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'The Committed Picture: The Photography Department in Context' opens at MKG Hamburg
Max Scheler Slums in der Industriestadt Birmingham, Alabama 1964 Silbergelatine, 30,3 x 48,9 cm © Max Scheler Estate, Hamburg.

HAMBURG.- The 1950s and 1960s were a heyday of photo reporting, commissioned by a whole range of newly founded magazines such as Kristall, Revue, Quick or Stern. Inspired by the idea that photography is a language universally understood all over the world, many photojournalists see their work as an expression of socially critical commitment and political responsibility. They take their photographs as authentic documentation of reality which confront the observer with the evils of the world, suffering and violence and appeal to his compassion and sense of responsibility over and above their value as information. The exhibition “The Committed Picture” focuses on photojournalism in the post-war period. On top of this, it presents one of the main emphases of the Department for photography and new media in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG), which already laid the foundations for the collection with acquisitions in the early 1960s. More than 40 works by Jürgen Heinemann, Ryuichi Hirokawa, Thomas Hoepker, Kaku Kurita, Robert Lebeck, Peter Magubane, Marc Riboud, Sebastião Salgado and Max Scheler will be on display. They document the developments and the aesthetic strategies of the genre since the 1960s. The series of exhibitions under the title of “The Photography Department in Context“ will accompany the indexing of the collection on scientific principles and reveals the different methods by which photography can be employed.

When it became possible, following the invention of halftone printing at the end of the 19th century, to print photographs, the report with photos develops into a narrative form in its own right alongside the written word. It allows the reader to become a direct “eyewitness” to events which he was previously unable to picture to himself. During the post-war period it is the publishers of Stern who promote this development, giving their eighteen in-house photographers space of up to ten double-page spreads, which precede the written texts in the magazines. Robert Lebeck’s photos of life on the streets and waterways of Hong Kong in 1961 show in exemplary form how photography has finally shaken off its function of merely illustrating the text and become an independent medium of reporting in itself. Now it is the pictures themselves which tell the story.

Like Robert Lebeck’s series from Hong Kong, many reports at first only provide a “window on the world” into exotic locations. In the course of the 1960s, however, the accent shifts towards daily reporting of events as they occur. Opinions differ on the choice of the means. While the advocates of “total photography” want to see the camera in the thick of events, there are at the same time doubts as to the effectiveness of such “shock photos”, which leave in their extreme explicitness no room for any interpretation of his own by the observer. Ryuichi Hirokawa’s photos, for example, show the victims of a massacre in Lebanon in 1982 in uncompromising directness, sparing the observer nothing. Marc Riboud, on the other hand, avoids the unmediated display of violence in his photos from the war in Bangladesh in 1971.

The role played by magazines is seen critically by a number of photographers from the outset. In 1947, the Photo Agency Magnum is already founded in Paris, with the aim of making it possible for them to find a public independently of commissions from magazines. Many photojournalists also publish their work in book form, since they have a free hand in the presentation there. Apart from Jürgen Heinemann’s photos from South America, Sebastião Salgado’s photos from the Sahel Zone, for instance, are also done on his own initiative. In 1986 he publishes this series in collaboration with the organization Doctors Without Borders as a book.

As a result of their throwing of an aesthetic veil over images of calamitous circumstances and violence, the work of photojournalists repeatedly comes in for criticism. They are accused of using the suffering of the people they show and instrumentalizing them for their own purposes. This is also the point directed by contemporary criticism at documentary photography depicting social ills: the stereotyped images of the victims of humanitarian catastrophes are not likely to change anything, since they neglect the specific causes in each case. As a reaction against this, the activists in the Arab Spring of 2011 in Cairo, for instance, took the documentation of their struggle against the Mubarak regime into their own hands. Photos by the Egyptian photographer Aly Hazza’a showing a demonstration of women against police violence are among the most recent purchases by the MKG. An early example of photographic commitment in the photographer’s own country is given by the work of the photographer Peter Magubane, who was himself, as a black South African, directly affected by the strictures of the Apartheid regime. Magubane shows the resistance against the ruling system, conducting in this way “politics with a camera”.

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