I’ve been playing devil’s advocate in some of my responses lately regarding a debate that has arisen about photojournalism and poverty. Now, I won’t go on blabbing about all that again but I thought this article I wrote for a Uni paper a few weeks back might help to frame this idea I’m proposing about viewers inferring things from photographs and unclear agendas behind a photo.
WHEN A PICTURE TELLS A THOUSAND LIES
David Mack checks out the World Press Photo of the Year exhibition at the State Library.
The majority of photos on display at this year’s World Press Photo of the Year exhibition are black and white or in muted, sepia tones.
They feature lost-looking refugees, machine-guns pointing in the air, masses of soldiers and riot police, thick black smoke and tired, old faces in various states of despair.
It has a been a gloomy 12 months according to the world’s leading photographers – I think I only counted one or two smiles in all the exhibited photos.
Interestingly, some of the photographs are taken from high, overhead angles as if the photographers are almost assuming the place of a god they don’t believe could possibly exist in this war-torn, miserable world of ours.
‘Voyeurs or Victims?’ proclaims the tag line in the advertisements for the exhibition that currently emblazon bus shelters around the city.
Adorning the ads is Spencer Platt’s winning photograph taken in Beirut last year in the aftermath of the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
In it, five young Lebanese people ride in an open-top red sports car through the smoldering rubble of Dahiye, a Beirut neighbourhood.
Four of the five sport designer sunglasses. All the four women wear jewelry, tight tops (two of them tied with spaghetti-straps) and have their long hair tied back – one of them is even blonde. What’s more, the car’s male driver seems to model a perfectly coiffed, designer haircut and facial hair.
One of the women holds a handkerchief to her nose and mouth, presumably blocking an unpleasant smell, while another seems to be snapping a photo on her mobile phone. The blonde in the front seat turns in such a way that she looks almost posed – exuding an existentialist glamour that alludes to Calvin Klein ads.
They are in complete contrast to the devastation around them. Every other person in the scene is on foot and looking much less fashionable. A woman in the background even wears a hijab and shields her face.
You wouldn’t be wrong for assuming these inconsiderate yuppies must be indulging in a form of ‘disaster tourism’: traveling through a poor and ravaged section of town before returning to their hillside mansions to enjoy a nice Chianti and remark how sad life must be for those victims of war.
German newspaper Der Spiegel ran an article on February 28 by Ulrike Putz, claiming a “mix-up” in the representation of the car’s occupants.
In the article, one of the women, Bissan Maroun, comes forward to tell the “real story” behind the photograph.
She claims her and her friends have experienced hostility as a result of the vilifying way the photograph portrays them.
“At first everyone said: That must be those rich, chic Lebanese visiting the poor neighborhood like a tourist attraction,” Bissan told Der Spiegel. “But that’s completely untrue.”
Bissan explains that she and her brother Jad and sister Tamara we’re residents of the neighbourhood themselves, who had fled, like most Lebanese, to safer districts to wait out the conflict.
Along with their friends, Noor Nasser and Lillane Nacouzi, they were riding in a borrowed, orange Mini Cooper with the roof down on a particularly hot August 15, the day of the ceasefire, inspecting the damage to their apartment block when Platt snapped their photograph.
“Look at our faces,” she said. “They clearly show how horrified we were, how shocked. We were not cheerful.”
As for their stylish garb: “This is Lebanon,” she said. “We always dress this way.”
The Der Spiegel article accused the photo of “catering to a Lebanese cliché,” claiming Platt had “struck a nerve.” It goes on to discuss the reality that is the economic disparity between the residents of Beirut.
“There really were rich people,” Putz writes, “wearing expensive sunglasses – mostly Christian or Sunni – who sat…in popular bars above the city watching the unloved Shiite neighborhoods go up in smoke.”
“The trouble is that Bissan and her companions don’t belong to that group.”
Sydney Morning Herald blogger John Reid hit on the issue in a March 15 entry, (http://blogs.smh.com.au/photographers/archives/...) believing “the controversy stems from the fact that the car’s occupants don’t look like victims of war… We (Westerners – consumers of mainstream media) don’t normally associate victim status with people who are dressed in modern fashion, are clean and wealthy looking, and are driving sporty little convertibles.”
Reid quotes Platt as saying “We in the West have a lot of stereotypes of what a victim should look like, especially in the Middle East. They should be defeated; they should look powerless, hopeless …"
Reid is right. As a record of a split second in a moment of time, photos by their very nature are limited in what they can explain about an issue. By assuming that a photograph could intentionally mislead us, we must question what it is we expect from our photos.
Platt’s photograph is a testament to the power images yield over us – how they can suggest so much but say so very little.