Disappearing Photographs

Several years ago, I dressed up as a 1940s-era photojournalist for Halloween. I wore a fedora with a PRESS card, a fake mustache and a cheap suit while carrying around an antique twin-lens camera and an unlit cigar.

When I saw my friends, they said, “Oh, you’re a journalist.” Strangers said, “Look, a photographer.” But no one registered that I was an anachronism: a vintage photojournalist. To this assortment of Wonder Women, zombies and cowboys, nothing had changed since those fast-talking, flashbulb days.

When I think about fighting for a better visual media, I think about that Halloween. Old assumptions about how visual media are less important than the written word stubbornly persist, despite the fact that Pew reports that the majority of Americans get their news from television and the Internet. Both mediums are little but skeletons without storytelling images. Those visuals can connect people to the news in a way that the impersonal data avalanche of the digital age often cannot.

Instead of recognizing the growing importance of photojournalism and video, institutions often curtail and control access for visual journalists.

Consider that the Supreme Court is off limits to cameras. Asked about allowing the visual press to document the nation’s highest court in 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “ Not a chance, because we don't want to become entertainment.” Can you imagine the outcry if the Supreme Court forbid print reporters from describing Scalia’s jowls, or Clarence Thomas’s silent demeanor?

As of May 25, 2011, you have not seen America’s most discussed photograph: Osama bin Laden’s corpse. “We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies,” the President said. Philip Gourevitch, a writer and reporter who wrote a haunting work on the Rwandan genocide in which he described massacres in gory detail, strongly supported censoring the picture, dismissively calling the previous decade a “camera-mad” time when “every picture must be shared.” Gourevitch worried that the image would be too powerful and “instantly supplant every other account of Sunday’s raid as the iconic representation of America’s moment of triumph.”

More locally, visual journalists in the U.S. are often heavily restricted in how they can photograph inside hospitals, schools, jails, big box stores, courtrooms, power plants, bailed-out financial firms, universities and farms. A recent survey found that there are three PR people for every journalist. And if you have a camera, they’re usually standing next to you as you work.

“There is a definite trend by institutions and even individuals to not allow access to being photographed,” photojournalist Ed Kashi told me. Kashi has spent 30 years photographing around the world for outlets like National Geographic.

“The person in charge really makes or breaks your access,” Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Martha Rial told me. She’s been in the field for over 20 years, and over that time said that gaining visual access to many institutions has “gotten more difficult.”

That’s not to say photographers should be able to waltz into, say, an emergency room whenever they want. But too often legitimate issues with bearing on the public interest are subsumed by short-term PR goals. The effect is that negative stories don’t have the same emotionally resonant visuals that more positive stories do.

Take the Osama bin Laden corpse photo. Absent its release, the iconic photo became the official White House photographer’s shot of the situation room from the White House Flickr stream. The president looks resolute; the national security apparatus looks competent and in control. It’s no knock on Pete Souza, a talented former Chicago Tribune photojournalist, to say this image is PR, chosen to present reality in a way beneficial to his client. Whatever your politics, there’s no way to know if this official photograph tells the whole story.

PR makes sense from a myopic, institutional point of view. But in the modern media equation only a dogged press can advocate for the broader public interest. When these private PR prerogatives clash with public interest issues like the environment, public health, the PR industry usually wins the argument. Absent independent visual journalists, we’re stuck in a slideshow of selective moments.

So what can activists do? Property law won’t change, nor should it. You should have the right to tell a photojournalist to get lost if they’re standing on your lawn. But it’s a start to agitate against expanding laws to criminalize photography, like two recent proposed laws in Florida and Iowa that would criminalize the act of photographing a farm without consent. That’s a law championed by agribusinesses upset by animal rights exposés. In Iowa, where the law passed the state House, the proposed law would make it a crime to have an illegally obtained picture of an Angus.

Truthful visuals are not mindless entertainment, nor are they trophies. They are simply what happened. How can an informed society understand violence if it never sees real blood? Arguing that we should hide an image because it might provoke strong emotions is paternalistic and a journalistic double standard. Who would argue that reporters shouldn’t write about how Bin Laden was killed, or about where our eggs come from?

Most importantly, advocates of a free press should spread the word that visual journalism deserves freedom to operate. The First Amendment was written almost four decades before the advent of photography. In the 21st century, however, visual access is indistinguishable from freedom of the press.

Brian McDermott has been a member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism faculty full-time since 2009. His own work is online at www.brianmcdermott.net.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good