A couple of events rattled the world of photography recently, with no particular effect. Unaccustomed to be put into question, photographs of news event have continue to pour into our field of vision, with little regards for what just had happened. Here’s the narrative:
A little while ago, a bunch of very aggressive US Navy Seals dropped from the sky into a previously quiet compound and killed most of the people inside, including the number 1 most wanted person in the US, if not the world. No need to elaborate more on the event, besides asking why we are style fighting in Afghanistan, if the target of that mission is now eliminated. No, what happened next is what matters. After weeks of speculations and pointless editorialism, president Obama, acting as the Daddy of us all, decided NOT to release any images of the attack or the dead body of Osama Ben Laden. We are not mature enough, he said, to handle pictures like that. Only he and it is presumed, a few of his staff members could see the images. End of story. Go play somewhere else.
Problem is, people do not beleive anything if they do not see it. Photography has become proof. Even thought we are fully aware that our eyes can be misleading and that photography can lie, we still need to see to beleive. One can tell you the most credible story , you will not beleive it until you see it for yourself. We do not beleive words, we beleive images. Photography has become proof. The interesting part of this, is that proof in of itself is not even truth. It is just the confirmation of a thought. It’s the exclamation point at the end of an argumentation. A proof is nothing more than a rhetorical tool that confirms a point. But a proof can lie, it just needs to confirm. Photography can lie too ( ask Photoshop) but we still rely on it to confirm.
The second story is more recent and involves a very important Frenchman, a hotel room and a cleaning lady. The events are well known so no need to repeat them. However, what is less known, at least on the US side of the Atlantic is the reaction caused by one photograph : That of the person being walked out of a Police station with handcuffs in his back. The French press and the French people went haywire. How can you publish such a photograph ? What about the presumption of innocence, what about the respect of one’s private life, what about….on and on and on. See, in France, you are not allowed to publish such images : by law. Actually, the French law has lots to say about what images can be, or not, published. A little too much, actually. But this is not our point here.
What is however is the photographic proof. In this case, this was also the first image of this man after his arrest. We all had heard or read the stories but hadn’t seen much. Finally, we see the culprit in a photograph and all is confirmed. Ok, yes, he got arrested. But for the French, that is too much proof. We didn’t need to see that, they scream. The Americans couldn’t care less as they see thousand of equivalent images a day. Why is it that this time, the photographic poof was seen as too invasive? As if this was too much proof. Photography , suddenly, went beyond its duty to confirm.
The implication are the same for both images. Actually, in the case of the death image, it has potentially more impact on the world than a man in handcuffs ( that couldn’t be seen, by the way, as they were in his back). Few jurors actually will base their judgment upon seeing this image and if they do, they shouldn’t be jurors. Are some photographs not to be shown, even if they depict reality? Is Obama right ? Are we so immature that, as someone famously said , ” we can handle the truth ” ? Or at least, we can’t handle it if involves someone we know, if it is too close to us.
We see thousands of images a year of people in much more degrading situation as these yet we do not seem upset about it. Actually, we have entire photo festivals made entirely around these images. Indeed, those are in far away countries with people we do not know and couldn’t care about. It’s almost fiction, it is so far away. We seem ok with those proofs.
The good news about these two ‘affairs’ is that apparently photography still carries a very strong emotional impact. Photojournalists, rejoice : your images can still boil up people’s blood. As long as proof is still very much in demand, you will be needed. More than that, your images could stir up more controversy that the event you covered does.