How Many Photos Are Too Many Photos?
Posted on April 22nd, 2013
Last week was full of horror, disbelief and touching compassion. It was also a week driven by photographs and discussion about photography. From the iconic photo by Boston Globe’s John Tlumacki on the cover of Sports Illustrated, to the hundreds of citizen photos turned in to the FBI, the story and the events that followed were driven by photography.
It’s fair to ask whether that has been a good or bad thing. Thousands of people uploaded photos and the online world took to acting like sleuths, isolating people in the photos, no matter whether they were right or wrong. It was that intense group action that gave the NYPost its chance to libel two teenagers with their cover.
Some newspapers and online sites doctored and cropped images so that we wouldn’t have to see the real carnage of the event. They censored images even before the dust had cleared. So not only are we seeing a multitude of images, but also we are being directed as to what we are allowed to see, what we should see, and what we should remember.
And it was overhead infrared photos that told the police that the second suspect was still alive, hiding in a backyard boat. But what does it all mean?
It is illogical to expect that the public won’t put their crime fighter hats on and pour through thousands upon thousands of images with no real idea what they are doing. It’s only a game, after all. There are no more editors, or we are all editors, regardless of whether we know what that means or not. When every photo has equal value, is it surprising that people find themselves slandered with a shocking casualness? Media outlets don’t feel the need to apologize or correct them. They either stand firm (Rupert Murdoch), or the use the excuse that “everyone did it.”
We live in a time where nothing is unseen. Public events are now recorded by cameras everywhere, be they in the hands of the public or positioned all over our cities by authorities. And it soon became apparent that more photos just meant more confusion. Just like every photo on the web morphs into every other photo after a while, more doesn’t mean better.
The mainstream media played their part in fanning the flames of slander: CNN, AP, even the Boston Globe, reporting the name of someone who was not connected in any way. They got their information from people on Reddit who wanted to join in the hunt. We know that real reporting has been replaced with the hysteria of quickly grabbing nuggets of information from the Web regardless of its veracity in order to fill the endless hours of airtime. And these photos, these tangible (although not really since they are all digital) bits of visible evidence become the medium through which all events are reduced to an online game, complete with arrows and circles, not unlike a football play.
It was authorities who showed restraint and wrestled with their decision to release photos of the two suspects. They were measured in their action, waiting until they were fairly certain they had the right suspects.
When all photos are given equal weight, do they all become meaningless? People are looking for the iconic photo from the Boston bombing. Why? So that they can easily categorize the event, put it into a safe box that we can all refer to, therefore making this a shared experience. What is your choice? The runner falling down? The grainy video grabs of the two suspects? The sight of military-armed officials banging on doors in their house-to-house search? Military vehicles rumbling through the streets?
For me, there are 2 images. One, the eerily empty streets of Boston, and two, the man who was covering a woman right after the blast, talking into her ear, just being with her. It was a quiet moment in the midst of hysteria. Probably most of you don’t remember it–it was devoid of drama, just full of human compassion. We eagerly search out the intense, look for the frenetic, get caught up in the action. But it is the silent, calm, human moments that can remind us what was lost.
Good post Stella. I agree about the image you mention at the end. I noted it too. There was an ambiguity to it that was unsettling. Is this person weeping over a loved one, are they comforting them, are they resuscitating them? That ‘uncertainty’ is far more powerful than a shattered leg, a screaming face, because it references the unknown, the ‘what-ifs’ and the sheer bewilderment that such events generate.
Good article. Hours after a photo being declared iconic and lots of discussion about the pictures rather then the event.
Sorry I am not going to applaud the photographers but the authorities who quickly got the situation under control.
Thanks Stella. For the text, for the delicate way to see it, for the questions, for thinking out of the usual.
Really nice post.