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Pictures Versus the World

Par Barbie Zelizer
Publié par Clifford Armion le 24/01/2014
For as long as pictures have been among us, they have generated an uneasy mix of suspicion and awe. Perhaps nowhere is that as much the case as with journalism, where pictures are implicated in the larger truth-claims associated with the news. Aligned with a certain version of modernity, pictures are expected to establish and maintain journalism as the legitimate platform for giving shape to events of the real world. Consider how public response to acts of terror, war and natural disaster is affected by decisions not to depict them. Without pictures to show the news, journalism’s capacity to render the real and make it accessible is compromised.
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Barbie Zelizer is a Professor of Communication, and holds the Raymond Williams Chair of Communication and is Director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
A former journalist, Professor Zelizer's work focuses on the cultural dimensions of journalism, with a specific interest in journalistic authority, collective memory, and journalistic images in times of crisis and war. She also works on the impact of disciplinary knowledge on academic inquiry.

For as long as pictures have been among us, they have generated an uneasy mix of suspicion and awe. Perhaps nowhere is that as much the case as with journalism, where pictures are implicated in the larger truth-claims associated with the news. Aligned with a certain version of modernity, pictures are expected to establish and maintain journalism as the legitimate platform for giving shape to events of the real world. Consider how public response to acts of terror, war and natural disaster is affected by decisions not to depict them. Without pictures to show the news, journalism’s capacity to render the real and make it accessible is compromised.

But journalism’s pictures often undermine the alignment with truth-claims. Pictures slice reality into memorable segments by arbitrarily freezing action in strategically useful ways – a distraught teenager about to jump, a triumphant runner about to cross the finish line. Pictures push our emotions by enabling a single picture – like the shooting of a suspected traitor – to generate derision and repulsion in some, captivation and rapture in others. Pictures play to our imagination, encouraging us to embellish what we see not with larger truth claims but with what we hope will transpire: Will the space shuttle explode? Will the building collapse? Pictures rest on the contingent, whose lack of definitiveness chips away at the clarity to which journalism resolutely aspires. And pictures encourage us to engage with what we see, regardless of how much we understand it. Like chameleons, pictures adapt to the features of the institutions that use them, rendering an image of the news functionally unlike one in the art gallery, the church or the courtroom. With journalism, however, a picture’s strengths – the drama and memorability of a photo of a person running from a tsunami – may undercut aspirations to truth.

So what do pictures teach us that is unusual, irreducible or irreplaceable? Three connected points come to mind, each of which undercuts the authority traditionally ascribed to visual representation and particularly so in the news. Though much has been made of the porous nature of the image’s boundaries, the analogic demeanor of its functions and the suggestible character of its effect, those same qualities provide an opening to thinking differently about pictures, underscoring a possible singularity about visual representation.

First, pictures point not only to what is shown but also to what is not depicted. They offer a unique connection between what is and what might be, between the indicative and subjunctive, visible and invisible, manifest and latent. By simultaneously drawing attention to what they depict while reminding us of what lurks at its margins, they constitute a platform, unlike others, that partially negates itself. Pictures help us see by pointing to what is not shown. Acts of terror, for example, often appear in the news by showing victims about to die rather than dead – a hostage about to be beheaded or a politician facing an assassin’s bullet – and in so doing their pictures force viewers to complete the unshown sequence of action, importing death into the depiction. Depicting action that is oriented to what lies beyond the camera’s frame as much as what resides inside, pictures paradoxically remind us of visualization’s limitations.

Second, pictures simultaneously accommodate emphasis and minimization. Through an intricate interplay of focus, shading, acuity, lighting, distance and other aspects of framing, pictures help us take note of what seems to matter by visually foregrounding it in the frame. But because any foreground needs a background to work, pictures also show us details that are marginal to the point being made. Journalism’s depiction of war, for example, depends as much on what lurks in the background – long damaged infrastructures, cumulative debasement, the absent presence of those who have been repeatedly traumatized – as on what occupies the center of the camera’s frame. Pictures thus reflect a depth of action, one that may more closely approximate activity occurring in the world.

Third, pictures focus on the present while providing glimpses of people and places that are no longer there. Though long heralded as ahistoric, pictures regularly and systematically drum up visual tropes from the past so as to lend meaning to what is shown. Their articulation of the here and now takes shape by borrowing from the past. Journalism’s pictures of natural disaster, for instance, predictably stress physical devastation, human loss and serendipitous acts of heroism, pulled from the long train of natural catastrophes that have historically filled the news. Thus, even when a picture articulates its play to the present, its resonance comes from engaging with memory.

What does all of this mean? In addition to depicting what lies front and center before a camera’s lens, pictures may be doing something additional – modeling a useful relationship between representation and the world. By orienting toward what is not depicted, what is least emphasized and what is lodged in the past at the same time as they target the visible, significant and present, pictures may be able to offer an engagement that mirrors more closely how people attend to the world. For as they engage – messily, with multiple and uneven degrees of emphasis, mixing past and present experience in unpredictable ways – so too might pictures take shape. And in the process, truth and associated claims to the real are sidestepped as the primary impulses of what matters.

This may be the real lesson that pictures can help instate about representation more broadly: Even in institutions like journalism that are invested in truth claims, truth may not necessarily lie anywhere central inside their tools of relay. Though pictures can and often do focus directly on the people, places and issues they depict, they can also mute and minimize the energy associated with truth-telling. When the latter occurs, pictures make way for an engagement that mimics that of the world outside. Paradoxically, then, pictures may be the most truthful tool of relay that exists, their truth-value drawing more from the possibility of engagement than from what they purport to represent.

En partenariat avec la Villa Gillet



Institution incontournable de la scène culturelle à Lyon, la Villa Gillet rassemble artistes, écrivains et chercheurs du monde entier pour nourrir une réflexion publique autour des questions de notre temps à l'occasion de conférences, débats, tables rondes, et lectures.

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Un nouveau rendez-vous international conçu et organisé par la Villa Gillet. Des philosophes, des auteurs de sciences humaines et sociales, des acteurs de la vie publique et associative et des artistes débattent des grandes questions d’aujourd’hui. À Lyon, à Bourg-en-Bresse, à Valence, à Chambéry, à Saint-Etienne, à Grenoble, et en Région Rhône-Alpes, du 12 au 24 novembre 2013. Prendre le temps des questions, accepter la confrontation, imaginer des solutions : trouver le mode d’emploi.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Barbie Zelizer, "Pictures Versus the World", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2014. Consulté le 22/06/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/photographie/pictures-versus-the-world