by Grazia Neri

"All too often magazines and newspapers do not show any respect for pictures. Instead, they cut them or print wording over them. Please insist that art directors should not alter pictures. I can assure you that I have seen some havoc played in recent publications capable of damaging the form and the contents of my photographs sufficiently to deprive them of their very essence. I do realise that my photographs provide ample surfaces on which art directors feel entitled to write. In actual fact, these areas are part of a single great idea, which is what gives rise to each single photograph. It is obvious that adding wording means altering this area, depriving the picture of its effectiveness and of its atmosphere. Please therefore ask editors and art directors explicitly to respect the photographer's ideas and his pictures in their integrity."

This note accompanies every photographic report by Anthony Suau, Time's Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist who lives partly in Paris and partly in Moscow. Over the past 9 years he has been busy documenting the changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. His note led to perplexity, diffidence and irony in the editorial offices of the newspapers.

The 20th century can boast a significant precedent: that of having been photographed. Almost every historical event, scientific discovery, personage, the infinite natural disasters, the ill-doings of mankind and even his sentiments have been photographed. Rivers full of words have been written on the same auspicious or inauspicious events, but all told, the documents that persist in people's memories are photographs, which often become the icon of an event or of a catastrophe. In spite of this magic, little or nothing has been done to make the work of those who gravitate around this profession, which has been further massacred by the advent of the new technologies, more harmonious.

The camera is a different tool from a pen. It can be used to produce an instantaneous masterpiece, to upset society with a scoop, to amaze people with something new. Each of us reacts to the picture on the basis of our own sensitivity, culture, intelligence, mood and passion. What is more, the interpretation of one and the same photograph will be different at different times. A photograph produced today will offer a different impact tomorrow. Even the place where the photograph is seen can dictate our reactions. A photograph published in a gossip weekly cannot have, a priori, the same impact as a photograph on display in a museum or of another printed in a sophisticated book. The environment where the photograph appears may determine our reading of it.

When I see the notes accompanying photographic reports, and the reproduction rights of which will be sold to the papers, I am often seized by annoyance and discouragement. Bans, obligations, threats to invoice twice or three times. None of this will be enough to discourage improper use of the photograph or to make sure that the credits or explanatory notes are properly indicated or that the context in which the photographs or the captions accompanying them will be respected. There are plenty of associations representing photographers all over the world whose mission is to defend the autonomous language of photography who drop their weapons when they come up against the wall of indifference of the publishers and clients that provide the assignments that are the life-blood of the profession.

Only the great names are able to command respect, and this makes the situation even worse in photographic journalism. At times a minor incident is sufficient to cause the collapse of a young career or to place creative potential within the boundaries of humiliating routine. No wonder photographers have become touchy, melancholy, taciturn and depressed characters, needy of guidance not only from the technical and professional point of view but also the psychological.

The need for ethics to govern the world of photographs has become essential for all those who come into contact with photography: photographers, agents, photo editors, magazines, museums, publishers and gallery management. The absence of these ethics gives rise to distortions in the information and education of young people, prevents art and beauty from being enjoyed and turns us into victims of the worst types of manipulation.

Here in Italy the situation is made even worse by the absence of a register of photographers or of a law safeguarding photographic journalists. Unlike their colleagues in print and television, photographic journalists are not protected or even understood even by these other journalists.

The first ethical decision is performed by the photographic journalist at the very moment when he decides to tell a story or to tell it in a given manner. The photographer must safeguard the truth he feels he wants to convey to the public, and he or she must safeguard the public by making sure that their reporting is not simply based on the need for career advancement, and safeguard their principals. It takes great professional skill, passion and courage to assimilate these types of behavior in such a way that they are absolutely spontaneous. It requires great dexterity and emotional intelligence to convey a story in visual form. If these ingredients are lacking, it is very unlikely that the dream and utopia of honest photographic journalism will materialize. Photographic reporters want their talent and their cameras to induce the public to act and think "politically," giving the word its noblest meaning. It is therefore obvious that when a photographer feels that he has hit this mark, he will perceive any distortion of his message as an affront to his professional responsibilities.

In a recent interview in the French weekly L'Express, Willy Ronis, who has always taken sides in defense of correctness in the use of photographs, explained how a photograph that originally showed some strikers meeting to hear a trade unionist talk, was published by the New York Times without showing the representative and with a caption indicating that the crowds were "anti-capitalist revolutionaries." Edward Steichen maintained that it was not "artistic" photography that mattered, but that the true mission of a photographer was to explain one man to another man and each man to himself. He then added: "A photograph is worth a thousand words, provided it is accompanied by only ten words."

Another situation to which little consideration is given is the peculiar relationship between the photographer and the subject. Nadar, the great 19th Century portrait photographer, had perceived instinctively this tiring relationship between the rapacious "torturer" (the photographer) and his pretentious victim (the person being photographed), and his rather comic notes are a premonition of the problems encountered by portrait photographers and the people photographed by them, whether famous or not. Nadar stressed the expectations of the customers and their vanity and openly envied his friend Etienne Carjac, who started his career as a photographer fired by passion rather than need. He thus claimed that the latter's results were more significant than his own,

Carjac was not only a photographer, but also a painter and poet and was the author of one of the most circulated photographs in the world, a portrait of the young poet Arthur Rimbaud that was quite recently subjected to undue manipulation with the aim of portraying a more adult or simply more "Di Caprified" character as on the invitation to an exhibition dedicated to the poet.

The problem of control over photographs on the part of the photographer or of the agent who represents him is not so much financial as it is a moral problem: safeguarding the value of the photograph.

I have been involved with photography for 40 years, and since I was a girl I have been attracted by the reactions caused by the publication of photographs. I am an avid reader of daily newspapers, and one day I paused while looking at a photograph of Rina Fort a woman who was accused of a horrific murder published in "Il Corriere d'Informazione". However much I tried to consider the gravity of this woman's crime, I felt very sorry at the idea that she knew she was being seen by everyone.

The photographs which troubled me most were those of the authors of my favorite books, offering their looks to all and sundry. It is possible to try to dissimulate what we are and what we feel. However only a look can, albeit only in part, betray our emotions, our feelings and, all told, our own selves

So much time has gone by since those first visual emotions. I was thrown into the world of photography at the age of 18. No schooling, no training, many mistakes, a lot of constant self-criticism, much soul-searching, many new rules. Everything was new to me and was so for my whole generation. Nowadays everyone sees everything in an instant. Digital cameras and live television have now further changed our relationships with images.

But how should we behave when the photographs concern painful, resigned and desperate looks? When the photographs are of the miseries of the world due to the fault and avidity of mankind, pictures of death, separations or up-rootings? And why should we show suffering faces? Does it not mean adding suffering to suffering? This is a question I have asked myself many times during the course of my activity. However, thanks precisely to photography, those faces, those dead, those pains will be able to have a follow-up in our consciences. But in order for this to be correct and moral, it is necessary to obey a few rules, both on the part of the photographer, who must avoid aesthetic extremism which would stress his ability but limit reflection on the causes of the tragedy (usually international selfishness and sinister economic interests), and on the part of whoever publishes the photographs. They should be motivated by the intention of offering a honest document, choosing the truest reporting language, and also on the part of the person receiving the images, in an attempt to reach beyond the horror to understand the photograph and the photographic message,

Few people know how to read photographs and images in general. A recent study by Paul Messaris (Visual Literacy, ed. Westview), stressed this shortcoming and concluded that the analysis of the grammar of visual art makes it possible, among other things, to enjoy visual representations and teaches us to defend ourselves from counterfeits.

It would seem that the media have been intimidated by the strength of photography, and that as a consequence they have been induced to ignore it. They do not look at and do not choose from the incredible number of images produced by so many photographers on major stories. They prefer to choose from among photographs published in other papers from which the audience impact has already been tested, and those most similar to television pictures. This means that photographers are induced to construct scenarios and to portray people in untruthful, almost Disney like situations. What is more, we can no longer bear to see what we are and instead show great appreciation for "how we used to be." There are two reasons for this. First of all, we do not like ourselves (television stars are destroying the most truthful and appropriate concepts of beauty), and we do not have the strength or the will to take steps to change things. In the second place, photography of local news is disheartened and homogenized. The elderly and immigrants are an excellent example of this. Old people are split up into two categories: the rich and the marginalized. There are, however, a large number of dynamic and intelligent elderly people who do not belong to either of these sub-groups and who take an active part in life. Of these there is practically no trace. Photographs of immigrants always allude to negative situations. The articles accompanying the photographs are full to the brim with arrogance and do not let their real story show through. We never see photographs of positive integration, and all this fosters racism and the pushing away of the problem.

In any case, photography is considered a subordinate of written information. Photographs are met with hostility in editorial offices and fall victim to cuts in space and attention. If shown on television, photographs are accompanied by verbose comments preventing any direct contact with photographic language, which is concise, plain, dense and immediate by its very nature. This undervalues once again the educational power of photography which in actual fact can make the onlooker participate in a given reality, toning down its more violent or too involving aspects. This is because a photograph has no smell, no voice and, like poetry, establishes direct communication with the viewer with all the strength that originates from its immediacy and power to synthesize. Only the religious world understood, surprisingly early, how to exploit the power of images for its own purposes, creating a dangerous and somewhat ridiculous iconography, often made of sickening little pictures with their wretched hells full of flames for exorcising love for life.

Let us go back to the photographer, who has just completed a story he appreciates for the harmony he has created between the form and the contents. From this moment on until it is published, his report is in danger. The films go to the labs, the photographs have to be edited and if they are in black and white test prints have to be chosen. Only the photographer himself can make any cuts. The photographs then have to be combined with the appropriate captions, and are then sent to possible customers and, so lastly, by the time of publication, less than 5% of photographers declare themselves satisfied. For the others, something or everything of their story has been lost.

A whole parade of people have interceded between the incidents that were the cause of Anthony Suau's initial statement. Why does this happen? First of all, no training is provided for the personnel who have to manage the photographic material: there are no schools for picture-editors, or for filing personnel or for iconographic research personnel. Photographs cost too much and too little is paid for them. The distances separating the creation of a photograph from the moment of its publication is therefore either too long or too short. Digital is the new menace. Taking photographs with digital technology and then sending them off by computer? Yes, but who checks the process, the amount of room set aside for the report and for the title?

The staff cuts in editorial departments have also led to a further deterioration of the treatment applied to photographs, often delegated to the secretarial department, to improvised iconographic research personnel, to art directors and to editors in their odd moments. The times when people could spend time on projects, on discussions for organizing a proposal or a photographic work have disappeared. More than quality, what is discussed is price. What is more, during the last few years, a new and pernicious habit has become all the rage: rather than tackling a topic by displaying the work of a single photographer who has approached it with dedication, there is a preference for offering an assortment of photographs by various different photographers. This inevitably gives rise to a language that has nothing uniform about it and is mixed up (one photograph in postcard style, another showing the atmosphere, others that do not match up with the requirements of the text or even with colors caused by the use of lighting that makes them clash with the others), as if one wanted to supply a "Harlequin" paper, inducing readers, who are less stupid and unprepared than is thought, to turn over the page in a great hurry.

Reflection is necessary also on the subject of the new technologies: photograph scanning, digital transmission, the Internet. Many photographers consider the advent of digital technology a collective misfortune, which it is not possible to escape. The digital world is here to stay. It is a world that can be improved.

Indeed, the media have decided that they will admit to all their photomontages. Unscrupulous computer manipulations can lead to disorder and cause a few distortions of history. But I would not worry about these simulations. They are little games bound to disappear, because the public does not like photomontages. Moreover, even before computers came in, laboratory techniques had been introduced that made it possible to touch up or clean up a photograph according to one's needs. Nature photographers themselves, involved by definition in the ethical aspects of photography, feel the fascination of the computer. Thanks to the computer, the well-known photographer Art Wolfe was able to reproduce natural situations such as the migration of zebras, which would not have been easy to photograph. Wolfe stressed that the result of that situation, which does actually occur in nature, had been, in the specific case in question, reproduced using technological means. THE NANPA, the association of nature photographers, and other associations are also trying to regulate the relationship between technology and photography.

On the other hand, the advantages offered by the digital world are more than just a few:

a) Scanning photographs makes it possible to preserve them better than in any other traditional records system. The famous photographer Mary Ellen Mark has filed 18,000 photographs on CD's.

b) Computers make it possible to show the photographic exhibitions of up-and-coming photographers in different countries, which otherwise could not be displayed in galleries. In addition, it will foster the sale of photographs to collectors.

In my agency, the new technologies are used to transmit photographs, although I personally love touching a traditional black and white print. I feel that there is no point in ignoring what is new, and that it would be unproductive, and that it is desirable to know how to exploit the potential of the new means, while curbing their dangers. At the moment there are about one hundred associations all over the world that are concerned with these issues.

The 20th Century is the century of photographs. Starting from the Second World War, the way things are displayed has changed to a marked extent. Joy, pain, birth, death ... everything is visible and photographers themselves no longer recognize the limits of the permissible, beyond which their eyes, their cameras, the final product may wound the people photographed or the public. Experience has taught me that there are useless photographs: the photograph of Pasolini's corpse, for instance. It was absolutely gratuitous. On the other hand, I feel that the photograph from when Aldo Moro's body was found in the Renault, it had an important historical function. The same applies to a photograph that we grew up with: the sequence of the assination of President . Kennedy taken by A. Zapruder. Nobody knows the absolute truth about that attack even now, but without that document we would have accepted passively any pre-packaged version whatsoever.

I feel strong perplexities about news items. I do not agree with the publication of photographs that celebrate private pain, such as those showing a crowd of people in an airport who know that they have lost their loved ones in an accident, or people who have been arrested. I cannot bear, either, photographs taken in courtrooms, and I appreciate the law that exists in some American states banning the use of cameras in courtrooms. For children in difficulty, I believe that the law on privacy has made some proper corrections to the excesses of past years, but care is needed. Obscuring the face of the child is not sufficient, since even a coat can make a person recognizable and therefore vulnerable. I felt sorry for the life and death of Lady Diana, but I was indignant about the unfair accusation of photographers in contributing to her death. It is possible to escape the flashes of the cameras. All one has to do is to avoid the St. Tropez - Emerald Coast - Paris Ritz "paparazzi tour."

Author Paul Claudel gave a beautiful definition of photography in "The Listening Eye." The key to what is permissible lies in that way of listening that takes place every time we prepare to listen to our own hearts, to our own experience and to that of others. There are no limits, but rules that have to be invented from time to time. How can they be identified? How can photography retain its magic function of a reverent and respectful story of the object being photographed? How can such an obvious wish on the part of many celebrities to be photographed constantly be fulfilled without losing the rightful contact with their personalities? And how should one deal with news items, a crowd of unknown people? There are many hard and violent or soft or ironic stories I would not like to cancel from my imagination: the immigrants in Milan, in the arrival of the Beatles in America, the first AIDS deaths, the first great popular concerts, the fascination of certain first nights at the La Scala Theatre or at the Piccolo, the Latin Quarter in the fifties, the political demonstrations, the joyfulness of the end of the war, the extermination camps.

I have a few answers plus some intuitions. The first, which is also the most obvious and the most spontaneous, is that man has to act according to his conscience, and that in order to do so he must be inter-disciplinary. No one is capable of understanding what he sees if he decides to cultivate his own personal garden far from life. The first person of whom an interdisciplinary nature is demanded is the photographer, who must add to his training by reading constantly and by means of constant contacts with others. What is more, the time has come for image-reading to become a subject to be studied starting in primary schools, as suggested by the excellent Paola Pallottino. She recommended studying and salvaging the iconography of the past, and that the papers themselves should create opportunities for comments concerning the use of photographs and of their contents in handling far-reaching topics such as the war in Yugoslavia, and the famine in Sudan. In the future there will be a big demand for photography professionals, photo-shop experts, illustrators of news stories - professions which up to now have been improvised, without the support of any training at all. It seems that photography is too young to be deserving of management by specialized personnel, but 150 years are a lot!

Lastly, I would like to remember some remarks made by Michael Hoffman, editor of Aperture, the refined photographic publishing house in New York. This is how Hoffman summarized his ethical code referred to the publication of photographs:

a) The picture must be proffered to the public with the top standard of reproduction: the best inks, paper, design, printing and editing must be used.

b) The picture must be published respecting the wishes of the author, and it must be reproduced in such a way that it does not fall victim to commercial needs, marketing trends or outside censorship.

c) The picture must be placed in a context increasing the ethical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual commitment of the spectator.

Pure intuition is what makes me hope that we are approaching the end of this period, characterized by a lack of collective thrust, existential stresses and a reflux towards private life. It is only by ridding ourselves of the superficiality that is widespread at all levels that we will be able to undertake the path towards a change that will enhance the value of the ethics not only of respect for images but of all disciplines. This can only come true through a return to the great utopias that foster creativity and the spirit of adventure and which stimulate courageous choices characterized by respect for others.

Grazia Neri

Grazia Neri was born in Milan. After working at Newsblitz photoagency, she got involved in her own photography business in 1966 by representing the new born French agency Gamma that split up a few years later and gave birth to Sygma, which she then opted to represent instead. Since then, Grazia Neri has enjoyed the trust of some of the most renowned photographers, prestigious magazines and very committed agencies such as Contact, Matrix, Network, Vu...She quite legitimely is considered as a serious reference both for photographers and for agencies around the world. She was for 8 years President of Gadef, an Italian association similar to ASMP in USA that fights to protect the photographers copyright. She is regularly invited to take part in the juries of international competitions such as the World Press in Amsterdam, the W. Eugene Smith Grant and the Eisie Award. She has lectured on photojournalism in Italy, Western and Eastern Europe as well as in USA. She has been involved in the last few years in the curating and organization of exhibitions in Milan, Rome, Bologna and Verona. She is the artistic director of her own gallery which she opened in 1997 in her home town. Amongst the photographers for whom she has developed exhibitions are: David Burnett, Donna Ferrato, Greg Gorman, Douglas Kirkland, Frans Lanting, Mary Ellen Mark, Anthony Suau, David & Peter Turnley. Her agency has been more recently involved in producing photography books and catalogues in collaboration with some of the best Italian publishers such as Arnoldo Mondadori and Motta Editore. Grazia Neri is the president of the agency which bears her name. She has a son, Michele Neri, who is the executive director of the agency.

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