I’m just assuming that this page one photo in The Daily Iowan this morning of a man sleeping — or not — is a photo illustration. I’m assuming that the photographer didn’t stalk the man and wake him up for an action shot. But, I’m often wrong.
Does it matter that this photograph doesn’t indicate that it was a photo illustration, a staged image? Don’t journalists (often) intend for images to represent a “decisive moment,” a snapshot of reality?
Scholarship into the realness and fakeness of photos reveals the social and cultural influences that place photogs — and their subjects — in the “right place at the right time.” There are reasons why the “story” is being covered to begin with. There are reasons why an event is happening. And, there are reasons why specific images are selected to represent specific meanings. (Barbie Zelizer’s new book, About to Die, offers a great analysis and discussion of news photography and how images influence society.)
Photo illustrations, which the top image likely represents, are created even more intentionally by journalists to depict ideas, to reproduce past events, to present information, and to attract attention. We are supposed to know that the images aren’t “real.”
Rolling Stone’s illustration of Bush (at left) portrays former President George W. Bush in a dunce cap. Text surrounding the image places him among the “worst” presidents in history.
The dunce cap is a culturally salient object that depicts one as being bad, naughty, silly, goofy, a fool, disruptive. Even though we may not use such caps for class clowns anymore, its meaning continues.
But there is no way to get “the real” Bush into one of these caps if we wish to reveal him as a failure — or as a bother. So, readers come to accept that illustrations can replace photographs for such purposes.
But what’s tricky is that a mugshot of Bush (at left) that could be used in stories about him is not any more “real” than the illustration. This is a posed shot. His hair is done. So is his makeup, his background, the lighting, his posture, etc. It is a PR shot.
The image is released for general use — including in the media — only after it is approved by Bush, or more likely, his aides. This is how they want to represent him. But it isn’t “real.” Is it?
Of course, a reasonable person is likely to see that this is a mugshot. It looks similar to high school photos, of course. And in some ways, it looks like other stages images in which we stand before a camera (in U.S. culture, anyway) and say “cheeeese” or a variety of other words that get us to show our teeth in a wide, silly smile.
What news media expect people to believe as snapshots of the real are action images, where the subject is engaged, shown to be in a position of power or sacrafice, where they (or it) is the center of the photo — and at the center of the photo’s meaning. The image is not about capturing the reality of the moment, but it is about relaying meaning.
Let’s stick with Bush some more. This image that appeared in The New York Times (above) shows Bush speaking to Congress. Behind him sit representatives of the House and Senate (and the Office of the Vice President).
Bush is not at the center of the image, per se, but he is at the center of its meaning. The journalist who shot this likely saw the action, the concentration of the two behind Bush on Bush. The lighting is great. The colors vibrant. The movement is there.
An image in which the Speaker of the House or the VP wouldn’t run if it was grainy, if Bush’s left hand wasn’t on the podium (it grounds him there, in a position of authority and confidence). I could go on and on.
An image of fuddled hair, closed eyes, yawns, etc. would run in a similar scene such as this, but that would be to reveal distraction, a disconnect with the public, or something outside of social norms to undermine one’s credibility.
But this is a very powerful image as it is. The faces. The time and culture surrounding when it was shot. The flags on suits. Cheney’s smirk. Pelosi’s stare. They all present a meaning to the public that is recognized.
The meanings, of course, are in the eye of the beholder. Either Bush looks stoic and strong, or Cheney’s smirk projects ideas of corruption and evil to Bush — “his partner in crime.”
Regardless, this image, too, is not a “true representation of reality.” It may capture a moment in time, a second, or milisecond at some spot somewhere. But, the image only is seen by the public because of what it may represent to them. It is, in fact, quite similar to a photo illustration.
So, of course, we don’t really think that the Daily Iowan photographer snuck into this kid’s room. Gave him a smart phone, laptop, and shook him. And, of course, the DI does not intend to have us believe that they did these things. We are meant to see it for what it is — a funny shot that may represent reality for some folks.
But because images are so confusing in what they represent, how they are taken, why they appear, and what they mean, what role do media have in telling us what they have shot and why?
To what degree can they tell us something is staged without telling us that everything is staged to one degree or another? If the public knew the media were telling us stories that are to depict reality, but that are not really representations of reality, what would that mean for journalistic authority?
With that logic, then, noting a photograph as an illustration may be a waste of time.
Maybe it’s just easier to put that it’s a photo illustration so that we know. Or, as the DI shows us, it’s easier to avoid the topic altogether.
They might be right.