Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Photojournalistic Meta-Pictures Re-Visited

. Last week, one photograph on the front page of The New York Times reminded me of a recent project, one that has frustrated me more than most. A few years ago I became fascinated the on-going practice of visual journalists doing two things, namely (a) including pictures/photographs in their own published photographs and (b) taking pictures of people either taking pictures or looking at them. The general topic was photojournalistic meta-pictures. I published one paper on this material in the Italian journal, DESK, without any photographic illustrations. The title was: Newspaper Meta-Pictures in Contemporary Visual Culture (Le meta-immagini dei giornali nella cultura visiva contemporanea (DESK 7(3): 17-19, 2005). But I was severely handicapped by the fact that my research sample was two year’s worth of photographs found in The New York Times, and I obviously faced restrictions on publishing a study of this material with pictorial examples. Thus I dropped interest in disseminating information about this project.

But the appearance of the above mentioned photograph, in a article entitled: “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus” by Michael Kimmelman, resuscitated my attention, and I realized I could use one of my blogs to continue my interest, hopefully inspire critical discussion and maybe even some collaboration on the next project. I have included just a few more recent illustrations from 2008-9 in this blog entry.

The photograph in question was taken by Valerio Mezzanotti and appeared on August 8, 2009 on the front page of The New York Times and had the caption: “Visitors at the Louvre: some engage directly with the art while others take pictures of picture” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/arts/design/03abroad.html).

I was immediately taken with this picture because of three meta-pictorial elements: the generous inclusion of paintings throughout the background; the appearance of two people using cameras to take their own photographs; and the focus on different models of observation in the caption. Discussion of these elements, meta-pictorial exemplars, and functions of such a representational strategy appear in the English version of my DESK paper.



Newspaper Meta-Pictures in Contemporary Visual Culture
by Richard Chalfen (Center on Media and Child Health, Boston)

Introduction. The following study focuses on instances when photojournalists and their editors have included pictures in their published photographs, when they have intentionally framed their shots to include pictures. Following WJT Mitchell, specifically in his books Iconology (1986) and Picture Theory (1994), a theory of “metapictures” is developed and applied to an examination of roughly 800 newspaper photographs found primarily in the New York Times, but with others coming from the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and both the Boston and Philadelphia editions of the Metro newspaper between January 1, 2002 and December 31, 2003. This project aims at taking the metapicture phenomena out of the confines of art worlds and perceptual psychology to relocate it squarely in the laps and minds of everyday life as practiced by ordinary people reading the daily newspaper.

A relevant part of this work is Mitchell’s thinking on “Metapictures” described as: "Pictures about pictures - that is, pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures, pictures that are used to show what a picture is." (1994:3). Mitchell maintains that any “picture that is used to reflect on the nature of pictures is a metapicture” (1994: 57). In some cases, he focuses on developing a theory of “pictures about pictures” and, at times, he speaks more broadly, of “representation about representation.” The photojournalistic pictures in this sample are being studied in this perspective, implying that these pictures-of-pictures are implicitly teaching readers about pictures as part of visual culture.

This topic has been generally ignored by journalism historians, photojournalistic practitioners, communication scholars, people in visual and media studies, and people interested in general connections between visual culture and studies of representation as broadly defined. However, when referring to the topic of images-within-images, specifically reflected images, Jonathan Miller’s On Reflections (1998) is highly recommended. Two problems persist: I have not been able to find related studies for comparisons or alternative interpretations, and, second, I am not aware of any studies that ask how ordinary newspaper readers recognize and interpret what they see in metapictures, that is, how they might be working cognitively with such images.

After subjecting this sample of 800 clippings to a version of grounded theory and an informal content analysis, a series of themes emerged which can be summarized in the following exemplars. Significant variations within each of the following categories and abundant pictorial examples appear in a longer version of this report. In addition to the images that appear below, I am assuming that readers will recall a generic example for each of my general descriptions.

EXEMPLAR (1)…Photographs being displayed to camera, depicting an absent person e.g. dead, detained or otherwise missing.
Metapictures in this category usually take the form of a person holding a picture of a recently missing person (kidnapped, lost, harmed, etc.) or someone who has died (natural disaster victim, homicide, suicide, etc.). This is the kind of news photograph that initially attracted my attention due to connections to the use of home media (family portraits, snapshots and photo albums) and occasional migration into mass media. These pictorial findings overlap with responses people most frequently gave me when I asked: “Can you think of any picture that shows a picture-within-a-picture that you have seen in the daily newspaper?”

Consider the following example by Du Bin for an article in The New York Times entitled “Rural China’s Hunger for Sons Fuels Traffic in Abducted Boys” written by Andrew Jacobs (April 4, 2009) (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/world/asia/05kidnap.html?hp):

Caption: Chen Fengyi’s 5-year-old son was kidnapped from outside her apartment building in Huizhou. She said the police never came.

EXEMPLAR (2)…Photographs on posters carried and used for political reasons, at a protest rally, a celebration, a victory march.
This exemplar is characterized by explicit and frequently aggressive display of photographs at public events, as part of celebrations in either positive or negative contexts. Here we see photographic posters being carried during political marches, at protest rallies, victory marches, commemoration events, often celebrating the desire to remember, to honor and support a person(s) or situation, to celebrate fame, or to defame or insult someone or group of people.

This exemplar is illustrated by the following photograph made for Reuters by Larry Rohter for an article entitled “On Coup's Anniversary, Argentines Vow 'Never Again' (The New York Times, March 25, 2006 --http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/25/international/americas/25argentina.html?ex=1300942800&en=a27ba792e633cb8e&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss):

Caption: A banner carried Friday by the human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo showed faces of people abducted during military rule.

EXEMPLAR (3)…Photographs appearing in background e.g. on walls, desks, mantles, shelves, pianos.
This exemplar focuses on the placement and appearance of background that accompany, sometimes surround an individual or group or people. Reference here is to the many pictures and specifically photographs that adorn desks, shelves or walls in offices or households. In other instances, the photojournalist has included wall pictures in places of leisure life or entertainment, e.g. as part of a restaurant’s interior d├ęcor. The inclusion of such pictures provides contextual information and additional detail about a person or group central to the newspaper article and accompanying photograph.

One example can be seen in this photograph by Stephen Crowley for an article entitled “Obama’s Man on the Budget: Just 40 and Going Like 60” by Jody Kantor (published in The New York Times, March 27, 2009 (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/us/politics/28orszag.html?_r=1&hp):

Caption: After a 35-minute run followed by a quick shower, Peter R. Orszag, the 40-year-old White House budget director, is off on his early-morning commute to work.

EXEMPLAR (4)…Photographs of photo/film/video being made or being looked at. This category could also be labeled: Pictures about Doing Photography/ Filmmaking or even “Enacting Representation.”
I also discovered some attention to both the act of taking/making of pictures and the act of looking-at pictures. Both of these subcategories imply an attention to relating pictorial product to communicative process, to production, reception or both. Here I am referring to news pictures that depict scenes of pictures being made, someone or something being photographed, either with still or motion picture cameras. The notion of ‘value added’ appears here as well. One is tempted to interpret the news photographs as doubly news-worthy and deserving of multiple recordings.

We find an appropriate example in a photograph made by Hiroshi Yamauchi for an article entitled: “In Kyoto, a Call to Not Trample the Geisha” written by Miki Tanikawa (The New York Times, April 6, 2009 -- http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/07/world/asia/07iht-geisha.html?_r=1&emc=eta1):

Caption: A tourist from Taiwan tried to get a close shot of the geishas Yukino, left, and Sayuri on Friday in Kyoto City.

For purposes of this abbreviated paper, I have not included examples of another category, namely when photographs/pictures appear within advertisements; I have stayed within the confines of either news or photojournalistic categories. But readers should realize that the advertisements in question are published in newspapers on a regular basis and offer readers relevant metapicture messages and lessons. I have also had to eliminate discussion of several sub-categories of variation internal to each of these four categories.

But what are meanings and significance of this practice? Why is this model of photojournalistic reporting so common, perhaps more than ever before? Are we examining just a new and popular trope? It is useful to speak of two (2) categories, namely (a) REASONS and (b) LESSONS as we ask about possible intentions and unintended results. I will first attack questions of why photojournalists and their editors are using embedded pictures to learn more about what the photojournalist intended by adopting an embedded-pictures strategy. Second, I want to address questions about what readers might be learning by seeing such images on a regular basis.

Reasons for Metapictures in Newspapers.
More information. Simply put, visual journalists have found a way of increasing information -- a photograph contains double-information when, for instance, viewers can add the content of embedded pictures to their interpretation. We also are afforded examples of process and change as in the juxtaposition two versions of the same person or place, illustrating a sense of “before-and-after.” Including a picture of “the old” in a similar setting or facsimile scene of “the new” is a good opportunity to say: “Look at this difference – here is evidence of change. Look what time will do! You are seeing it in pictures!” One example appeared in an article, “Making Ends Meet in the Great Depression” by Joyce Wadler and published in The New York Times on April 1, 2009 -- (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/garden/02depression.html?8dpc):

Josh Anderson for The New York Times
Thomas Moon holds a picture taken shortly after he and his wife,
Annie, were married 65 years ago.

Increases credibility via Pictorial Evidence. Increasingly, readers are becoming more familiar with digitally edited photographs, one result of which could implicitly foster a growing suspicion of pictures that appear in daily newspapers. Photojournalists are not immune from charges of problematic credibility. Generally, the content of embedded images supports the general theme of the newspaper photograph or surrounding article. In this way, the embedded picture adds strength to a particular argument being made by the writer and/or photographer, verifying or reifying certain “truth” qualities of photographic representation.

Relinquishing responsibility. A great deal is written about a news reporter’s responsibility to state the ‘truth.’ When photographers include pictures (images made by others, elsewhere), they are in a sense saying: ‘This is what I found – these people use (and believe in) these pictures; this is what they believe; I am not responsible for their reliance on pictures or on a larger scale, their belief system that lets them believe in pictures they ways they do.’ In short, ‘I (photojournalist) am just reporting what’s there.’

Lessons from Metapictures in Newspapers.
Density and Diversity. Readers gain a confirmation on the diversity and density of photographic images in the world. We gain daily evidence the prominence of images and frequent vernacular use of pictures in everyday life, for the fact that we live in an extraordinarily rich symbolic environment, the densest, in fact, in the history of the human condition.

Versatility and Multi-functionality. Metapictures continue to draw attention to the multiple ways and means that humans live with images. We see people asking pictures to do work for them, in both acknowledged and unacknowledged ways. The metapictures illustrate the multi-functional importance of pictures as part of everyday life. As images become increasingly common, they become embedded in common-sense consciousness, much of which is taken for granted, and possibly even ignored. In turn, they serve to remind viewers of the many ways we have come to rely on pictures as part of vernacular visual culture.

The value of pictures. Much of this sample richly illustrates how people value and treasure their pictures. As pieces of material culture, images are valued possessions; readers see how people have taken the time to display certain pictures, showing off their important people, in prominent ways and generally displaying them as prized objects – and how people grieve when these images are damaged, destroyed or lost.

Image-Extended Identity. We gain a sense of how people like to extend their own personal identities through images, seeing how people like to be looked at through a pictorial construction of identity. People extend presentations of themselves through photographic use, prioritizing the pictures they carefully select “to hang out with” or literally, the choice of pictures they hang around themselves. The visibility of embedded and/or juxtaposed pictures is more effective and performs this dimensional task in more direct and visible ways.

Cross-cultural variability. Newspaper readers see that people use pictures indifferent ways across the world, and that there is considerable social and cultural variability regarding how ordinary people use photographs in different ways as part of everyday life. Lessons are offered of how people from different countries can use pictures to show what they want, what they want to change, how they want to be seen and understood.

Conclusions. While not necessarily intended, photojournalists who put pictures in their photographs are teaching their readers not just about pictures but also about visual culture. Given that so much of this sample is about what people are seen doing with photographs, this paper could have been titled: “Visual Culture on Photojournalistic Display.” Readers see example after example of how pictures are used in contemporary life and how they are valued, telling us more and more about ubiquitous features of the vernacular symbolic environment within visual culture.

Let me add just one, an especially cynical interpretation by asking: Are photojournalists advertising their own worth and importance by showing how important photographic information is to society? A logical but unlikely extension of this suspicious stance is to ask if newspaper editors are assigning stories that are particularly picture-conscious, that is, focusing on the appearance/use of pictures. Photojournalists may be in the process of self-aggrandizing task -- elevating themselves and what they do BY illustrating how important photographs are to contemporary life! Is this part of a self-fulfilling prophesy? Maybe but clearly there must be more to say.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting topic, Thank you for sharing with us random cybersurfers! I hope by now you have found more resources to fuel this curiosity of yours.. I would suggest looking in into some of Douglas Hofstadter's works, as well as Baudrillard's Simulacra & Simulation for more insight into our minds reception of metapictures. :)