My silent video “Primer: Jungle Battles” presents 52 historical news images captioned with rhyming and allusive texts. This primer of photography and history narrates a spiraling tale of political strife and turmoil that continues to the present day. As I am currently obtaining permissions for the images under copyright, the video is not presented here.
Seeing images of the Middle East uprisings and Occupy Wall Street protests started me thinking back to the news images of my youth, images that came to me through the printed press: Chilean President Salvador Allende emerging from La Moneda wearing a helmet and carrying a rifle the day a coup overthrew his government; and Americans captive and blindfolded during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. These were images that had impact for me not only because I was young and had never seen anything like them, but because they appeared to me as puzzles to unriddle, for each suggested stories beyond the scope of their photographic frame.
I can never revive their unique initial impact, let alone the state of the media in from which they emerged. But in Primer: Jungle Battles I narrate those photographs with other images to make a new experience for viewers, one that invites them to re-read and consider these dramatic pictures today. For in reflecting on the photograph of Salvador Allende under siege, his head lifted to search the sky, suddenly everything I saw in it – and knew about him and his tragic fate – made me imagine him as an archer, perhaps one at the Battle of Hastings, a man tensed in wait for a hell-storm of fire and arrow about to come down. I made an imaginative projection, to be sure. But my decision to caption this image of Allende, “A is for Archer”, was the beginning of this work, a primer of photojournalistic imagery that can function as a mirror we hold up to our past.
Primer: Jungle Battles opens with an excerpt from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel Tarzan of the Apes : Tarzan discovers a child’s illustrated language primer. A sequence of images then begins with the 1973 Chilean coup and ends with the first Palestinian Intifada; in between are images from political events as disparate in time and place as the recent civil war in Libya, the Nuremberg Trials, Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and more. The relationship of word and image throughout the twenty-six entries of the primer follows along the elliptical vein of the Allende/Archer coupling. Moving through the English alphabet, Primer: Jungle Battles puts forth a world of revolts, trials, tortures, betrayals, and the destruction of regimes and ideals. Admittedly, it is a dark view of civilization.
Working with celebrated news imagery is complicated, if only because of the preconceived notions we bring to such images. Our assumptions about documentary news photographs make it nearly impossible to step back and take a ‘fresh’ look at them. So as I searched for images, I composed texts and constructed a narrative that refers to characters and events from classical and contemporary literature, nursery rhymes and mythologies. Captioning photojournalistic images with allusive references allows me to disrupt their reading as explicitly illustrative and to encourage viewers to consider them as ideas or moods rather than statements of fact.
News photographs are often treated as hallowed ground, as documents whose only value lies in their first use, their first context. Behind this is our fear of forgetting, confusing, or even denying the actual event an image depicts, as well as our need to have history be an intractable set of immutable facts. My use of images created by others and my pairing of them with texts in an unconventional way effectively repurposes them. This is an act that requires explanation to the copyright holders if I have a hope of obtaining permission to reproduce their images in my work. In pursuing these permissions, I have come to understand that photojournalists are often more ‘journalist’ than ‘photographer’. By this I mean that photojournalists, having provided audiences with evidence of an event, may also assume “a debt of specificity”  towards the subjects of their pictures. Any act – artistic or otherwise – that undermines a specific factual reading of their image is unacceptable. This censorial stance, enabled and enforced by our laws of copyright, serves to underscore the innate nature, or status, of the image as a document or surface of interpretive value. But this proprietary stance troubles me, for in assuming ownership of the meaning of an image, these reporters are undermining freedom of expression. I believe in freedom of expression as an absolute right.