Interview: Ray Drainville On The Images We Use

We are happy that Ray Drainville took time to answer questions for us about the images we use in media. Drainville is a PhD student at the Manchester School of Art in the UK, and also part of the Visual Social Media Lab. His thesis is on imagery of the Refugee Crisis shared on Twitter. He is looking at the iconographic resonances surrounding the image of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian child who drowned off the Turkish coast on 2 September 2015. He was photographed, dead, on the beach by the photojournalist Nilüfer Demır. The family had been denied asylum in Canada, and they attempted to reach the European Union by boat. As the boat sank, Alan drowned, as did his older brother Ghalib and mother Rehan. Only his father Abdullah survived.
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Jennifer Lawson: I’ve personally had trouble, as someone who does media, putting out messages and even doing media. I’m passionate about it, but I question whether I do it well enough. I worry about media ethics, for example. And one thing I’ve been concerned with is images we use in media, whether as citizen journalists or professional journalists. I don’t use many images at all, therefore, due to the fact that I worry my images won’t be ethical enough. How have you managed these issues?

Ray Drainville: Ethical issues are intractably linked to any discussion of my work. The pictures of Alan on the beach are harrowing, and other pictures in my dataset of the Refugee Crisis are even worse. I have presented these photographs to academics, photographers, professional journalists, and students, all of whom have differing ethical standards, which means I have to tread carefully. What is my duty of care to my audience? What is my duty to the surviving family? Should I perhaps discuss the impact of distressing imagery without showing that imagery? Does it even make sense to “hide” these photographs, given that they have been widely published? Every time I give a talk about this work, I calibrate my responses to these questions.

It seems to me that it’s a delicate balancing act. When discussing any harrowing image, my first question is: is it necessary to show it? Can I get by without showing it? It’s not necessary to present some photographs. In my dataset, there are truly disturbing pictures of other dead children. The Twitter users sharing these images almost invariably state that while we mourn the death of Alan, we ignore the deaths of many others. This is certainly true, and I think it important to acknowledge this, but then to move on. They are deeply scarring. Whether it is fair or not, we cannot assume that everyone can handle them, because most people cannot. It is sad but true that humans usually respond to the presence of a corpse not with empathy, but with disgust: it’s built in to our defences in an attempt to protect ourselves. If I’m trying to explain the emotional response to a photo of a dead child, your process of understanding will be inhibited if I drag in other photographs that make you instead focus on the horror of death. If people want to research beyond what I present, then they are of course free to do so. But I won’t force these images upon them.

Audiences can differ, however. What are my audience’s expectations? For instance, it was made clear to me that journalism professionals would find it unethical to view the images of Alan. So in my preparation for a talk at this year’s International Communication Association conference, I presented blurred versions of the original photographs to remind them of the picture without forcing them to violate their own ethical principles. Other audiences differ, however. Those with backgrounds in the history of art or visual culture are prepared to engage with them. Nevertheless, I always warn my audiences that I will be presenting images of death. And I invariably show the “response” images, because those are mediated images of death: our visual history is filled with mediated death, for example Christ on the cross.

But I also think providing the viewer a choice is important—when possible. Can I give my audience a choice whether or not to view a picture? This is comparatively easy on a website. For instance, the Atlantic’s “In Focus” series warns viewers of distressing pictures. The visitor needs to click on a link to unhide the photograph. In a collective environment such as a classroom, this is harder, because people will have different standards . I think it important to warn the audience that a difficult picture is coming, so that they can prepare themselves for it. I describe the picture, then I show it, briefly, and then move on. That gives those who choose *not* to view the picture the opportunity to look away, but at least they’ve heard a description, and then they can re-engage with the subject immediately afterwards.

(Link to example from The Atlantic’s “In Focus” disturbing imagery hiding system–warning, image of death)

But when I cannot provide these choices—when I either must show the picture, or not show it—then I ask myself some fundamental questions: who is served if I show a picture? And who is served if I *do not* show a picture? If a picture shows something taboo, like a corpse, we naturally want to avoid it: but there are real consequences to avoiding such imagery. We have to acknowledge that by not showing an image, we are complicit with those who want a story hidden.

You mention the concern that the photographs you present may not be sufficiently ethical. This can be interpreted as whether the image is *ethically sourced*. This, too, is a real concern. NGOs, for instance, now often contract work out to professional photographers. There’s a lot of pressure to get the “right” photo. Photographers often complain of such constraints that they end up supplying the same types of photographs that we always see: the crowd of refugees, the crying child, the tearful mother. The result is, as some have put it, that refugees are portrayed as objects of pity: helpless victims, without much potential for their own agency. Some organisations are trying to change this by supplying refugees with cameras so that they can provide their own imagery. This is great in theory, but simply truthful photographs are insufficient to get the pubic’s attention. It appears that they require something more: resonance.

(Article about photographic practices)
(DOI for article about refugees as helpless objects of pity)

This is where things get really tricky: it is often the case that what makes a photograph resonant is something *external* to the circumstances of the photograph itself. In other words, it reminds us of other images and experiences, and read them into the photograph. For instance, the position of Alan’s body on the beach will be strikingly familiar to any parent: he is lying in the awkward, face-down way that many toddlers adopt when they sleep. I had seen my own son sleeping in a cot in that very position when he was a toddler, and at the time I remember thinking, “he looks dead”. And many on social media had the same response, I’d argue: they looked at a boy on a beach and stated “he looks asleep”. They wrote things like “Good night, Alan”, and “He’s asleep, but we have to wake up”. And they shared artists’ interpretations of the photographs. One of the most widely-shared images of Alan was by the illustrator Omer Tosun: the artist shifted the child into a bed at night with the message “this is how it [i.e., the story] should have ended”. Similar pictures, directly contrasting Alan on the beach with Alan in a bed, express the same sentiment.

(Link to picture of Alan in bed)

Especially in the case of photographs of conflicts, we see a lot of resonances that seem to come from religious imagery. Think about the outstretched arms of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the girl in Nick Ut’s “Accidental Napalm”, which many argue references crucifixion scenes. Photographs of helpers carrying injured or dead children seem to “quote” the Pietà (the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus in her arms).

So the question becomes: when discussing the response to iconic photographs—or resonant photographs, depending upon your choice of terms—can you extract these external properties? I don’t think you can. I’m not sure you’d want to, because then you would be missing a critical aspect of the photograph’s appeal. These resonances are often what make the picture meaningful for audiences: it’s what makes us respond to one picture, and not the next. And that implies that it has the power to make us change our minds about the subject, or care about events in the world. *But*, those external influences can be really misleading.

Jennifer Lawson: You specifically do work on images we share on social media and what they mean. Back when I was in undergrad, when the war in Afghanistan was being proposed and justified (and before social media), one of my philosophy professors showed me two media photographs that still resonate with me. They were of a crowd—one showed what appeared to be large group of people and the other, zoomed-out version, showed that the same crowd wasn’t actually that large, after all. The photo of the large crowd was misleading, my professor said, but it was the one published in the news. With the advent of social media and technology, we may not have to rely on these types of images, however. We have citizen journalists who post images online. Do you think that social media, thus, can help us have more accurate journalism? Or do you find that people still post tweaked or misleading images?

Ray Drainville: Photographers can definitely take misleading photographs. I remember during the inauguration in January, there were pictures of an overturned bin that had been set on fire. It was a dramatic image, and it certainly tied into the notion that both the election result was a dumpster fire. Pictures from other angle, however, showed a gaggle of photographers all taking the same picture! And furthermore, the surrounding area wasn’t nearly as scarred as the flaming bin suggested: the protests were, for the most part, extraordinarily peaceful. A photographer makes choices, and that is partly based upon other pictures she has seen (flames = conflict = drama, for example); but it’s also based upon predictions, about what she thinks will make a good picture, a picture that speaks beyond the circumstance at hand.

(Burning bin link:)

But photographs have always been manipulated. Mathew Brady rearranged the corpses in his Civil War photographs and placed weaponry in their hands, even though corpses were typically stripped of all valuables after a battle. Stalin regularly removed rivals from photographs. These things have been known, to some at least, for decades.

Social media accelerates behaviours and trends already present in the culture. That sounds like I’m mitigating the effect of social media, but I’m not. That acceleration is surpremely important. You can get imagery online minutes after the event, and therefore speak to an audience without any filter, reaching millions. An example of this was the death of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer in 2016. Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds recorded the immediate aftermath and simulataneously broadcast it on Facebook Live, with the officer still pointing his gun in the car, screaming. Viewing that video—it is very difficult to watch—provides the viewer with a raw, unexpurgated insight into her experience: that to save her own life, and to try to get justice for Castile, she had to remain preternaturally calm and record everything, even as her boyfriend bled to death next to her.

(Link to Diamond Reynolds video, synced with police dashcam video. *warning* violence and death)

So social media can provide an insight into the horror into someone’s life, but it can also be used to manipulate people. Social media’s strength and weakness is the emphasis on the instant response. Everything is based upon it. Consider your experience with a social media app on your phone, say Twitter or Facebook. You scroll through your feed, “liking” posts and sharing stories others have shared. Have you noticed that you never reach the end of your feed? There is, literally, no end: as you scroll towards the bottom, the app loads more content, in a process that guarantees continuous engagement. The result, however, is that you never engage with any piece of content for long. You scroll, and it’s gone, replaced by a dozen more items. What’s worse, because Twitter and Facebook provide their content algorithmically—that is, based upon what they think you’d like to see, not upon the chronology of published posts—if you tried to revisit something you saw the previous day, you probably couldn’t find it. It is ephemeral.

So ultimately you either respond immediately to something or else you’ve lost your chance to do so. Some, like Nir Eyal, state this is due to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I prefer to think of it as a twitch response: we instinctively respond to what we see, and we don’t give much thought to it. This feeds into our biases; that which outrages us outrages us more, and that which we like we like more. And we don’t question these biases, because we’ve already scrolled onwards. We rarely reflect upon what we’ve seen. The nineteenth-century art historian Aby Warburg worried about something similar, although in his time, he was referring to the telephone and telegraph. He was alarmed by the loss of distance, and the inability to create the space to reflect upon things we’ve seen. Immediate reaction to a picture is critical—otherwise we would literally not respond to it—but it cannot, or should not, be divorced from a fuller contemplation of it, because otherwise we just continue believing what we want to believe. This can be used to manipulate viewers: if you know that people react impulsively to something you show them based upon their preexisting beliefs, and the thing you show them is ephemeral, then you can feed them a lot more of the same to further cement their views. Much of the Russian propaganda during the US election was based upon this simple principle.

Jennifer Lawson: My assumption, I guess, is that accuracy and truth-telling in the media is of the utmost importance and that images play a role in this. I may not always get there myself, but I attempt to. I know it may be silly to ask, but do you think that accuracy and truth-telling in media—whether professional or social media—is important?

Ray Drainville: Without question, accuracy and truth-telling is critical for both journalism and photojournalism. Social media plays an ambivalent role here. Journalists rely on it for early access to stories. But it’s easy to get things wrong in the heat of the moment. If journalism is the first draft of history, then social media may be the field notes of history, with everything that implies: incorrect details and loss of perspective. For instance, I researched the social media response to Ieshia Evans facing down armoured police at a Black Lives Matter rally (the photography, by Jonathan Bachman, was one of last year’s World Press Photo prize-winners). The single-most widely retweeted post—in other words, a critical lynchpin in spreading Evans’ photograph online—got Evans’ name wrong, describing her as “Leshia”, and early reports misnamed her because of it. It was the slip of a keystroke: it wasn’t malicious, but it caused confusion, and because it was such an influential tweet, it spread the inaccuracy far and wide. So social media may be important to contemporary ways of gathering and disseminating newsworthy stories, but accuracy and truth-telling may well suffer.

(Link to article about Ieshia Evans photograph)

In my own research, I’m careful to explain the circumstances under which photographs are taken. I also try to acknowledge alternative photographs taken at the same time in the same location, because by doing so we can see what’s different, special, or even simply misleading about any given photograph. This work also helps shore up the “truth-telling” aspect of photojournalism.

My own interests revolve around images, and how they speak to us. As I’ve mentioned, that goes beyond what is, strictly speaking, present in the picture—the “indexical” or “denotative” aspect of the photograph, as Roland Barthes put it. This is, incidentally, why journalists often distrust images: they’re “polluted” with things that aren’t fully “there”, like connections to Pietà statues. Journalists are ill-equipped to deal with the resonant side of photographs because it goes beyond the bounds of the story. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that photographs, in particular resonant photographs, first act upon us in pre-cognitive ways: I find something compelling before I can articulate it. And, as I’ve stated, these particularly emotive pictures have resonances from other images in our minds: other photographs, works of art, and life experiences. This is equally true of the image-maker as it is of the image-viewer.

The photograph is a construct. It is much more than a simple indexical document. What you choose to include in the picture, and how you choose to frame the subject, are just that: choices. Those choices are piled on top of all the images you’ve ever seen and your past practice as a photographer: all the pictures you’ve taken. This is equally true of anyone who *views* that photograph.

Think back to the image of Ieshia Evans facing arrest at the Black Lives Matter rally. In text and “response” images, Twitter users rightfully compared this photograph with imagery from the Civil Rights era, superheroes, action movies, and religious and supernatural elements. We could speak exclusively about the photograph and its contents: that a lone woman wearing a sun dress stands very still while a pair of heavily-armed policemen awkwardly bear down upon her.

But that misses everything about that matters about the photograph: that the policemen are backed up by a phalanx of a similarly-armoured police force, like a mediaeval army, while Evans is alone; that the policemen, who are slowing down as they approach Evans, look like they’re being pushed back by an invisible force just as they seem to touch her; that the tree behind Evans just happens to branch out behind her, making a contrast with the police on the other side of the picure; that the fact that the action is parallel to the picture plane, which has been used for millennia in the most iconographically-charged images of conflict, particularly between passive and aggressive forces. Viewers and artists picked up on all of these things, and saw in this photograph a contest between moral authority and coercive authority. Lightning bolts shock the police back; the tree becomes the wings of an angel; even the cracks in the pavement become fissures as the earth rends apart. Evans becomes a superhero, an angel, a supernatural being; the police are storm troopers from ‘Star Wars’, ‘space marines’ and ‘Robocops’. These elements are far beyond the truth-telling aspects of photojournalism, but they matter, because they’re at least partly why the photograph sticks in your mind.

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