Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BEST OF WATN: Vultures at the Feast

"When you have the paparazzi hiding in the bushes outside your home, the only thing you can control is how you respond publicly."
Portia de Rossi

Early this year a picture of a little girl who was killed looting was around the net, showing how bleak things are in Haiti, particularly after the earthquake and hurricane damage. Haiti is much like most of New Orleans: its mostly rebuilt now but you'd hardly be able to tell because its such a shanty town to begin with.

Well the picture was kind of staged, and I had to write about that, because of the basic deception that too many photojournalists engage in. People really keyed into the piece and it got linked all over the place. I still get hits every so often on this bit.
Who is Fabienne Cherisma? She's a 15 year old girl who was shot in the head while trying to loot after the Haitian earthquake. The Haitian police shot her and a lot of other looters; she had a few pictures and folding chairs stolen from shops. The picture of her lying on the broken ground won photographer Paul Hansen an award.

Fabienne's BodyHowever, what this picture does not show is what the other side of the camera looked like. When that's revealed, the feel of the image changes from a lonely girl's abandoned and ruined form into a spectacle:

Instead of photographers, suddenly these men look like vultures. And the image of the Haitian men watching these white photographers gather around snapping pictures of their fellow islander adds to the disquiet. Its too late to save Fabienne's life, and clearly she didn't show much good sense. I mean, if you're going to loot, take something you need not just whatever crap you could find, and don't loot in Haiti where you know the police will shoot to kill. The real story here, though, is the crowd of men taking pictures of a girl. One of them grins as he rests his camera. The others are focused on taking that prize-winning photo, without thinking of the humanity of their subject or any dignity for her body. She's just an object to capture. What's worse is that by this time, her family had arrived and were grieving over their lost daughter and sister.

I've seen other revealing pictures of this sort, showing more of what is really going on behind the scenes that isn't ordinarily revealed. Consider this image of a grieving palestinian woman:

Mourning palestinian Which really looks like this, when you pan back:

Grinning kid
Or this, more famous one, from Cindy Sheehan's Crawford roadside protest:

Sheehan Protest
And here's the full picture.
Sheehan Truth
A picture is worth a thousand words, but the story changes when you pull back a bit and see the whole picture. The initial image looks tragic, a woman mourning at the barrier between Israel and palestinian settlements. The full picture changes everything. Now it looks more like a staged media spectacle, and the grinning palestinian boy in the back seems to be giving away the secret; is this woman really grieving or is she putting on a show for western cameras? Cindy Sheehan's protest looks more impressive and numerous in the first picture, but the second reveals that the media outnumbers the protesters 10:1 making you wonder why they showed up in the first place. You can be certain that a woman upset at President Obama wouldn't get a single reporter at her little protest. The problem is that a picture can be a very powerful statement, shaping people's perceptions and ideas of a news story, and these images, while not deceptive, hide the actual truth behind a carefully crafted image. I have long despised reporters who fly to a scene of horrendous disaster, stand around in makeup with expensive haircuts and describe how awful things on with appropriately sympathetic tones, then leave. The starvation, disease, killing, disaster, or whatever it is they reported on goes on, unchanged by their presence. They came, they saw, they got their story; they left. Please help these people, because I sure as hell won't.

The reporter argues that the world has to know, that their job is to inform, and through that generate a larger, more successful attempt to help. And I do know that some reporters actually do pitch in and lend a hand sometimes. The reporter will also argue that they are just trying to get the story, that they aren't ghouls, but scribes documenting events. There's some truth to that, but tell it to Fabienne's family. They see what you see there, through a veil of tears. And until the internet came along, who told that story?
The recent pictures of Perry eating a corndog are a harbinger of how images are going to be used in the upcoming presidential election. They sold President Obama as a glowing messiah in 2008, they'll sell the GOP candidate as a demon in 2012.

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