With the availability of photographs showing practically everything we could wish to see (or not see) it is easy to feel that everything is visible to us, that in Paul Virillio’s words, ‘there are no blind spots left’. But even if we wanted to see everything we are not physically capable of it and this wealth of visual material demands we be selective about what we give our time to, what we consider in depth, and what we offer give our approval to, for example by sharing, retweeting, etc. From this need to select I notice the trend emerging of people often using photographs on the one hand to confirm and reinforce their preconceptions, and on the other hand ignoring photographs which are contradictory or inconvenient to these beliefs.
Recently a photograph was published showing a video screen in central Beijing with a sunset on it, the caption underneath explained that the authorities were ‘televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog’. After being widely shared (including I must sheepishly admit by me) a writer debunked the story, revealing that it was a very short clip from a longer video advertising internal tourism, not a continuous video of the sun. The article revealing the deception was aptly titled ‘Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hell scape they’ll share anything that confirms it’.
For another example shortly after the change in the law around emigration to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria, an image was doing the rounds on Twitter of UK newspaper front covers with anti-immigration headlines which were implied to have been published over the two weeks since the law had changed. A quick search of some of the headlines revealed many were a year or more old. Whether it represents a wider truth (that right wing papers like the Daily Mail are rabidly anti-immigration) is another issue, what the photograph purported to show was a fiction. An odd irony is that the Daily Mail was the original source of the made up China sun video story.
Things have come to a head this week with the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics. So much is riding on Sochi, for the Russian government the games are an enormous prestige project, while for critics they are an opportunity to highlight corruption, mismanagement and human rights abuses. Twitter has been in a state of frenzy as journalists and others post and retweet photographs and reports of #sochiproblems, which consist of everything from non-existent hotel rooms to seemingly bizarre lavatory arrangements. The real problem is that more than a few of them are turning out to be completely untrue, as this website reveals. One journalist who took a photograph of a broken pavement in Vienna and passed it off as a scene in Sochi as a joke found it retweeted hundreds of time in earnest.
Even for people for whom the political importance of Sochi is marginal, part of the reason these these photographs strike a chord is that they reinforce the ingrained image of Russia as a profoundly backward place, a preconception which goes back at least as far as the start of the twentieth century, and probably much further. Look at the representation of Russia by the western media in the Soviet era and compare it against contemporary representations and the trend is pretty evident. We love consuming these images of serf like Russian peasants and soot blackened proletariat contrasted against corrupt fur clad members of the Nomenklatura in their Zil limos. Perhaps now the latter have evolved into oligarchs in BMW’s, but the tendency to relapse into the same modes of representation remains.
Again, the things that these photographs purportedly represent (that Sochi is an expensive, mismanaged Potemkin village, that the Daily Mail is a rabble rousing racist rag of a newspaper) might all be true, but you can’t evidence this with photographs that show nothing of the sort. You might argue that using a misleading photograph to highlight a truth is an acceptable means to an end. However it’s also a slippery slope, as this appalling case of a group of young Dutch men misattributed as asylum seekers reveals. There might well be people in Holland (Geert Wilders perhaps) who would argue that the implication of that photo in its misused contexts still represents a truth about immigrants, but the photograph doesn’t substantiate those implications, far from it, and he (or for that matter we) can’t claim otherwise just because it’s briefly convenient.
Switching to my other concern, while it amazes me that on the one hand we can grasp hold of a photograph which really tell us very little as ‘evidence’ of something which we believe to be true, it seems in many ways more remarkable that we can also do the exact opposite. A particularly alarming example of this came in the recent release of a report which seemed to confirm the veracity of a huge tranche of 55,000 photographs showing the corpses of alleged victims of the Syrian detention system. These grueling photographs smuggled out of Syria by a military police photographer were taken as a bureaucratic precaution to confirm the deaths of people interned by the security forces, and show evidence of systematic torture, starvation and execution.
What’s incredible to me is how briefly these photographs registered, garnering just a couple of days of news coverage. Think back by contrast to the still and moving images that emerged last year in the wake of the regime’s chemical weapons attack, how long those images took to subside, and how they almost provoked world leaders to military intervention. These new photographs are no less horrific, they depict many more deaths (a current estimate is around 11,000) and must certainly be equal to the chemical weapons attacks in terms of the human suffering they bear witness to. But for some reason people don’t want to see them. Those people I’ve talked to about these photographs often confess to finding the thought of these images too grueling, and the implications too depressing to engage with.
Perhaps it reflects the timing as much as anything, as Fred Ritchin noted in his recent piece on photography and atrocity. The release of these photographs just days before the Geneva II peace conference was probably significant, as this proximity made it possible for people to simply ‘relegate the imagery to no more than another volley in the attempt to claim the higher ground’. Or perhaps considering the huge toll the Syrian conflict has taken maybe there was an unwillingness even by opponents of the regime to make more of a discovery which might have put already tenuous peace talks in further jeopardy. They are apparently truthful photographs, but they might also be troublesome in more senses than the most obvious ones.
I feel like I’m driving at the same things that I always rather tediously go on about in these posts. Firstly the hope that people will spend more time over apparently important photographs, and subject them to more careful scrutiny. Even something as simple as a reverse Google image search can reveal so much about a photograph, not only in terms of confirming what it appears to shows and where it was originally used, but also by revealing the many ways it might have been reused (or misused) since. Secondly that we learn to more readily engage with, share and discuss photographs which don’t give us pleasure, which don’t represent things we want to see or think about, but rather show things which are important. Overall as viewers I think we need to be smarter and more forensic in our relationship with images, a very tough demand to make at a time when it often feels as if we are utterly inundated with visual information, but a vital one if we want to continue to rely on photographs to do more than just illustrate and titillate.