What we can learn from Magnum Photos
Donna DeCesare, an award-winning documentary photographer and University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Journalism, reflects on three photographs featured in the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age that have influenced her as a photographer and a teacher.
Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on display at the Ransom Center from September 10 through January 5, explores the evolution of Magnum Photos from print journalism to the digital age, revealing a global cooperative in continual flux, persistently exploring new relationships between photographers, their subjects, and their viewers.
Thursday, September 26, 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center
Award-winning photojournalist and University of Texas at Austin professor Donna DeCesare speaks about her new book, Unsettled/Desasosiego which uncovers the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youths in Central America and the United States. A book-signing follows.
Many photographers document children and war, but Magnum co-founder David Seymour, also known as "Chim," remains a pivotal early master in the humanist tradition of "concerned photography." It was Chim's haunting images of women and children taken on assignment for the magazine Regards during the Spanish Civil War—the first modern war to specifically target civilian populations—that earned him an international reputation. In 1948 UNICEF hired him to document their relief work, assisting some 13 million children left orphaned or homeless by the Second World War. Chim threw himself into this assignment heart and soul. He not only documented the recipients of UNICEF's aid in six countries over as many months but also created some of the most subtly searing and distressing visual testimonies recording the impact of war on children.
In my own teaching of photojournalism I look for works that show the importance of being in touch with one's own formative experiences, emotions, and history. Self-reflection can provide a pathway for establishing a foundation of trust and empathy. Chim's portrait of Tereska is an image that exemplifies this. Chim was born into a family of Jewish intellectuals in Poland. He lost family and friends in the war. When he returned to Warsaw for UNICEF, he visited a school for emotionally disturbed children. Responding to her teacher's prompt to draw an image of "home," Tereska created scrawls on the chalkboard. In Tereska's haunted eyes and startled expression, Chim captures an experience that few survived—the trauma of a child who had grown up in a concentration camp. Some have suggested that her scrawls symbolize the barbed wires that encircled her in the camp. Her simultaneously piercing and vacant gaze makes her image one of Chim's most memorable. Tereska's portrait became synonymous with the Holocaust and has frequently been used as a cover image on books about war and trauma.
When Susan Meiselas published her book Nicaragua, chronicling a "people's revolt" against the brutal decades-old dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty, in 1981, black-and-white photography was still the common visual language for documenting conflict. Breaking with tradition, Meiselas favored color for her work on Nicaragua's insurrection. She described the choice as best capturing "the vibrancy and optimism of the resistance, as well as the physical feel of the place." Her decision sparked debates about whether color—at the time associated with commercial photography—glamorized or romanticized war.
We have long since grown accustomed to color images of all subjects and to seeing both military and insurgent forces in green or camouflage fatigues. However, it is the striking variety of the brilliant garments and facemasks worn by Sandinista rebels in Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard that continues to surprise and engage my students. Here the colors are emblematic—a sign of the uprising's spontaneity as revolutionary fervor spread and people joined in. Yet these colors also pose a risk for those who must hide their individual identities from would-be informers of the regime.
Meiselas has re-used her photographs in projects that explore how context informs readings of her work. This image is among the 19 photographs Meiselas brought back to Nicaragua in 2004 as large digital enlargements as part of her project "Reframing History." They were installed in the locations in which the original photographs were made. Local communities in Nicaragua discussed these photographs as well as their own vivid memories of the Sandinista insurrection and legacy. With "Reframing History," Meiselas contributed to a process of "collective remembering" on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution. Although photographing in color is no longer seen as a contentious choice, photographers continue to grapple with decisions about visual approach. The additional questions that Meiselas raises in her projects, about the ways photographs circulate and are read by others, are vital ones for all students of documentary photography to consider.
In 2013 Paolo Pellegrin, one of Magnum's mid-career photographers, won his tenth World Press Photo award. Indeed Pellegrin has won so many photography awards in recent years that he is perhaps the Magnum photographer whose name my photojournalism students know best. His images are distinctive and personal, capturing scenes from conflict zones or natural disasters with an intense mood and feeling for place that conveys singular depth. His focus on gesture reduces distraction, centering on the symbolic.
In his image USA. El Paso, Texas, two tiny silhouetted figures spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol race across the contours of the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande back to Juarez, Mexico. The vast canvas shows a place in which the interplay of shadows cast by bridges onto lit empty spaces creates a landscape eerily reminiscent of the external architecture of high-tech prisonscapes or of Cold War–era imagery of the Berlin Wall by night. The difference is that this scene is not infused with cold greens and blues but is alight with the hot orange, yellow, and red hues of a vast no-man's land that would separate the U.S. from the shock and awe of the explosive drug wars of northern Mexico.
The image made in 2011 is one of the "Postcards from America" that Pellegrin made at the U.S. border while participating with four other Magnum photographers—Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, and Jim Goldberg, along with writer Ginger Strand—in a collaborative experiment to document a road trip from Austin, Texas, to Oakland, California. The resulting images were published live and unmediated on Tumblr as a way to engage the public with the journey. Later a selection of images was published as a book and a box of memorabilia including zines, a newspaper, postcards, foldouts, and bumper stickers. The project is one of Magnum's latest experiments, seeking ways to engage a larger public in a conversation about contemporary life and issues through photography.