Writing on photography

Unseeing Visual Culture: Social Media, Beheadings, Journalism and Flakes of Snow

Last week Facebook inadvertently made headlines by reversing a policy on the posting of violent videos, arguing it’s users should be allowed to depict the ‘world in which we live’. The company suggested the site had a role to play in allowing people to highlight human rights abuses, and that users should be able to post such videos for the purpose of condemning them, while action would be taken against anyone who intended to promote or glorify violence. Much of this debate centred around the graphic videos of beheadings that are depressingly common on the internet, in many cases part of the propagandistic fallout from the War on Terror.

Facebook’s policy change  was met with a predictable spasm of public outrage in the UK, spearheaded by right wing papers like the Daily Mail and running right up to the prime minister’s office who called the move ‘irresponsible’. The old same arguments were trotted out, concerns about the effect on impressionable viewers (particularly young people). The same unsubstantiated notion which I’ve discussed before here, that certain images are capable of influencing, shaping, even polluting the minds of those who see them. Perhaps more surprising than the reaction was that it was followed by something of a reversal by Facebook.

This incident is interesting because it shows quite how contested social media still is, and how much uncertainty there still is over what is acceptable on it, and who is responsible for deciding those limits and regulating them. Aside from their stated objectives (Facebook’s standpoint one of a very narrow form of information democracy, the opposing viewpoint one of moral concern). Both sides have other obvious agendas behind their stated positions which make them unsuitable arbiters of what should be seen and what should not be.

For Facebook controversial content has the potential to generate views, clicks, and advertising revenue. Even if most advertisers rightly have misgivings about having their products displayed alongside such graphic videos, others won’t. Videos of extreme violence have a marketable audience, just like any other content. The government similarly might have other reasons for outrage besides simple moral paternalism. On another level, the beheading videos that formed the case study in this debate are often the by-product of foreign policy decisions linked to the War on Terror which the current government has for the most part tacitly supported. There are other reasons for keeping these things as invisible as possible.

With these motives in mind it is difficult to trust either side, and we have to make our own minds up about the limits of what we wish to see. This is particularly important because what has been seen can obviously not be unseen. Part of the reason visual media like photographs and video can be so devastating (in every sense of the word) is that in contrast to a form like text, images impart their information almost instantly. This is particularly true of a photograph, but even with a video by the time one realises that one is watching something one does not wish to see it is often too late to stop. In this sense it seems worthwhile to err on the side of caution, since mistakes cannot be undone. I’ve never seen a beheading video, but I have seen a number of grotesque photographs that I will never be able to forget.

As I noted, I have previously discussed (and I hope somewhat challenged) the idea that seeing certain images can almost pollute the mind of the viewer, and can shape their subsequent outlooks and actions. Here there seems to be a similarly problematic assumption at work, and one which runs to the very core of visual journalism. That seeing something somehow equates to understanding or knowing it. That watching a video of a beheading imparts some useful information that a mere description of the process (horrendous enough) does not. This is also connected to the notion that visual documents like photographs and video still have some evidential value over spoken testimony or written accounts, a claim which is equally dubious.

Again it is something I have dwelt on before and I regret that the concerns I give voice to here are so repetitive, but there is a common and for the most part unquestioned attitude in visual journalism that all must be seen, revealed, shown. That the role of a photographer is less often to provide insight into the familiar, but simply reveal the exotic, a practice which I have suggested often turns photojournalism into a fetishistic pursuit and depiction of obscure subject matter at the cost of what I consider it’s really important functions; the questioning of norms and revelation of meaning in things that most people just take to be self evident and below examining.

I’m not sure whether to take comfort in the fact that this model of visual journalism as constantly revealing new things is perhaps unsustainable, and that sooner or later we will run out of new things to see. In an interview in 1994, the technology theorist Paul Virillio noted a science fiction novel he had read in which cameras had even been inserted into tiny flakes of snow. He was asked by the interviewer what we will dream of when, as in this novel, technologies like photography have made everything imaginable visible to us. His answer was that we will dream of being blind.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography