For this exercise, we are asked to consider the ethical concerns associated with an article in the New York Post showing a photograph of a man moments before he was hit and killed by a subway train. Below, I have noted some of my thoughts:
It is the photographer who appears to face criticism for taking the image rather than the newspaper for publishing it. Questions are asked about why he did not intervene to help the man, but, no mention is made of the other subway travellers who failed to do anything.
There is a video of the lead up to the man ending up on the tracks which shows him and the man who eventually pushed him arguing. This is presented without comment – there is no mention of why the man who filmed the altercation, or indeed any other witnesses, did not intervene – something that could have stopped the event escalating.
I wonder if there is a significant difference in the way we interpret and digest still and moving images? The fact that the photograph freezes forever the few moments before the man is struck by the train makes it undeniably more powerful than the video footage of the men arguing. The question about what the photographer could have done to help, rather than take the image, literally confronts the viewer.
The photographer is described as a freelance, but this is clearly an example of citizen journalism by an amateur rather than a professional photojournalist. The photographer was able to take the image because he happened to be in the subway when the events unfolded and he had his camera phone. Would the criticism be more or less if the photographer was a professional?
It is astonishing that there appears to be no criticism levelled at the New York Post for publishing the photograph. It is this alone that sensationalises the events and surely the story could have been reported just as accurately without the photograph. It is arguable however that it is the image that makes the story newsworthy enough to appear on the front page.
In his blog post “Why?”, Jose Navarro uses the term “voyeuristic complicity” in reference to the BBC’s decision to show smartphone footage of a cinema shooting in Canada in 2012. To feel complicit is a difficult emotion to process so it is perhaps understandable that critics of the photographer of the subway image choose to deflect this by placing blame onto the image maker rather than themselves – despite the fact they have viewed the image. There is a certain amount of taking the moral high ground involved in considerations about how they would have behaved differently in the circumstances.
For this exercise, we are asked to consider an image we believe to be ‘controversial’ or to transgress social barriers. I could have chosen many images for this project, most of which could be considered controversial because they are graphic and disturbing, however, I have chosen a photograph showing the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, by Melvut Mert Alintas in 2016 because of the interesting questions about visual representation and our reading of reality that it raises.
I remember distinctly at the time that this event occurred and this image was all over the new and social media, the overriding comment was that it did not seem real or that it was like a still from a film. This comparison is discussed by Grant Scott (2016) who likens the image as being part ‘Reservoir Dogs’ – the suit, the stance, and, part ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ – the attitude, the anger, the cry to the media. Despite being an image of an extreme act of violence, Scott notes that the cold reality of the situation, and the narrative unfolding, is like “a movie still appropriate for mass media consumption.” Although it is clear what is happening, it is the space within the image that allows us to write our own narrative that makes it so shocking. Scott makes the summary that the image tells a story in “hyper digital clarity creating a cinematic news image for our times. The narrative is clear, shocking and deeply affecting in its emotional coldness.” The reference to digital is significant in reference to the way the image was initially disseminated via Twitter and Facebook. It is not unusual for news images to be shown quickly in this way, however, this is not the shaky and badly composed iPhone imagery that has become the language of eye witness photography – the obvious professionalism of the photograph is what makes it so disconcerting and causes us to question whether what we are viewing is real or staged.
The aesthetics of the image and the effect this has on the viewer is expanded upon in article by Jerry Saltz. The violence and bloodletting present in the photograph are in contrast to the upscale, art gallery setting with everyone dressed elegantly in black – something that makes them both surreal and painfully beautiful. He continues his analyis:
“What makes the pictures so different from all of the other pictures of death we see? The poses are almost classical, frozen, or rehearsed as if from theater, ballet, painting, or mannequin display. The photographer, working the art opening for the Associated Press, deserves all of the enormous credit he’s received for responding as fluidily as a war photographer to the sudden outbreak of violence. But if I told you the images were fake, or staged, you might believe me. As Kurt Andersen put it on Twitter, ‘the great photojournalism of 2016 is continuing to resemble still from a scary, not-entirley-realistic movie’ – and that strange familiarity we feel looking at the images is one reason they are so uncomfortable to contemplate. Everything in the images is emotion articulated, caught, performed, and real. All this triggers an unreal internal visual dance. It’s a new surrealism of modern life, made all the more harrowing because it could not be more truly real.” (Katz, 2016)
This tension between reality, what we believe and how it is displayed through photographs is fascinating, and I agreee entirely with Katz’s belief that that if he said the images were faked or staged we might believe him.
John Macpherson (2016) points to a number of details in the image that both make it powerful and add subtle layers of meaning. Firstly, the trigger of the gun and the way that the assassin’s finger is held away from it – something that professional users of guns are trained to do and an indication of the skills possessed by the gunman. Secondly, a detail that helps us identify with the victim in a human way – the worn sole of his shoe, only visible because he is sprawled dying on the floor, signifies a common humanity and ordinariness amongst the extraordinary scene that the viewer can identify with.
In 2017, the photographer Burhan Özbilici was awarded World Press Photo of the Year for the image. In an article for The Guardian, chair of the judging panel for that award Stuart Franklin explains that despite recognising the impact of the image he voted against it winning the top prize as he feared it would amplify the message of the terrorists:
“It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading…Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.” (Franklin, 2017)
While I agree with Franklin’s concerns, and I definitely feel troubled with giving the image a prestigious award, I am not sure there is an alternative but to show the picture. The risk that the message of the terrorist could be amplified by showing the picture is a real concern – but who should we trust to make these judgements about what should and should not be published? That said, without the power of this image, would the story have been as widely publicised and reported upon? It is widely considered that the photographic essay rather than the single image is the best way to show the reality of an event, and yet, in this age of instant news and social media, it is the single image that is increasingly important.
For this exercise we are asked to read the essay by Fred Ritchin entitled ‘Toward a Hyperphotography’ (from his 2008 book ‘After Photography’) and look for visual examples of “cubist” photographs. Ritchin defines images that have a contradictory “double image” as cubist – they show that reality has no single truth. (Ritchin, 2008: 147) The example Ritchin uses for this is two images taken from opposite angles of the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994. The first shows soldiers laying on the ground in front of a helicopter, their guns raised to their eyes resting on their back packs. The image suggests that the soldiers are ready for engagement – the second image shows a number of photographers in front of the soldiers capturing the scene and causes us to question the validity of the first picture, as Ritchin observes, it is only the photographers who are doing any shooting. I would agree with Ritchin that by viewing the second image, the viewer questions what they are seeing, but, the scene seems less remarkable to me – all it shows is the reality of how news is constructed.
A much more shocking example of “unmasking photo opportunities, cubistically” are these images, again from Haiti, of a dead teenage girl Fabienne Cherisma, shot by police for looting in January 2010 in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake a few days before.
Similarly to the example given by Ritchin, the bottom image lays bear the reality of photojournalism but makes the viewer uncomfortable – personally, I feel complicit in the violence of the scene that allows Fabienne Cherisma to be violated for a second time by the scrum of photographers looking for the most aesthetically appealing angle to create the most powerful image. Peter Brook, on his blog ‘Prison Photography’, makes the argument that if an image such as this fuels public awareness, and therefore aid to help the immediate future of Haiti, then perhaps this positive effect can negate accusations of media exploitation. Unable to explain this phenomena, he makes this interesting observation:
“I wouldn’t call this the magic or power of photography, I’d call it the mysterious perversion of photography…the history of photojournalism is replete with globally-recognised subjects whose visage was appropriated without their knowledge and/or consent. There’s no model release form in war and disaster.” (Brook, 2010)
In his essay Ritchin makes some historically interesting observations about the nature of photojournalism, the problems attached to it and the possible future. Now over 10 years old, these ideas are interesting in an historic sense as the way news is disseminated in 2020, and particularly the impact of social media has transformed this, has changed significantly. At first Ritchin’s assertion that images can be contradictory (a cubist “double image”) and that reality has no single truth seems perfectly obvious and an accepted point of view to me. His solution that a “multiperspectival strategy would help devalue spin” is a noble idea but seems naive today. Rather than allowing multiple viewpoints to be shown of a single event and therefore allowing the viewer to disseminate this information and reach their personal understanding, modern digital media seems to promote a more polarised and definite reading of events. The loss of nuance and subtlety can perhaps be partly explained by the sheer amount of news that is available – something that is overwhelming – it is difficult to know what to trust, what to believe, or even, what is important. Faced with this it seems obvious that events are simplified – otherwise the reader would not have the time to digest everything. The transition from old to new media is complex and still in the early stages of evolution, I would like to believe that the eventual outcome could be a positive one, as Ritchin does, but the more I see complex information simplified and distorted with opinions presented as facts the less confident I become.