20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
5
2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
6
2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

The expanded ambiguity of the news photograph

“This is not to say that news images have no obligation to tell the truth, or no informational value — only that their truthfulness and informational value are necessarily situated and contingent rather than absolute.”

I predict that, in 2020 and beyond, audiences looking at news photographs will be increasingly inclined to make symbolic readings rather than interpreting them literally and denotatively. But that shift will only come about as a result of continued controversies over the veracity of news images.

Some of the most impactful news photographs to circulate in recent years have been those that presented digestible, legible encapsulations of political crises far too expansive to depict within the space of a single frame. The winner of 2019’s World Press Photo of the Year Award is a case in point. It captures two-year-old Yanela Sanchez, who has just arrived at the United States-Mexico border with her mother, in the middle of an anguished wail. Bordered by a law enforcement vehicle on one side and the legs of her mother, who is being patted down by border patrol, on the other, Sanchez is the only figure depicted in full.

Presenting this moment from something like the child’s perspective — with the camera at her eye level, the adults are impossibly large and emotionally inaccessible — the photograph frames its central subject as isolated from the adults who surround her, and terrorized by this isolation.

The circulation of this image, taken by John Moore of Getty Images, was rapid and extensive, and it soon came to function as visual shorthand for a much broader crisis. As it ran on front pages and appeared in innumerable social media feeds, it was often characterized as a representation of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Time’s use of this image in a photo illustration on its cover — which quite literally detached Sanchez from her mother, in order to present her against a photograph of a towering Trump — contributed this interpretation, cementing the photograph’s status as an iconic depiction of the crisis of family separation, though Time did not explicitly claim this particular family had been separated.

When reports emerged that Sanchez had not, in fact, been separated from her mother by border patrol, the backlash was swift. Centrist news sources hurriedly issued corrections, characterizing the image as misleading and Time’s use of it a “major mistake,” while a number of right-wing outlets cast the image’s spread as intentionally deceptive, further evidence of an anti-Trump media conspiracy. The correction, and the purported “debunking” of the image, quickly became the story.

But to view this image and its spread as merely erroneous is to miss a larger point about the ways readers experience and value news photographs now — and the ways they will continue to do so in the 2020s. Although readers rely heavily on photographs as sources of information about the world — and view their absence as suspect, in a cultural context characterized by the ubiquity of cameras and the prevalence of “pics or it didn’t happen” mentalities — many of the world’s most pressing problems fail to lend themselves compellingly to visual depiction.

Drawing on the terminology of the political theorist Ariella Azoulay, the photojournalism scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have described the representational problems attending the “regime-made disaster.” A mode of violence that is widespread in the 21st century, the regime-made disaster entails the ongoing suppression of a population in a manner that “usually operates below the threshold of demonstrable violence,” Hariman and Lucaites write, resulting in “a comprehensive assault on civil society, but in a manner that is visually banal.”

The crisis at the border is not unrepresentable, but much of the misery it has entailed has been spatially contained and protracted rather than explosive and visually dramatic. For this kind of suffering to become visible, affecting, and “real” to those whose privilege or geographical distance shields them from direct acquaintance with it, photographs that strikingly articulate the stakes of the problem can be highly impactful. Moore’s photograph of Sanchez was an image of this sort. As they circulate, images like these become iconic in a double sense: They both visually represent the event in the minds of spectators, and they come to analogize it, standing in for the broader crisis.

In response to the controversy surrounding this image, Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement calling Moore’s photograph “the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate” and asserting that the cover “capture[s] the stakes of this moment.” While his words might strike some as airy or evasive, they point the discussion about news photographs’ functions in a productive, if contentious, direction.

First, they identify a role for the news photograph that is less rigid and more expansive than the proffering of visual facts. This is a necessary adjustment in the 2020s, amid inexhaustible opportunities for the manipulation of still and moving images. This manipulability — which is not new, of course, but is irreversible and expanding — along with reports concerning the prevalence of staging among photojournalists, suggests that predicating news photographs’ value on their denotative qualities is a tendency whose moment has passed.

Second, and relatedly, Felsenthal’s words prescribe a symbolic function for news photographs, suggesting that they can be tasked with encapsulating and visually performing the broad stakes of issues at hand. This reading of news photographs may seem disconcertingly subjective, given that not everyone will be in agreement about what the broad stakes of a given issue are. However, I’d argue that this statement is a good descriptor of how news photographs actually do operate in practice today — they just don’t tend to be described in terms that acknowledge this degree of ambiguity. This is not to say that news images have no obligation to tell the truth, or no informational value — only that their truthfulness and informational value are necessarily situated and contingent rather than absolute.

Debates surrounding the credibility of news images are highly generative, in that they allow a range of perspectives to be aired and make clear to spectators that there’s more than one way to look at a news photograph. I think that as controversies like the one I have been describing continue to emerge, viewing publics will grow more comfortable with an idea that is both unsettling and necessary: that news photographs can be suggestive and also informative, symbolic as well as truthful.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Communication, Media and Film.

I predict that, in 2020 and beyond, audiences looking at news photographs will be increasingly inclined to make symbolic readings rather than interpreting them literally and denotatively. But that shift will only come about as a result of continued controversies over the veracity of news images.

Some of the most impactful news photographs to circulate in recent years have been those that presented digestible, legible encapsulations of political crises far too expansive to depict within the space of a single frame. The winner of 2019’s World Press Photo of the Year Award is a case in point. It captures two-year-old Yanela Sanchez, who has just arrived at the United States-Mexico border with her mother, in the middle of an anguished wail. Bordered by a law enforcement vehicle on one side and the legs of her mother, who is being patted down by border patrol, on the other, Sanchez is the only figure depicted in full.

Presenting this moment from something like the child’s perspective — with the camera at her eye level, the adults are impossibly large and emotionally inaccessible — the photograph frames its central subject as isolated from the adults who surround her, and terrorized by this isolation.

The circulation of this image, taken by John Moore of Getty Images, was rapid and extensive, and it soon came to function as visual shorthand for a much broader crisis. As it ran on front pages and appeared in innumerable social media feeds, it was often characterized as a representation of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Time’s use of this image in a photo illustration on its cover — which quite literally detached Sanchez from her mother, in order to present her against a photograph of a towering Trump — contributed this interpretation, cementing the photograph’s status as an iconic depiction of the crisis of family separation, though Time did not explicitly claim this particular family had been separated.

When reports emerged that Sanchez had not, in fact, been separated from her mother by border patrol, the backlash was swift. Centrist news sources hurriedly issued corrections, characterizing the image as misleading and Time’s use of it a “major mistake,” while a number of right-wing outlets cast the image’s spread as intentionally deceptive, further evidence of an anti-Trump media conspiracy. The correction, and the purported “debunking” of the image, quickly became the story.

But to view this image and its spread as merely erroneous is to miss a larger point about the ways readers experience and value news photographs now — and the ways they will continue to do so in the 2020s. Although readers rely heavily on photographs as sources of information about the world — and view their absence as suspect, in a cultural context characterized by the ubiquity of cameras and the prevalence of “pics or it didn’t happen” mentalities — many of the world’s most pressing problems fail to lend themselves compellingly to visual depiction.

Drawing on the terminology of the political theorist Ariella Azoulay, the photojournalism scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have described the representational problems attending the “regime-made disaster.” A mode of violence that is widespread in the 21st century, the regime-made disaster entails the ongoing suppression of a population in a manner that “usually operates below the threshold of demonstrable violence,” Hariman and Lucaites write, resulting in “a comprehensive assault on civil society, but in a manner that is visually banal.”

The crisis at the border is not unrepresentable, but much of the misery it has entailed has been spatially contained and protracted rather than explosive and visually dramatic. For this kind of suffering to become visible, affecting, and “real” to those whose privilege or geographical distance shields them from direct acquaintance with it, photographs that strikingly articulate the stakes of the problem can be highly impactful. Moore’s photograph of Sanchez was an image of this sort. As they circulate, images like these become iconic in a double sense: They both visually represent the event in the minds of spectators, and they come to analogize it, standing in for the broader crisis.

In response to the controversy surrounding this image, Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement calling Moore’s photograph “the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate” and asserting that the cover “capture[s] the stakes of this moment.” While his words might strike some as airy or evasive, they point the discussion about news photographs’ functions in a productive, if contentious, direction.

First, they identify a role for the news photograph that is less rigid and more expansive than the proffering of visual facts. This is a necessary adjustment in the 2020s, amid inexhaustible opportunities for the manipulation of still and moving images. This manipulability — which is not new, of course, but is irreversible and expanding — along with reports concerning the prevalence of staging among photojournalists, suggests that predicating news photographs’ value on their denotative qualities is a tendency whose moment has passed.

Second, and relatedly, Felsenthal’s words prescribe a symbolic function for news photographs, suggesting that they can be tasked with encapsulating and visually performing the broad stakes of issues at hand. This reading of news photographs may seem disconcertingly subjective, given that not everyone will be in agreement about what the broad stakes of a given issue are. However, I’d argue that this statement is a good descriptor of how news photographs actually do operate in practice today — they just don’t tend to be described in terms that acknowledge this degree of ambiguity. This is not to say that news images have no obligation to tell the truth, or no informational value — only that their truthfulness and informational value are necessarily situated and contingent rather than absolute.

Debates surrounding the credibility of news images are highly generative, in that they allow a range of perspectives to be aired and make clear to spectators that there’s more than one way to look at a news photograph. I think that as controversies like the one I have been describing continue to emerge, viewing publics will grow more comfortable with an idea that is both unsettling and necessary: that news photographs can be suggestive and also informative, symbolic as well as truthful.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Communication, Media and Film.

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