Picturing and Consuming Image of Misery and Injustice

Helen Adilia Arceyut-Frixione

Photography offers the viewer a unique, versatile opportunity to see the world through a fixed perspective. Photography’s versatility is exemplified through three varying positions: the varying subjects portrayed in a photograph, the differing public who view the photographic object, and the widespread accessibility of the medium. The Burden of Visual Truth, by Julianne H. Newton, discusses these different perspectives and how they affect photography’s main participants: the subject, the photographer, the viewer, and the editor.[1] Combining these key participants, alongside the historical aspect of both photojournalism and social documentary photography, allows for an understanding of Susan Sontag’s critical and ethical concerns outlined in her book of essays, On Photography (1973).

Sontag’s essay “In Plato’s Cave” puts forth two major concerns: first, the ethical role of the photographer when presented with subject matter related to human rights issues and second, the photograph’s function as a social document.[2] As Newton reveals: “From the time of its invention in the early 19th century, photography enjoyed the unparalleled credibility assumed through a mechanistic perception of a neutral, ‘mirror of nature’ camera.”[3] Time allowed for the development of the role of the photographic participant, and photojournalism and social documentary photography allowed for this role to transform. Considering the elements of viewer, subject, photographer, editor and their roles within photojournalism and social documentary photography will allow us to shed light on Sontag’s concerns, in respect to two sample photographs.

There is common ground found in photojournalism and social documentary photography, linked with the need to document the human side of current events. According to Newton, photojournalism was reaching new heights by the mid 20th century: “by the 1960’s, photojournalism was flourishing – the 35mm camera had made the physical challenges of picture taking easier, printing advances had made publication of photographs a similar matter, and news publications had begun to realize the informational economic value of photographs.”[4] In other words, photography became accessible to its viewers through news magazines – such as Life andLook – and newspapers. As well, the camera itself had become less cumbersome and more affordable, making photographic equipment more mobile than before. This new mobility enabled photography’s subject matter to evolve. Photographers were no longer confined to a certain theme but were free to point and shoot at just about anything, regardless of terrain and location. Mobility and accessibility are two primary traits that lend themselves to one of the major themes of photojournalism – capturing current events.

Photojournalistic socio-political themes (wars) and socio-cultural themes (current events) are the cornerstone of the newsroom environment, and the newsroom is dependent on mobility and accessibility. The rise of 20th century photojournalism went hand in hand with wars, in particular the First and Second World Wars, and later with magazines such as Life and Look. An example of this type of on the spot newsworthy photojournalism is Robert Capa’s The Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936) (fig. 1), which was published in October of 1936 in the French Picture Magazine VU as well as in Lifein July 1937. The photograph depicts a soldier in motion, his body propelled backwards by the force of a bullet. The soldier is in the bottom left corner of the foreground. The background is a nondescript countryside. There is no eye contact. This is not a portrait of an individual but of an incident. Capa’s photograph calls into question Sontag’s concern regarding photography as an act of non-intervention by the photographer. It is clear to the viewer that an act of great violence has been committed, as it is this action that has captured the viewer’s attention. What hold the viewer’s attention are the questions he/she is asking. The viewer assumes that the photographer was caught off guard in much the same way the viewer is affected by the act of disorder and trauma. If photography is indeed an act of non-intervention, this denotes a sense of spontaneity that presumably would not allow for intervention without premeditation. On the other hand, Capa’s photograph has been part of a continuous controversy concerning its authenticity: “This photography has been challenged as a fake and the controversy has never been settled,” claims Michael Griffin.v The insinuation of fraud affects the photograph’s credibility as a social document. However, the image’s impact has been established with the observer. Sontag’s concerns are valid in suspecting that some photographers will neglect possible bureaucratic consequences in order to achieve a picture-perfect photo. Nonetheless, if the photo is spontaneous or staged the concerns expressed by Sontag are less valid, though the reputation of the photographer remains in question.

As mentioned in the introduction, there are four participants in the photographic perspective: the subject, the viewer, the photographer and the editor. By looking at Capa’s photograph and considering the notion of fraud, both the subject and the photographer are taken out of the equation. What is of concern is the effect created by the photograph on the viewer and how the editor chooses to represent the photograph in question. Looking at the photograph objectively would require not reading the caption, suggests Jorge Lewinski:

It is essentially an ambiguous image. However, as captioned inLife “Robert Capa’s camera captures a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba.” With this caption, the photograph becomes a famous and valuable property in both political and commercial terms. Yet, and there is nothing in the photograph to deny this, if we were to re-write the caption to read “A militiaman slips and falls while training for action” the photograph would become worthless in both sense.[6]

Regardless of these details, the photograph when combined with the caption is powerful and effective in conveying the distress and tension of the civil war in Spain. This is how it has been popularized. Sontag makes reference to the fleeting sense of awareness associated to some photographs, stating: “a vast catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary […] making it appear familiar”[7] She describes a sense of saturation, which is inevitable when viewers are regularly presented with similar images. However, an image like Capa’s manages to propel itself out of this sphere. The image becomes iconic and deeply associated with war and the image of the underdog.

Social documentary photography, like photojournalism, deals with the documentation of socio-cultural, political and current events. Social documentary photography is associated with groups like the Farm Security Administration, which documented migrant farming families and the effects of the Great Depression on the American people in the early 20th century. Linda Gordon describes the project as “aimed to examine systematically the social and economic relations of American agricultural labor.”[8] Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother (1936) (fig. 2), seen in Midweek Pictorial on October 17, 1936, showcases the use of portraiture to document social and historical change. Here the viewer engages with the subject’s face, as the face of this mother is the focal point of the photograph. Her children look away from the camera. They surround her but do so in a manner that frames her. The indirect eye contact denotes a sense of humility and community. The mother and the worries shown on her face are the main subjects portrayed in this photograph. Her eyes look beyond the camera. She does not make eye contact with either the photographer or the viewer. By allowing the image to appear candid, it adds a sense of intimacy to the photograph. It is reminiscent of religious images: “Lange’s photography recalls religious images of the Madonna and Child, but also expresses Depression era values,” states Mary Werner Marien.[9] The portrait represents what needed to be portrayed at that time: a mother and her children looking to survive despite their grim living conditions.

Sontag’s concerns for the ethical role of the photographer, as well as the photograph’s function as a social document, is illustrated in the use of this photograph. Sontag believes that the photographer is the ultimate observer, content in shooting the scene and choosing not to intervene. However, Dorothea Lange was a socially conscious photographer: “Lange, far from passively receptive, was an assertive visual intellectual, superbly disciplined and self-conscious, working systematically to develop a photography that could be maximally communicative and revealing.”[10] Evidence of Lange’s awareness of the viewer is shown via an image of the woman represented inMigrant Mother, who is seen from a distance. This lesser-known image shows the mother and children in a tent, taken at a medium range and from an angle. However, it does not have the same impact on the viewer as the close up portrait-style shot does. It is not just Lange as a photographer, but the editor’s use of the photograph (through newspapers or magazines) that will influence the viewer’s reading of the image. Sontag’s concerns for non-intervention and saturation are present in Migrant Mother, however, these concerns are outweighed by the effects and consequences of this image of the Great Depression. Gordon states:
To a startling degree, popular understanding of the Great Depression of the 1930’s derives from visual images, and among them, Dorothea Lange’s are the most influential. Although many do not know her name, her photographs live in the subconscious of virtually anyone in the United States who has any concept of that economic disaster.[11]

The volume of this response outweighs Sontag’s concerns. Migrant Mother showcases the injustices of the Great Depression. The facts may have faded from the viewer’s mind but this mother’s suffering expression never will.
The popularity of this photograph touches on the concept of saturation illustrated by Sontag in her essay “In Plato’s Cave.” According to Gordon: “Migrant Mother, had, by the late 1960s, been used in approximately ten thousand published items, resulting in millions of copies.”[12] The original message of Lange’s photograph established awareness of the living conditions of the American farmer during the Great Depression and drought. “The extraordinary popularity of some of her photographs has decontextualized and universalized them, categorized them as art, and thereby diverted attention from their almost social-scientific significance,” continues Gordon.[13]

Migrant Mother has become a work of art, a portrait that for some is no longer linked to the originally intended socio-cultural context it was trying to depict. This photograph exemplifies the importance of context, which helps to tie a photograph to its origin. The decontextualization of Migrant Mother, due to its popularity, does not lessen the effects that it has on the viewer. Edward Steichen regarded “photography [as] a universal language.”[14] He made this comment with regards to the popularity of the exhibit The Family of Man. His original fear had been that these photographs, out of context, would lose their power and intention: “I was greatly concerned as to what would happen in countries with an ideology entirely different from our own […]”[15] Instead, Steichen discovered that even out of context, The Family of Man exhibit was well received. This fact can be paralleled to Migrant Mother: although the image has become famous and therefore “saturated” in the mind of the viewer, its accessibility both due to popularity and subject matter has not diminished the viewer’s consciousness.

Photography events, like the World Press Photo exhibition, prove the major themes in both photojournalism and social documentary photography are still practiced today. Major themes such as capturing current events and documenting social change, politically or otherwise, are still present. What has changed over time is the photographic medium. In the book Images Ethics in the Digital Agethe editors try to explain this change: “In the past quarter century, the world of mediated images has undergone transformations […] most notable is the emergence of widely accessible digital manipulation technologies.”[16]

The question of authenticity is not a new phenomenon, as seen in Robert Capa’s The Death of a Loyalist Soldier. However, the scale in which an image can be altered and recontexualized has indeed become an issue. This issue now affects how the viewer receives and interprets images; the viewer has become more critical of an image’s authenticity, suggests Dona Schwartz: “Digital imaging has shaken the public’s faith in photography […] perhaps due to the introduction of the digital imaging technology into the consumer market; contemporary viewers have fixated on the digital image’s potential for manipulation.”[17]

The themes remain the same and the public’s interest remains the same, but with technological progress there has been an evolution in the viewer’s sense of doubt. The viewer may question the image but not the theme that is represented. The digital age has changed the viewer’s reception and not their understanding of these types of photographs, as Newton states: “Ethical blunders by such journalistic icons as National Geographic and Time magazine in the 1980’s and 1990’s contributed to a popular misconception [of] digital imaging rapidly eroding any trust viewers or readers might still hold in journalistic media.”[18] The viewer is aware of the ease with which a photograph can be manipulated, yet despite this, events like the World Press Photo Exhibition occur precisely because the viewer still wants to see images of reality: war, political upheavals, natural disasters, etc. The visual language of photography may have become harder to decipher but it is still universal and understood by all.

It has been many years since Susan Sontag expressed her critical and ethical concerns regarding photography. Photographic styles since Sontag express different ethical values from those of earlier photojournalists and social documentarians, as exemplified by the Paparazzi. However, there are photographers that honor a social code like Newton observes: “The heart of photojournalism is reporting human experience accurately.”[19] A paparazzi image does not qualitatively capture the human experience to the same degree. It may be that the viewer is constantly bombarded with images of a selected popular subject, whether it is a movie star or a politician. But it could also be that photojournalists and social documentary photographers practice ‘non-intervention’ as Sontag speaks of, whereas the paparazzi needs to create ways of intervening in order to find the picture. For example, Nick Ut’s Pultzier Prize winning picture Children Fleeing a Napalm Strike, June 8, 1972 (fig. 3), as compared to Nick Ut’s image of Paris Hilton, June 8, 2007 (fig. 4). Ut’s image, despite being qualitatively different, captures what is of interest to the public at the moment. The viewer is drawn into this photograph by seeing a different side to a media darling. She is crying while being driven to jail. This image transforms Paris Hilton into a member of the public, a common person – a refreshing image to a viewer saturated by constant digital images of perfection.

Ultimately, it is through the subject, the photographer, the viewer, and the editor that the photographic medium is able to realize such adaptability, enabling the public to experience the world through a decidedly fixed perspective. Accessibility of the technology has led to development of photojournalism and social documentary photography – genres that have proven themselves to be highly problematic, with the rapid rise of digital photography only adding to the matter. Susan Sontag critiqued the genres and expanded upon her concerns in the essay “In Plato’s Cave” citing ethics and photography’s role as a social document as the basis of the issue. It is only when these fundamentals are corrected and acknowledged by the photographer, which is increasingly happening in recent times, that photojournalism and social documentary photography can become principally moral.

List of Illustrations
Images Coming Soon.

Gordon, Linda. “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist.” The Journal of American History 3 (December 2006): 698-727.
Griffin, Michael. “The Great War Photographs: Constucting Myths of History and Photojournalism.” In Picturing the Past, Media, History and Photography, edited by Bonnie Brennen and Hanno Hardt, 123-157. Urban and Chicago: University of llinois Press, 1999.
Lewinski, Jorge. The Camera at War: A History of War Photography from 1848 to the Present Day. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Newton, Julianne H. The Burden Of Visual Truth: The Role of Photojournalism in Mediating Reality. Mahaw, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2001.
Schwartz, Dona. “Professional Oversight: Policing the Credibility of Photojournalism.” In Images Ethics in the Digital Age, edited by Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, and Jay Ruby, 27-53. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” In On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Steichen, Edward. “Photography: Witness and Recorder of Humanity.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 3 (Spring 1958): 159-167.
Warner Marien, Mary. Photography a Cultural History. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

1 Julianne Newton, The Burden of Visual Truth: The Role of photojournalism in Meditating Reality (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001), ix.
2 Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” in On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978).
3 Julianne H. Newton, The Burden Of Visual Truth: The Role of Photojournalism in Mediating Reality (Mahaw, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2001), ix.
4 Ibid.
5 Michael Griffin, “The Great War Photographs,” in Picturing the Past: Media, History and Photography, ed. Bonnie Brennen and Hanno Hardt (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 138.
6 Jorge Lewinski, The Camera at War: A History of War Photography from 1848 to the Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster 1978), 90.
7 Sontag, 20-21.
8 Linda Gordon, “Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist,” The Journal of American History 93 (December 2006): 1.
9 Mary Warner Marien, Photography a Cultural History (New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), 280.
10 Gordon, “Dorothea Lange,” 5.
11 Ibid., 1.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., 4.
14 Edward Steichen, “Photography: Witness and Recorder of Humanity,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 41 (Spring 1958) ix.
15 Ibid., x.
16 Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, and Jay Ruby, Images Ethics in the Digital Age (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), vii.
17 Dona Schwartz, ‚”Professional Oversight: Policing the Credibility of Photojournalism‚” in Images Ethics in the Digital Ageed. Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, Jay Ruby (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 30.
18 Newton, ix.
19 Ibid., x.