The camera lies – oh my, does it lie!

Hey – a picture is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional scene – so yes, it is its own reality only representing another reality in a loose way. And no, a picture is not worth a thousand words – except when you choose it very carefully. Problem is, while a picture can convey a lot of information, it is frequently very imprecise, meaning many different things to different people.
Kevin knows this is near and dear to me, so he sent me this link to this wonderful NPR story examining the ethics of photo journalism. Ouch! Does this ever strip the varnish off of the press – particularly press photographers. It begins:

Every now and then, photojournalism gives rise to ethical questions. For instance, why was O.J.’s image digitally darkened on the cover of Time? Did tight shots of Saddam’s statue being toppled by Iraqis intentionally obscure the U.S. Marines’ role in the incident? Did newspapers whitewash the horror of war by suppressing images of corpses? Were famous photos from World War I and the Spanish Civil War actually reenactments?

There are clear rules that supposedly govern such situations, sometimes observed, sometimes not. But, as Bob reports, one category of mass media photography operates with hardly any rules at all.

But don’t just read this – the best way to appreciate it is to listen to it – same link – and at the same time watch this slide show of the pictures they’re discussing which are on another site. The pictur eof McCain above is the one used by the Atlantic – I think it’s quite heroic. But go to the slide show and see the photo that wasn’t used.

wchurchill_by_ykarshThis famous photo of a scowling Winston Churchill came about when photographer, Yousuf Karsh, took the cigar out of Churchill’s hand and immediately snapped this shot.

One year I taught English 101 at UMass Dartmouth and I focused a healthy segment on how words are used to slant things. But that’s easy. TV and still images can do much more and in amuch more subtle fashion. This story is one hellua a good, brief lesson on how images are used to manipulate our view of the news and newsmakers. My only caveat is please remember that while the photographer might of had a precise idea about what they were trying to convey, the end result can hit different people very differently. I learned that lesson many years ago when I planned to use the photo of a bonfire – part of a rally before a football game – on the cover of our Admissions Bulletin. It was a terrific shot and I and the photographer thought it captured a very positive spirit of campus life – but I tested it on faculty and staff first. The reactions I got included:

  • it looks like devil worship
  • it reminds me of the Watts riots
  • what a great shot – those kids are really having fun!

I used a classroom scene instead – or maybe it was the typical – seldom happens, but looks great – outdoor scene of teachers holding class under the trees on a spring day 😉


Bill Ayers speaks – and very effectively

I’m glad we won – but just reading what Bill Ayers has to say in today’s New York Times reminds me of how hate-filled, how totally anti-life, the forces were that we defeated. And yes, I know they are still out there today – ignorance isn’t going to vanish with just one election. And yes, I know there is an intelligent and legitimate opposition to my point of view, but it’s difficult to hear with the pervasive demagogery still spewing out of Alaska.

First – the essence of what Ayers has to say:

Now that the election is over, I want to say as plainly as I can that the character invented to serve this drama wasn’t me, not even close. Here are the facts:

I never killed or injured anyone. I did join the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, and later resisted the draft and was arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. I became a full-time antiwar organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village. The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices — the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious — as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation.

The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be — and still is being — debated. We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war.

Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends.

I was an editorial writer in those days, and I wrote editorials opposing both the War in Vietnam and the extreme actions of people such as Ayers who also opposed that war. I felt they confused the issue and appealed largely to emotion in much the same way that Sarah Palin – a symbol of all that’s sick with the conservative movement today – does. In those days it drove me crazy when radicals would shout down the opposition on college campuses. It was contrary then to the sort of respect different viewpoints deserve and it’s contrary now. The Vietnam War, like the Iraq War, was a horrible mistake. But our soldiers weren’t to blame for either of those mistakes. In both cases it was our political leaders. And I don’t believe for a minute that in either case these leaders did what they did for “evil” motives.

As with Ayers, they were doing what they thought was right for the country and the world. I believe they were wrong in what they did – and Ayers was wrong in how he expressed his opposition. But I don’t question their motives. I may ave doubts in some cases, but that is almost always a dead end street. No one can prove to me what is in another person’s heart. We need to oppose what people do, we need to oppose what they say – but we can do both without insulting their essential humanity – without villifying them. Life is not a comic book and politicians have to stop treating the American people as if all they understand is comic books.

Bill Ayers makes a very rational, calm case for a man who was dismissed over and over again as a “terrorist.” In fact, his approach is the best argument against his critics who I doubt had any real knowledge of who he was before they branded him and used him to promote themselves. It’s interesting. There were several points during the campaign where I think John McCain could have won if he had stuck to the rational arguments he occasionally mustered. But he didn’t. H e made sense one day, then dragged out Joe-the-plumber the next two. And I never saw any evidence that Sarah Palin had any plans to present to the American people. She was defined by how she opposed everything. And in the end her actions and words brought her down – a simple fact that gives me some confidence that ultimately we live in a rational and just world – that people sowing hate reap the same.