El Salvador, 1980
Soldiers search bus
passengers along the
Northern Highway.
/Magnum Photos

We are shown photographs of atrocity from around the world in our newspapers every day. But what is – or what should be – our response to these images? Are we consuming suffering? Or can we read photographs in a way to transform it? And how have such images been treated - and such questions been asked – in the past?

Photography and Atrocity is an unprecedented collaboration spurred on by these questions. The group brings together leading experts from across professions and across the world, and is made up of award-winning photographers and writers, museum curators and artists, news editors and non-governmental organization representatives, and academics working on photography. The collaboration has extended over five years and has received funding support from major international research councils.

Stage One of the research, 'Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis,’ was disseminated at a conference in December 2005 at the City University of New York and in conjunction with the University of Leeds, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, UK, and the International Center for Photography in New York. The conference was staged in memory of Susan Sontag, who had died one year earlier; and in support of Amnesty International, for whom speakers waived honoraria and whose presence inaugurated the event. Leading experts from media, national government organisation, photojournalist, academic and the art worlds engaged in dialogue to identify the key issues surrounding photography and atrocity -- and suggest some solutions. Accompanied by a postgraduate-curated exhibition on the Abu Ghraib photographs, and with a large public and media presence, the conference received attention in major photography journals and newspapers. On this site is a Webcast of that intense day’s conversation. (No images, talks or parts thereof to be reproduced in any form, without prior permission of the copyright holders.)

Stage Two, ‘Reading Photographs in Crisis,’ was mounted at University of Leeds on December 14, 2007. One of the key conclusions from the New York symposium is that in spite of the increasing interest in atrocity photographs, we’re still uncertain about the methods and processes of reading such images. The wealth of discussion at every level evidences that atrocity photographs demand a response – and historically have produced one -- but the nature of that response is utterly unpredictable. Crucially, the activity of reading atrocity photographs remains largely unconscious and mostly undescribed. As producers, educators and editors working with photographs, we see a need to advance, describe and exemplify the practice of reading photographs. The brief of ‘Reading Photographs in Crisis’ was for each speaker to focus on just one photograph of atrocity or crisis, and to spend time with the image. We hoped thereby to expand our understanding of the photograph of atrocity or crisis and to deepen analysis -- to produce deeper, clearer and longer ‘ways of seeing.’

Stage Three involves the publication of the best of materials from the research as a book. Picturing Atrocity: Reading Photographs in Crisis will be published by Reaktion Press in 2011.

Collaboration lies at the heart of this project.

For further information about this project, email j.d.prosser@leeds.ac.uk


Opening Remarks

Panel 1 - Becoming Iconic
How do atrocity images get to be seen in public? How do certain of these images become iconic?

Panel 2 - Atrocity and Information
What can images of atrocity tell us? What canít they tell us?

Panel 3 - Photography in the World From picturing atrocity to reducing atrocity: how can we look and react usefully?

Panel 4 - Response and Responsibility
What can be done with atrocity images? How should they be shown and used?

Keynote 1 – Reflections as a Journalist: Words and the Image

Panel 5 - Archives and Memory
What happens after publication? The artist’s responsibility for images and communities.

Keynote 2 – Photography in Crisis? Some Finer Distinctions

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