Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Politics of Images: Judging by What We See--one from the head


Images affect us in ways that most print and speech might not succeed. To see something, held before us, is to become a part of the story that image is attempting to convey. Since photography was invented, the art of capturing an image in a media (analog, or now digital) has become a way to form art, commit journalism or relate a concept more effectively than words. Think about the great, iconic images of days past...
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg
  • Women Suffragettes picketing for voting rights
  • The "Kiss" shared by a sailor and a young woman in Times Square on V.E. Day
  • A child recovering from polio lying in a ward, in an iron lung
  • The march on Selma
  • The last helicopter taking off from the US embassy in Viet Nam
  • The cover of just about ANY National Geographic, Time, Newsweek or Life Magazine
  • a snapshot of you as a younger person at a family gathering, a picnic, or at a holiday
Those are just a few that came to mind. There are thousands upon thousands more. Those images easily become icons, conveying without words the complex emotions that roil around the events that we will soon call history. They can capture pathos. They can make us cry, or laugh, or clench our teeth in anger. They can break our hearts...or help them begin to heal.

Images provoke a lot in us, chiefly, though I find they most often provoke judgment. It's an assured and reliable trope in cinema that in the first few seconds of meeting a major character there will be a non-verbal, image-related moment in which we will decide whether we will "like" her or "dislike" him. The character reaches down to pet a stray dog. We like them. They kick the dog. We don't. This image is simple enough to "decode" and it usually fits into a narrative that we are giving tacit authority to by being willing to watch the movie/show/depiction/adaptation.

It gets trickier when the image is more powerfully charged. The recent riots and civil unrest in American cities experiencing upheaval around race is an example. Two people can stand side by side, at an image of a police line in full riot gear being confronted with yelling, apparently angry people who are carrying rocks, sticks and who appear to have set things on fire in the immediate vicinity. Change the color of the faces of the people involved? What was once a racially charged confrontation could become a "celebratory riot" by the fans of a professional sports team. Focus on the expressions of the people in the picture, and describe the emotions you are seeing...what does fear look like, as opposed to anger? Joy as opposed to menace? Sometimes, one picture can tell any number of stories, depending upon the viewer's (or in some cases the presenter's) pre-existing bias.

Now, add to that the fact that nowadays, the use of image has become in many ways the primary vehicle of communication on social media. The "Selfie" (an individual taking the posting their own picture) or "Gelfie" (a group shot from the same self-taken source) has become part and parcel of most people's daily lives. Posting pictures lets people know where you are, with whom you are in proximity to, and what you are doing at any given moment. The sad thing is that once that image leaves your hand, you are them subject to what people are going to conclude about it, and you, as it goes out there into a universe where folks you don't even know are now suddenly going to have an opinion about what you just did, where you just ate, who you ate with and who was or was not in the picture with you.

Worse yet, and I have observed it happening....that willingness to share an image can often attract someone who simply enjoys throwing proverbial darts at images....they call it "trolling." Just because you chose to put something out there means it is open to anyone's interpretation. The more outrageous the interpretation, the greater the damage done to the original intent of sharing the image. 

Conversely, great good can come from offering up an image that is able to control a positive, hopeful and healing perspective. I am talking about the image of a young anti-war protester putting a flower in the gun barrel of a soldier sent to disband the protest, or of a young teen carrying bottled water down a police line, or of a soldier in full battle gear playing with children in a village in a war zone, a stolen moment of reconciliation and peace in a broken world.

The challenge for us in an image-driven world is to slow down our consumption of images, and pace our reactions. We should either be willing to take the time to limit our consumption/reaction rates of images "out there" or express discipline in fostering positive experiences around us in our immediate vicinity. 

We are never going to be able to get away from judging by what we see....what we can do is embrace a willingness to go a bit deeper into the images around us for the whole narrative each represents, before we fly too quickly off the handle and assume more than was the intent of the image-maker in the first place.


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