Category Archives: Part 3 – We Are All Photographers Now

Exercise 3.3 – Breaking the news?

In some ways, this exercise is very similar to the last. We are asked to review an image of an impending tragedy and to comment on the ethics of the photographer. The image is one showing a man standing on the tracks of the New York subway with a train bearing down on him. The man, Ki Suk Han, was killed moments later. The image caused uproar when it was published shortly afterwards with the banner title’ This man is about to die’, with people in particular focussing on the photographer’s motives. Apparently, the photographer, an off-duty photojournalist just lifted his camera when he saw what was happening with the aim of letting the train driver know there was a problem with his flash, and took the photos almost on autopilot. Subsequent studies of what happened established that Mr Han had been deliberately pushed off the platform by an agitated man who had been bothering other passengers, and whom Mr Han had attempted to calm down. It later turned out that this man had severe mental health issues.

Public outrage seems to have focussed on two aspects of the New York Times front page story, which included the image. Firstly, should they have bought the photograph and published it, and secondly was the motivation of the photographer questionable? It is a strange fact of modern life that we tend to focus our fury on people other than the perpetrator, and this is what seems to have happened here. The man who actually caused the accident is invisible in the image and in much of the reporting, while the photographer was roundly condemned for a variety of failings, including not trying to help the victim (although nobody else did either) and making money from his death. Questions were also asked about whether the New York Times had broken the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, (1) and in particular the section on Minimizing Harm. Having looked at this, I would argue that there is scope for concern about this element of this Code, namely that journalists should

  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if other do.

My own reaction to the image was to consider it in relation to other similar images, and the internet is rife with these. Almost any of the images in this series – 45 haunting photos of people in their final moments before death (2) has the same issues as the NYT one and adverts for series such as this (3) regularly turn up on my own Facebook timeline. To me, the issue stems from the NYT’s decision to print the photograph and to run the story, not with the photographer who made the image. That person was acting automatically, and could not realistically have helped the man, but the NYT publishing of the image and story were, in my view, pandering to lurid curiosity rather than providing useful news. The fact that it was also the NYT is relevant – it is a broadsheet newspaper that considers itself to be at the more intellectual end of the journalistic range. If the National Enquirer had published it, I don’t believe there would have been a similar outcry.

Bibliography

  1. Society of Professional Journalists (2014) SPJ Code of Ethics. At: https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (Accessed 01/03/2020)
  2. Huber, L. (2020) Haunting Photos of People in Their Final Moments Before Death. At: https://twentytwowords.com/45-haunting-photos-of-people-in-their-final-moments-before-death/ (Accessed 01/03/2020)
  3. Lovitt, B. (2016) ‘Death by Selfie: 11 Disturbing Stories of Social Media Pics Gone Wrong’ In: Rolling Stone  14/07/2016 At: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-lists/death-by-selfie-11-disturbing-stories-of-social-media-pics-gone-wrong-15091/selfie-stick-lightning-rod-30043/ (Accessed 01/03/2020)

Exercise 3.2 – Decoding a transgressive image

I started out with a plan to do some work about Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Absurd for this exercise. Ever since I first saw it, and particularly his series Outland I have been distressed by them, and did not really know why. But unpacking those emotions is something for another day. The image I want to discuss is the one below, of a young girl named Omayra Sanchez, who was trapped by the catastrophic mudslide which followed the eruption of the  Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Columbia in 1985. She was found quite soon by rescuers, but despite every possible effort they were unable to free her and after 60 hours of very public anguish she sadly died.

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In the image, only the girl’s head and shoulders are visible and it is clear she is trapped in water and debris. One hand (heavily discoloured) grips a wooden pole and the other can be seen lying beside it. The girl is looking straight at the camera and her eyes appear completely black. The expression on her face is one of despair and also acceptance – she knows she is going to die and cannot do anything about it. Even struggling is beyond her.

I find this image distressing on a number of levels, but will discuss two in particular. Firstly, it is difficult to define where the image should be placed within the photographic canon. It comes from the documentary genre, but it is not normal reportage in which the people in foreign disasters are always perceived as Other. The girl is looking straight at the camera and we cannot avoid making a connection with her and imagining her suffering. This is a real person, in agony and we cannot look away, yet we are completely helpless to solve her situation. At the same time, her eyes are almost alien in their blackness and are impossible to read.

The other issue is a much larger ethical one. Is it right to publish images of people in such distress? What motivated the photographer to ‘shoot’ this image and the many others that were taken over the period of her slow and agonising death? Is it ok to make money out of someone else’s suffering, or to observe instead of trying to help? And is it intrusive or exploitative?

In the West, the current norm is to sanitise death. We avoid having to confront it visually because it is disturbing and feels intrusive. News media go to considerable lengths not to offend their viewers and readers by withholding images they consider too gory or too personal, and thus we are not directly exposed to the horror that being human can entail.  The heavy shielding which we experience is probably partially itself to blame for the Othering of those from foreign parts. Hideous death and violence is Not Something We Do, apparently. However, this really is a sanitised bubble. In other parts of the world where I have lived, the local news media is full of images of gory deaths from traffic accidents, shootings and the like. Intrusive – yes. Exploitative – yes, too. But somehow more honest as well. These things happen whether one wants to acknowledge it or not. To quote Susan Sontag,

“Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” (Sontag, 2004:

The term disaster porn has now been coined to express our macabre fascination with the suffering of others, with its connotations of secrecy, illicit voyeurism and shame, alongside its ubiquity on the internet. If we want to look hard enough, it is now possible to find images detailing all sorts of horror, from the bodies of people who fell from the Twin Towers tragedy to videos by people who know their plane is about to crash. It is somehow part of the human condition to want to observe these things from a safe distance, and I am sure there is plenty of psychological research to explain one of our less attractive characteristics.

But back to poor Omayra Sanchez and her impossible situation. The image comes up each time I open my blog at present, and each time I am appalled at her predicament, and ask myself whether it adds to the sum of human understanding to see it. And each time I am not sure; it humanises suffering, but also fetishizes it as well.

Below are a couple of links which explain a little about the disaster porn phenomenon, for interest.

http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2012/10/30/the-strange-allure-of-disaster-porn/

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/our-addiction-to-disaster_b_441745.html?

https://www.theeastafricanreview.info/op-eds/2019/01/19/disaster-porn-and-the-white-gaze-why-the-new-york-times-just-wont-respect-the-dusit-attack-victims/

References

McMahon, E. (2016) ‘In 1985, She Became Trapped Beneath a Volcanic Mudflow — These Were the Final 60 Hours of Her Life.’ In: firsttoknow.com [online] At: http://firsttoknow.com/the-final-hours-of-omayra-sanchezs-life/ (Accessed on 28 March 2019).

 

 

Exercise 3.1 – Multiple points of view

Fred Ritchin’s writings on so-called hyperphotography argues that single images can never be  ‘truthful’ representations of the events that occurred, and that one needs a variety of experiences from different points of view in order to produce a story which is properly authentic. His aim is a metamedia – characterised by linked, transmitted, recontextualised and fabricated work.(Ritchin, 2008;141)  He was writing in 2008, when it was beginning to become apparent that news stories might not always be as objective as they seemed, and that both the physical point of view of the photographer and the new organisation’s political views might colour what was presented to viewers. This was all ten years ago though, long before ‘Fake News’ hit the headlines, and from this point in time, it seems a little naïve. Ritchen argued for a series of subversive activities to counteract the prevailing political line, including

  • unmasking photo opportunities;
  • photographing the future, so a version of it does not happen
  •  enfranchising the subject;
  • reporting as “family album”;
  • constructive interventions.

and his view was that by including citizen journalism and multiple experiences of events through websites and social media, the goal of all-round authenticity might become closer. This has happened to some extent, but it is still very much the exception rather than the norm.

What has actually happened in the last 10 years is that a toxic combination of disinformation/propaganda and the inevitable drive to extremism that social media algorithms produce (an unintended consequence of the concept of personalised news services), (Sunstein, 2018) has led us to a point where a) we frequently only see news that confirms our already held opinions and b) we have a firm disbelief in anything that does not confirm that viewpoint. To take an appalling example from today, in New Zealand a white supremacist coldly took the lives of 49 Muslim worshippers while they were at prayer in Christchurch. Not only did he live stream the shootings (making removal from all internet sites well nigh impossible) but he made a statement beforehand giving credit for his views to Donald Trump and his America First campaign. Somehow, Trump has managed to convey his condolences without either speaking out against freedom to carry guns, nor white supremacist views, both of which he has spoken in favour of before. In his world, white people cannot be terrorists, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

In another example, the current ridiculous turmoil in Britain about Brexit, which has  dominated our new events for three years now (yawn) is stoked by people with strongly held views on either side of the Brexit divide being completely unable to see the other side’s reasoning. Extremism rules!

So, is it realistic to put forward Ritchin’s suggestions as an antidote to the polarised news scenarios? I am not sure that it is. Constant advances in technology mean that an image or new clip ‘being Photoshopped’ to emphasise a particular viewpoint is old hat. We are now suspicious that every image has been manipulated. #‘fakemelania style conspiracy theories abound.

Hyperphotography, in which multiple viewpoints are given, might help slightly, but mostly in post-event understanding of what occurred (which is the caser in most of the examples Ritchin mentions) . Citizen journalism and iPhone filming of events which have been spun differently by the other people involved helps, but it is a drop in the ocean and depends on people being in the right place at the right time. Fred Ritchin seems like a ‘glass half full’ theorist, for whom there is always an antidote to misinformation. However, I fear we are moving faster towards a complete breakdown in trust of the media than any of his ideas to counteract fake news can roll back the clock.

References

Armstrong, E. (2013) Art in the age of truthiness. Santa Fe: Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Ritchin F. (2008) ‘Towards a Hyperphotography.’ In: After Photography. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ritchin, F. (2014)  Bending the frame. [YouTube video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=541UY8jgkxU (Accessed on 14 March 2019)

Sunstein, C. R. (2018) #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton: Princeton University Press.