Challenges with graphic photojournalism

Without a doubt, pictures are worth 1,000 words, playing a vital part in communicating messages and changing history. But with influences from new media and backlash from consumers on publishing graphic content, present-day photojournalism is beginning to face increasingly more challenges than ever before. David Rohde’s ‘Pictures That Change History: Why the World Needs Photojournalists’, Shanifa Nasser’s ‘Puppies, selfies, corpses: How graphic images on social media can change your brain’, Julia Angwin and Matthew Rose’s ‘When News Is Gruesome, What’s Too Graphic’ and Fred Ritchin’s ‘Why Violent News Images Matter’ are a few views journalism or opinion articles with different perspectives on the positive or negative impacts photojournalism has on society. Together, they constitute a shared understanding of photojournalism in the 21st century, particularly in relation to graphic images portrayed in the media.

Historically, the art of photography has served as a crucial means of capturing places and events for future generations (Duncan 2015) and documenting what is presented in the facts. Yet, there continues to be a debate surrounding the exposure of such graphic images. The National Press Photographers Association’s (NPPA) Code of Ethics lays out in crystalised detail about the acceptable terms of professional photojournalism. It reads, in part:

“Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.”

The big question is the extent to which media outlets should go or restrain from showing human tragedy. Nasser, a news reporter for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News, claims that exposure to uncensored graphic images can change the brain, as explicitly stated in the title “Puppies, selfies, corpses: How graphic images on social media can change your brain”. With hundreds of thousands of atrocities taking place and photographs of them circulating on traditional and new media, constant flow and explicit exposure to these atrocities builds up unnecessary insecurity, tension and trauma. Nasser justifies this causal argument with an appeal to authority, quoting a Toronto psychologist, Dr. Oren Amitay, who calls it second hand trauma:

“‘With enough viewing, we are now coming to understand that somebody could be traumatized second-hand… If you’re always seeing it then you have the sense that this is the norm, then you have the sense that the world is far more dangerous than it is.’”

An unwarranted induction or hasty/over-generalisation lies in this justification however. It’s almost as if the justification is suggesting that when you are always seeing these graphic images, you will automatically be traumatized second-hand. With traditional and new mediums circulating violent photographs everyday from the television screen to the home screen on Facebook, the global population would be entirely traumatised based on this suggestion when in fact not every person exposed to these graphic images constantly is mentally affected by it.                     

To further support Nasser’s claim, Ritchin, a professor at New York University and co-director of the Photography & Human Rights program at the Tisch School of the Arts, wrote an opinion piece in 2014 for TIME Magainze taking a different approach to arguing and justifying the claim. The central claim is found in the second to last paragraph of the article:

“… they [graphic photographs] provide reference points for both the present and the longer view of history”

Yet, he spends a large portion of his article presenting counterarguments, offering justifications as to the immorality of violent images.

Ritchin offers four primary evaluative arguments explaining reasons why editors hold back graphic photographs from the audience. First, he argues that publications from mainstream outlets purposely withholds graphic imagery in “fear of offending, or even from a feat that readers will abandon the publication altogether.” He adds two quotes, one from a photographer Christoph Bangert who asks: “How can we refuse to acknowledge a mere representation— a picture— of a horrific event, while other people are forced to live through the horrific event itself?” and another from a photographer of an excruciating photo that went unpublished in American Photo magazine in 1991 who questioned: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.” These two quotes from industry professions aim to argue against the first counterargument in support of Ritchin’s original claim.

The second argument coincides with Nasser’s warning of second-hand trauma. Ritchin believes editors are ethically taking into consideration of the children’s wellbeing before publishing “egregious imagery”. Then, Ritchin takes it further with his third argument by arguing that industry professions are at risk of being affected by constant exposure to these graphic images as well. He uses a study by Anthony Feinstein, MD, of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto as a justification appealing to authority that “‘… frequent, repetitive viewing of violent news-related video and other media raises news professionals’ vulnerability to a range of psychological injuries, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.’” For documentary photographer and member of the VII Photo agency, Ed Kashi, it’s much more than that. In his article ‘The Unspoken Consequences of a Photojournalists Life’ published on his website but later in TIME Magazine, he discusses the aftermath of his 30 years as a photojournalist, spending his lifetime trying to fade into the background to achieve “candid intimacy” is his photographs. He describes:

“Losing myself in other people’s lives, whether in their dramas of joy, pain, or transition, has turned into not being able to find myself in my own life.”

There is an appeal to emotion as Kashi describes one the worst consequences is “… a deep sense of loneliness and abject certainty.” He doesn’t believe the profession is all bad because of the rare privilege to gain expansive knowledge of the world, cultures, the processes of technology and business as well as the small yet magical moments of daily life.” Yet it is very easy to lose yourself if you are fully consumed in your practice.

Finally, the last argument lies on the other side of the spectrum in which Ritchie says:

“… a fear by others that readers are seeing too many such images and, as a result, are losing their ability to empathise and evaluate what is going on in the avalanche of violence and destruction depicted.”

One of the most, if not the most, famous and influential graphic photograph shows 9-year-old girl Kim Phuc running down the road completely stripped of her burning clothes after South Vietnamese forces bombed her village with napalm (Media Watch 2016). Taken in 1972 by photographer Nick Ut for the Associated Press during the Vietnam War, this photograph splashed over front pages of magazine covers despite full front nudity and was the turning point in the War. This historical photograph proves the importance of publishing violent images. Ironically, it also justifies the argument above because without the ability to empathise with victims and evaluate the situation at hand, the US would not have received worldwide pressure and agree on a ceasefire.

For that reason, Ritchin provides a few recommendations when dealing with violent photographs for the media. Using photographs of families crying over graveyards as opposed to faces of fallen civilians covered in blood can address the subject matter without impacting the mentality of audiences (Angwin and Rose 2004). Another alternative is shifting the subject matter focus less on war but more on “…‘photography of peace’ … the beauties of ceasefires, and of healing, and of some of the horrors that were prevented from happening.” More happiness needs to be seen around the world rather than agony.
Despite the arguments in favour of limiting graphic imagery, it’s important to question why photojournalists and mainstream media outlets do publish violent images. To start with, Ritchin argues there is an obligation for photojournalists to be the messengers for the rest of the world, to turn the world’s attention to sights unknown. He says:

“The trauma of witnessing such devastation, and the powerlessness that may accompany it, can be more difficult to resolve if one is prevented from sharing what one has seen with others—the reason the photographer was there in the first place.”

Similar reasons explain why editors do not restrain from releasing violent photographs. Journalism is the fourth estate of society, which makes depictions of accurate truths and honest representations critical in bringing exposure to the intensity of the matter. Former News Corp editor Piers Akerman points out the need to set aside traditional media guidelines at times because there are just some photographs audiences have to witness (Media Watch 2016).

Social media has been changing the rules of acceptable pictures to be exposed online and still continues to till today. With less caution on the Internet, there is a ‘moral vacuum as the feeds go online’ and has ‘diluted somewhat the agenda-setting power o the mainstream media, according to Jonathan Zittrain, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School (Angwin and Rose, 2004). The article by Angwin and Rose, staff reporters of The Wall Street Journal, discusses the conflicting nature between broadcasting gruesome images across different media outlets. While mainstream media is capable of controlling what photographs go in and out of their filters, there is no control over what happens to these images when uploaded on the Internet. Despite this, Angwin and Rose take on a rather positive outlook towards social media’s influence on photojournalism. First, Web sites segregate information more effectively than traditional media such as newspapers or TV channels who see themselves as arbiters of taste. Second, social media’s algorithmic calculations such as hyperlinks allow audiences to see the photograph at their own discretion. On the Yahoo news Web site, photos are placed in a way that users need to actively search for the photographs with the most graphic content and each graphic footage and photos are marked with a warning when distributed. Lastly, social media’s proliferation of information sources attracts executives at traditional media companies to approach the sites. Social media’s immediacy with photos uploaded real-time allows a news story to be visually told without delay in present time.

In an era when anyone with a smartphone can upload a photo, how then is it possible to recognise the images that matter and legitimize what we see when more professional photojournalists are fired from prestigious editorial sources such as U.S. News, Newsweek, and Reuters? Rohde, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, the national-security investigations editor at Reuters and a former reporter for The New York Times, uses factual evidence from a report by Pew Research Centre stating more news photographers, artists and videographers have been laid off than any other type of journalist in 2012, decreasing in numbers by 43 percent. In his opinion, he has a pessimistic view towards the switch from mainstream media to new media. He argues:

“… technological change has irreversibly changed photojournalism. Professional photographers, they insist, will inevitably join the ranks of toll collectors, telephone switchboard operators, and other jobs rendered obsolete.”

This statement is an informal fallacy, a slippery slope/domino theory, because his article primarily focuses on the negative consequences, the corrupt nature of social media. Despite his pessimistic outlook of what the future holds for photographers, he remains certain that the work of photojournalists will dominate, for the vast majority of iconic photographs capturing historical moments are taken by professional photographers.

As for the photographs themselves, the plus side when photographs are uploaded online is an increasingly greater appreciation for photography, attracting new audiences over time. While graphic images might be difficult to “appreciate”, social media amplifies reach and recognition of such images to raise awareness to the issue depicted. Having said that, it is still uncertain whether these photographs are able to stand out for two reasons: one is the change in function of the nature of photographs in a general sense, from emphasising more on ourselves than others as the subject of the photograph and two is the torrent of images that makes it difficult for photographs to stick out longer than 24 hours (Rohde 2013).

The common theme found in the articles mentioned above is the inclusion of images that are all strikingly graphic. Surprisingly, even though Angwin and Rose (2004) claim that “technology permits us to say ‘Dear reader, you may not want to looks at this’”, only one of the four articles mentioned “WARNING: This story contains a graphic photograph” and it was the Website for a traditional medium, the CBC. Unlike Rohde, Nasser and Ritchin’s articles, the CBC article kept its images low-key with images not horrifically graphic but representative of horrific events. All of the photographs in the article are not staged, adding an element of candidness that makes viewers feel as if they are witnessing the scene. This happens to be the case for most of the graphic photographs in the other three articles— all candid and representational of the conflicts at the time but with less caution in showing graphic elements such as blood, dead bodies and people being hurt. The reason behind this is that the writers want to prove their point that violent photographs have impact on readers, whether it is in a good way or a bad way is for the reader to decide.

In conclusion, it is evident that photojournalism has a lasting impact in society, yet less and less companies are taking it seriously as more and more amateur photos circulating around the Internet receive more recognition. There continues to be a debate over the degree of violence allowed in photographs in different media outlets but for now, it is fair to say that whether audiences willingly see it or not, these graphic images will play a part in changing society.

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