Is it just me, or is the world becoming an increasingly bizarre place these days? I deliberately use the word ‘bizarre’ over those with more negative connotations, because I’m finding it too easy to slip into a mode of thinking that sees everything as broken, terrifying, or sad. Am I going to blame the mainstream media, or social media for providing me with a path of least resistance to these emotions? No, of course not. I do, however, feel strongly about consuming media from multiple sources to ease what I see as manipulative behaviour by the outlets, but that is nothing new. It’s well known, and I’ve discussed it before on this blog, that we are guided toward certain narratives that say more about a news company’s own perspectives and values than it does our own. We identify with those we might agree with, or those who highlight issues that we are worried about. By only consuming one message, we run the risk of becoming entrenched, which is something I actively try to avoid by reading a balance of good quality news feeds. It was while doing this recently, that I thought about how photographs take on a life of their own when they are released into the wild. At that time, there were two cases of images in the media that reminded me of how a photograph becomes both uncontrollable and a tool to create an alternative narrative, the latter being something I’ve touched on in a previous post.
The first case was that of recently convicted murderer Lucy Letby, whose heinous crimes over several years have shocked the public in the UK. The investigation and subsequent trial had been going on for over 5 years, and had been reported fairly regularly until the verdict, after which the media understandably exploded with rightly damning coverage. What struck me was the use of photography in that coverage. Throughout the trial, the press ran with pictures of an ordinary young woman, happily smiling at the camera, on a night out or at work. We were being shown the contrast between the woman and the crimes she was alleged to have committed as if asking “how can this be?”. Fast forward to the conclusion of the trial and we were presented with a formal police mugshot of the same woman, but with a very different expression. We are drawn to the vacant, almost dead-eyed face of what we now know to be one of Britain’s worst serial killers, which the picture makes very clear. If we think about the context of the earlier images, it’s pretty obvious that the original intention for them was not as they were eventually used. We all take pictures of celebrations and happier times to document them, so that we can remember positive feelings associated with the whatever was happening. Whoever took those pictures of Letby couldn’t have predicted their future use as a narrative tool. In some cases, they might be unhappy to have a constant reminder of how that person wasn’t who they thought she was. Similarly, the mugshot image is taken by the police for formal identification purposes and not intended to portray someone in a certain way, yet one look at the image alongside the rest of the story, and the picture takes on a very specific meaning. What this means then, is that intent for an image changes with isolation from the original intent and with alternative contextual information added later, such as the knowledge of guilt in this case, and that once an image is in the public domain, it is in essence uncontrollable.
The second case, around the same time, was that of former US President Donald Trump being indicted for racketeering in the state of Georgia. In what we’ve come to expect, Trump surrendered himself to the police in a blaze of media, and when his mugshot was released, that blaze burned much brighter. Again, the purpose of the photograph was to identify him formally for legal purposes but in the image, he stares into the camera with an angry, apparently defiant gaze. The release of the image to the media is fairly standard practice when charges are brought, but in this case both sides of the political landscape have used it for their own purposes. The Democrats have portrayed Trump as a dangerous figure, an alleged criminal who should never be in a position of power again. The left-favouring media have lampooned his appearance, while their consumers create internet memes poking more fun at what is supposed to be a formal documentary photograph. What’s more interesting is how the Trump campaign have used the image. Their narrative portrays a man being persecuted by the left; a national hero who is the only man who can “save America”. It has been reported that they have raised millions of dollars in donations to support the campaign just from this one picture.
These two examples are major news stories of course, but this behaviour happens at all levels within photography. Essentially, if an image has enough information to form a narrative yet is available without context that anchors it within a common idea or intent, then it is fair game for repurposing once published. It’s an issue that dates back to the earliest days of documentary photography, with examples such as At the Café, Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958, by French photographer Robert Doisneau (linked here). Here we see a young woman sitting in a typical Parisian café with an older man. They appear to be drinking wine, with several glasses in front of them. The man appears to be telling her something, which she may or may not be listening to, given her seemingly distant gaze that is not directed at him. Doisneau shot many café scenes, documenting the social lives of Parisians with particular focus on their love of eating and drinking together. In his paper Photographs and Context, Terry Barrett discusses the way that this photograph was used by the press without the artist’s consent:
“…the same photograph appeared a brochure on the evils of alcohol abuse published by a temperance league. Still later, and still without Doisneau's consent, the photograph again appeared, this time in a French scandal sheet with the caption “Prostitution in the Champs-Elysées." All three presentations were convincing; the third convincing enough that the gentleman in the photograph sued the scandal sheet and was awarded recompense.” (Barrett, 1985)
We see then that an image taken out of context can not only be subject to a variety of interpretations, but also a variety of misuses, without the artist either being aware of or consenting to them. Like the Letby and Trump examples, once the image is out there in the wild frontier, the only recourse is to maybe take legal action, which isn’t as straightforward of as cost-effective as it sounds.
I started to think about my own work, in particular the photographs that I’d received feedback from a much smaller audience about narrative. Consider this example, which was a photograph I made as part of a series about my struggles with mental health over the years.
Untitled (2019), by Richard Fletcher
Without the other 9 pictures that make up the series, the image has no external context. We see a man embracing a woman. What we see from his partially obscured expression appears contemplative, with engagement with the camera. We only see the back of the woman with her posture and straight hair. When I shared this image with my peers, friends and family, I received almost overwhelming feedback around narratives related to love, care, support and comfort, which pretty much aligned with my intent. However, a couple of people saw something different. Was the stiffness of the woman’s pose a sign of her discomfort or fear? If that was the case, what might have caused it. The man? Could this be an abusive relationship captured at a moment of attempted reconciliation? At the time, I was alarmed, because that wasn’t at all my intention for the image. Indeed, when it is included in the whole series, my intent becomes clearer. However, it the context of what we are discussing here, the image has potentially opposite meanings, depending on what the viewer brings to it. For example, there is nothing stopping someone who has experienced abuse in a relationship from taking this picture and repurposing it to make their own point without my knowledge or consent, as in Doisneau’s case. It’s very unlikely, given its circulation, but I can see how my control over it is lost the moment I publish it. In a world where social media users share images, memes, videos etc that don’t belong to them, is there ever a way of regaining control? Well, some of the artists that I am currently researching do try, through inclusion of textual or iconic context that makes it harder for the image to be isolated from their intent. It’s debatable if it really works though, as art is supposed to provoke us into creating our own interpretations and form our own narratives. Too much from the artist takes that away from the viewer. I guess it’s just something we need to be mindful of, both as artists and as consumers. Think carefully before you share that photograph that you somehow relate to; the artist may have had other ideas. There is a visual wild frontier, and the kings within it define how we see the world.
Barrett, T. (1985) 'Photographs and Contexts' In: Journal of Aesthetic Education 19 (3) pp.51–64.