Analysing press images
Sometimes catastrophe seems to extend beyond the scope of cameras. How do you represent the amount of destruction and pain caused by a war or a natural disaster? Press readers want to be informed, most of them are ready to feel empathy for the victims, but one thing they usually do not want is to be confronted to violent images. Photographs of mutilated bodies rarely make their way to the front pages. This photograph illustrating the 2004 tsunami was published in The Chicago Tribune. Like many other photographs published at the time, it focuses on instances of devastation on a small scale, showing the impact of the Tsunami on local people’s lives. The high angle shot invites us to share the outlook of the local people gazing at the remains of their possessions. With the photographer, we are looking over the shoulders of the victims at what looks like a flooded courtyard. All the ingredients of a good war/disaster picture are here: elements localising the scene, pathos related to the expression of loss and despair, illustration of the nature of the disaster (water in that case).
This photograph is from The Mirror. It illustrates an article entitled “Dead LION found in freezer during inspection at restaurant near to zoo”. When reading the headline and looking at the picture, the reader will normally infer that some restaurant owner stole a dead lion, stashed it in the freezer with the rest of the food and somehow intended to serve it to his customers. What a shocker! Who wouldn’t like to know more about this story? Of course, once you’ve read the actual story, you realise that the man had packed lion meat for his dogs. The zoo had given him the dead lion for that purpose and the meat was kept in the same freezer that was used for the restaurant’s food. Rather shocking of course, but not quite the same story. When going back to the photograph, one will notice a tiny grey line underneath that reads “Gruesome discovery: How the dead lion may have looked in freezer.” Of course it might seem dishonest, but the photoshopped dead lion in a freezer is just how you turn a trivial incident into a story worth publishing. It also shows that readers want to be fed images along with stories. They want their imagination to be directed.
Newspapers and press websites often resort to stock photo agencies when there are no available images of an event described in the news or when the subject of an article has no tangible manifestation. How do you represent a political crisis or a financial scandal? Here is a photograph published in The Guardian in January 2015 when the Labour Party pointed out that almost a million British voters had gone missing from the electoral roll because of a new registration process, just a few months ahead of the General Election. Here, the ‘polling station’ sign suggests both the voting process and the upcoming election, the word ‘polling’ being emphasized by the fisheye effect. The darkness surrounding the sign symbolises crisis and the uncertain outcome of the new registration process. The typically British row of brick houses in the background could also be significant: it hints at the potential consequences of the registration crisis on British people as some of them might be unable to vote in the upcoming election.
Paparazzi shots are easily recognizable. They usually represent an intrusion into privacy, showing celebrities in embarrassing situations or in a private context. The paparazzi photograph is usually poorly lit, slightly out of focus, either saturated or lacking in contrast. All these technical faults are often willingly introduced to suggest how difficult the shot was, how exclusive the image is. Here is one of the photographs that was taken moments before Diana’s death in 1997. It was widely used by the press, including tabloids of course. We can’t really see Diana, apart from a few locks of blonde hair, and yet the photograph is very efficient. Diana and Al-Fayed seem to be hiding from the camera while the bodyguard in the passenger seat is looking intently in the direction of the photographer trying to shield Diana from the camera with a sunshade panel. The picture came with captions like “moments from death” (The Sun), “the final moments” (The Daily Telegraph), “Diana in the death car” (The Daily Mail), “the last picture” (The Mirror). All these insist on the imminence of disaster as if the photograph were a Memento mori reminding us of the frailty of life.
We’re all photographers
Professional photographers are no longer the exclusive providers of press images. With the smartphone revolution, everyone can take pictures of what is going on and those pictures make the news. These two photographs were published in the New York Law Journal website along with an article on the police blunder that led to the death of Eric Garner in July 2014. The flatness of the image (shallow depth of field) rules out a professional camera and suggests the use of a smartphone. The street arrest was filmed and photographed by dozens of passers-by whose pictures ended up on the social networks and on newspaper websites or printed editions. Let us note that smartphone users tend to take portrait rather than landscape pictures (vertical rather than horizontal) which is consistent with the way one usually holds a smartphone (upright). Here, two pictures have been juxtaposed not only to narrate a sequence of events but also because landscape shaped images are easier to fit into a page of text, especially a webpage.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Clifford Armion, "Analysing press images", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2015. Consulté le 30/11/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/se-former/methodologie/analysing-press-images