Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Power of the Picture

Sydney Dawes

Everyone's buzzing about the digital age, but I'd like to call attention to the visual age.

Humans are visual creatures: we believe what we can see, and are duped by what we believe to be real. We love to show people what we're doing every moment of the day by adding photos of our food and surroundings on Instagram. We communicate by sending selfies with captions only we and our friends will ever find funny. We scroll through memes, GIFs, and Vines to pass the time.

With smart phone in hand, we're basically amateur photographers, or even photojournalists.

But are we really?

There's power that comes with each picture.

A Snippet in Time

The best known images naturally partner a story with a strong emotion (or several of them). The stories and feelings behind the images we see, though, can at times be misleading.

For instance, the iconic photo of the Boston Bombing included in Nieman Report's "How Newsrooms Handle Graphic Images of Violence" conveys emotions of fear and chaos, but also a flicker of hope for humanity as one man helps a complete stranger seek medical care. It was a very vulnerable time in recent U.S. history, and it was captured by a very vulnerable photo.

Image via Charles Kupra/Associated Press http://bit.ly/1Z8jrlV
Other photos, however, appear to tell a story that is far from fact.

It's All in the Context

Take the Eddie Adams' famous Vietnam War photograph, pictured below.

Image via Eddie Adams http://cnn.it/1G9GtWk
At first glance of this photo, it appears the man being threatened was randomly pulled of the street. He's under incredible distress, and his face is twisted in extreme fear.

Here's where context is key, folks: the man who is moments away from execution was a spy for the Viet Cong. The man with the gun is General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a Southern Vietnamese police chief.

No matter whether or not the general's actions were ethical, the photo paints the situation in a misleading light.

Adams himself, after winning a Pulitzer for the photograph, stated he questioned his decision to share the photo. CNN also reported that he apologized to the general for any harm the photo may have caused him or his family.

Some may say this photo is ethically unsound, while others will find no issue with it. Regardless, ethical decision making should take place before and after snapping a photo.

The Ethics of Photography

Photos have the ability to represent an entire event in history, have the power to incite panic, and have the influence to push for societal change.

The photos a news organization publishes can also mold public opinion on a matter or build/reinforce stereotypes. For instance, a few stereotypes of Muslims in American media are the following: the terrorist, the oppressive male, and the oppressed female. This Orientalist thinking contributes to Islamophobia in America, and the images Americans are constantly exposed aren't accurate depictions of the average Muslim.

Overall, photojournalism is a powerful weapon in the realm of influence and persuasion. Thus, it is a craft that requires more than just a nice camera or smart phone.

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