14 May 2011

The Original Private Photojournalism

The Jasmine Revolution has been sustained by photo and video documentation of protests and government attacks on same, thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone. It is interesting to recall when personal photojournalism began, though - at the end of the 19th century. The Kodak camera, first sold in 1888, is credited for the advent of amateur photography. The version with folding bellows appeared soon afterwards, and by 1897, there was a pocket-sized folding Kodak that could go anywhere.

One of its immediate impacts was on the international reaction to the atrocities carried out in the Congo by Leopold II of Belgium. That sad story is well documented in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, but I want to point out that some of the journalism of the time continues to resonate. In particular, Mark Twain's pamphlet, King Leopold's Soliloquy, speaks of the kind of press engagement - and disengagement - that we still see in modern atrocities of the human, economic, and environmental kinds. Twain reminds the reader that Leopold successfully 'bunco[ed] a Yankee' by convincing the US and President Hayes to be his primary supporter in acquiring the Congo territory. (Belgium had refused to take it on as an imperial acquisition, so Leopold established a holding company and, in the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, won the right to run it as his personal colony.)

When the condemnation of Leopold's bloody exploitation began, he suppressed the coverage by appealing to his American business partners: J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Daniel Guggenheim, and Thomas Fortune Ryan. He also hired American lobbyists, such as Henry I. Kowalsky. (The 'profession' of lobbyist had only recently undergone rapid development, thanks to the Reconstruction Era railroad expansion.) Accounts came out from missionaries and traders, but the newspapers treated them with suspicion.

And then came the Kodak. Twain, whose pamphlet is supposedly King Leopold himself reflecting on his situation, tells of its impact:
The kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy indeed. In the early years we had no trouble in getting the press to ‘expose’ the tales of the mutilations as slanders, lies, inventions of busy-body American missionaries and exasperated foreigners who found the ‘open door’ of the Berlin-Congo charter closed against them when they innocently went out there to trade; and by the press’s help we got the Christian nations everywhere to turn an irritated and unbelieving ear to those tales and say hard things about the tellers of them. Yes, all things went harmoniously and pleasantly in those good days, and I was looked up to as the benefactor of a down-trodden and friendless people. Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak – and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe. Every Yankee missionary and every interrupted trader sent home and got one; and now – oh, well, the pictures get sneaked around everywhere, in spite of all we can do to ferret them out and suppress them. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!


Post a Comment

<< Home