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Documentary’s New/Old Models

Rwanda/Gilles Peress

I just moderated a panel discussion “Access to Life,” revolving around the effort of a number of Magnum photographers to help the Global Fund raise considerable amounts of money so that millions of HIV-positive people can not only stay alive but, in many cases, prosper when provided with the right medications. Gilles Peress, representing his colleagues, was enthusiastic to be “of service,” as he explained it, and showed the dramatic impact of anti-retrovirals on people’s health: according to the Global Fund some 80 percent of people improve, often dramatically.

Rosie Vanek, representing the Global Fund, made the case that the handsome book the photographers (and Aperture) produced would be pivotal in keeping the aid money flowing from governments and large institutions (the US is the largest donor, and as the audience affirmed it is a reassuring if rare use of tax dollars). Donors would be reassured that their money is having a positive impact.

The other photographer on the panel, Kristen Ashburn, who had been photographing the ravages of AIDS for years before these medications were available, showed the tragic alternative: the ongoing cycle of profoundly sick individuals, weeping relatives, and graves being dug eight at a time to try and keep up with the torrent of death during the days when there was much less hope. (It should also be pointed out that Gideon Mendel, who was not present, has been photographing people in Sub-Saharan Africa taking anti-retrovirals for several years.)

MaryAnne Golon, former picture editor of Time magazine, displayed for the New School audience a four-page spread that the magazine had run from the Access to Life project. When asked, she agreed that the major sponsors of larger photographic projects are now more likely to be NGO’s and foundations than the conventional media. Coming after the International Online Journalism Conference in Austin where I had been a few days before, highlighted by a keynote address from Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, a not-for-profit funded at $10 million annually, it felt like we had turned a corner. The for-profit media, struggling to survive, has ceded considerable territory to the not-for-profit sector.

But, of course, the strategies and credibility of witnessing are still up for grabs: while no longer a corporate media model, does working with an NGO guarantee any more complexity, nuance or neutrality in the photo essay? Helping the Global Fund achieve its aims to fight the ravages of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria is to be fervently applauded. But in such cases the Farm Security Administration photographers, working to further the aims of Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, are more powerful role models than those who would later work for Life magazine. Photojournalism, as Peress suggested, might be an aging term.


  1. matthias bruggmann wrote:

    “a four-page spread that the magazine had run from the Access to Life project.” - didn’t we use to be more straightforward and just call those advertorials ?

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 6:51 am | Permalink
  2. fredritchin wrote:

    It’s a very good question. Is excerpting work done for an NGO a form of advocacy that should not qualify as journalistic. Or is the question whether Time magazine is now a publication where the boundaries are much more porous?

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

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  1. golon on Tuesday, April 6, 2010 at 1:15 am

    [...] and MaryAnne Golon; RealCentralVA Jim Duncan’s blog about real estate in central Virginia; …After Photography Documentary’s New/Old ModelsMaryAnne Golon, former picture editor of Time magazine, displayed for the New School audience a [...]

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