April 19, 2016

Witness Interview

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Martin Argles
Award-Winning Guardian Photographer

Portrait: Paolo Black

The Guardian’s Martin Argles was named 2010 Photographer of the Year at the inaugural Picture Editors’ Guild Awards for a photo essay documenting former prime minister Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign. The Picture Editors’ Guild Awards was set up to reward the very best in picture journalism. For his M.A. project ‘History & Theory of Photojournalism & Documentary Photography’, Paolo Black talked to him about the photograph as a witness.

Paolo: Martin, describe for me becoming a photographer, and what thoughts went through your mind as you started taking the first photographs in terms of you being a witness to something that was happening that you needed to capture?

Martin: To be frank, I don’t think the idea of being a “witness” at the age when I started being a photographer occurred to me at all. I was, on the whole, just ambitious to get myself recognised as a photographer and become successful. The idea of a witness only came much later and it’s not really something that is necessarily at the forefront of your mind, although I would say perhaps the word “witness” is not at the forefront of your mind, it’s more that it’s something which you apply later, in a way, to what you’ve just experienced.

So, because it’s a very hands-on business and very sort of – how can put it – that it’s an intensive experience of the moment being a photographer, the concept of witness which implies a history, as it were, historical grounds for being there, for being there professionally, is only something which really occurs to you maybe some weeks, maybe some months, maybe some years afterwards, and it’s at that point you think ‘ah you’re a witness’. At the time, it doesn’t enter your head really you’re just thinking I’ve got to get a good picture out of this, I’ve got to balance it. I have to think of each picture in terms of its social/historical/political context possibly, its moral context maybe, but after a while that becomes more natural to you I think perhaps. So a witness? No, not at the beginning at all.

Paolo: Do you remember the first time you did think of yourself as a witness?

Martin: No, [laughter] to be honest. Let me think. But thinking back on it, there are occasions for example in Northern Ireland when people were murdered in front of me, that sort of thing, where you’d say yes, definitely that was… you were acting as a witness to the fact what was in actual fact a crime, that sort of thing, quite violent occasions like that. For example, political events, when Margaret Thatcher took over as Prime Minster, there was definitely a witness sense to that occasion in Downing Street, or I think I was…yes, in Downing Street, and big general election changes. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 97 – no, sorry – yes, 97 [laughter] that was a definite historic occasion, that certainly felt historic rather than being a witness, I think, at the time. What other things? Ceausescu in Romania in 89/88 in his last days, you felt that you were witnessing something which we’d never seen before – would be never seen again, sorry. […] Those sorts of things perhaps, I can’t remember exactly the first time.

Paolo: Let’s talk about the Northern Ireland experience when you say you saw people murdered in front of you.

Martin: Yes.

Paolo: What thoughts were going through your mind then as a photographer, as an eye-witness to that event?

Martin: Well, the first thought is basically to keep out of the line of fire. Obviously, you don’t want to be shot yourself. It’s not a good idea as a photographer or as a human being, really. And, so the next thought was just basically to photograph the main event, which was that somebody was dying in front of me, and so I photographed that until I was ordered quite peremptorily by the IRA to stop. Peremptorily was that… what’s the word? Anyway, you know what I mean.

Paolo: They ordered you to stop.

Martin: Yeah.

Paolo: And what thought went through your mind then ‘I’d better stop or I might be shot too?

Martin: No, what went through my mind was, ‘I’ve got this picture, I don’t really need to be around anymore. I can go.’ Basically, I think, what went through my mind was, ‘I’ve got to get this film back to London. This is an important picture. How do I get out of here smoothly without being stopped/searched/prevented from leaving? How do I get back to the airport? How do I get it from the airport back to London? How do I get from the airport in London back to the office in time?’ So basically it was all that.

Paolo: Talk me through that picture.

Martin: It’s a story that many other people might be able to tell as well. It was in a cemetery in Belfast, they were burying the three IRA people who had been shot by British Special Forces in Gibraltar before they were able to plant a bomb, I think, or was it an assassination attempt? Anyway, they were brought back. I’d followed the cortege all the way from Dublin Airport to Milltown Cemetery in Belfast. When we were in Milltown Cemetery they were just in the process of lowering the coffins – the whole place was full, of course, with sympathizers and a few media – and they were in the process of lowering the coffins in the grave and someone suddenly decided to throw hand grenades and started to shoot people in an arbitrary fashion basically. Everybody ducked, I ducked, but then the crowd started to chase the gunman and he turned round and started to shoot them and at which point they all turned and fled again, and I was right behind them and some people were shot and I photographed it. It was a terrible thing, the three… I think only – only, uh – three people died in that shoot.

Paolo: What did you capture?

Martin: One of the dead/one of the dying people who had been shot in the back. As he turned he was shot in the back and died quite quickly, then and there. And they tried to get him…they put him into an ambulance…they put him into a taxi rather, which they were using as an ambulance to try and get him out, but it was too late he died in front of my eyes. They were trying to revive him but it was no good.

Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. Dying victim of gun and grenade attack. March 1988. Martin Argles | The Guardian.

Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. Dying victim of gun and grenade attack. March 1988. Martin Argles | The Guardian.

Paolo: What was that experience like for you, that must have been quite –

Martin: It was a shock.

Paolo: – difficult?

Martin: Yeah. Suppressed… a lot of adrenalin. Half of me was saying, ‘You’ve done this quite well, you’ve done quite a good job here,’ because a lot of people just dived for the deck and didn’t get up, but I managed to avoid being shot and managed to avoid… and I kept cool I think, reasonable cool, and kept my head, made sure I’d got the film back. I was quite pleased at that, but then all that sort of horror of it as it were, was – I don’t know if you know about delayed shock or anything like that – but it came out later as these things do – in the arms of my wife, as it often does.

Paolo: What happened?

Martin: What?

Paolo: She was holding you, did you cry?

Martin: No, I don’t think I did, but I was certainly pale and very shaky, but I mean, that’s enough of that.

Paolo: So part of you thought, gee-whizz I kept my cool, I did a good job.

Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Paolo: – and that kind of kept you going until you got the film because you thought I’ve got to really?

Martin: Well, it was two or three days later.

Paolo: Yeah.

Martin: In fact, because I had spent a couple of nights in Belfast dealing with the mess, sorting out the… dealing with the mess, I should say. I was recording the results of this shooting and the emotional tension in Belfast was extreme at the time, of course, and people were very, very heightened, enraged or whatever, so. There was a subsequent shooting of two British squaddies? And – by the IRA – and, but, I mean, you know that was Ireland for you, it was like that, there was continual tension, continual troubles all the time. But most of us who were going backwards and forwards to Belfast at that time – and there were quite a lot of us – were […] pretty experienced at knowing how the ground was at West Belfast, Artikel or Derry or other towns in Northern Ireland, and how the pattern of violence and things worked. We understood which side everybody was on and we understood where we were safe and where we weren’t and that kind of thing. An old school of friend of mine was murdered by the IRA – I only just this got recently, but he was a captain in the Army. It was awful really.

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Paolo: You were kind of living in a separate reality there?

Martin: That’s an interesting approach. I think one of the points of being a journalist is that you’re trying to prove that actually – you’re right to point out that this is not a separate reality, so if my pictures gave you the impression that they were living in a separate reality I think they would have failed. One of the interesting things about Northern Ireland or as it was so… people spoke English and it was so much part of – a lot of it appeared to be so much part of us, with us. I mean, we were all so closely linked. So to say that we were in a separate reality would have been, as it were, denying it and saying this is not our responsibility. It definitely was our responsibility as a country and as a government.

Paolo: When you say your picture has failed, is there something that goes through your mind saying what you want a picture to achieve?

Martin: […..] Yeah, I think so. You can’t just pick up a camera and say let’s photograph that, that’s how it is. It doesn’t really work like that, not in my view. I think other people perhaps who work for agencies or for other sorts of newspapers might say that. My feelings are that every single picture has a bias of some sort of another.

Now, generally speaking, I’m a wet Liberal, I suppose, probably with leftish leanings, so, generally speaking, my pictures might… they might bring that out a little bit – not always, but they might, generally speaking, which is not to say that I’m going in there with a biased and prejudiced point of view, but it does mean that I’m up to being quizzed as to why I took that picture that way. You can criticise the pictures if you like, but you can, at the same time, you can also quiz me as to why I did it like that.

So, I’m not saying that every single picture is a polemical picture of some sort, but I’m just saying that there’s…you cannot deny your own feelings, your own impressions about things, your own reaction to things. I obviously have a reaction to the Irish situation, I have a reaction to certain politicians or some politicians, you know, in certain ways, and those reactions might change over time – they’re not fixed, and so you hopefully – and your pictures might slightly change over time but – hopefully, you’re going to photograph the event regardless of opinion, as it were, but I don’t think it’s possible to that exclusively, I think even with most photographers something subtle of their own prejudices or their own newspaper’s prejudices or whatever it is seeps into every photograph.

Paolo: How does that affect theirs and your objectivity?

Martin: Well, as I just said, I don’t think objectivity is really technically possible, I don’t think it’s possible, but that doesn’t mean that your pictures have to be denied, as it were. Objectivity is not something which is possible anywhere in any form in any walk of life, and especially in any form of journalism, it’s simply not possible.

I started in Fleet Street working on the Daily Mail, which, of course, is the one of the least [laughter] objective papers going; it has a built-in prejudice against various people, various sections of society and a built-in support of others. I’ve got no problem with that because so long as you realise that that’s how it is then, you know, every single picture that appears in the Daily Mail will have its prejudice. The fact that I will take 80 pictures of my – as it were – my leftie kind of like the sort of look, and they would pick out the one or two which actually fitted into their particular prejudice is, of course, another point, another interesting fact isn’t it, is that, you know, photographers tend to broadly take several photographs and often the publication that they’re working for will pick out the ones which actually fit the brief of the paper rather than perhaps the photographer saw in the first place.

Paolo: And if the photographer is completely aware of the brief of the paper –

Martin: Mmmm.

Paolo: Do they tend to lean in that direction?

Martin: Some do. I like to hope that I don’t, but certainly some do, and I think they…well, good luck to them, they get on with and they do a good job and their paper is happy with them and all the rest of it. I don’t think that’s the role of photographers broadly speaking, I think broadly speaking, photographers are – like other journalists – are there to expand our knowledge and to possibly challenge it, which obviously goes together – expansion and challenge both go together. And to possibly look at things in a slightly different way so that people can say, well actually, my particular prejudice about this particular group in society’ or whatever it was, maybe I can change that slightly and look at it in a slightly different way because the way this person has photographed them.

I’ll give you an example of that, can I?

Paolo: Yes.

Martin: After the bombings in London, an “amateur” – I’ll put that in inverted commas – an “amateur photographer” sent in a picture to us of some Muslim people; the girls were dressed in hijabs and they were rowing a boat in the middle of a lake somewhere in an East London Park and for some reason or other something had happened, the boat had tipped over or something like that, and they were scrambling out of the water and they were all laughing and having a fantastic time – it was a lovely photograph, beautifully shot and I thought this is… it came out and he sent it into us – I think it won a competition somewhere – it came out against absolutely the mass of photographs of Imams with one arm and a crook and whatever and serious looking beards and, I don’t know, and I thought that’s the sort of photograph that’s what photography is all about, it’s saying well, hang on a minute, yes there are these people who want to kill us, but, at the same time, there are people who have lively mild lives who just want to get on with it, who just behave like you and I, tip their boats over and splash about in the water having fun, and I think that’s what photography can do, it’s one of the things that photography can do.

Paolo: Famously, you had an exclusive week with Gordon Brown.

Martin: Four weeks, actually.

Paolo: Four weeks with Gordon Brown just before he left us.

Martin: Yeah.

Paolo: And towards the end of that four weeks, you started to be concerned that you were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

Martin: [Laughter] Yeah.

Paolo: Talk me through that and the point at which you thought, ‘Hello, this isn’t working as well as I’d like,’ or ‘I’m recognising my sympathies are a bit too strong here.’ What tipped the balance for you, how did that work?

Martin: Well, I don’t think I ever really became involved in Stockholm, but I realised that that was a real danger, and the Stockholm Syndrome was a joke more than a…but it was a serious anxiety, rather than anxiety it was a preoccupation. I do think you can – put it this way, I was locked up, as it were, in Brown’s campaign team for a solid four/five weeks, five weeks altogether, and as you can imagine, these campaigns are very intense and everybody is very focused and internally focused often within the team, and I was with them, but at the same time, of course, I realised I wasn’t part of them. So, the temptation to sort of, as it were, just say to them, yes, I’ll do whatever you basically want me to do, just for the sake of having an easy life, I suppose, is there, but, there were lots of photographs I took, well several photographs I took which they were very unhappy with, and it was only because I’d basically I’d negotiated in advance the deal, as it were, that they weren’t going to censor the photographs in any way, they were going to give me as much access as they possibly could, given Gordon Brown’s reluctance to allow people to wander into his… at his difficult moments or whatever, they were going to give me as much access as possible. They actually found it difficult to make things… make things difficult for me as a result of those images. There was one image I took off him running along a road – he got out of the car and just for a breather, ran along an A road in the middle of Gloucestershire I think, and I took the photograph and it was published I think a couple of days later in the paper, and they were very unhappy with that, very, very unhappy and very cross with me, and I definitely think they were in two minds as to whether let me carry on. But one or two of them stood up for me and argued and said, look, we signed up for this, we must carry on with it, and they probably realised, I think, to, as it were, not exactly turf me off, but to push me to one side would have… which they did, I suppose, for a day or so, that might have rebounded on them. In other words, they would have been seen to be sort of overly protective, and there must be something wrong with Brown and they can’t allow even a photographer in there.

Paolo: But your thought process at the time was ‘this is perfectly reasonable for him to stop the car and go for a little run?’

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Martin: No, my thought process was like it was. I wasn’t actually making that sort of judgement, I wasn’t saying this is reasonable or this is not reasonable, I was saying this is a picture [laughter], I’ve got to get out and photograph this, and I was in the middle of the car and I sort of said more or less just as I go, I said to Sarah, his wife, I said is this alright to do this? And she said, ‘yes’, like that, and I started taking photographs, because it’s a pretty unusual sight to see a serving Prime Minister running along the side of an A road, and he’s surrounded by detectives and in his suit, buttoned up suit, but it’s a pretty unusual sight, so, you know, I thought this is probably a first, I haven’t seen this one before so I obviously took a picture. And it was part of the whole thing, I was trying to cover each week, and the agreement was that we would get a page of photographs in each week from what I’d done.

Paolo: But you asked his wife?

Martin: Yeah, I looked at his wife and said… but I think if she’d said no I would have still gone ahead and done it. The thing was really she had a lot of influence and if I’d upset her it would have made my life more difficult down the line slightly, and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to keep in. But politics is like that, political journalists, for example, have exactly the same sort of issues, they might be nice on one occasion, but then nasty on another in order to sort of – they might be nice, in order to get the quote or get the story later on down the line. So political life is all a question of checks and balances and negotiation and all the rest of it, and being nice and then being nasty [laughter] or if you like, or whatever, because you’re so intensely involved in this thing, it’s not a sort of purely objective photojournalistic, I would not have got anywhere if I’d gone in as a cold photojournalist and done it, I realised that I needed to establish myself as a personality as well as everything else. So the idea that perhaps you’re asking the Prime Minister’s wife or looking at the Prime Minister’s wife and saying is it okay to do this didn’t seem to me to be particularly unusual. It wasn’t that I was really asking her for her permission, I was just touching base with her and just seeing what her feelings were. If she’d rushed up to me and pushed her hand in my lens, which she wouldn’t she would never had done that, but if she had I would have taken the picture of that which would have been probably a killer, a bad thing from their point of view obviously.

Paolo: Mmmm.

Martin: I don’t know, but it’s difficult. To get exclusive stories wherever they are, I think does involve a certain amount of negotiation, and if you’re going to compromise on something small in order to get a picture of something big then it’s worthwhile. The point is that’s the point really isn’t it? I don’t know that’s what I do anyway.

Paolo: And obviously your colleagues agree with you because you won Photographer of the Year (2010) for that series?

Martin: Yeah. Well, yeah, it was the whole thing was mine from the beginning, my idea; it was my negotiation, my deal. I was very pleased, I was very pleased with the result – even Gordon Brown was pleased with the result so it seems – and everybody thought it was, to be honest, a fairly – and I don’t want to blow my own trumpet too much, but everybody thought it was a good piece of photojournalism really, which I don’t know, yeah, possibly.

Paolo: Something you’re very proud of obviously?

Martin: Yeah, I see no reason why not to be.

Paolo: Yeah.

Martin: [Laughter]

Paolo: Historically then, as you look at all of these events that you have witnessed, that you’ve been eyewitness to, it seems to me that it’s not until later that you actually think to yourself that you were actually witness to these historical events?

Martin: That’s right.

Paolo: So how then do you perceive these historical events as you’ve moved along in time?

Martin: I don’t know if you’ve done history, you’re a historian or anything, but history is a moveable feast, and what appears to be one great historical event when just two or three days after you’ve witnessed it, actually in the fullness of time appears to be relatively minor or possibly even irrelevant, so I’m still not sure how much of this stuff that I photographed is relevant. The first Gulf War which I was at has disappeared into history, almost, because it was so much overtaken by the second one, which was much more horrific and messy and changed Americans’ view of its role in the world to some extent, so I don’t think – let’s think, let’s think. I’m trying to think of an event which actually has disappeared in history, in historic terms, which I witnessed. Oh, I don’t know. Countless elections, by-elections – by-elections, for example, small local elections in the UK, and at the time, they got huge amounts of attention and they’re probably regarded as crucial and significant for the next week – maybe a year down the line everybody’s forgotten about them. I really don’t know, I really don’t know. And Brown’s departure, well, people will forget about that until somebody does some sort of revival in ten years’ time or so. I don’t know you have to be sanguine about these things. Certainly not all the…possibly it’s more significant the series of stories that you cover on one particular subject, so if you take Ireland for example, I was there from 71 to – no, sorry – I was there from 1980 probably, 1979/80 to 85/86 or something, and it was towards the end of the troubles – yeah, the whole of that you could take as a sort of a historical continuum, which was interesting to cover and relevant.

Paolo: Do you think photographs are truthful objects?

Martin: No, absolutely not. No, of course not. When you pick up the camera you select the lens, you select exactly where you’re going to stand, you select the moment at which you’re going to press this button – all of those are subjective, all of those decisions are subjective. No, of course they’re not, no. How you position yourself so where the light is – everything is a subjective thing and they’re not… well, okay, I suppose that’s the difference between subjective and objective isn’t it, when you say truthful they’re still truthful, of course, yes, I suppose they’re truthful if you can have subjective truth then I guess… this is a philosophical point of view [laughter] which I’m not equipped to deal with, but if you can have some subjective truth then they are definitely truthful, but there’s no such thing as an objective truth in photography in my view, anyway. I think some people might disagree with me on that, but I don’t agree, no.

Paolo: But if you press the shutter and you’ve got your 100th of second moment, surely that moment itself is a moment of truth because the camera itself cannot lie – perhaps the photographer can lie, but the camera itself?

Martin: Yeah, but life is a process… it exists within time, a period of time, and […] a man swinging the butt of a rifle can – depending on whether he’s smiling at one point of the swing or snarling a little further point of the swing – can either look quite congenial or very, very sinister. I think it’s entirely a question of timing on that.

I really am not a philosopher and I’m not really equipped to say whether that fraction of a second, which isn’t a fraction of second actually it’s just timeless isn’t it, that point at which you…a 100th or whatever it is, which isn’t the point about the pictures, it’s actually a timeless moment in a way and time doesn’t enter into it at all. Whether that’s a truthful image, I’d rather leave somebody else to judge, but I think that’s too complex for most viewers, as it were, to get to grips with, and certainly it’s too complex for me [laughter].

Paolo: But your whole, you just live in this world of a 100th of a second moments?

Martin: Yeah, that’s right, yes. Yes, you do. But, I don’t think you can extrapolate from that that it’s a world of dishonesty. I don’t think you can say, okay, because you’re shooting at 250th of a second and they’re not truthful, I don’t think that’s a dishonest world. Although I guess that’s a point, you could suggest that, but I would pretty hastily deny that, I think. I don’t think it’s a dishonest world, I think it’s a world of… I think photography has been around long enough – what now for 160 years/170 years – for people to understand its limitations and to understand what it actually is. And I think if people really think about it when they look at photographs, they do take on board the fact that it is, as it were, a language all of its own and which 250th of second or 100th of second or whatever it is, is just accepted, and that it has its limitations. It’s not possible in one photograph to illustrate time, to illustrate what happens over a period of time, it isn’t really possible to do that, but it is possible to say this photographer looked at this occasion and this is the best they could produce, but it’s a debate which I would be quite willing to be involved with.

Paolo: There’s a picture that’s doing the rounds at the moment on Facebook that I’d like you to have a look at.

Martin: Yes.

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Paolo: And you can see that the whole picture in the centre is of, on the one hand, a soldier giving an enemy soldier a drink, and on the left hand side holding a gun to his head.

Martin: Yes.

Paolo: And the picture quite explicitly splits it in two, so that CNN covers the generosity of the soldier giving the enemy soldier some water, and on the left, Al Jazeera have the soldier holding the gun to the enemy’s head.

Martin: Is this an actual truth? Is this actually how they use them?

Paolo: I don’t mind whether it’s truth or not truth.

Martin: Yeah.

Paolo: I only mind that this is doing the rounds as truth.

Martin: Oh right.

Paolo: So the question is, what does the photograph mean to you, when you look at now? There can’t be much truth in the way that it’s being edited?

Martin: No, there isn’t, of course there isn’t it, but say the photographer, for example, had ignored the man with the gun on the left and had just taken the bloke feeding him, you know, there’s not a great deal of truth in that either, but, at the same time, the photographer has not included all the other things which are going on around him at the same time. I think that’s my point really is that there is no particular objective truth in this game, but this sort of thing happened, especially in… if photography in the UK in the 70s and 80s was far more critically analysed than it is now, and this sort of instance came up a lot, there were several riots and I remember a particular picture in which a black guy was arrested by the police, they had their arms around his neck and they were pulling him back and as they pulled him back it exposed a massive great knife that he had tucked into his belt, and this was at a demonstration by what was then the National Front which is about the marches, and some people cropped it so that the knife was not there, and some people cropped it so that the knife was there, and it was a very similar situation to this. […] I think there are… hmmm… I think you have to forgive the photographer to some extent.

The photographer is in a situation of high tension when an awful lot of other things are going on, and the idea that a photographer is coolly analysing the photograph in advance and then chopping out – yeah, the man with the gun or the man with the water bottle, I think is highly unlikely. Generally speaking, the photographer’s seen that makes a good pattern, that’s an amazing expression as he pulls his head back, that’s amazing, just quick, take the picture, don’t hesitate just take it, and then afterwards sees the gun and whatever. So, I think you have to forgive the photographer a fair amount. I don’t think you can particularly forgive either CNN or Al Jazeera for editing it in that way, if that’s how they did edit it, if it’s true. It think it’s mostly a question of editing rather than photography, but I’m not saying photographers don’t have prejudices, it’s certainly true, but it’s possible that… funnily enough, most photographers I know think about the picture before they think about the prejudice, if you like. That’s what my feeling is. I don’t know, what are you feelings about it? Do you have any feelings about it?

Paolo: Well I don’t know if it’s true for a start because it looks a bit too black and white for me that it’s handy to tell that story.

Martin: Yeah, well if that is true, it won’t be the first time that’s happened, there’s many many instances of that sort of editing going on – go on. But it’s interesting you’ve brought this up now because I’ve noticed something of a revival of interest in this kind of – how can I put it – political sort of criticism, critical – that’s not the right word – ethical criticism of photography.

I did some talks earlier this year with a lot of students from St Martin’s actually about politics and photography, and it’s the first time that’s happened for – God – 20 years at least. It was during the days of the 70s and 60s, 70s and 80s, politics and photography were very important and that sort of thing came up all the time, and everybody was very aware of it and that’s been allowed to go into abeyance ever since then.

Paolo: But you mentioned earlier that the photographs can be manipulated to suit the owners of the newspapers.

Martin: Mmmm.

Paolo: How can you imagine that a picture can be so distorted by news organisations? […] If it’s true?

Martin: If it’s true, it doesn’t look to me to be…it’s such a blatant piece of editing [laughter] that it does seem to me a bit extreme, frankly that –

Paolo: Yes.

Martin: – especially CNN or, well actually, both of them actually, both of them they’re very good organisations.

Paolo: Yeah.

Martin: Al Jazeera’s a very good organisation and it’s highly unlikely I think that they would edit a picture like that, and CNN equally, I don’t think it’s likely.

How can I imagine that it would happen? Well, British newspapers, in particular, tend to be very competitive and they’re very, very proud of their audience. The Daily Mail likes to see photographs of – I don’t know, let me think – scroungers, dole scroungers causing trouble on the street. I don’t know what the hell they want, you know, causing trouble on the streets that kind of thing. The Guardian, on the whole, likes to see people who are suffering in silent misery and wherever. Whether it likes to see these pictures is the wrong word, but it reinforces their –

Paolo: Credo?

Martin: – yeah, reinforces their – yes, exactly, credo if that’s the right word, anyway, it reinforces their position and prejudices and all the rest of it, and it plays to their audience who like to have their prejudices confirmed. And whether they’re liberals and whether they’re conservatives it doesn’t make any difference they like to have them confirmed. So, I don’t know, but it’s very interesting. I find it very interesting that you bought this subject up now, because it’s a such long time since I came across anybody who’s actually interested in this and finds this intriguing, and I think it’s a very good time to start talking about it again, particularly since we are probably about to start a very, very hard period in economic world history and especially European history now. It’s probably about time that we actually got back to thinking about photography as a recorder of history, as you say.

Paolo: When you think about the coverage of the – I hesitate to use the word riots, but the difficulties that people had last year when they crossed the invisible line, what thoughts went through your mind about the photographic coverage?

Martin: Interesting that the riots that I covered back in the 80s and 90s in lots of ways were easier to cover. There was less, much less antagonism towards journalists, but that has almost entirely been brought on because of the police trawling through negatives and files and that sort of thing to find out who’s involved in riots, and as a result, photographers have been seen, and particularly photographs, have been seen as just appendages for the police, so it was very very dangerous for them and very very difficult. But that’s the main problem the police have made it almost impossible for photographers to work in any kind of clear way on these things. I thought flames that’s good, looks in good in newspapers, red flames. I thought the girl jumping from the window down in Croydon I thought that was an amazing photograph. I thought there was lots of really startling pictures. Possibly just as many good ones taken by people with iPhones, but actually in the end, the professionals probably got it right. Difficult, very hard to cover, very hard to cover indeed. I didn’t envy anybody doing that – I was away and didn’t anything to do with it – and very, very difficult. And difficult also because it was very fast moving, there wasn’t any particular solid line. Whereas in the 80s and 90s riots tended to be one police line across a road [laughter] and you could either move in front of that police line or behind it or whatever, and you knew where the missiles [laughter] were coming, in this particular case, there was a lot of looting and anarchy and it was really difficult, but I think it’s a good lesson for everybody, that’s what it’s going to be and there’s going to be more of that, one suspects, because life is becoming increasingly restricted and also impoverished for many people and that’s one of the ways they express their frustration. In that particular case, I think it was mostly to do with looting I think and, I don’t know, anyway, that’s what I feel.

Paolo: Let me take you back to June 1972, almost exactly 40 years ago, and the Americans and napalming Vietnam, and one photographer got an amazing picture of a young girl whose flesh was burning running along the road, and that single picture is credited with turning the tide of public opinion in America. Can you talk to me a little bit about how a single picture can make such a difference, because Susan Sontag argues that “television doesn’t have the same impact because moving pictures don’t have the same impact as a single image,” she says.

(On Photography – Susan Sontag. Pages: 17/18 “Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in 1972 – a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway, toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain – probably did more to increase the pubic revulsion against the war that 100 hours of televised barbarities.”)

Martin: Mmhm.

Paolo: And the other thing is that the photographer famously put his camera down after he got that shot and ran to her aid and poured water on her. They’re life-long friends even to this day.

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Huynh Cong Ut, better known as Nick, took a photo of a young Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running burned and terrified from the flames of a napalm attack at Trang Bang near Saigon. The image won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Nick is now AP senior photographer in Los Angeles.

Martin: Well let’s name him shall we? Nick Ut, yeah?

Paolo: Yeah.

Martin: We should name because he’s deserves all the kudos he has had.

Paolo: He was only a young man at the time –

Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Paolo: – and did an extraordinary job didn’t he?

This portrait of Nick Ut was made in May 1974, but the photographer is not identified.

This portrait of Nick Ut was made in May 1974, but the photographer is not identified.

Kim Phuc and Nick Ut, June 2012 (Damian Dovarganes | AP).

Kim Phuc and Nick Ut, June 2012 (Damian Dovarganes | AP).

Martin: He’s an amazing photographer.

Paolo: And so tell me your thoughts about that?

Martin: Well there’s three or four photographs from Vietnam out there of that kind, there’s one of a man being shot in the head –

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Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured perhaps one of the war’s most memorable images. Though the image won Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he later expressed discomfort with it. For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian family members and that Loan was a good officer and not a cold-blooded killer. Adams later wrote in Time Magazine: “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. … What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?”

Martin: – which I think was the Tet offensive which was ’68 wasn’t it, which was some years before. I think, the thing is – huh – what you’ve got remember is by 72, Kissinger was talking to the North Vietnamese, so that photograph, terrible though it was, really terrible, was more reinforcement for most people by that time. Most of the American public by that time has turned against the war anyway, so pictures taken earlier are the ones which actually…although that is a brilliant photograph, I’m not denying it for a moment and of course its emotional impact was vast, by that time negotiations in Paris I think had begun or just about to begin and that was… I don’t know who was president, was it Nixon? It obviously helps that that sort of thing helped to finish off his presidency and everything like that, but, anyway, negotiations had begun and they staggered on for another three years, was it, I think, or something like that until the North Vietnamese actually took control of Saigon. But the war was being wound down, the Americans were beginning to pull out and handover to the SVOs I thinks these are, were they? So it was a very important picture, but I just wonder if the shot in the head picture was more influential at the time. Maybe a lot of Americans being sort of…quite a lot of them being rednecks as it were [laughter] thought oh that was just how it was…that they deserved it, I’m not sure, but I was just wondering if that’s slightly more slightly more powerful because it was four years earlier and that’s when students were beginning to riot – not riot, but they were protesting in universities. Kent State, Ohio – when did that happen 68 or 69 – those pictures of students having been shot by the National Guard that really made people started to wake up and think.

Kent State University massacre May 4, 1970, John Filo’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning image of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the dead and bleeding body of student Jeffrey Miller.

Kent State University massacre May 4, 1970, John Filo’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning image of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the dead and bleeding body of student Jeffrey Miller.

Paolo: It’s worth remembering in those days that news wasn’t instantaneous like it is today.

Martin: That’s right.

Paolo: It took a long time for those pictures to disseminate and when they did then they had a stronger impact perhaps because there were fewer of them?

Martin: Absolutely, yes. And fewer photographs in every newspaper which means that each picture had much more significance, much more impact, because the reader obviously got the feeling that this was carefully selected, carefully chosen, this was the most important picture these people can get hold of and blah blah blah, so, absolutely – certainly the profusion of photographs which there is now – both in print and on the internet and all the rest of it – has muddied the waters when it comes to sort of critical analysis of photographs. So actually, although the pictures will say, “Gaddafi being dragged out of his drain,” were very very powerful they were quite quickly forgotten.

This is an interesting subject and actually something if I had three years to analyse I would willingly go into it. Susan Sontag, I haven’t read enough of Susan Sontag, but what she says about the difference between photographs and film obviously rings a bell with me.

My friend Phillip’s book, which is worth reading, anybody, anybody who wants to do photojournalism now should read and should look at, if they can get hold a copy it was reprinted a couple of years back, is called Vietnam Ink, and has some brilliant photographs, but that was also published in 71 when things were definitely swinging the other way. (Philip Jones Griffiths’ account of the Vietnamese War was the outcome of three years’ reporting and is a detailed survey of the conflict. Detailing the horrors of the war as well as offering a study of Vietnamese folk life, the author argues against the de-humanizing power of technology and highlights the arrogance and hypocrisy of American imperialistic attitudes.)

It’s when you have pictures which actually change minds – I’m not so sure that picture actually changed minds but it might have changed a few waverers and that sort of thing, but it’s the pictures that actually change minds that are very very rare, very very rare indeed, are very few, few and far between. I don’t know let me think of anything else. Capa’s pictures of D-Day, I’m not sure if they really changed minds.

Robert Capa’s image of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France, June 6, 1944.

Robert Capa’s image of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France, June 6, 1944.

Martin: They may well have done actually because they were very few pictures coming out of the Second World War, apart from those which are subject to military censorship and those weren’t really. I’m trying to think of other pictures which changed… Well, you know… God, what’s his name? That terrible disease in Minamata of…who the hell took those pictures, it was a really famous guy.

W. Eugene Smith’s image of Tomoko in her bath with her mother, Minamata Bay, Japan, 1972.

W. Eugene Smith’s image of Tomoko in her bath with her mother, Minamata Bay, Japan, 1972.

Paolo: We were only studying him the other day so I should remember his name, but it’s slipped out of my mind.

Martin: Sure, but those pictures changed people’s minds, because it was a serious terrible illness caused by pollution and all the rest of it and that sort of thing.

Paolo: Mercury poisoning.

Martin: Mercury poisoning. It really changes people’s minds, that sort of thing, the impact that those… Bhopal or, say, the Kurds being gassed by Saddam Hussein, or the Sabra a Shatila massacres, those sort of pictures they changed people’s minds. Pictures of, I don’t know, Uganda. I was in Uganda, I don’t think anybody […] being in Uganda during the civil war, just after the civil war, thousands of dead, it wasn’t a question of changing people’s minds it was just recording basically what was going on. I don’t think […] I don’t think… but they are very, very rare, very rare, much rarer than you imagine, I think. People try and get exclusives, but it’s extraordinary how many times these things have been coloured.

There was a guy at your college actually who went to Bhopal, funnily enough, and he’s produced some nice photographs, really nice, but the trouble is they’re nothing, that’s been done quite a few times, and the profusion of photographs means that it’s actually very difficult now to find something really different.

I would really urge young photographers to really work hard at finding something different, rather than just doing a liberal agenda like going to photograph, I don’t know, women in Afghanistan or something like that which has been done a million times and probably pretty well lots of times, unless you can actually find something new in that angle, look for something very, very different all the time, constantly. I don’t think, in a way, in some sort of way, the role of the freelance photographer that’s their role nowadays is to find…because agencies, for example, which will basically cover 90% of things just do it as agencies and they’re fine, they do a good job, but they’re not really looking for something different.

Paolo: I think it’s fair to say your talent lies in your choices.

Martin:I think that’s probably true of photographers, yeah. I think it is what you choose. It is what you choose. I think especially with digital anyway, things like how you take the photographs and all the rest of it; it’s a relatively easy job these days. It’s not a technical job to be a photographer, but it is the subject, and it can be taking an existing subject which has been covered many times and covering it in a completely different way, so you’re saying, hang on a minute, as I said before, this is a different way of looking at something. Don’t look at it in the way you thought you should look at it, look at something in a different way.

Paolo: Anything else you’d like to end on?

Martin: [Laughter] Well, no. I’m always pleased to be challenged by people about photography because after whatever it is – 40 odd years or something of doing this, you could be accused of complacency and complacency doesn’t really sit on my shoulders really well. I would like to see photography take a more central role in the media in this country. I think it’s, broadly speaking, not disregarded but it’s thrown into this massive mix, and I think finding the unusual pictures, finding the pictures which people are really thinking hard about is really difficult and it worries me that colleges are churning out people who are not being taught this particularly, it strikes me as odd. But, anyway, you know, it’s great that there are photographers out there, it’s great that there are freelancers because the world needs to be covered, and it needs to be covered by individuals; people who have got ideas and people who have got points of view; people who are not disillusioned or the rest of it, and people who have got hope, I suppose. It’s the freelance photographs who are often those sort of people, ambitious but hopeful and we should be paying attention to them. That is basically what I’ve got to say really.

Paolo: Martin Argles, thank you very much indeed for your time.