The uses and misuses of photographs

BY Sadanand Menon| IN Media Practice | 27/09/2008
The sceptics wondered how it came about that the three arrested suspects came to be in possession of brand new rumaals, which they could readily pull out of their pockets to cover their faces,
says SADANAND MENON in his Malayalam critique Karutha Mashi

    Translated  from the Malayalam weekly of the Indian Express, Oct. 3, 2008


Monday, September 22 was an extraordinary day in the annals the Indian media. I would like to call it a day of shame. For, on that day, our media collectively displayed its herd-like mentality and its entirely uncritical attitude to the use – and misuse – of the photographs it publishes.

At least eight mainstream English newspapers (including The Times of India, The Indian and The New Indian Express, The Hindu, the Hindustan Times, The Deccan Chronicle) and many more in the regional language papers uncritically published almost identical photographs on their front pages. The photographs were not generated by any single agency. They were taken neither by ‘citizen’ photographers nor were they official handouts. They were shots by individual staff photographers as well as professional syndicated photographers. What is amazing is what newsrooms across the country chose to do with the image.

The photographs were of three suspects involved in the Delhi blasts, who were arrested from their residence in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar. Reports also claimed they were students of the Jamia Milia Islamia. What was fishy about the photographs was that they showed three totally unidentifiable people, their head and face completely swathed in generous length of cloth, flanked by gun-toting policemen in mufti and other hangers-on. Yet it seemed obvious that this was a photo-op provided to the media – not to protect anyone’s identity – but to precisely create a definite sense of identity.

For all the three suspects, to mask their identity, were tricked up in identical ‘Palestinian Rumaals’ or kaffiyehs or abayas or cassavas as this piece of head-dress is variously known. Though none of their faces were visible, to any casual reader of the newspapers it would be abundantly clear that they were of ‘Arab’, ‘West Asian’ or ‘Islamic’ origin. A clear case of racial profiling!

Some sceptical comments about this on the net, primarily generated by documentary film maker Yousuf Sayeed who lives in the same area, led to a small piece in The Hindustan Times two days later, raising critical questions. The sceptics wondered how it came about that the three arrested suspects came to be in possession of brand new rumaals, which they could readily pull out of their pockets to cover their faces. As if, upon realising they might be arrested soon, they went shopping and bought identical scarves, to help everyone recognise them as ‘Islamic terrorists’. Critics pointed out that usually suspects arrested on various charges mask their faces with their own handkerchiefs or borrow towels or black cloth to hood their faces; never before had it seemed like such a costume drama.

Then came the stunning revelation by the Delhi police commissioner. He confessed it was his department which had dressed up the suspects in such a suggestive manner and, even more alarmingly, that the Delhi police had purchased these pieces of cloth "in bulk" for use by those arrested. Obviously, every arrested person could now be given a suggestive ‘Islamic terrorist’ look, thereby setting up dangerous subliminal propaganda within the media.

Repulsive as it is, most people will agree that the Police and its dirty-tricks department are not beyond using such obnoxious methods. What is beyond explanation is how the media collectively fell into this trap and carried these images without a single question mark or doubt about what they so readily display on their front pages.

For those not used to thinking about these things, the question can be framed a little differently. It has to do with conceptual issues related to the use (or misuse) of the image in the media. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of photographs are clicked. Of these, by common consensus, and governed by a largely abstract logic dealing with the received wisdom of ‘news-value’ or ‘news-worthiness’, about five hundred to a thousand pictures might be considered for use within the media. After that, it is quite chancy or dependent on strong editorial choices why a photograph makes it to the papers, in particular the front page.

The front page photo, in the world of the print media, is usually associated with an iconic status. It is supposed be a quick encapsulation of what a paper or a region or a nation or a civilisation imagines as its primary concern. It frames the news of the day with a kind of visual evidence or back-up which then illustrates how it wants to set up the communication and how it wants the readers to enter the narrative.

Very seldom, across 365 days in a year, do we find identical images on the front page. That is supposed to be the greatness and the strength of democratic media practice that editorial position and interpretation of events can vary. It is also part of the notion of healthy competition in the media that variety, diversity and contrariness are seen as virtues – that a news item or image which is used sycophantically by one section of the press, can as easily be used critically by another section of the same press.

That is why, when you come across a substantial section of the national press use just one common image on their front page, and that too without an critical remarks or interrogative comments, one begins to smell the operation of ‘ideology’, which is nothing but a blind acceptance of certain ‘ruling’ ideas of a class or of a moment – ideas that indicate the power structures within which ‘information’ and ‘meaning’ are manufactured and circulated.

To me it is shattering, that on the evening of September 21, across the newsrooms of the best of Indian newspapers, not one editorial discussion chose to evaluate the photograph of the three arrested youngsters draped in checked cloth and use their judgement to ‘read’ the picture in a dispassionate manner worthy of a free press. Instead the Indian media collectively behaved as they had not even during the period of the Emergency and its draconian censorship. They all fell prey to their own sense of prejudice and communal mindset. The Nazi propaganda machine could not have expected to produce better results.

Obviously, Indian media needs to re-investigate the ‘frame’ within which it is presenting, colouring and analysing news. Such evidence of a collective cop-out is a serious failing, which it needs to critically examine and carry out correctives. In fact, this is a fit case for being taken before the Press Council.

Shame, a little shame is all that the media needs. For shame as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment.






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