Continued from part one.
Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.
I bet many of you saw the opening image in part one and wondered how on earth it related to the title; it’s an example of the dissonance. I’m even more certain that in a few months, one of three things will happen:
1. You’ll remember the article because of the example dissonance between images and words;
2. You’ll remember the pretty bokeh and forget the article;
3. You’ll remember neither.
There’s a reason why hard-hitting and impactful articles have strong images that make us uncomfortable: this is what gets attention, it’s what people remember, and it’s certainly going to have a longer-lasting impact than a bunch of words on a page.
Which image are you more likely to remember: the flower image in part 1, or the man with the gun? The first image is simply one of shallow aesthetics; the second raises questions: who is he? Where is it? What’s the context? What’s that black frame on the left of the image? What’s the photographer trying to say with the slight motion blur? Why is he carrying a gun in the first place? One makes you think, one doesn’t. The more your brain has to work to understand an image, the more likely you (or your audience) is to remember it.
Photographers – especially photojournalists – have a responsibility to be judicious and as objective as possible when it comes to illustration of events, especially controversial ones. The problem is that whilst the photographer’s complete body of work from that event might be objective and balanced, he or she almost never has any control over what eventually gets published, let alone any changes to the editorial direction or message that might be made between pre-assignment briefing and print. This means that there’s really only one way to maximize objectivity. Firstly, the photographer has to try to have as netural an observer bias as possible – near impossible, I know – and secondly, each frame has to stand on its own, with a composition that’s strong enough to tell a story without other accompanying text or supporting images. There are different thresholds, of course, for reportage and commercial work.
Putting on my philosopher hat now: it’s the responsibility of the photographer to ensure that the presentation and impression received by the viewer matches his or her intentions. It’s the responsibility of the photojournalist to be as objective as humanly possible. Finally, it’s the responsibility of the viewer to look at things in a detached, objective, questioning way; not just to accept what gets forced in your eyes. Do your own research and make up your own mind; people don’t like to discover they’re being manipulated or controlled. I know I don’t; whilst I generally have strong points of view on most things – especially things photographic – I still welcome objective discourse (leave the personal attacks and ego at the door, please) because I know that a) things are always subjective, and b) I’ll probably be wrong sooner rather than later.
This applies equally to photography that isn’t strictly reportage. Every image is (hopefully) nothing more and nothing less than the photographer’s interpretative view of a small slice of the world; granted, there are limitations on this introduced by clients, lack of technical skill, equipment constraints, etc. Undoubtedly, society’s tolerance for the latitude of interpretation grows wider as the consequences grow smaller: nobody is really going to complain about photoshopped wedding images, or flowers of an inverse color, but you might well find that retouching crime scene evidence or adding and removing people from an image of a country leader being assassinated might be viewed quite differently.
The bottom line is that we should always be prepared to question why, and think of the consequences of our actions/ interpretations – both as a documentary/ observer, as well as an audience. Caring about the why is what makes us human. MT
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