This post is kind of an addendum to the previous post. The issue of difficult images came up again recently.
Early this week, Curtis came on from work and said, “Have you seen the news?” Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi had been killed earlier in the day by Libyan forces. I had been watching the headlines online all day, so I had heard about the attack and was aware that there was some uncertainty about whether he was actually dead.
Curtis works for a company that does home renovations, so he spends his days going in and out of people’s houses. His last client of the day had been watching the news and so Curtis had caught glimpses of footage from events in Libya as he was finishing up his work.
At this point, I need to interject something. We don’t have a TV in our house and we don’t have a cable subscription. I don’t want to misrepresent anything. I watch television. Regularly. I watch on the internet and on iTunes. This means that I’m not really up on the latest commercials and I generally never watch the news, local or otherwise, (unless you count The Daily Show). Even with high quality photos and videos included with many stories reported on online, most of the time when I am checking the news I’m scanning headlines and skimming articles.
When Curtis walked in the door and asked me if I had seen the news, he literally meant “Have you seen the photos and videos of the death of el-Qaddafi being shown on TV?” As he described the images that had been played and replayed all afternoon, I was honestly stunned. I know that at this point, I should not be shocked by things like this. But I am. I had assumed that the confusion about when and how el-Qaddafi was killed stemmed from the usual attempts to confirm information from reliable sources. I had no idea that the situation was actually compounded by gruesome, graphic images popping up online that left significant doubt about whether the obviously seriously wounded human in the shot was dead or alive. I don’t know exactly what bothered me most: the thought of these images being played in an endless loop all day long, my own unease about celebrating the murder of a human being, or the futility of trying to articulate why we need to handle images like these with far more care than commonly seems to be used by mass media.
These issues also came up when the death of Osama Bin Laden was announced. I’m on a few listservs devoted to visual research and methods. The absence of photos “proving” Bin Laden’s death was a hot topic in May of this year. A recurring theme on these discussion boards was the notion that, even in the age of readily available photo editing tools like PhotoShop, there was a wide spread outcry for photo documentation of Bin Laden’s corpse, apparently accepting digital images as reliable proof. I guess seeing is still equated with believing, even when we regularly see the magic of computer generated images (CGI) on television and in the movie theatre.
Alleged photos of a dead Bin Laden were exposed to be a hoax [PLEASE NOTE: This link contains potentially disturbing images], the result of merging an image of a brutally beaten man with a old photo of Bin Laden. The general public received a lesson in digital image manipulation, but this just exposed the mechanics of visual deception. I don’t think this blip in the news cycle did much to help us think more deeply about how we depict death and violence, and what basic dignities are owed to human beings.
I’ve been thinking a lot about focusing some of my future research on the topic of the credibility of visual information. Unpacking the tangle of philosophical, ethical, social and technological issues this latest encounter reflects will take some time. I just know that this week, I was really glad that we don’t have a TV.