Magnum Revolution: 65 Years of Fighting for Freedom

December 17, 2012

By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

How does a photographer work with a dozen iPhones obscuring her view? This was just one of many questions debated on Thursday 13th December at the Frontline Club’s sold-out event on Magnum’s latest publication: Magnum Revolution: 65 Years of Fighting for Freedom.

Celebrated Magnum photographers Peter Marlow and Ian Berry joined New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson (who wrote the book’s essay, Blood and Hope) and Sunday Times Magazine photo editor Monica Allende for a lively discussion.

Magnum Revolution spans a vast swathe of the twentieth and present century’s seismic conflicts; it begins with the now-familiar images of the Arab Spring and ends on the black and white photos of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Both Peter Marlow and Ian Berry showcased iconic images from their own portfolios, including street photography from apartheid South Africa and the Lenin shipyard strikes in Poland, 1980.

Jon Lee Anderson said the collection was a “moveable feast of revolution”, but questioned the changing nature of the conflicts documented.

“What is a revolution? I still have an old school idea of what revolution is, which is … where you really shake things up, you alter society entirely with an ideology, you replace the old society with a new one, for better or worse.”

But, he added, recent rebellions appear to be more performance than a fundamental shift in social order:

“In some ways we see an extraordinary similarity in what the nuts and bolts of what revolution is: it is people getting out and physically confronting an armed order, that will shoot them down and kill them” he said.

“We now live in a time of … revolutionary performance. It is something a lot of us that covered the rebellion in Libya saw, we now live in a time where everything is so photographed that even youngsters who go out onto the streets have some … sensibility of what a revolution, or a revolutionary should look like.”

Monica Allende agreed that the heightened awareness of civilians to revolutionary performance has forced photojournalists to rethink their role in documenting conflict and war. There are more ways to tell a story than being on the front line of action, “waiting in Aleppo for bullets,” she said.

“You have people photographing in the moment, they are not photographers, they just happen to be there. That is the reality and photographers cannot compete with that. But it opens up new ways of thinking about documentary photography, and new aesthetics to approach. Try to think beyond, find a language that goes beyond the newspaper [traditional home for documentary photography]. There are many platforms these days for conveying conflict.”

Ian Berry agreed that photographers needed to change their approach. He said:

“Wherever you go in the world there is a guy in front of you, or 10 people in front of you holding up their phones. It is tricky. Even as a famous photographer it is not easy.”

The panelists all agreed that the practice of sending a photographer to a war zone with a blank cheque was unlikely to be resurrected.

“Nobody is going to pay me to go to Syria,” said Berry, “or indeed nobody is going to pay anybody to go to Syria. You travel the world at your own expense. Until we find a way of making the web pay, it is going to be tricky. The Sunday Times won’t be here in 10 years, so we have got to find new ways of working.”