Self-Study Unit 3: Photography & Trauma

When specific photographs become symbolic of a particular event, triggering the public's memory (and related feelings and emotions) about that period in time, we can refer to them as enduring historical icons.

They represent something much larger and more complex than a literal historical snapshot. Rather they touch something deep within a large number of people that may make them sad, angry, happy, confused, afraid or a combination of these feelings. Photos, as anyone who has looked through a family album knows, can bring back memories and feelings from a time long past.

The fact that many people will be able to visualize the scenes below, all of which are descriptions of memorable historical photos, speak to the power and endurance of the photographic icon:

   · The raising of the American flag by U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima. (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)

   · Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby while being transferred to the county jail from the Dallas city jail. (Robert Jackson, 1963)

   · Three-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting as his assassinated father's casket passes in front of him. (Dan Farrell, 1963)

   · The South Vietnamese police chief’s street execution of a Vietcong prisoner, pistol inches away from the prisoner’s head. (Eddie Adams, 1968)

   · The anguished female university student kneeling near a fellow student who was shot by a National Guardsman during a protest at Kent State. (John Paul Filo, 1970)

   · The group of Vietnamese children, including a crying young girl running naked, fleeing in terror after their village was bombed with napalm. (Juyng Cong [“Nick”] Ut, 1972)

   · Prince Charles and his new bride, Diana, riding in their horse-drawn carriage on their wedding day. (Douglas Kirkland, 1981)

   · The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenge, with plumes of white smoke against a clear blue sky. (Michele McDonald, 1986)

   · Elian Gonzales, in the arms of an adult, looking terrified as an armed federal agent confronts him in a Miami bedroom. (Alan Diaz, 2000)

These photographs and many others convey much more than just the picture on the page. Symbolically, some seem to represent the lost innocence of the time. Others suggest the naked brutality of war. Still others represent triumph and relief in a troubled world.

More recently, images of the two commercial jet airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and erupting into fireballs have come to symbolize an unprecedented era of terrorism on U.S. soil. Photos and videos of this horrific event and the swath of destruction it left in its wake will likely be seared on the collective American psyche for generations.

As Americans try to cope with the reality of terrorism within their own borders, they will have this constant reminder flashed at them from their own memories and from the mass media. No doubt years, if not decades, into the future, that image will be shown over and over during anniversaries looking back at the morning of September 11, 2001, or during other times when the topic of terrorism is discussed in the news media.

The impulse to tell stories using pictures goes back thousands of years. Rothstein (1974) writes that “the concept of telling the news pictorially goes back to the wall carvings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia … The great artists Hogarth, Goya, and Daumier were journalists, too. Certainly the concept of picture reporting is as old as man’s drive to tell a story through drawing pictures. The use of the camera merely makes the pictorial presentation of the information more efficient, faster, and available to more people” (p. 16).

The exact beginnings of photojournalism are uncertain. In the introduction to Lacayo and Russell’s book, Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism, Donald Morrison writes: “Though the birth of photography is commonly acknowledged as 1839, when news of the daguerreotype was announced, no one really knows when photojournalism was invented” (1990, p. 7). Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a French stage designer and entrepreneur, and William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman with a wide range of interests, are two early pioneers of photographic technology. The more well-known Daguerre method consisted of using light and chemicals to produce an image on a silver-coated copper plate. His discovery was announced by the French Academy in January 1839. Talbot reported his method to the Royal Society in London at the same time.

In the book, Photojournalism, by the editors of Time-Life Books, the link between news illustration and photojournalism is made. “What is very likely the first specimen of the modern news picture appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1842,” the editors write. “Prophetically,” they continue, “in view of the nature of so many of the news pictures that have followed it, it showed an act of violence — a would-be assassin firing a pistol at Queen Victoria” (1976, pp. 12-13). The illustration was an artist’s rendition, but it was a drawing of fine details and action. It accompanied an article titled, “The Cowardly and Disgraceful Attempt on the Life of Her Majesty.”

The early years of “picture journalism” often involved sketching or even photographing (using daguerreotypes) a news event, and later drawing a rendition suitable for woodcutting. The carved woodblock would be pressed into clay, and then eventually a cast would be made using molten metal that, when hardened, could be used in a newspaper or magazine press. Hence, photojournalism did not perfectly coincide with photography but came decades later. The technology for transferring photos to paper for mass production did not mature until around the turn of the century. Moreover the relatively long exposure time made capturing action difficult to impossible. Until these and other problems could be resolved, artists and engravers continued to provide “picture journalism” for newspapers and magazines long after photography was invented.

Newspapers and magazines that included illustrations helped whet the public’s appetite for graphics with their written news. The rise of sensational newspapers in the late 1800s also fueled the development of news photography. On January 21, 1897, the New York Tribune published “the first halftone reproduction to appear in a mass circulation daily paper,” according to Time-Life’s Photojournalism. It was a “rather dull” photo of a New Yorker, Thomas C. Platt, who had recently been elected to the U.S. Senate (1976, p. 15). This time period was the beginning of photos appearing in print for a mass audience. The halftone process involved the manipulation of tiny dots of ink to produce the visual effect of various shades of gray. It was years before the half-tone process was widely used by the industry, however.

At the end of the first decade of the 1900s, photographs, reproduced using halftones, were filling the pages of newspapers and magazines, and photojournalism was on its way to becoming bonafide profession.

Today, few would argue that photojournalism contributes much to our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. One of the most important things that journalists do for society is to inform, and information is conveyed in words as well as in pictures. As stressed earlier, photos can evoke emotions. Reading about starving children may move some to action, but seeing vivid images of distended stomachs, skeletal limbs and plaintive stares somehow quickly hits people at the gut level. Perhaps the images are a closer reflection of ourselves than are words on a page. Photojournalism, then, not only informs, but also has the potential to literally move people — i.e., to make them take action.

But photojournalism can also be sensationalistic and manipulative. In 1928, Tom Howard strapped a camera to his ankle and secretly photographed murderer Ruth Snyder at the moment of her electrocution. The New York Daily News ran the photo with the headline “DEAD!” above it. The paper sold a half million extra copies that day. More recently, the darkening of O.J. Simpson’s mug shot on the cover of Time (which was apparent when viewed next to the unaltered photo used on Newsweek’s cover) gave rise to heated discussions about what the magazine did and why. Photographic manipulation has become considerably easier and more sophisticated, technically speaking, since the widespread use of digital media in newsrooms. Changes in photographs, even subtle ones, can intentionally or accidentally alter meanings and interpretations.

Scholars in the cognitive sciences have written on the factors that color one’s perception of reality. For example, Ann Marie Seward Barry, in her book Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image and Manipulation in Visual Communication (1997), asserts early on in her book that while our eyes are “truly wondrous windows on the world” and “[send] more data more quickly to the nervous system than any other sense,” we have to realize that the way our brains interpret the information involves a number of complex factors.

“[O]ur brains combine information from our eyes with data from our other senses, synthesize it, and draw on our past experience to give us a workable image of the world” (p. 15). This applies not only to photographs, but to television and artistic images as well. Barry says that we are “biologically tuned to overestimate certain aspects of perception, such as height compared to width” and are “rarely conscious of the variety of factors impinging on our perspective, especially those derived from subconscious and even primitive forces or from the vagaries of personal experience” (p. 16).

Hence, photojournalism, like its written counterpart, is not a completely objective enterprise. Photos of war-torn areas, for example, might evoke sadness in some for the human tragedy they depict, or anger in others for the perceived propaganda they represent. The very nature of photography requires that a photojournalist make decisions about what to include within the frame of his or her camera (either through the original framing or through cropping), or which, among so many photos, to select for publication. If this decision-making process is guided by professionalism and journalistic ethics, the end result is usually a photo that, as Rothstein puts it, has “the quality of truth and believability” (1974, p. 6).