murder are included on Seawright’s website. This brief look at his work provides some insight to his approach. The first noticeable feature is that is work is aesthetically pleasing. The lighting is often bright, the composition considered and the colours strong.

The use of strong colours is not something that flows through all the projects as shown on his site, for example, the photographs in the  Volunteer series are tonally subdued, more Stephen Shore than William Eggleston in both composition and tones and in the series Hidden he photographs the deserts of Afghanistan as a pale, ashen land with flat white-grey skies . In the Joe Lee film Seawright explains that Sectarian Murder is an example of his early work so it appears that his style has evolved but Mark Durden points out that he is also evoking different aesthetics and responding to the approach of others in his work. For example Sectarian Murder acts as a counterpoint to the photojournalism that was prevalent in the coverage of Northern Ireland and Hidden avoids showing Afganistan as a place of picturesque ruins. These subtle adjustments underline the complexity of Seawright’s work.

The concept is simple, he has photographed places where sectarian murders were committed during the “troubles“, usually of innocent people whose only mistake was to be one of the other side. The title provides an overriding context to the series, British and more specifically Northern Irish  people who lived through the 1970s immediately associate the series with complex and interwoven histories that might depend on first hand knowledge or be driven by the extensive media coverage of the time. In the Joe Lee film, Seawright points out that titles are important and set the tone for a series of work and Sectarian Murder is a case in point.

Individually the photographs are associated with text appropriated from newspaper stories, the only adjustment being the removal of the victim’s religion. Seawright reminds us that the original news stories always described a victim as Catholic or Protestant and that these descriptions were politically loaded. ( i )

The end result is a series of photographs of ordinary places but not ordinary photographs because Seawright believes in the importance of drawing in the audience and recognises that this is best done by presenting visually interesting pictures. The captions create a juxtaposition so, for example, a peaceful summer scene on the edge of a beauty spot contrasts with “the 31 year man was found under some bushes in cave hill park……………..”

The title has pre warned the audience but each photograph challenges us to consider the ordinary scene, a children’s playground, a place to walk a dog, a scenic park, in the context of a extraordinary event, an atrocity that occurred there.

The key to this work is that Seawright does not tell us how to interpret the photograph. We are not asked to search for clues to read his message because at one level his message is quite simple. Ordinary places can become extraordinary and the difference between seeing them as normal or abnormal is context. Initially the context provided by the series title, then the newspaper quote but more impotently the context we bring to the picture as the audience. I am of an age to have worked in London, lived near Aldershot and had friends serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland during the 1970s; my context will be quite different to Seawright who lived there to my children who were born in the 1980s or to a person who was directly involved or associated with a victim.

There is much to learn from Paul Seawright’s approach, firstly that there has to be some context provided by the artist; without any clues we would only see parks and swings. But, more importantly, he offers just enough information to prime our own thoughts because he wants the viewer to add the majority of the context and therefore create a personal interpretation of the work. It is work that is intentionally open to interpretation.

Journalism versus Art

This openness of his work is at the heart of Seawright’s argument that there is a fundamental difference between journalism or documentary and art. He argues that photojournalists need their work to be read and understood quickly, one reason why some tabloid photography intentionally leverages clichés. Clichés are visual shorthand – ” brightly lit child with ice-cream” – says hot summer’s day, we need to spend no time interpreting the meaning, we understand the message and turn the page.

Seawright sees the role of art to be quite different. It must convey some information quickly otherwise we pass it by but it then needs to reveal its more complex meanings more slowly, perhaps slowly enough to require more than one viewing, and, in the case of Sectarian Murder, the information has to have complex layers of meaning that vary dependant upon the viewer.

So, in Seawright’s view, the photojournalist seeks an obvious, simple, easily read and understood meaning but the artist, looks to create a more complex and ambiguous meaning that asks for an investment by the viewer. He does not predefine the answer and knows that the intuitional ambiguity will lead to multiple and potentially conflicting meanings.

I am especially interested in the idea of working with subjects where the audience can arrive at these differing interpretations based on their own experiences. For some time I have been planning a series of portraits of immigrants and now realise that this will be stronger if it has an element of ambiguity.

Post Conflict Photography

Following on from my earlier research into late photography (here) it was interesting to hear Seawright’s thoughts on post conflict photography in general.

He argues that we are so desensitised to images of dead victims that  it can be more effective and powerful to offer a bland photograph of a landscape that asks us to project our own image onto the scene. He therefore seeks a level of subtlety in his work so that “on the surface everything is normal” but on closer inspection we realise is far from normal.

Paul Seawright’s work is partly a reaction to photojournalism, he argues that his subtle, post conflict images are slow to reveal their meaning compared to the obvious, quickly read photographs that photojournalists presented of the same issues. There is an inference that his approach is superior and this superiority and the complexity of his images contribute to the argument that his work is art.

In many ways this is a strong argument as the complexity of his work and the need for interpretation as opposed to speed-reading probably does set it apart from most photojournalism. Sectarian Murder offers a complex viewpoint that confronts the viewer with contradictory information and thereby asks questions that a simple picture of a teenager throwing a bottle never asked. However, my previous study of the work of photographers such as Phillip Jones Griffiths (here and here), Simon Norfolk (here) and Don McCullin also suggests that art and photojournalism are not mutually exclusive. Jones Griffiths, in particular, challenges his audience to explore the reasons for conflict and whether the consequences are acceptable. McCullin and Norfolk are asking the same questions in a different way but none of them are offering simplistic clichés that communicate binary messages of good and bad, black and white.

I like Seawright’s work and his approach is influential but I want to keep in mind that the effectiveness of post conflict photography does not diminish the power of all conflict photography and that photojournalism, at its best, might be art and is certainly not inferior to art.

Notes on Text

( i ) We can see the same style of reporting today with “terrorist” prefixed with “moslem” in most news stories. This process intentionally or unintentionally creates invalid word associations in the audiences’ minds so that “moslem” is naturally followed by “terrorist” and therefore creates the lie that all terrorists are moslems or, even worse, visa versa.

Sources

Books

Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.

Internet

(1) Seawright, Paul (accessed 15/1/15 at Paul Seagrave’s website. Sectarian Murder – http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/

Film

(2) Imperial War Museums (2014) Catalyst: Paul Seawright (accessed 23/1/15 at Vimeo) – http://vimeo.com/76940827

(3) Lee, Joe (Director) (2010) Paul Seawright: Voice our Concern Artist’s Lecture 2010. Voice our Concern in collaboration with IMMA and Amnesty International Ireland – (accessed 23/1/15  at You Tube) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHT0gtbrV4s

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