Blight, Hope and Photoshop

by Philip Gowman on 25 October, 2008 updated 14 January, 2013

in Conference reports | Event reports and reviews | Exhibition reviews and comment | Photography

“This is not a Korean exhibition” announced Lee Chan-Buom, Director of the Cultural Cooperation Division of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as he introduced the panellists at a fascinating discussion to coincide with the “Blight and Hope” exhibition at the KCC.

With sponsorship from the British Council and the UNDP, there was to plenty support Director Lee’s claim of “widespread ownership” for the exhibition. But of course there is a Korean angle. Korea has had the experience of extreme poverty within the living memory of half its population. Indeed, One of Lee’s earliest memories was of an overnight visit from a burglar who raided his kitchen for food and then washed the dishes afterwards.

Myung-duck Joo (주명덕): Cheonggye Stream 1977

Myung-duck Joo (주명덕): Cheonggye Stream 1977

With a Korean as secretary general of the UN, Korea is now putting itself behind the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and the VIP statement at the front of the current exhibition’s catalogue by Kemal Derviş, UNDP Administrator, highlighted Korea’s role as an “emerging donor”. The wall of LCD screens at the KCC which face on to Northumberland Avenue were displaying a slideshow of aid programmes funded by KOICA – Korea’s overseas aid agency.

Yao Lu: Panorama of Waste 2006-8

Yao Lu: Panorama of Waste 2006-8

As for the photographs in the exhibition, they come from a wide range of Korean and international photographers. In the course of the panel discussion Professor Colin Jacobson described how a photo editor can flick through thousands of images before seeing one that means something special, and no one person will necessarily pick the same one. All of the images in this exhibition had been though a stringent editing and curatorial process but nevertheless a viewer is not going to find every single image to be 100% impactful. For me, the most meaningful images were those by Myung-duck Joo (주명덕) of life by Seoul’s Chonggye Stream in the 1960s and 70s before it got built over (above), and the heavily photoshopped images by Yao Lu (left) which from afar look like traditional Chinese landscapes but up close the mountains reveal themselves to be rocks covered in green netting (left).

Nam-hun Sung: The Aral Sea 2007

Nam-hun Sung: The Aral Sea 2007

Also striking were the images of a dry Aral Sea (“Water Recedes, Life Recedes”) by Nam-hun Sung (선남훈) (right) and a series entitled “Lost in Transition” by Peter Bialobrzesky (below left).

The incredibly stimulating panel session chaired by Colin Jacobson and also including Heidi Bradner (who contributed the starkly atmospheric photographs of the Siberian Nenets to the exhibition), Jon Levy (Editor-in-Chief of 8 Magazine) (the fourth panel member was not named in the materials) addressed some of the issues facing modern documentary photography / photojournalism, in an age where we are bombarded with thousands of images every day, and where everyone now has a role in recording history (cf the frequent eyewitness footage screened on news channels, filmed using mobile phones).

Peter Bialobrzesky: Lost in Transition (2005)

Peter Bialobrzesky: Lost in Transition (2005)

How does a photographer manage to find an audience? What is the measure of a photographer’s success? Does it matter that a photo has been “staged”? How much when does image enhancement become image manipulation, and does it matter – how much Photoshopping is acceptable?

Almost all photographers present admitted to using Photoshop to enhance an image, analogous to the use of clever darkroom techniques when developing film. But the more radical use of software to move a subject or edit two photographs together was felt to be moving away from true photojournalism.

Paula Bronstein: The Vulnerable 2001-3

Paula Bronstein: The Vulnerable 2001-3

Questions such as the interaction of the photographer with the subject were discussed. At what point does the photographer become part of the story? To what extent do people act up for the camera? The importance of context and caption was stressed. One panellist said he would appreciate a paragraph or two describing how Paula Bronstein came to take her striking picture of a pock-marked girl against a pock-marked wall (right). What was Bronstein doing in Afghanistan? Where did she find the girl? How much (if anything) did she pay the girl to stand by the wall for the photo?

Jacobson noted how the viewer’s reaction to Robert Capa’s controversial photograph (left) of the loyalist militiaman in the Spanish Civil War (currently in an exhibition at the Barbican) is influenced by whether it is viewed as something that is staged or whether the image genuinely captures the moment of the soldier’s death.

With issues so complex, no real conclusions were drawn apart from the fact that in the end it’s the image and its impact that matters. Does it connect with the viewer and with something beyond the image? Photojournalism has not changed the world, but important images provide a reference point for discussion of a particular topic to coalesce. To return to Kemal Derviş,

exhibitions such as this one allow us all to connect on a human level to the people behind the Millennium Development Goals and remind us of the importance of keeping our promises to them.

Blight and Hope – Poverty Seen Through the Lens – runs at the Korean Cultural Centre until 4 November.

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