On Images

The Photo Phnom Penh festival is a showcase for some of the best in local and international photography, but its artistic director hopes the festival will also serve a more abstract purpose: helping viewers to decipher images, and to see through the visual trappings they are confronted with on a daily basis.

“We live surrounded by a chaos of images,” said Christian Caujolle, the celebrated French curator and photo editor who has headed Photo Phnom Penh since its inception in 2008.

Christian Caujolle (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Christian Caujolle (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Today, 2-year-old children are already in contact with screens,” he said in a recent interview. “When a young child sees things that move, when he sees colors and hears sounds, he is happy. It stimulates his brain.”

The challenge is to teach children the difference between what is real and what is not, Mr. Caujolle said.

“We have the duty to teach these children to read those images the same way we teach them the alphabet, to read and write. It’s our duty not to leave them alone and helpless in the midst of this image mayhem.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Caujolle was photo editor of the French daily newspaper Liberation, where he virtually redefined the notion and use of news photography. One of the founders of the Agence Vu photo agency, he has served as curator for leading photo festivals in Europe and often serves on jury boards for photo prizes.

He says that despite the urgent need to teach children how to view and interpret images, it is unclear whether today’s parents and teachers are equipped to do so.

“In 1932, [philosopher] Walter Benjamin wrote that the illiterate of tomorrow would be those incapable of reading images,” Mr. Caujolle said. “Maybe the reason why we have gone through situations like those we know, with all the opportunities to manipulate through images this involves, is also because our societies have been incapable of training to read images.”

He was referring to the recent shooting at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France. On January 7, Islamist extremist gunmen walked into the magazine’s Paris offices and killed 12 people because the weekly had published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

For Mr. Caujolle, this incident was deeply personal, as he had known cartoonists Jean Cabu and Georges Wolinski, two of the magazine’s founders who were killed that day, for nearly three decades.

“We must be wholly aware that the war—if there is a war—is first and foremost a war of influence. [Extremists] have the goal of enrolling by using terror and manipulation the majority of the Muslim world who disagrees with them,” he said.

Their strategy includes releasing photos and video segments of hostages being held or decapitated, Mr. Caujolle said.  “We face an enemy that has a thorough understanding of our communication systems, which are extremely powerful, and master them much better than most media and Internet site managers…. They manipulate with words, they manipulate with images in a civilization in which the relationship to images is so complex.”

The only solution is visual literacy education—not only at school but also within families, neighborhoods and towns, so that children and adults will be able to look at a video segment or photo without being taken in, Mr. Caujolle said.

Photo Phnom Penh has been conceived with this in mind, he added. It is meant to show people photos they would not normally have the chance to see in order to amuse or astonish them and prompt reflection.

A person may like or not like a photo­—taste being subjective, Mr. Caujolle explained. “But its meaning is something that is formulated, discussed, shared. No one holds the truth: There are viewpoints, and then we discuss, which should be the basis of life in society.”

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