Jan Pronk

We Need More Stories and More Pictures

Address 50 Years World Press Photo, Amsterdam, October 8 2005

A week ago, on September 28, at six o’clock in the evening, 400 Arab militia on horse and camelback attacked a camp of displaced people, Aro Sharow, in the area of Shilea, West Darfur, Sudan, close to the border of Chad. They entered the market, began to shoot randomly, went on the rampage in the camp itself, continued to shoot, loot and burn and destroyed two neighbouring villages, Acho and Gosmino. They killed 35 persons, amongst them women and children, at random. Many were wounded, quite a few are still missing. After having finished their job, they rode away.

Photographs have not been made. You will not see them in the world press. There were no photographers around. There are no reporters in that region. We get all information from the IDP’s themselves. Thousands are on the run. Gradually we receive more information from the observers whom we sent to the area, in order to assist the survivors and help reconstructing the camp that was totally burnt down. With the help of that information we address the authorities that failed to protect their own people and try to find out who was responsible, so that we can inform the International Criminal Court. In Abuja, Nigeria, we urge the parties negotiating a peace agreement for Darfur to stay at the negotiation table, instead of breaking up the talks. That could have been one of the objectives of this brutal attack.

The attack on Aro Sharow is but one in a series of deadly attacks on camps, villages and little rural towns in Darfur over the last year. Leaving aside the attacks on a smaller scale, I would like to remind you of the attacks on Tawila, November last year; Labado, December; Hamada, January this year and Khor Abeche in April. Aro Sharow is number five in a tragic list. All places were burned down. Nothing was left. Hundreds of people were killed. Tens of thousands fled away, many died on the run, children, elderly, vulnerable people. Tawila, Hamada, Labado, Khor Abeche and Aro Sharow. For us in Sudan these are well known names. They stand for nightmares. For you these names will presumably be new. They did not make the press. There were no reporters, no photographers. For us, having visited the places and seen the destruction the images are real and alive. They stand for war crime, death and despair. But they are not part of the world’s memory, because there are no photographs. Nobody was around, only the victims, the survivors and the attackers. No witnesses, no reporters, no press, no photographers.

This is Darfur since 2003, when the war began. Some say it was genocide, others call it ethnic cleansing. It was death at a large scale, mass slaughter, rape, destruction. For one and a half year this continued, from early 2003 to mid 2004. You won’t see pictures. The world was not interested. Afghanistan and Iraq made the front page. Sudan and Darfur were miscellaneous news. The Security Council refused to put Darfur on its agenda. There was no action to prevent further killings. There was only a little increase in the humanitarian assistance to the people who fled away, refugees who crossed the border with Chad and internal displaced persons who were able to reach the bigger towns, El Geneina, El Fashir and Nyala.

Seventeen months later the visitors arrived: politicians, accompanied by press, alerted by relief workers, NGOs and by leaders of rebel movements in Darfur. The Security Council passed a resolution, demanding that the killings be stopped and the killers be disarmed. But it was late, very late, too late. International action began only after the number of people chased away from their homes had reached the figure of one and a half million. How many people had been killed, nobody knows. Estimates are between 70 and 300,000. It is guess work. There were no witnesses, no pictures. We only have the numerous stories of the survivors, told and re-told to reporters and human rights observers who visited them often only one year after the ordeal. All these stories lead to a general picture: planes flying over villages, throwing bombs, helicopter gun-ships spreading fear, followed by militia on camel and horseback burning down the village, chasing away all villagers, killing at random, and then riding away on their animals, vanishing in the distance. That is the picture arising from the stories. There are no other pictures, no TV images, no photographs.

Maybe that is why the world’s public opinion was not alerted. Maybe that also was the reason why politicians waited one and a half year until they took action. It made the world an accomplice: the perpetrators were allowed to continue raping, looting and killing. Mid last year there was a world outcry, a global protest against what many called genocide and others a mass violation of human rights. At last. But it was a little hypocritical, because the killings could have been stopped earlier, if not prevented. And the action taken after the outcry was not only too late, but also too little. The killings in Tawila, Labado, Hamada, Khor Abeche and Aro Sharow took place after the world’s leaders had decided that action was necessary to halt them. And again, there were no witnesses. The same pattern as in 2003.

Ten years ago, Sebastiao Salgado wrote, in the foreword to the book “This Critical Mirror”, documenting four decades of world press photo, “I feel that we have not seen enough documentation of what has happened in Africa. We should not hesitate to continue to show photographs of the genocide in Rwanda. They should enable all the players in this drama to exorcise what happened and to rebuild and find the way to a solution, so that such atrocities are never repeated.” This is still a valid assertion. Please come to Sudan. Please come from abroad, because, despite the lifting of censorship before a text or photo goes to press, Sudanese journalists fear arrests after publication. Moreover, they lack the means to go to the field. Please come and document Darfur, burn the images in the minds of the world’s public and their leaders. Because, to continue quoting Salgado ten years ago: “It is vital that everyone sees them and recognises themselves, otherwise the human species, which is both responsible for and the victim of these horrors, may one day disappear completely.”

Both Salgado and Howard Chapnick in another essay in “This Critical Mirror” refer to these photographs as pictures of decisive moments, fateful seconds, that have become part of our collective memory, finite fractions of time, which we pause to contemplate: “silent they speak and motionless they move.” That is indeed their critical function: they stay, they remind us, they do not allow us to forget, they speak on behalf of those captured in the image, they call for a response, they move us to do something.

In his essay Chapnick raised the question: “can a photojournalist be a passionate protagonist for a specific point of view?” He answered ‘yes’, without hesitation: a journalist’s integrity can go hand in hand with an expression of subjective concerns, that are translated into powerful social movements. My profession is not that of the photographer, but that of the viewer, who can be moved in whatever capacity, as a member of the general public, as an opinion leader or politician. My experience in either of these capacities is that the images communicated by press photographers are a powerful weapon in the struggle for attention and action towards, to quote Salgado “the evolution of society and its process of change.”

The important question is not so much whether journalistic integrity demands objectivity, but whether somebody looking at a photograph and reading the message implied can maintain his integrity by upholding a pretention of objectivity, which is nothing more than indifference or neglect. Communication requires that both are subjective, the photographer and the viewer. “A reporter doesn’t create the incident”, Salgado said, “he is the ‘critical mirror’ ”. His subjectivity is implied by his choice: he is where others did not go, could not go, did not want or dare to go or were prevented to go. But, as Stephen Mayes argued in the same book, “however committed to their work, photographers can only address the viewer who wants to see.”

In Darfur, both sides have failed. Only a handful of reporters and photographers were present, mostly for a very brief period. And when finally the pictures were shown, the viewers looked aside. A temporary upsurge in the attention, a brief outcry, some lip service to an appeal for response, that is what resulted. It is the plight of Sudan, where a civil war could be fought during four decades, resulting in two million war related deaths and six million refugees and displaced people, without international action. It is the plight of Africa, where still hundreds of millions of people live in sheer poverty, vulnerable to hunger, under-nourishment, disease, Aids, lack of sanitation and, on top of this, violence and bad governance by selfish leaders and elites.


We need more stories and more pictures. According to Chapnick “the journalistic photographer photographs what is, not what was, or what might have been.”. Without re-ordering facts of manipulating reality the subjective reporter makes a choice. By discovering the things as they are in the present world, the World Press Photographer “attempts to explain man to himself, to present the obscene, to neglect the trivial in search of the profound.” In this engagement the viewer cannot afford to look aside. Being confronted with perversity, neglect and abuse, he learns to understand himself. He too has to make a choice and re-order the priorities within the materialist consumer society, which seems to foster the trivial and superficial, while blurring the profound, lulling viewers asleep.

To look away from the trivial requires a shock. We viewers are so accustomed to entertainment and triviality that we will have to be pushed across the line demarcating the present day reality: a photograph showing ‘what is’. The picture which helps us to move is the photograph showing what may happen, could happen or might have happened or undoubtedly will happen: a glance beyond the finite fraction of time captured by the photograph, a glance into the future. That was the power of Kevin Carter’s photograph of the vulture watching a naked child during the famine in Sudan in 1993. The viewer sees and knows: this child is the vulture’s prey, it is bound to happen.

In 1993, I saw with my own eyes death announced in many places in Sudan, like the year before in Somalia, the year thereafter in Rwanda and in 1995 in Bosnia. Seeing helps making a choice. Journalistic photographs help many to become and remain subjective in the real sense of the word, because, to quote Chapnick once more, “in this subject matter is the stuff of life”. Please, keep watching. We need more stories and more pictures.


Jan Pronk
Address 50 Years World Press Photo
Amsterdam, 8 October 2005.