Context and objectivity

This post is inspired by pp24-25 of the course notes (OCA 2017) and a first reading of Richard Salkeld’s ‘Reading Photographs’ (2014, 90-93). Objectivity can be compromised, with the risk of bias being introduced, at several stages in the process of getting a photograph or other information to its viewer, even (it would appear) if the information presented is a discussion on objectivity.

Of course, I have to guard against losing objectivity myself while writing this post, but that way leads to infinite regress so I will have to trust myself and hope that my readers will trust me.

The discussion focuses on the American Farm Security Administration documentary project of the 1930s and 40s and, as with the Time ‘100 Photographs’ book (reviewed here), it uses Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ as an icon. This image is also used by Liz Wells (2000, 35-45) as a case study.

The starting point for an image is the briefing, whether self-directed (such as Lewis Hine’s child labour photographs – also briefly noted) or given by a client or boss. In the case of the FSA images, there are differing accounts of how prescriptive Roy Stryker’s briefings were. According to the Library of Congress website (a US public sector organisation, therefore unlikely to criticise another such) ‘A basic shooting script or outline was often prepared. Photographers were encouraged to record anything that might shed additional light on the topic that they were photographing’  The Wikipedia article on Stryker (which will favour the views of whoever made the last edit) expresses it, ‘The photographers involved attested to the fact that Stryker was expert at getting good work out of them. He made sure that the photographers were well briefed on their assigned areas before being sent out’. The OCA notes quote Lange’s criticism of the detailed briefing, ‘To know ahead of time what you are looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting’.  There is scope for control and loss of objectivity at this stage, but no reason why a photographer might not produce images off-piste as a personal project.

At the point of capturing the image, I believe the camera itself is completely objective; it will record faithfully what it is pointed at. However, the photographer will be be subjective in choosing viewpoint, focal length, focus etc. which will influence the image taken and the likely reading of it. ‘Migrant Mother’ itself is semi-posed and is the tightest-framed of five images that Lange made of the scene (the others are reproduced in Wells (2000, 38)). The Thomas Hoepker image used by Salkeld (2014, 90-93) as a case study was taken for subjective reasons; Hoepker saw the scene as Brooklyn residents apparently unconcerned by events in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, stopped his car, took the photograph and drove away without speaking to any of the subjects.

The next threat to objectivity comes in editing or selecting images for publication, from a contact sheet or memory card. There will be multiple, very similar, images from which one is selected. There will be only a limited number selected from dozens, if not hundreds, captured. The process is seen and well-described in the Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben 2014). The selection may simply be based on the art director’s view of what will look good on the page, or it may reflect editorial policy. The story of the FSA images necessarily includes Stryker’s heavy-handed policy of editing by ‘killing’ negatives with a hole-punch. Ironically, these ‘black sun’ images have subsequently been the subject of exhibitions and web pages; examples here and here.

See also my EYV blog posting ‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Finally, the context in which an image is seen can influence the viewer’s reading of it. A 5’x3′ print, framed on a gallery wall will be viewed more reverently and taken more seriously than the same image as a 5″x3″ enprint in a Boots envelope. In printed media, an image in a ‘serious’ newspaper will be read differently from the same image in a coffee-table art book and, of course, the surrounding text will have profound impact – especially if it is a headline or a caption. ‘Migrant Mother’ has made the jump from a documentary image to an art icon, partly assisted (in my opinion) by the change of title from the factual ‘Destitute pea pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936’ to the snappier modern name, reinforcing the Madonna-and-child associations.

The Hoepker image was originally published five years after 9/11 in a context suggesting that the subjects were relaxed and uncaring or unknowing about the event taking place in the background. The view was forcefully challenged by one of the group – asserting that he and his girlfriend were discussing the WTC attack with strangers, all of whom were stunned and overwhelmed, something that Hoepker would have known had he spoken to them. This is a fitting close to this post, with an example of a situation where subjectivity gets us closer to the truth than detached objectivity.

References

Library of Congress (s.d) Farm security administration/office of war information black-and-white negatives – background and scope – prints & photographs online catalog. [online at:] http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/background.html (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

OCA (2017) Photography 1: Context and Narrative (updated 2017, document control number PH4CAN240117) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2000) Photography: A critical introduction. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Wikipedia (2017) Roy Stryker. [online at:] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Stryker (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

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Exercise • Citizen Journalism

A Google-trawl, search term ‘citizen journalism’ brings up multiple examples and multiple definitions of the phenomenon. I would broadly classify them under two headings – ‘citizen news-gathering’ and ‘citizen news-broadcasting’. There is a also a pedantic quibble about whether a stateless person could properly be described as a citizen-anything.

Citizen news-gathering is the concept illustrated by the CNN billboard above. People caught up in a news story, and equipped with a camera, mobile telephone or smartphone, can contact the ‘established media’ and report breaking news before the network media have time to mobilise. The early example quoted in several sources is Abraham Zapruder, whose 26.5 seconds of 8mm cine film of President Kennedy’s assassination have been the source of news stories, books, films and conspiracy theories since November 1963. Slightly later, we have John Filo’s images of the Kent State shooting (although, as Filo is described as a student and part-time news photographer, this might not strictly be citizen journalism) and coming right up to date, every terrorist attack sees our newspapers full of smartphone images by victims and passers-by.

Citizen news-broadcasting seeks to break away from the ‘established media’. Jay Rosen (2008) described it thus:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

News, gathered by ‘citizens’ or established media sources is distributed by an anarchic network of websites, blogs and social media. Images and film, such as the death of an innocent bystander shot during an anti-government protest in Iran, can ‘go viral’ and be around the world in hours. More relevant to the question asked in the course notes is Tami Silicio’s image of flag-draped coffins being returned from Iraq, in defiance of a  a government ban on such images which some considered to be part of a policy of sanitising the conflict.

A UK example is the death in April 2009 of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught in a police riot-control ‘kettle’ in London, who died after being attacked by a balaclava-wearing policemen with his badge number covered to avoid identification. (Lewis 2009). Video shot by an American hedge-fund manager also caught in the ‘kettle’ gave the lie to the police account of the incident, resulted in the identification and prosecution of the policeman and led to changes in the policing of protests.

We are asked to comment on the objectivity of our examples.

In my opinion, the Zapruder film and the Tomlinson video were objective at the point of capture; in both cases, an unexpected event occurred in front of an unprepared observer who happened to have a camera running. The relevant question is one of  objectivity in distribution. Zapruder gave copies of his film to the Secret Service for investigation/evidence purposes and sold the rights to Life for $150,000 (1963 currency) (Wikipedia, 2017). The Tomlinson film was provided (price, if any, unknown) to the Guardian publishers, rather than to the investigating authorities, five days after the event because the photographer had read of a conflict between the police story and that of protestors and others caught in the ‘kettle’. Would the film have come forward if the controversy were not already being reported?

The Iranian bystander and the Kent State images arose because each photographer had seen an event, then filmed the aftermath. I suspect an element of subjectivity in each case; would a government supporter in either case have filmed and distributed their images? We must consider that the photographers were shooting images that supported their own world-views and, again, there is the question of objectivity in the method of distribution. Filo sold images to an already-sympathetic press. The Iranian photographer used social media (YouTube) because the local media could not be relied upon.

The Silicio image of the coffins is objective – the scene existed in front of the camera – but shot for subjective reasons. ‘Tami Silicio was moved by the increasingly human freight she was loading and felt compelled to share what she was seeing’ (Dyer, 2015)

Objectivity in news images is uncertain. If an event is unfolding in front of the photographer’s eyes, he has no opportunity to ‘pose’ the subjects, but he may be able to influence the look and apparent context of the images by a choice of lens, technique or viewpoint. If shooting aftermath images, then there is more opportunity for posing or ‘gardening’ (Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima or Fenton’s cannonballs, for instance).

In post-production, at editing and selection stages, there is a risk to objectivity by selecting one image over another from the contact sheet or memory card. The selection of an image might simply be a function of page design but it may represent the editors world-view.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME.

Lewis, P. (2009) Citizen journalism counters police propaganda. [online at] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/04/ian-tomlinson-death-g20 (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

Rosen, J. (2008) PressThink: A most useful definition of citizen journalism. [online at] http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html (Accessed: 16 February 2017).

Wikipedia (2017)  Abraham Zapruder. [online at] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Zapruder (Accessed: 16 February 2017)