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November 16, 2013

Those Sensual Typhoon Pictures from the Philippines

Those primary colors are fabulous, aren’t they? I love the yellows and the reds, the blues and the greens. And how about the pinks or those stunning blue pastel shirts in the left foreground? And isn’t it particularly cool how the colors pop, like M&M’s against the flatter tones, into the far distance?

I understand super  high contrast color is the new normal, but applied to disaster photography, one of the worst storms ever recorded, already  3,600 dead and extreme distress amidst exotic scenery and otherwise picture postcard backgrounds, why does it feel like the stimulation is subsuming the information?

I find the sensuality of the color and the painterly compositions, as well as the languorous quality of what feels more like art photography, voyeuristic and culturally patronizing. One  question that  always passes through my mind (and will again, I’m sure) is: would we/have we seen the same such, given the same or similar circumstances, in America?

(Update: new sentence added.)

(photo 1: Erik De Castro/Reuters caption 1: Typhoon victims wait in line for free rice at a businessman’s warehouse in Tacloban, Philippines, which was devastated by Super Typhoon 2 & 5: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times caption 2: The town of Tanauan, south of its better-known neighbor, Tacloban, was devastated by the storm surge from the typhoon. photo 3: Dita Alangkara/AP caption 3: A man takes a shower amid rubble in an area badly affected by Typhoon Hayan in Tacloban, central Philippines, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, slammed into six central Philippine islands on Friday, leaving a wide swath of destruction. photo 4: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times caption 4: A woman held her baby in Tacloban. The mayor urged residents to flee to other cities and find shelter there with relatives if they could. caption 5: In Tacloban, a city wrapped around a horseshoe-shaped bay, the water overflowed from the bay in all directions. It flooded practically everything in sight with fast-moving torrents as the sea level rose as much as 13 feet.)

  • Carolyn Beller

    Thank you, Bagnews, for brave and real thought-provoking stories like this one. Photographers as well as writers inject their own history when telling stories. This not not stop just because a person is labeled a “journalist”. We create a mood through our own aesthetic visions. How does one unlearn intuitive or learned personal aesthetic in order to tell the most unbiased story without fluff, romance, quaintness….just the stripped down story? Will we still be drawn to look at images that don’t seduce us with aesthetic tricks?

    • carolyn beller

      …..this does not stop…. (sorry, typo)

  • Lefters

    The question of the place of aesthetics in disaster-related
    photography is not a new one. Perhaps a more productive way of framing
    your argument, Michael, would have been to question what the function of
    color, narrow depth of field, etc. are in the context of this
    particular event. This kind of morality filter employed in your ‘analysis’ is not useful towards furthering the discussion of the function of photojournalism at this moment, and is akin to the ‘Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing?’ mentality of so much of the current state of the media.

  • John Vink

    Mmmh: what about Katryna, Sandy? They were treated differently by photographers than Haiyan? I don’t think so. And those happened in the U.S.

    Frankly, in the circumstances of raw events like those, you don’t think about aesthetics or a colour palette unless they serve a purpose. You think about efficiency. About efficiently translating what you see. It is difficult enough. There is simply no time to do otherwise.

    But anyhow, photography is not reality. It is an interpretation thereof, in the case of professional photojournalism relying on an ethical backbone.

    • BooksAlive

      While I’m not thinking of any particular photo from Katrina or Sandy, I think that the overwhelming extent of this devastation is remarkable, and it is well to document that. Sadly, it shows me that the person doing the filming got to the scene while the relief workers and needed medical supplies are help up with no logistics to move them out.

  • E. Yard

    Nothing new here…move on

  • bystander

    As a mere viewer of these images, I admit that it’s hard to focus on people’s faces, the state of the physical environment in which they find themselves, the condition of their material existence, … to see past the COLOR. Methinks there’s a “signal::noise” issue here.

  • Dawoud Bey

    Wondering if these photographs would be any less aesthetisized if the color were removed? Would the emphasis now be on the form of the pictures, since they are also well composed? The content–and tragedy–of these pictures is so strong that I for one don’t sense any diminshing of the tragic human drama being described…whether in color or not. The question of making materially seductive photographs of very troubling things is a long and difficult conversation indeed.

  • Michael Shaw

    John: it obviously bears a deeper investigation but one point I’m making has to do with the lens and the cultural baggage Western photographers bring to disasters in the United States versus abroad — especially in less developed countries and ones that are more typically identified here as colorful or exotic. A worthy study would be to compare the visual coverage of Katrina and Sandy to the coverage of the Philippine typhoon and the Haiti earthquake (although one could argue that the visual media also treated New Orleans as “other”).

    Again, this is quite “off the cuff,” but here is the NYT slideshow from day 9 post-Sandy. That roughly equates to the timeframe of these typhoon pictures. Of course, there are plenty of variable to account for, especially the weather and the scale of the disasters. Still, what you see in the Sandy imagery is image after image of American can-do and self-reliance, citizens in acts of persevere, but primarily, recovery. To the extent the photos are artful, they are just as much informational. Certainly, romantic or romanticized is not a term that comes to mind. Taking a look at the NYT slideshow tracking the typhoon day by day (I was focusing around November 14th/15th), you see a lot more passivity and victimization. And then, focusing on November 15 specifically, you see several photos that are either just exotic (boys lying on their backs; rooster and boy in vapor) or another shot of what you could call “happy natives” (the girl washing her brothers head).

    Again, this insta-comparison is just that and really requires more thorough analysis. At the same time, I looks to me that these news photos of the Philippines, of a disaster magnitudes greater than the one in New York, employ far greater aesthetics (even the shot of the corpse is beautiful) and captures more of either self-reliance or distress.

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