A Q&A with Barbie Zelizer, author of About To Die: How News Images Move the Public.
Third, nonprofessional photographers have made it harder to agree about what kinds of images of death and dying should be shown and seen. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006, two video executions surfaced—one, captured by official photographers, suggested the event was a sedate and respectful affair; the other, taken by guards using cell-phones, portrayed the execution as a charged and angry event. Such lack of agreement also existed long before the active presence of amateur online images: During the 1990s, images of bloodletting in Liberia documented rival militias engaging in gun battles through the streets of Monrovia, but the horrific scenes they depicted were generally rebuffed by the U.S. news media while garnering widespread awards. Still, the ascent of nonprofessional photographers online has intensified an already existent inability to agree.
And finally, the ascent of nonprofessional photographers, coupled with the easy access to the Internet, has made it easier for many kinds of nonjournalists—politicians, human rights officials, aid workers, bereaved parents, bystanders, members of militias—to make the call about which images of death and dying should be shown. When pictures of captured Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl surfaced in Pakistan in 2002, few in the mainstream news media hesitated about displaying the pictures taken before he was beheaded. The fact that those images were taken by the individuals responsible for his death raised the question of who gets to decide which images of death and dying deserve attention. Here, too, the tension is older than new media: Recall the debate over the Zapruder film, where a Dallas dressmaker captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on film and was then denied its public display for years. But the qualities that make the internet so immediate and ever-present exacerbate too the capacity of a wide range of people to push an image's display.
The impact of all this on the mainstream news media should be obvious. Not only do photographers for the mainstream media need to compete with images that are pushed by nonjournalists, lack context, may not generate agreement, and are often instantaneous to the detriment of clarity, but they need to do so in an environment where newsmaking itself has become fundamentally riddled with political, economic, and technological challenges. In a sense, then, the ascent of nonjournalistic photographers has only magnified tensions that were already forming within so-called photojournalism itself.
We've talked a lot here about images of death, but very little of about-to-die images. My last questions—prompted by you—is this: Why have the two classes of images converged in the public consciousness. Why do they carry such emotive power--often more power than pictures of the dead? Would we benefit by separating them in our minds? Assuming so, what can professional journalists do to put distance between them?
The two classes of images have converged because images of impending death work in many cases more effectively as news pictures than as images of the already dead. Pictures of people facing death—what I call the "about to die" image—provide a kind of escape hatch for everyone involved. They allow the news media, where images have never been the primary focus, to provide pictures that are not overly graphic, and they allow the public to attend to difficult events without having to see gruesome pictures. Consequently, because they help the media provide their necessary news coverage while giving the public a sense that it is receiving a close record of what happened, images of impending death are often lumped together with images of death itself. It's as if the manual labor of depiction is getting done without getting one's hands dirty.
And yet, though the two classes of pictures both address death, they work in different ways. Pictures of people about to die, less final than images of death, capture a particularly powerful moment in the middle of a sequence of action—a child about to keel over from starvation, a woman about to be engulfed by a mudslide, a dirigible about to explode—and freeze it for repeated display and engagement. Focusing on the human anguish of people facing death, they replay this moment in news and beyond without necessarily showing visual evidence that the people in fact died. Viewers thus can and do go in many directions with an image's interpretation—refuting death, debating its particulars, providing multiple and often erroneous contexts for its understanding.
Pictures of people about to die, less graphic than pictures of corpses and body parts, also play on different parts of a viewer's psyche. Where images of dead bodies often push viewers away, creating a sense of distance and objectification, images of impending death do the opposite: They often draw viewers in, fostering engagement, creating empathy and subjective involvement, inviting debate.
These differences are critical, and they challenge both what we think we know about news images and how we think the public responds to them. About-to-die images tweak the landscape on which images and public response work, suggesting that certain news pictures do not surface by playing to the much-touted rational and reasoned understanding that journalism is supposed to provide. Instead, images of impending death play to the emotions, the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of what they depict. Do we know for certain that the little boy being herded by Nazi soldiers out of the Warsaw Ghetto really died or that the people shown being swallowed by giant waves in the 2004 tsunami did not survive? We do not and often cannot know what happens beyond the camera's frame, but viewers eagerly complete the sequence of action that is not shown in ways that reflect their expectations and desires of what they do see. The image—with its often repeated, patterned, and prominent discussion, display and recycling across the news media and the online environment—thus helps us engage with the events it depicts regardless of how complete, accurate or truthful is the information it provides.
About-to-die images suggest a broader set of impulses in the news than we have assumed. Focusing on the "as if" of news relay, these images play to what could be rather than what is. Instead of supporting pictures as a documentation of reality, images of impending death push the "as if" of what they depict as much as what transpires on the ground. Their play to the conditional, imagined, emotional, playful, hypothetical, possible, and uncertain sides of the news suggests that images are more than just carriers of reason. They transport reason and emotions, evidence and suggestion, certainty and contingency, truth-value and imagination, rational understanding and extra-rational meaning, and they call on us to better understand how all these impulses actively shape public response to the news. Clarification, Jan. 6, 2011: The original version of this interview included a photo purported to be of the 2004 tsunami. Because we cannot verify where or when the photo was taken, we've deleted it.
Clarification, Jan. 6, 2011: The original version of this interview included a photo purported to be of the 2004 tsunami. Because we cannot verify where or when the photo was taken, we've deleted it.
Photographs of: Barbie Zelizer by Kyle Cassidy; Genesee hotel suicide by courtesy the Buffalo Sate College Archives and the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society; World Trade Center towers by Flickr user TheMachineStops via Wikipedia; World Trade Center jumper by Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images/; Neda Agha-Soltan from YouTube; Columbia disintegration by NASA; Daniel Peral courtesy Canadian Press; Jack Ruby from the Warren Commission/AFP/Getty Images; tsunami by David Rydevik via Wikipedia.