Exercise 1.1 – Eyewitnesses (P.23)

Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power.

How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Write a list of the arguments for and against. For example, you might argue that these pictures do have a degree of objectivity because the photographer (presumably) didn’t have time to ‘pose’ the subjects, or perhaps even to think about which viewpoint to adopt. On the other hand, the images we see in newspapers may be selected from a series of images and how can we know the factors that determined the choice of final image?

Think about objectivity in documentary photography and make some notes in your learning log before reading further.

Below are two stills taken from videos shot by bystanders who filmed police assaulting individuals who later died. The first is of Ian Tomlinson being attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer, Simon Harwood, on the 1st April 2009.

The second is another still from a video of Eric Garner who was wrestled to the ground by a NYPD police officer using a chokehold, contrary to NYPD regulations. In the video Mr Garner says ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times but officers continue to restrain him. Subsequently Garner passed out and died of a heart attack.

© Ramsey Orta

In both cases the images, or more accurately the videos from which they are taken, significantly affected the stories. In the case of the death of Ian Tomlinson the story was initally reported by the Evening Standard as ‘Police pelted with bricks as the help dying man.’

The release of the video raised questions about the veracity of the inital story and subsequently it was shown that rather than being pelted with bricks, the police had in fact attacked Ian Tomlinson without provocation; an action that resulted in his death not long afterwards. The video shot by an American who was visiting London changed the narrative and raised significant questions about policing and the relationship between the police, media and IPCC.

It is more difficult to assess whether the image of Eric Garner affected the story, however, the incident along with others of police hosility towards African Americans sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

I think you can argue that at the point at which the images were created they were objective images or videos. In both instances it appears that the people taking the video footage were documenting and event that happend before them for their own purposes and that this was a faithful representation of events as they happened. It is more difficult to describe subsequent appearance of the images in publications or online as objective. There are two main reasons for this, first the images are stills taken from mobile phone recordings and these individual images give no information about the events that preceeded or suceeded those shown in the images. Although it is not the case, it may have possible in both instances that the police had been attacked and that the actions we see in the images are reasonable responses to the situation they found themselves in. Alternatively, if in both intances the men involved did not die following the incidents then it is unlikely that the images would be viewed in the same way. The second reason for thinking that the images are not objective is that in order for them to appear in a publication ot online someone has to make a decision about what images appear. As a viewer of the images we do not know the agenda or biases of the people who make those decisions and it is reasonable to assume that like all of us they are not completely impartial.

I think it is possible for a picture to be objective, an image in an album or in a box under the bed is simply a physical representation of a time and place. However, as soon as it is viewed it loses its objectivity; as soon as a viewer sees it and thinks or asks what is this, who took it, why did they take it etc. it ceases to be objective as the viewer tries to put the image into context and in doing so tries to understand the motivations of the image’s creator.

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Eric_Garner

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2014/dec/04/i-cant-breathe-eric-garner-chokehold-death-video

https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/media-police-and-protest-now-both-sides-of-story-can-be-reported


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