Barbie Zelizer on the power of images
Clifford Armion: You’ve been working on images chosen by the media to represent a conflict or a crisis. How do those images function? How do they shape our representation of a particular conflict?
Barbie Zelizer: That’s a very good question. We gravitate towards images that condense everything that is possibly important about an event into a particular visual depiction. Of course that work of condensation is very difficult to achieve. We can never really capture everything. So the question really is how much does an image reflect the memorable, the contested, the consensual, the difficult impulses of a particular event. What that means is that often the events that are depicted through images, whether they are war or terror or assassinations or natural disaster, tend to be very formulaic. They tend to offer us scenes that we’ve already seen before, scenes that we can easily understand what it is they’re depicting, scenes that tell us very quickly and economically what it is we need to know about an event. For instance with natural disasters we tend to get very large images of large scale, widespread structural devastation, buildings that are toppled after an earthquake, submerged structures under water after a tsunami that convey a very clear depiction of the extent of pathos, the tragedy, the lives lost, the future that has been dimmed for so many. At the same time we tend to get pictures of survivors. There might be a glimmer of hope at the same time as the tragic depiction of what it is they’ve lost. What we don’t tend to get are pictures that are extremely difficult to look at. By that I mean corpses, body parts. We don’t tend to see the images that actually convey what is particularly important about these events. These events wouldn’t be in the news if people hadn’t died. Yet we tend, in these pictures, not to be shown widespread or explicit evidence of their deaths. That is an ongoing tension in news of the West primarily, by which we don’t gravitate very easily toward images that are gruesome and explicit. We rather want images that will be more gentle with us as viewers, and yet convey some of the destruction and the loss that these events tend to involve.
C.A.: Is it because images are more immediate? After all if you think of the press, you get news and texts about death and violence. So what’s the difference between the way things go through in a text and in a picture?
B.Z.: I think images are very different. I think part of the problem with the news is that people don’t recognise how different they are. A verbal account will give you a particular linear sequence of events, it will give you a chronology of what happened. Images are more immediate as you say, they are more accessible, they don’t require our intellect to work in the way that words do. Images play to our emotions, they play to some sort of a gestalt experience with what it is we see that allows us to go in many ways, when we look at the picture of a difficult event. Words don’t allow us that latitude, words have us very strategically stitched in to a certain understanding of the event as the event is actually recounted to us. Images allow our imagination to fly. Images both conjure up what is being depicted as well as pull us in to what has come before and what might come afterwards. So images are far messier. There is far more noise in an image. But images play to a certain mode of engagement that involves the emotions, that involves the imagination, that involves a sense of contingency, much more so than words ever do. They bypass the kind of reasoned, deliberative, rational record that we tend to get from words. I would say that images are an instrumental part of the news record that still have not gotten their due.
C.A.: Is that true to all images? You talk about noise in images, but what if you think of cartoons or caricatures? Does it depend on the nature of images? You can even have photographs that are very much constructed right?
B.Z.: Yes, I think all images are constructed, but I think that even with the construction, because they’re in a logic, because they’re immediate, because they’re accessible, we’re able to engage differently than we do with words. All images are different and of course the question is, when you’re dealing with something like the news record, what is it you’re trying to privilege? What is it you’re trying to make sure happens on the part of the viewers? For the longest time the news has been seen as a vehicle of rationality, of reason, of deliberative discourse, of a particular understanding of linearity by which we engage with how the world actually unfolds. Images were never part of that dialogue. Images have always been seen, against that set of aspirations, as somehow lacking, somehow second class. I would argue that whenever we’re in crisis, when we’re after an assassination, in a war, after an act of terror, after a natural disaster, where our media go is to images. We get more images across media, and that includes both the digital platforms all the way down to the old media of newspapers. Across the board there is a turn to the visual in the news records after difficult events. So obviously images are doing something that words aren’t able to do on their own. My lament is that we don’t understand that enough, that images don’t get enough of a place in the news industry, that people don’t understand enough how it is that images provide not just a second class set of informational cues, but a very rich set of engagement cues that may not have so much to do with information but certainly have much to do with making the public care.
C.A.: Has the internet contributed to change this? After all you have press sites like the one of the Chicago Tribune where you often have a video before you get to the article.
B.Z.: I think that the digital environment has definitely facilitated a play to images, precisely for the reasons you’re saying. It’s not just the digital environment. Even if you look at television for instance: the actual television screen in times of difficult events. You often have galleries of photographic images which are at the side of whatever is going on. So yes I think there has been more of a play to images that started before the digital environment but that was certainly made more salient with the digital environment. The question we need to ask is : are the images different in the digital environment? I would say not enough. I think that the mythology has been that if all those citizens and journalists are out there making pictures, clearly we’re getting different kinds of pictures out there – because we have many different viewpoints, physical vantage points, people that are close to the events, not so close to the events. All the images that we get of difficult events aren’t being filtered by a particular news organisation or lens. That is true, but what we are getting is more of the same, so that many of the images that we get in the digital environment tend to mimic what is going on in news organisations and that shouldn’t surprise us. Journalists are of the world and so the way photo journalists learn to depict difficult events borrows from arts and from modes of classical representation. It’s not that the journalists all of a sudden begin to see an event because they woke up as a journalist. They’ve learned a certain way of depicting things around them. What you find in the digital environment is not only that people tend to mimic what is going on in news organisations, but even the images that are more graphic, that we tend to see in the news, end up fading out because of the algorithms, because of who plays them back they tend to go deep into the depths of the internet space. So in terms of what we actually see around most images tends to be exactly what we used to see before the internet.
Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la deuxième saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé du 12 au 24 novembre 2013.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Clifford Armion, Barbie Zelizer, "Barbie Zelizer on the power of images", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2014. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/barbie-zelizer-on-the-power-of-images