M. Scott Brauer posted an interesting story about the dissemination of photography, using Russell Watkins‘ photos of spiderweb-covered trees in the aftermath of flooding in Pakistan as an example. Apparently, those photos have been very widely featured, unlike, it seems, the underlying – actual – story. Watkins writes in a blog post “But how many of the people that have seen these images are being pulled in by them enough to stop and think about the far bigger problem that the images are just a symbol of? Of course its hard to say. […] I wrote in my previous post about how photography can be said to explain everything and yet reveal nothing. And now I find myself realising that I may have taken some photographs that illustrate precisely that characteristic.” (more)
It seems to me that the main reason why these photographs got so widely seen is because all those newspapers and websites that distributed them turned the trees into the story. So I’m tempted to think that it’s one of those photography problems that cannot really be solved by photographers. Instead, it needs to be addressed in the wider context of how images are used and distributed by newspapers and websites. Sadly, while there are many debates about the work of photographers, there aren’t nearly enough about the lives of photographs once they’re out of the hands of photographers.
Make no mistake, it’s not even a new topic. But we better start talking about it, because we might not realize this, but it’s often not the photographers who decide which photographs we get to see. It’s the photography departments of newspapers, magazines, and websites.
We all have a very vital interest in discussing this topic, since the images we get to see to a pretty large extent determine what we learn about the state of this world and what conclusions we draw from this. Sounds too lofty? Well, think about it this way: It’s mostly photographs that have come to form the public’s opinion about NATO’s actions in Libya. Our tax dollars pay for the bombs our jets are dropping there. Is that a good thing or not? To be able to decide about that, we need to be informed about things, and to a fairly large extent our information comes in the form of the images newspapers (or websites) run as part of their stories.
In the spiderweb-tree case, the connection is slightly more indirect, which makes things even more poignant: We could decide to get involved there, by donating money to charities who will help the survivors of the floods in Pakistan. But if the main story we see focuses on spiderweb trees (which, it is believed, help reduce malaria) are we more or less likely to maybe donate a little money?
Instead of asking “What pictures do the public want to see?” I think the real questions are “What pictures do the public get to see?”, “How are the picture presented?”, and “Do those pictures and the presentation help the public form educated opinions about topics that matter?”
In fact, the problem is becoming ever more pressing, now that so much reporting takes place in the form of sites like The Big Picture, where lots of large photos, with very short captions, are used to provide the big picture. It should be pretty obvious that seeing forty photographs of some topic will not even come close to giving you the big picture. But it’s much easier to look at forty photographs and to then think one has an idea of what’s going on than to read a long article.
The reason why I am stressing this so much is because I think photographers (especially photojournalists) have got a pretty bad rap, especially recently. A lot of the image-related problems we have seen recently are not really caused by the photographers (photojournalists) themselves, they are caused by how their photographs are being used.