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Benedict Cumberbatch Goes to War: Celebrity and Diplomacy

• August 22, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Benedict Cumberbatch. (PHOTO: MATTHEW HORWOOD)

The actor’s recent stunt in Cardiff, in which he admonished celebrity photographers for not capturing “something important,” suggests a misplaced faith in photography.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines over the weekend by obscuring his face. Celebrities hide from photographers all the time, but Cumberbatch’s efforts while filming the final episodes of the third season of the BBC series Sherlock on location in Cardiff, Wales, were significant.

Captured exiting his trailer, the star wore dark glasses and covered his head with the hood of a jacket—stock for the celebrity trade—but also hid his face behind a handwritten signed that read: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important.”

The applause was quick and viral. The image, taken by photographer Matthew Horwood, was shared by hundreds of thousands of users on Twitter and Facebook. When BuzzFeed appropriated the picture from the local Welsh outlet Wales Online, their fawning headline announced that: “Benedict Cumberbatch Has An Awesome Message For The Paparazzi.”

Except it wasn’t. Cumberbatch’s message was both misdirected and misguided. Photojournalists from Egypt and around the world have faced and continue facing hardship and risk daily to capture images of the Egyptian protests. There is no shortage of remarkable photographs coming out of Egypt and, more troublingly, the actor’s stunt suggests a misplaced faith in photography.

Cumberbatch told the paparazzi to “go photograph Egypt,” where last week more than 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed by security forces. Weeks of peaceful political protests turned violent last Wednesday when armed police tried to disband two camps in Cairo. Responding to that crackdown on protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood called for another week of demonstrations that began on Saturday.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag asks how we look at war, arguing that while photography can document the horrors of conflict, it cannot tell us how to evaluate the legitimacy of such horrors.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s new government has made Egypt an increasingly dangerous place for journalists and photographers. Egyptian television networks that supported Morsi from within Egypt were shut down immediately and the police have started targeting networks considered supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Al Jazeera, for raids.

Coordinated stories in state and private media in Egypt have emphasized that the violence of protestors has necessitated lethal force by the military. General Sisi and his supporters have criticized foreign media outlets for downplaying that violence and ignoring the legitimacy of the government’s response against so-called terrorists. At least a dozen foreign journalists have been attacked and detained in the last week.

Benedict Cumberbatch attempted to shame the paparazzi covering Sherlock by telling them to go to Egypt, an increasingly dangerous place for the press. Last Wednesday alone, Habiba Abd El Aziz, a 26-year-old crime reporter on leave from Dubai, Mick Deane, a 61-year-old cameraman with Sky News, and Egyptian journalist Ahmed Abdel Gawad were all killed in Rabia Al Adawiyya Square. That same day, Reuters photographer Asma Waguih was also injured by gunfire. On Monday, Tamer Abdel Raouf, bureau chief of an Al-Ahram provincial office, was shot and killed at a security checkpoint near Damanhur.

There are already brave photojournalists in Egypt risking their lives in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, willingly making themselves targets for harassment and detainment by security forces because of the notebooks and cameras they carry.

The failure Cumberbatch perceives isn’t one of supply but demand. The star should have raged at his fans directly, not at his photographers. What if instead of chastising the paparazzi, he had written “Go look at Egypt.”

What would it mean, for the thousands who looked at Cumberbatch’s obscured face to look instead at any of the images already circulating from the photographers at work on the streets of Alexandria, Cairo, Seuz, Qena, and so many other cities in Egypt?

Photojournalism has documented military conflict for nearly two centuries, but we still do not know whether viewing such photographs leads to understanding, intervention, or even the end of conflict. The daguerreotypes of an anonymous photographer from the Mexican-American War show the 1847 occupation of Saltillo and the Battle of Buena Vista. War photographers were active in the Crimean War and the American Civil War, though the limitations of their cameras necessarily left us with images of still subjects.

Eighty years after Saltillo, a new generation of photojournalists armed with lightweight cameras boasting larger exposure capacities documented the Spanish Civil War from the frontlines, producing photographs that shocked international audiences the way television footage coming out of Vietnam did less than two decades later.

War continues to outlast its artistic epitaphs. Poetry remembers and memorializes, but has not written a eulogy that ended war. The same is sadly true of photography, though as Susan Sontag observed: “Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.”

Ten years ago, Sontag published Regarding the Pain of Others, a profound interrogation of how we view suffering. “Photographs of an atrocity,” she wrote, “may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.”

Sontag asks how we look at war, arguing that while photography can document the horrors of conflict, it cannot tell us how to evaluate the legitimacy of such horrors. She wrestles with two common but contradictory ideas about photography: the first is the optimism that asserts “public attention is steered by the attentions of the media … when there are photographs, a war becomes ‘real’”; the second is the pessimism that bemoans “in a world saturated, even hypersaturated, with images, those which should matter to us have a diminishing effect: we become callous.”

After nearly two centuries of war photography, we still swing between the pendulum of optimism and pessimism. We may want to believe that the Vietnam War ended because of protests sparked or fueled by the images that poured from cameras onto newspaper front pages and television screens, but since then any number of conflicts have continued despite equal, if not greater, photographic coverage.

Photographs of the protests in Egypt come daily to our papers and screens, not only from professional journalists as with earlier conflicts but also from scores of civilian photographers who post them to blogs and tweet them to followers. It has never been easier to circulate images of an atrocity. Think back to 2004 when pictures leaked from the rape, torture, and murder of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

So why, if there is no shortage of images, are we not always moved by them to intervene? Our consumption of these images may be constant, but it is necessarily confused. Different images compete for our attention and every image elicits a different response.

Benedict Cumberbatch might have reflected on his own experience as one of the most photographed individuals in the world. He has become an image himself. Photographs circulate endlessly of him at work and at play, in public and in private. Does his overexposure mean those who have seen his image know him or understand him?

Consider again his handwritten plea over the weekend: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important.” If he had spared the paparazzi his scorn and skewered his fans with the imperative to go look at Egypt, what would they see? What are we to make of the images so perilously obtained by photojournalists embedded in these protests?

Would looking as intently at Egypt as we do at the cherubic face of Benedict Cumberbatch bring an end to the violence? If it were so, then wouldn’t war have ended long ago when its abominations first arrived at our front doors in the ink of newspapers? The photographs of Egypt do indeed “show the world something important,” but they do not themselves show us how to respond.

More laudable were Cumberbatch’s efforts on Wednesday in London when he displayed a four-page, handwritten statement for the press. Cumberbatch could easily have been mistaken for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who he plays in the upcoming thriller The Fifth Estate, as he raised questions about electronic surveillance and press freedoms.

Beginning with “Questions we have a right to ask in a democracy,” the actor raised concern about the detainment of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at London’s Heathrow Airport under a section of the U.K.’s Terrorism Act 2000. His third page asked: “Is this erosion of civil liberties winning the war on terror?”

Why was this stunt so much more effective than the first? The method seemed similar: yesterday as on Saturday, the pages of Cumberbatch’s statement were handwritten with black marker on white sheets of business paper. But this time the actor offered questions, not imperatives. And with his second attempt at grandstanding, he asked questions of both the press and the public. This time the message really did seem as awesome as the messenger.

Rather than rage again at the photographers meeting the demand for celebrities with a supply of celebrity images, Cumberbatch asked questions that should be asked by every citizen and journalist. These questions are the captions that photographs need, the context that news requires.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. Follow her on twitter @cncep.

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