Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Photo Ops

I read the paper daily yet never watch the nightly news on television. I find the blink-of-an-eye coverage offered by the electronic media to be infuriating; I get, at most, a vague and frustrating retinal image of history, a useless hint of vast events. I  certainly don’t get information.

The same is true of photo coverage in American dailies. There are, I’ve discovered, about a dozen stock images trotted out to fit a hundred stories. We are stuck with the blatantly overused:

  • The Grieving Woman. A mother/daughter/neighbor caught in a public moment of abject misery. Particularly popular to display the horrors of war, floods and tornadoes, and a foreign government’s nasty treatment of demonstrators against the regime.
  •  In the same genre we have The Wounded Fighter/Protestor, generally found in a Third World country, but on occasion in France, the UK or for some inexplicable reason, Guatemala.
  •  The Big-eyed Child.  Imagine 1970s artist Margaret Keane armed with a camera and sent to gather news. (And by the way, it is Margaret, and not her husband, who painted the sad-eyed waifs.)
  •  The Shouting Soldier/Dissident.  Very big in African and Middle Eastern coverage, and particularly handy for its generic qualities. Can you tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi? A Sudanese and a Libyan? I can’t either.
  •  The Coffin-carrying Crowd. Known among the cognoscenti as the Three C photo. Again, generic, and of particular use when portraying Pakistani/Iranian/Iraqi/Afghan anger, usually at Americans.
  •  The US corollary to the above is The Stars and Stripes-bedecked Coffin. Self-explanatory.
  •  The Flattened Trailer Court which in the wake of this season’s extreme weather has given way to The Flattened Small Town.
There are more, of course, photos of people, places and things that evoke immediate reactions. Some photos have vanished—the baby-kissing politician—and been replaced with updated versions—the politician caught in a sexual misdeed announcing his decision to go to rehab. 

Compared to its European cousin, the American photo media is quite squeamish. There’s no blood, no dismembered arms or legs, no evidence that the tornadoes and floods have actually killed people. Where Paris Match will show machete-wielding fighters hacking heads off, the Post or Times might have a horror of another kind, an intent child soldier perhaps, a starving woman in a refugee camp, the site of a mass grave in some forgotten nation. We did not show the execution of Saddam Hussein, nor Bin Laden’s body.

I’m not sure I understand this. I suppose its because we like our news, but we don’t want it to spoil breakfast.


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