The decline in photojournalism’s credibility

November 11, 2009

Photojournalism is in essence a form of human visual behaviour. The whole process is a succession of meaningful stages involving interaction with visual material:

  • “People act and are photographed.
  • Photographers look and photograph.
  • Editors select.
  • Societal institutions seek to control content of images.
  • Audiences view, absorb, act, reject, and ignore.
  • The conversation continues.” (Newton, 2001; p.102.)

 

We have a continuous link between ‘observer’ and ‘observed’; the connection, however, changes drastically from the first stage to the last. The view that the photographer has of a specific subject/event is bound to be immensely different from the perception the final audience has of the photographically portrayed scene. The viewer is “a spectator twice over, spectator of events already shaped, first by the participants and second by the image maker” (Sontag, 1979; p. 169). As we have noticed, depending on the circumstances, the events can also be shaped by the editors and other institutions. Does the message stay the same?

When a photograph is published in a newspaper, the connection this time between the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’ becomes shaped by the publishing context. A photograph, as we have seen, is generally accompanied by a headline, a caption and an article. There is a mix of words and images organised in a given format. Julianne H. Newton puts forward  Wilson Hicks’ idea that, applied to visual reportage, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Newton, 2001; p. 177). Words are in our minds linked to sounds, and images are composed of “shapes and tones that [to us] represent animate and inanimate entities” (Ibid.). When words and images are combined in certain patterns, they make sense to the human mind and we see them “in relation to one another – as parts forming the pattern of a whole page with one and many meanings” (Ibid; p. 178). An image stimulates specific reactions and thoughts, and text tries to clarify those ideas. But each individual will have a distinct understanding of a visual element. In this mixture of symbols and meanings, can the complete truth of the event be faithfully presented?

 

Photojournalism is all about context: when a picture is published, it is in a way taken out of context. The text in the newspaper is there to contextualise the image. As we have previously seen, the original message can therefore be easily distorted. If we look at a picture by itself, we can presume that we can have a more direct reaction to the event portrayed. However, what we see is only a certain aspect of the subject/event. If photographs usually attempt to create an authentic visual record, they often generate “complete visual deception” (Ibid; p. 45).

The audience can be misled because a picture shows an event from one specific angle or point of view, and the image is subject to individual interpretation, as Newton explains. It is impossible to get a grasp of the full picture since we are only shown a portion of reality. As John Szarkowski points out: “Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision” (Sontag, 1979; p. 192). Brian Walski’s picture for example shows us a very specific scene, and has in fact little to do with what was really happening in Iraq and the bigger issues concerning the war.

We can also mention Kafka’s comment that “this automatic camera doesn’t multiply men’s eyes but only gives a fantastically simplified fly eye’s view” (Ibid; p. 206). He argues that we cannot in fact capture the essence of a moment, but that we can only see the superficial; that truth lies not in a two-dimensional representation of reality, but in the life it tries to portray.

 

A major problem in photojournalism is the concept of objectivity. Since the photographer has to choose from an infinite amount of possible shots, photographs are not “reliable, “exactly repeatable pictorial statements” made by a neutral camera” (Newton, 2001; p. 8), but conscious choices made by the photographer. Newton raises the idea that objectivity is a myth. We can indeed note that the photographer (or whoever is in charge of the reportage) chooses what moment and subject he wants to capture as a representation of the ‘truth’. That image is then selected by the editors and published to show the readers/viewers evidence for a given story.

We can then question the old idea that ‘seeing is believing’. Julianne H. Newton indicates that one way of looking at that phrase is that “we tend to see only what we look for. In other words, we believe what we see because we have chosen to see something in a certain way” (Ibid; p. 90). A photograph does therefore not portray the truth, but  one view of a specific event, followed by an infinite amount of possible interpretations.

 

Our responsibility towards photojournalism is then to shift our assumptions, as Newton says: “we can shift our assumption that a photograph is true because it looks real to the assumption that what we know from an image is the product of perception” (Ibid; p. 184). The general view of modern photojournalism is shifting from the ‘assumed veracity’ of a picture to a more sceptical and analytical approach. This is not due to the increase and facilitation of photo-manipulation alone, but to the fact that more people doubt the truthfulness of the media in general. According to findings by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “a paltry 29 percent of American adults believe news organizations correctly report the facts. Twenty four years ago, that figure was 55 percent” (Zuppa, 2009). We can hypothesize that what Brian Walski did would have had very little impact on the public’s opinion of the Iraq war coverage had the newspapers not made a scandal out of it.

 

 

 

Newton, Julianne Hickerson (2001). The Burden of Visual Truth: The Role of Photojournalism in Mediating Reality, p. 8, p. 45, p. 90, p. 102, p. 177, p. 178, p. 184. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [Accessed on 3 November 2009].

 

Sontag, Susan (1979). On Photography, p. 169, p. 192, p. 206. England: Penguin Books. [Accessed on 5 November 2009].

 

Zuppa, Chris (2009). Looking at the truth of a photo, St. Petersburg Times, 11 October. [online] Available from: <http://www.tampabay.com/news/perspective/article1042642.ece> [Accessed on 31 October 2009].

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