Excerpt – Unedited.
Exploring the use of photography in media, we can explore the control the media has on the influence of public opinion through the choices made when publishing imagery.
This can refer to deception of the public when images such as this manipulated image in TIME magazine of OJ Simpson at the time of his famous murder trial, conversely this unedited version of the image was used by rival magazine Newsweek showed a great difference to the public, time’s image appeared darker, more sinister and OJ Simpson appears far more unkempt and dishevelled that in the version of the image published by Newsweek (Kurtz, 1994).
We can take from this a thoroughly intrinsic value of a photograph, when manipulated, researching into other topics similar to the media’s publishing and manipulation; we can look into advertising in a similar way. Advertising can portray familiarity but also a darker more enticing form of a thing, most images are heavily manipulated, and are used to guarantee a certain reaction, be that to buy or to cause a mostly positive discussion, in other words a talking point. As a viewer we can look into various theories including, again those by Sontag.
Using her work, regarding the pain of others (Sontag, 2004: 15) states, “the photograph is like a quotation, maxim or proverb, each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall,” this feature of instant recall is common to adverts, inciting shock or surprise when a peer cannot recall a phrase or motif relating to a brand.
Sontag’s example however refers to imagery of catastrophe, linking back to the work of Barthes and his view on imagery as an agent of death, Sontag explains that a famous photograph of the Spanish civil war, by Robert Capa immediately sends the viewer into a reverie of recollection of a grainy black and white image of a man with a white shirt with rolled up sleeves collapsing backwards (Sontag, 2004: 15). This shocking image stays in the mind and is hard to shake, perhaps this is why gruesome imagery is so deeply affecting, it stays in the mind’s eye even after the image has left our sight, I wish to explore how this shock factor determines the ‘staying power’ of an image, which can relate to photographs as a document
The power of photography and photographs in general can be mainly attributed to the actual photographer, linking back to the theories of (Barthes, 1993: 92) that photographs are an agent of death; this can imply that as photographers we are committing a kind of visual murder, indiscriminately sealing the fate of everything we capture with every shutter click.
The theories of (Baudrillard, 2000) are wonderful for explaining the use of photography as a tool “Most images speak, tell stories; their noise cannot be turned down. They obliterate the silent signification of their objects… Photography helps us filter the impact of the subject.” This is yet another example of how ‘that has been” is present in each photograph, this image does not show what is, but shows what should not be, on this denial of realism we can defer that a photograph removes all ‘real’ context and implies its own contextual application.
A good visual example of this would be that of the Farm Security Administration photographs, such as this one by Walker Evans, showing simple people with a disregard for their truthful existence, especially as these photographs were often manipulated.
The exploitation of purpose and the consequences of bias in imagery;
should society be willing to trust in photojournalism?
The purpose of a photograph introduces a bias which can affect the honest nature of the pure document. Photographs are a copy of the real, a representation of an object or person (Sontag, 1979: 153-4). The photographer’s language is inherently predisposed to this by default for example a photographer will say, ‘Can I take your picture?’ rarely does any photographer ask if they can ‘make’ your picture. The connotations of this are simple as the wording leads the subject to think that they will soon be holding or viewing an exactness of themselves after the camera’s shutter has clicked while pointed in their direction. As mentioned previously this photograph will not be an ‘exactness’ instead, it will be a ‘likeness’, it will of course resemble the subject but it will not truly show how that person is in ‘real life’, the photograph will not have a personality, no voice and will just be a flat likeness of that person.
However, (Sontag, 1979: 155) posits that a “photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject. It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.” This reflects the nature of society to trust in photography, while the image may not be true, it is perceived to originally be at the very least based on something that is indeed true. The viewer must take caution when viewing imagery, as it is often beset with hidden agendas and motive to convince them of something, such as in advertising and images associated with photojournalism. Such imagery is produced with a story, bias or intent to mislead the viewer; this can lead to a feeling of reservation which the audience is usually aware of until an image is produced and shown by more than one source, i.e. proof.
This premise can be explored with the use of an ‘unbelievable’ subject; if one person for example, took an image of a flying pig, no matter how excellently composed and focused the image was, many members of the public would not believe and would be incredibly sceptical about the existence of the ‘flying pig’. On the other hand, if multiple people, over one hundred of them also took photographs of the flying pig, from different angles and different lighting the consensus would likely be that a flying pig does indeed exist and while would be sceptics, they are more likely to try and find the flying pig for themselves so they can prove whether it is real or fake, the same can be said of devastating events in foreign countries where little positive news is ever reported. The more different and plentiful the images used, the more they are believed, this journalistic view of many events is a good example of how purpose of the image is inherently linked to forms of bias, in not just the way the image is produced but also by how the image will be publicised or portrayed in the media.
The truthfulness of these images can sometimes be a matter of little importance, in such cases of images which document violent political upheaval such as those dying and enduring life in war-torn Syria in present times. If a distressing image was to be taken in a photography studio, edited and then purported to be from the streets of Damascus. The viewer, if unaware of the small deception on the part of the photographer will react in exactly the same way as if it were real, they will be thinking about the Syrians, and may want to find out more about the conflict and the happenings there.
The likelihood is that they will be more likely to donate to charities and share the image to family and friends, inciting others to do the same. Concurrently, Sontag identifies ”Photographs like the one that made the front page of … the world in 1972 – a naked … Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm…screaming with pain – probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred televised barbarities” (Sontag, 1979: 18). This child made the event relatable, more human, people thought of their own children and sympathised and realised what their country was doing during this war which was being fought away from them. However, if the viewer knows or thinks the image does not depict a truthful event, (as the image is a simply trace and not an exactness) it is attempting to copy the punctum of a real image they will mistrust the image and they are likely to be less empathetic to the plight of the Syrian people no matter how many ‘truthful’ images are shown to them after. They will mistrust not only the photographs but the event itself.
The effects of trust have a big impact on the way people can interpret imagery. After a number of scandals the public have seemed to be less trusting of imagery as a pure document. It is interesting here to revisit historical images from the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) in order to see the way how images are reported affect the way an image is read. The images produced for the FSA which in some cases had distributed scripts to photographers of what their images should contain and those images not complying were often censored or destroyed as they wanted to show the American public a very specific picture of existence in the Depression.
Dorothea Lange’s image of Florence Thompson, the eponymous ‘Migrant Mother’ shows a mother of seven looking into the distance with a look of despair upon her face. Her situation seems dire and she appears to be asking herself ‘What am I going to do?’ The children in the image compound this feeling, they are turned away and seem embarrassed, unwilling to show themselves to the camera, but clutching their mother for emotional support. The baby on her lap also reiterates this, the child is not the typical cutely clothed, chubby epitome of an infant, and instead the child is swaddled in rags and looks dirty. These signify to the viewer that this family are not doing very well financially and need some help from somewhere. Looking at these photos in the original context, as FSA photographs, a government organisation which focused on how the FSA were trying to help people affected and living through the great depression, and how the relief service of the FSA helped those people. These images were taken to publicize and venerate FSA actions during the great depression and the lives of those less fortunate.
The audience can deduce from the variants of Migrant Mother, why the images were not chosen or as looked up to define life during the Great Depression, in the landscape image with her child looking off to the side, Florence Thompson looks less hopeless and distinctly more aggravated, as if she has dust in her eyes or back pains. She looks into the distance with a look of concern, perhaps because with Lange photographing her, she cannot watch her other children as closely as she would like. The ‘Migrant Mother’s’ concern for her children is paramount and this is likely why she agreed to be photographed in the first place. Her baby looks cleaner and the older child looks bored, as if making a silly face for the photographer. This image hardly depicts the hopelessness and despair which is displayed in ‘Migrant Mother’. The intent to publicize the lives of the destitution of ‘normal’ people is far more obvious in the original photograph.