Exercise 3.3: Breaking the news?

Mobile phones now come with a decent camera and and internet capabilities as standard. Most people now have the capability of a mobile broadcasting unit in their pocket. Everyone’s a photographer and a photojournalist.

Before this advance in digital technology, any newsworthy images would have been taken by seasoned professionals who would have abided by their own ethical standards. The tabloids would also have had a loyal readership, so the need for sensationalism was not as paramount.

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Exercise 3.2: Digitising atrocity

Task: Find a recent photograph within the public domain that you consider to be ‘controversial’ or to transgress social barriers. Write a short entry about why you feel it is controversial. 

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On the evening of the 14th June 2017, a huge fire engulfed a 27 storey tower block in West London. The image above shows the Grenfell Tower, in north Kensington, fully ablaze. Sadly, 71 people died in the inferno. 

A quick image search onTinEye reveals that the above image was used 42 times on news websites and blogs. I find this image controversial because it is a constant reminder of the horror that the victims and survivors suffered. It is clear from the ferocity of the blaze that anyone trapped in there, when the photograph was taken, will have perished. 

Of course there is a need to have a visual record of this tragic event, to support investigators when they try to determine how this could have been prevented. However, surely the relevant authorities will taken the necessary photographs. On further reflection, I think that it is more the photographer, rather than the photograph, which I find controversial. What would be the motivation for a human to photograph another’s suffering? Would they accept the same if the roles were reversed? It is the equivalent of motorists slowing down on the motorway to ‘rubber-neck’ at the accident on the opposite carriageway. 

The citizen photojournalist now has the capability of an outside broadcast unit in the palm of their hands. For some, they are wanting the fame of having their photograph ‘retweeted’, ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ across social media platforms. ‘Likes’ and ‘retweets’ are the currency of social media status and kudos. For others, it’s the fortune of having their photograph published on the front page of the tabloids. 

With us spending an ever-increasing amount of time on screen, it would appear as though our first instinct, when confronted with a horrific scene, is to experience it through the screen. It creates a barrier between the viewer and the subject. 

Images from the Grenfell Tower fire reminded me of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. Haunting images of the plane circling and colliding with the Twin Towers, and people jumping out of their office windows looped on television newsreels. Capturing a person’s last terrifying few moments is degrading and disrespectful. The silhouetted figures of Grenfell and the Twin Towers were more to their loved ones than a few pixels.

Exercise 3.1: Towards a hyper photography.

In his book, 'After Photography', author Fred Ritchen discusses the influence of the digital world on the photograph. Previously, analog photographs would be passed around and viewed at social gatherings, and then returned to the owner. Some of those photographs may have been worthy of being framed, enjoying a more public space - perhaps hung on a wall, or placed on a mantle piece, for any visitor to look at.

Meanwhile, the rest of the images would be either archived in photo albums, or boxed up, gathering dust whilst they became almost forgotten about.

In the age of the smart phone, bluetooth and wifi, have enabled the digital photograph to be linked, transmitted, recontextualised, and fabricated. Subsequently, this presents both advantages and disadvantages, to producers and viewers of digital images. 

The ability to link and share an image on social networks means that it is able to 'piggy back' across the world to unintended audiences and contexts. The photographer no longer has control of the image. The viewer is able to capture, store and view an image in an infinite amount of contexts. Therefore, it would be wise to consider photographs at face value.

Ritchin warns that:

The increasing cyborgization of people in which cell phones, iPods,, and laptops reach near-appendage state will see photography extended into an all-day strategy, including images that are made according to involuntary stimuli such as brain waves and blood pressure.
— Ritchin (2009: 143)

Ritchin continues by prophecizing that that one day we will be able to artificially create photographs, from DNA and other various codes. Over eight years since his book was published, the author could have been referring to the hyper-realistic graphics of today’s computer games. In addition to this, augmented reality and virtual reality offer the viewer new ways of interacting with images. 

Since Ritchin wrote this chapter, motorists and cyclists are also able to record every second of their journey, incase they need to make an insurance claim. Bystanders now act as photo-journalists instead of helping those in need, when witnessing a major incident. 

As digital technologies develop, Ritchin envisages photographers being referred to as communicators. Their images will co-exist amongst a collection of tags and links, to communicate a specific message, or messages. 

With more and more people taking photographs, there are numerous ways that a subject is depicted. Previously, a single photograph may had been accepted as proof or evidence of a particular event. However, with literally so many differing points of view, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is ‘fake news’. To illustrate this, Ritchin referred to the US invasion of Haiti in 1994, whereby a second photograph revealed that the soldiers lying down in front of their helicopter, were pointing their weapons at a handful of photographers. The photo opportunity had been staged. 

Election campaigns are high stakes events where the image and the message conveyed need to be carefully managed.   A tightly cropped shot could convey a completely different message, if the photographer selected a wide angle view of the scene. 

Sky News reporter, Niall Paterson, stumbled across one such occasion, in a warehouse during David Cameron’s 2015 campaign. The first photograph shows the Prime Minister surrounded by his loyal supporters. The tightly cropped composition gives the impression that there are more people out of shot, suggesting a high turn out and amplifying the support that the Tory Party have. It is also difficult to determine where this photograph has been taken. From the small portion of the background, it could be a stadium of concert hall. Once again, this would suggest a large audience.

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However, Niall Paterson compared this scene to a second viewpoint (below), which shows a small group of placard waving supporters who are dwarfed by the huge warehouse  

that they have gathered in.

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More recently in May 2017, a similar strategy was used during Theresa May’s visit to the North East. The two viewpoints below illustrate how a stage managed event can be designed to influence and mislead the viewer.

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These two occasions make me much more sceptical about the images we are presented with in the media. There is a very real danger that the viewer, or consumer, is fed a manufactured message which has been designed for the self-interest of a third party. It makes me much more wary of believing what I see in the news. It has always been accepted that words can contain bias, and so it is always necessary to bare this in mind when reading a newspaper article. However, when looking at any accompanying photographs, it is essential that the consumer considers: Who took the photograph? Why did they choose that particular angle and moment?

 

Reference

Ritchin, F. (2009) After Photography. Norton & Company: London 

The Selfie: self-obsession or self-expression?

In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary attributed ‘selfie’ with ‘word of the year’. Everyone and anyone seemed to be taking selfies. Celebrities with other celebrities, and celebrities with their adoring fans. Taylor Swift commented that:

I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only momento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie.” 

During 2015, 24 billion selfies were uploaded. The latest smart phones now have a second, front facing camera, which enables the user to photograph themself at arms length, ensuring they’re in the frame. It would appear as though this was a recent phenomenon, which  has transformed our image making culture. However, the practice of taking self-portraits can be traced back throughout the history of photography. 

Even when photography was in its infancy, photographers were taking photographs of themselves. If the definition of a selfie is a self-portrait, then it is widely believed that the first selfie was created by amateur chemist and photography enthusiast Robert Cornelius’ (below), which he took in 1839. 

Self-portrait, by Robert Cornelius  

Self-portrait, by Robert Cornelius  

However, others insist that a selfie is a photograph taken using a digital device and posting it online. Therefore the first known modern selfie was taken and posted online by an Australian student, called Hopey, in September 2002 (below). It shows the injuries that he sustained from tripping over during a 21st birthday party.  

The first modern selfie, by Hopey.  

The first modern selfie, by Hopey.  

Before the addition of a front-facing camera on digital devices, people had to make do with photographing themselves in bedroom and bathroom mirrors. They would go to great lengths to capture themselves looking their best. 

On Instagram there are over 328,000,000 images tagged with #selfie. So why has taking selfies become so popular?  

Previously, if you wanted your photograph taken in front of a famous landmark, you might have politely asked a stranger if they could use your camera. However, due to the amount of private and personal information stored on expensive smart phones, it is understandable as to why people would want to take the photograph themselves. Furthermore, the increase in popularity of social networking sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook has provided digital natives with a platform to post images of themselves. 

Despite its popularity, not everyone is a fan of the selfie. The urge for people to photograph themselves and publish the results of their social media is considered to be narcissistic by some. The aim of many posters is to accumulate as many ‘likes’ for their selfie as possible. However, Schwarz (2010: 180) warns that: ‘extracting value from your body is a risky game. A high stakes example of this would be on dating apps, such as Tinder, whereby a single swipe determines how desirable a selfie is.

Conversely, the selfie could be viewed as an acceptable form of self-expression. After all artists, such as Picasso and Van Gogh often painted their own self-portrait, so why should it be any different for a photographer?  

Reference

Schwarz, Ori (2010) ‘On Friendship, Boobs and the Logic of the Catalogue: Online Self-Portraits as a Means for the Exchange of Capital’, Convergence 16( 2): 163–283