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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 20 APRIL, 2018

The Politics of the Image

The Politics of the Image


Amidst the massive pan-Indian protest against the rape of innocents and killing of Dalits, minorities and others, one question no one seems to have asked till now is – who clicked the picture of the little Kathua girl lying dead, dressed in her purple frock?

Why was the image splashed right across the media which travelled beyond Indian shores? Did we, as active members of the media, even realise how, as a collective body of what was once popularly known as the fourth estate of democracy, had violated all ideologies that rule humanism, journalistic ethics and integrity?

Why do television channels, national and regional, go overboard with video clips of shootings and killings in public spaces, clips of women being stalked and then stabbed, and are hardly aware of what exactly are we trying to show? Is this sensational journalism? Was the media playing to the marketing potentials of the image? Or, was it another way of drawing eyeballs and resorting to yellow journalism while actually believing that the media was drawing attention to a man-made tragedy of epic proportions and push the masses to rise against such brutal acts?

The politics of the image reaches far beyond the story because visuals are stronger, go deeper and have a longer shelf life in memory than the spoken or the written word. Besides, they cross the barriers of literacy, language, education and culture.

The visual of a rape victim, on the electronic media, the NET or in print, is likely to raise the hackles of the common man and woman sitting in front of his/her television set watching the news. So, when images are used to perpetuate a given message to a wider public, it is perhaps logical. But does it protect the privacy and dignity of the person whose image we are choosing to project without the permission of the said person, living or injured or dead?

Safety of the self and of others is everybody’s business and this needs to be stressed among journalists and media practitioners as well. “Social responsibility” is not just a fancy and sophisticated term. It should widen its borders to include our moral responsibility towards our fellow-beings which we fail to do by being participants in this collective behaviour labelled ‘voyeuristic journalism.’

On September 19, 2016, a man stabbed a girl 27-28 times in Delhi’s crowded Burari neighbourhood with a knife and not one person from the crowd that had gathered drawn by the commotion came forward to help the woman. The CC TV camera captured the scene and it was widely shown across television. As soon as the man attacked the girl, people present could be seen running away from the spot. The man was a stalker and the girl died later on. But the CC TV camera did nothing to bring the police to the venue. Nor did the bystanders make any attempt to rescue the lady. Does this not reduce all CC TV cameras to a voyeuristic instrument? Because soon after this incident, television news channels went on a grabbing spree to collect the clips and flash it on their screens.

One can easily recall how, in September 2015, visuals of a dead baby became the most tragic symbol of the Mediterranean crisis. Twelve migrants thought to be Syrian refugees were feared to have drowned off the coast of the Greek island of Kos on September 1 after the boats carrying them sank. The images of the dead, captured by Dogan News Agency, soon circulated on social media. They included, most hideously, photographs of children. Some of them showed a tiny toddler lying lifeless on the sands. In others, one saw visuals of a police officer picking up the corpse of a baby.

The most heart-breaking one was a close-up of a drowned infant, his body, still and doll-like appearing to be sleeping, washed ashore. This image went viral across the media, social, national and international. What kind of journalism can one call this? It tugs at the heart-strings of one and all who see it. But does it solve the refugee crisis world-wide?

When many of the news channels opened its doors and windows to “citizen journalism”, none of us probably suspected that this could well lead to “citizen voyeurism” with the mobile camera and with tablets and I-pads. Two days ago, an elderly man was beaten to death by several hoodlums in a West Bengal district. He had objected to the hoodlums teasing some young girls of the neighbourhood. They were clicking the girls with their cell phone cameras without their knowledge or permission.

How and why should anyone be clicked without one’s consent or knowledge or both? This is another facet of the misuse of the image even by private individuals intruding into the privacy of others.

Often, panel discussions are also subject to voyeuristic use and misuse of the image. “The media”, says Sourav Das, a commentator, “is a commercial entity driven entirely by market forces. The impact of live TV coverage and breaking news are significant in moulding public opinion on the subject of the debate.

It is therefore necessary for TV anchors to imbibe ethical codes of conduct when dealing with private personal space of people. Tendencies like cultivating special tones, mannerisms and levels of aggression for different classes of panelists and interviewees, insistence on having the last word, putting down invited interviewees or panelists who do not tow the anchor’s line, hectoring panelists whose depositions might convey a view contrary to the one led by the anchor etc. should be curbed.

But maybe all this is wishful thinking, for in the final analysis, it does not matter if the anchor generates positive or negative sentiments, for both contribute to TRP equally. The anchor's only concern is that his show should not generate indifference.” Most of this, it may be noted, is hinged on the image, how the image of a given panelist is contextualized to fit into the arguments of the anchor, or, how, if the anchor does not like the person or does not agree with him or her, the image is decontextualised and taken apart, thereby reducing the participant to a joke!

Alex Marland, in his brilliant paper, Political Photography, Journalism, and Framing in the Digital Age - The Management of Visual Media by the Prime Minister of Canada (The International Journal of Press/Politics Vol 17, Issue 2, 2012) writes: “In the digital age, journalists are becoming more susceptible to the packaged visuals of politicians that image handlers are pushing electronically in an attempt to circumvent and influence the mainstream media.

These managed photos and videos communicate officialdom, voyeurism, and pseudo-events, ranging from routine government business to a personal side of political leaders. They are designed to frame the subject in a positive light and to promote a strategic image. This article submits that demand for digital handouts of visuals, or “image bytes,” is stimulated by economics and institutional accommodation, including the constant need for Web content and journalists’ eroding access to government officials.”

This was already established and proved by Margaret Thatcher who transformed Great Britain’s political journalism by learning the power of the image and the power of the simple. It was a transformation that inadvertently - and paradoxically - created the vacuous political journalism of the past two decades, according to veteran journalist Kevin Marsh. . Margaret Thatcher learnt that image was everything. And that at times image wasn’t just a way of presenting the politics: it was the politics.

Image, for journalists, comes from what you show and how, when, where, who, and what about. For the politician, it is all about creating an image which may not be real at all but a trumped up image constructed for the benefit of the electorate and the masses to make them believe what the political leader wants them to believe. For Thatcher, behind all this were some of the sharpest media operators of the age.

Despite counter- measures – do we have some in place – practicing fairness, integrity and honesty in journalistic functioning on a day-to-day basis is perhaps the only way of avoiding becoming a victim of the camera – the very instrument that pushes us to sell not news but voyeurism disguised as news.

The fact that most Pulitzer Prize winning photographers are honoured because of their determined focus on man-made disasters that take away the lives of innocent and vulnerable human beings underwrites that the image, if used with propriety creates politics of the right kind at the right time and place to bring about the right reaction among viewers. But how many creators, controllers, reproducers of the image act with the caution and the respect their subjects deserve?

Call it the politics of the image or the image of politics, one needs to understand the ramifications of the new media and the sophisticated technology that drives it. They are here to stay and so are journalists who do not care about the ethics behind the use of the technology and the media and abuse them for sensationalizing on the one hand and offering voyeuristic fulfillment to the viewers on the other. They tend to breach the borders of good journalism by intruding into the privacy of their subjects – dead or alive, man or woman or child, victimizer or victim – that reflects not only on their own integrity as journalists but also on their dignity as human beings.
 

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