Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The B&W And Color Of It

It's no secret that Benjamin Chesterton at Duckrabbit* has been prone to pointing out how every news item and photo essay out of Africa seems to border somewhere between the horrific and the apocalyptic, and the vast majority of it (unlike in other "happier" places in the world) depicted in the solemn, autumnal tones of black and white- as if its the official legal tender of The Bad News Africa Corps.

It's an observation worth noting. Being a B&W aficionado, I strive to search out whatever quality B&W remains in a world long dominated by color photography both in the art and reportage categories. But if you negate all the Nat Geo animal takes, a lot of the color in Sub-Saharan Africa seems to dissipate out of the world wide news media. No, I'm certainly not insinuating international conspiracy, or underlying shades of racism, but it's an interesting little factoid nonetheless. Is B&W intrinsically more somber and therefore the medium of choice for such "serious" reportage that depicts suffering and strife? Do "less developed" parts of the world somehow lend themselves to the absence of color for more accurate description? Would color only serve to accentuate the grim realities that already seem to dominate? Would more coverage of upbeat subject matter from the area also see a rise in the use of color?

Despite my personal preference for B&W, I have to ask myself what kind of effect (subtle as it may be) this has on the general public's mindset when the world in general is primarily depicted in living color, and this other geographic area, this area called Africa, as vast and varied in its topography and population as it may be, is predominantly displayed in shades of grey.

All those thoughts came racing to mind upon viewing Cedric Gerbehaye's work at LENS blog. It's truly exceptional, and looking at it, one clearly "gets it" as to why B&W best suits his style and message. Mr. Gerbehaye has received many honors and awards in his career, and most likely will continue to do so. He is to be commended for providing testament to "the forgotten war” that has already cost millions of lives and shows little sign of abating. His images cover the gamut of players affected and traumatized by that ongoing conflict, and do so with an eye and sensitivity that are both brutally honest and aesthetically captivating.

It is his continued coverage and commitment that can add both depth and understanding to this godforsaken situation- and hopefully keep it in the public’s mind long enough for it to take notice and address before moving on to the next “distraction.” If anything will provide a more accurate and nuanced view of the subject matter at hand, it is the dedication and insight provided by long term commitments. Hopefully, Mr. Gerbehaye will live to chronicle the region and its inhabitants well past this current crisis, long enough to maybe even document some smiling faces- in color...

PS- Contrast this outstanding work with the subtle colors that define the grandeur of Nadav Kander's work in China! Superlatives truly fail both bodies of work. Would each work as well if we interchanged mediums? Is color just best suited for that which depicts hope and change, with B&W relegated to depression's backdoor- the gateway to "The Dark Continent?"

*Addendum- One thing Mr. Chesterton is also apt to remind anyone (and which I glaringly omitted) is the importance of giving voice to survivors by letting them have their say, no matter the medium, or the conflict. It's one of the most important ways we can begin to personalize and see them as fellow human beings with lives not unlike our own- and not as the most recent addition of anonymous victims.

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