Ordinary citizens are shaping photojournalism, mainly for the better
The advent of digital technology means anyone is potentially capable of recording a newsworthy moment, broadening the possibilities for sharing information, but increasing the risk of misinterpretation. RFI met Manoocher Deghati, Jury President for the 28th edition of the Prix Bayeux Calvados-Normany War Correspondents Award.
A photographer working in clandestine conditions, constantly watched by the state needs to come up with tricks to continue his or her work, even if this means a sleight of hand, like a magician, swapping film rolls in the pocket to avoid handing over sensitive material.
Passing rolls of film to a colleague working on the other side of a heavily patrolled border, or asking strangers at the post office to send rolls of film to Paris or New York anonymously.
Carrying chemicals and materials to build a makeshift darkroom during an assignment.
These are just a few of the techniques which Iranian photojournalist Manoocher Deghati used back in the early 1980s to get his photographs out to the world. Sometimes it would be days, weeks, or even months before he knew if his pictures were published or not.
For this daring pursuit of truth during the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq wars, the award-winning photojournalist was forced to flee in 1985, and found refuge in France, and later in Italy.
Photography as revolution
Acknowledging that since his heyday, so much has changed, he says it is mostly for the better.
Thanks to advances in technology, photographers can carry out most transactions within minutes, relying on mobile phones and the internet. This means that for journalists in the field, they have less material to carry.
But its not only journalists that are making the headlines. The advent of social media has meant a plethora of voices, both public and private, are all publishing onto their newsfeeds to their followers, 24/7.
For Deghati, the more sources, the better. This has become what is known as 'citizen journalism', and it is changing the way information is treated and distributed.
He insists that when the essential mission of informing the public remains at the core, the democratisation of reporting is a good thing.
"We can say that photography is really important and it is becoming more important everyday, because everybody now is using photography," he said.
"For me it’s really incredible, this revolution that we have, communicating through photography".
When he started out, he was one of a handful of journalists in the field, but today, there are millions of potential eyewitnesses.
"I have seen during my career that photography can change the course of history. We have seen it before in Vietnam, we have seen it in Iraq, we have seen it in the States."
He cites the mobile phone footage of a passerby which captured the death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, in Minneapolis in 2020. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was later convicted and given a 22-year prison sentence.
Had this footage not been recorded at that specific moment in time and passed on to legal bodies, perhaps the case would have never made it to the courts.
"I am a photographer because I believe that photography is a universal language, it is the best way of communication. If everybody can do it, I’m really happy," he says.
An accessible tool
"Teaching photography is easier than teaching a language," Deghati told the audience gathered for a Masterclass for the Prix Bayeux on Friday. "You can go so much faster, and people learn quickly."
With his brother Reza, Deghati founded the Aina media centre in Afghanistan in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. Previously, under the strict rules, there had been no access to education or training let alone news from abroad.
He trained groups of young men, and especially women, who, he said, needed to be encouraged to take up photography.
"After all they represent half the population, it’s normal that they show their side of the story," he says.
Due to a lack of funds, Deghati used old-fashioned box cameras, found in the streets of Kabul. This provided students with the main steps of making a picture from A to Z, and understanding the process.
"They are telling the story of their own land, with their own eyes," Deghati says, adding proudly that he has taught in some 50 countries throughout his career.
Beware easy conclusions
However, he points out that one of the dangers in a world where information flows too quickly, is that photographs can be easily misinterpreted, wrongly labelled or can fall prey to manipulation.
To illustrate this during the Masterclass, Deghati showed the audience two pictures of women wearing black veils. One taken in 1982 in Iran in a prison where opponents to the Iranian revolution were taken to be executed.
The other, taken more recently, shows a group of women gathered for a religious ceremony in Italy. One could easily jump to the wrong conclusion, thinking the two photos came from the same part of the world, showing the same religion. Always check your sources, he says.
"I want my pictures to be a feast, to move them, to make them think, because that’s our mission, to inform but with the hope that things will change. Images should really move people. When they see them, they ask questions, they ask why is this happening? That’s one of the goals of being a photojournalist."
His memoir, Eyewitnessed, co-written by Deghati's wife, Ursula Janssen, was presented at the Book Fair in Bayeux, 9th of October.
25 of his photos are on display throughout the streets of Bayeux until 31st of October, 2021.
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