Photojournalism may be in the midst of a major identity crisis, but the Dysturb collective remains committed to sharing underreported stories of hardship
If Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson were still alive, what’s the likelihood they’d roll out wheat-based glue and paste their hard-hitting photographs on the facades of buildings after dusk? It’s a question well worth exploring, given just how dramatically modern-day photojournalism has been affected by the proliferation of low-cost digital gear, citizen-generated images and the shrinking budgets of media organizations.
All of which makes an initiative like Dysturb all the more laudable. Founded last year, the collective’s impetus was to cut out the middlemen, as emerging and established photojournalists alike increasingly struggle to find publications willing to fund the (oft-dangerous) work they dedicate their lives to. Led by French photojournalists Pierre Terdjman and Benjamin Girette, Dysturb has been relentlessly plastering its members’ large-scale images across the world’s most far-reaching social network: the streets.
By pasting their timely, billboard-sized photographs of student protesters in Kiev, kids in Brazil’s favelas, or sexual minorities in Uganda on city walls from Paris, Sarajevo and New York to Melbourne, Dysturb’s volunteer-run campaigns educate a new generation on how to read these politically and socially potent documents. Each paste-up also includes a sentence to situate the images and provide much-needed context. “Our aim is not to whine or decry how little work comes our way,” says Terdjman. “We’re aware that magazines don’t have enough space to cover all the topics we’re drawn to. We want to provide information that people won’t come across in a print publication.”
The group was recently mandated by COP21 organisers to curate a climate-related photo series to be splashed across Paris walls during the conference. We reached Terdjman as he was juggling the Dysturb campaign with daily reporting on the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks for the New York Times – a telling reminder of photojournalists’ function as first responders to help us all grapple with global tragedies. “I live right behind the Bataclan, so I went down to my front door that night, found wounded people on the stoop, and have basically been reporting on the situation ever since,” he recalls. “I’ve been working much in the same way as when I travel to conflict zones. It’s been harrowing, to say the least.” Before he set out to plaster Paris facades with COP21-themed photographs of solar panels and polar bears, Terdjman walked us through Dysturb’s unique approach to storytelling in the age of Snapchat and Tumblr.
AVOID VIOLENT IMAGERY
When Pierre and Benjamin launched Dysturb, their first paste-ups consisted of pictures they’d taken in the Central African Republic and Afghanistan. Fast track a year later, and the initiative has already yielded an impassioned response from peers and the public. They’ve already shared over 500 striking pictures from some of the planet’s most esteemed practitioners – Paolo Pellegrin and Olivier Jobard among them. While Dysturb’s selection of images often sheds light on situations of extreme despair, political instability or human rights violations, the aim is never to shock, says Terdjman. “We’ll feature very impactful images, but never with the intent to upset. We don’t want people to feel like they have to look away when they’re walking by our paste-ups. We carefully curate photos so as to integrate them as harmoniously as possible into different urban environments.” Their cardinal rule? Never show images that relate to the specific country they’re in. Meaning, for instance, that you won’t find photographs of the Charlie Hebdo after-effects in the streets of Paris.
MONOCHROME IS AN AESTHETIC IMPERATIVE
In our hyper-saturated urban jungles, where flashy jumbo screens and soft-core skyscraper billboards vie for our eyeballs, the decision to print all photographs in Cartier-Bresson-esque black and white was a no-brainer, assures Terdjman. “First of all, it was a financial decision. Black and white is very inexpensive to print in comparison to colour. But there’s also an aesthetic rationale. We really wanted to draw attention to the contrast between the very colourful urban landscape, where people’s attention is constantly being solicited by advertising. Black and white allows us to stand out from this visual clutter and emphasize our point.”
A HIP HOP AND STREET ART FOUNDATION
Terdjman, who’s been traveling to conflict areas for the past 15 years, recalls how Paris’s hip-hop, skate and street art scenes laid the groundwork for Dysturb. “Benjamin and I were involved in Paris’s skateboarding scene, and we dabbled in graffiti circles. Dysturb is clearly the end result of a reflection that began when I first listened to Wu-Tang as a teen, hung out with a bunch of skaters inspired by Tony Hawk, buddies who started doing graffiti, design, or photography. We see Dysturb as a way to speak to young people.”
YOUTH AS TARGET AUDIENCE
Whether the photos being blown up confront issues such as anorexia, overfishing in Asia, border conflicts or the education of Afghan girls, the audience for Dysturb’s paste-ups has nothing to do with the readership of dailies and magazines. “We do lots of education and interventions in schools, because we’re after people who don’t read the news, and who won’t believe in the information making the rounds, given the popularity of conspiracy theories among youths. We try to put it all into perspective and shed new light on a story.”
A NATURAL EXTENSION OF INSTAGRAM AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Terdjman thinks the outpour of support for Dysturb owes a great deal to the street – the mother of all social networks. “It’s great because people can see a poster in the street, scan the QR code with their smartphone, and seek out additional information about the photograph, and even ask questions to the photojournalist. We’re developing these augmented reality features with NYU at the moment, as well as fact-checking tools with Yale. Our mission is to get people engaged by honing in on contemporary issues that haven’t gotten lots of traction in the mainstream press.” Dystrub is also developing collaborations with skate parks and schools in cities such as Melbourne, New York, Perpignan and Sarajevo.
HONOUR FALLEN COMRADES
Terdjman is well equipped to discuss the sacrifices made by today’s young photojournalists – his friend and peer Lucas Dolega died at his side as they were covering Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in 2011. Hence, Dysturb is committed to honour the work of fallen comrades, such as 26-year-old French freelancer Camille Lepage, who was killed last year while reporting in the Central African Republic. “In pasting Camille’s photographs, we want to remind people that so many young photojournalists are driven to this line of work by sheer passion, doing things their own way, while taking great financial, civil and security risks to share these people’s stories.”
RETHINK THE IMPACT OF VISUAL STORYTELLING
It speaks volumes about this particularly dire moment in time that photojournalists pay out of pocket to broadcast the very news they captured abroad. But Terdjman argues freelance photojournalism is by no means a new phenomenon. The main difference being that a few decades ago, those financial gambles would usually pay off, as publications were still buying uncommissioned work. “Today, there just isn’t the same demand from the press, and to make matters more complicated, there are many more people practicing this line of work. So we must adapt our way of sharing work in this super cluttered digital era. In many ways, there’s a trivialisation of photo taking because of camera phones. I’m not saying that as a critique – it’s simply an observation.”
Within these limitations, Terdjman sees a one-of-a-kind opportunity to rethink the photojournalist practice. “Dysturb’s certainly not the best way to make money, but it’s a way to put your work out there, raise awareness and confront viewers to the stories we encounter. Today, you can be a photojournalist and not aspire to be published in newspapers. Selling a photo for 50 Euros to Libération, for instance, won’t necessarily have much impact. It’s not like 25 years ago, when there was one career path that everyone had to follow. In a way, that’s what’s fantastic about photography today. Being a photojournalist is akin to being an author – one with a singular outlook on the world. There’s so much you can do with that freedom.”