Photojournalism: Truth and Titillation

9 05 2010

Photography of the effects and carnage of war, natural disaster and criminal behavior began with the invention of photography itself. Then as now the commonly given explanation for photographing the hideous, heinous and horrible was that, “showing the public such things may prevent them from happening again.”

After more than 150 years of photography—of millions of photographs showing humans shredded, burned, drilled by bullets, eviscerated, or hacked to pieces, we must now acknowledge that murder, genocide, slaughter and natural disaster continue undeterred by the witness of photographers and photojournalists.

Words may reveal the mind of the victim or the perpetrator and thereby teach us something, but never the photograph. It can only re-present that which was visible. You will not get blood on your fingers by dragging them across the photograph of a dead soldier or accident victim. You will not hear the victim’s dying screams or last words. You will not smell the stench of the body’s decay. Still photographs remain still—odorless artifacts.

Most of the photographs of war and suffering are made to sell—not just to teach, witness, document or chastise. The photojournalists who make these pictures expect to be paid for taking the risk. And the news agencies expect to be paid for the use of the images.

Such photography panders to the viewer/reader’s anxiety and need to feel safe. It is expected they will find comfort in knowing they have been spared the horror shown in the photograph. But is this real journalism? Does it truly educate and serve any noble or practical purpose? Or does it principally titillate, stir fear and fan prejudice?

Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. This picture helped turn American sentiment against the Vietnam War and hasten its end. However, it has done little to prevent America’s involvement in subsequent wars. Likewise, the highly publicized photographs of the My Lai massacre, of more than 347 unarmed men, women and children, by U.S. troops, on 16 March 1968, has done little to prevent subsequent mass murders and genocides from happening around the world.

Photojournalism’s demonstrated failure to prevent or end wars, genocides and disaster makes it cynical if not immoral for photojournalists, news agencies and publishers to continue profiting from the photography of people’s suffering, pain and tragedy—photographs that are sold and peddled as a commodity to be consumed like coffee at breakfast. Is this what it means to be civilized? Is this being informed or simply inflamed? Who really benefits?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

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