[ theory ]
Looking Without Insight: Ambivalent Portrayal of Suffering and Death in Press Photography
- Tomanić, Ilija T.
As a journalistic practice, war photography stands as an epitome of factual reporting whose recordings offer visual proof of events and transform readers into eyewitnesses of depicted events. Traditionally, to paraphrase Capa, the practice of ‘being there close enough’ bore a strong humanistic underpinning - that the straightforward rendering off human suffering, destruction and death in photographs would diminish public support of the conflicts. However in the routine of daily news production, newspapers tend to use press photography that undermines both of these underlying assumptions, reducing eyewitnessing of history to mere illustrations or pronounced symbols that tend to be decontextualized and hence more universal than historically specific.
The article focuses precisely on the various strategies that the press employs to eschew the straightforward visual depiction of death, destruction and suffering that have for so long been one of the central criteria for determining newsworthiness of stories and that so often get explicit and detailed accounts in text part of news reports. Some of these strategies include personification of conflict through depiction of political and military leaders; to replace the image of fighting and destruction with often celebratory images of military technology and equipment; use of symbolical photographs that depict archetypal moments of heroism or suffering, often based on easy recognisable symbols, popular mythology or established artistic conventions (e.g. pieta); or by replacing images of casualties with more ambivalent and less controversial photographs of impending death. Such use of war photographs not only falls short of journalism’s proclaimed objective of fully documenting the events, even more importantly, it exerts evaluation and provides commentary of events under the guise of factual reports. Illustrated by recent examples from Slovene press, author claims that rather than making photographs of suffering and death a standard staple of news reporting, the press uses their explicit portrayal as a strategic resource for moral evaluation (condemnation) of certain actions. Paradoxically, the power of wartime images in the press to move and mobilise its audience lies precisely in the scarcity of their use since continuous exposure to images of suffering of unknown strangers can produce compassion fatigue, particularly when individuals do not have access to the levers and means of making a difference. Therefore more often than not, images of death in press are not so much a contribution to reader’s knowledge of events but powerful moral and evaluative markers, seductive and repulsive invitations to ideological interpretation of reported events.
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