On the Treachery of (News) Images

By Michaela Dwyer

The walls in the central hallway of the first floor of West Duke function currently as a gallery. On one, between a long sequence of color photo prints, is a plain text document tacked to the wall, made up of several statements like the following: “It can be a picture of a child burned by napalm running along a highway in South Vietnam. A picture that would turn public opinion on a war thousands of miles away.” At the bottom of the document, these statements are attributed to The Picture: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Photography, published in 1989.

The panel on Monday; from left: Carpentier, Hogan, and Lasch. Photo by Christian Ferney.

This text—and the photos—are part of Advance for Use Sunday by Caitlin Margaret Kelly, who is both curator of the exhibition “The Icon Industry: The Visual Rhetoric of Human Rights” (in which Advance for Use Sunday is featured) as well as Kenan’s first Graduate Arts Fellow. Kelly came to Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts after a long career as a photojournalist in the U.S. and South America. In a recent Recess article about the exhibition, Kelly credited the shift to her feeling limited by the photojournalism field. She sought out the “ability to pull strengths from photojournalism, from [her] documentary work, from [her] other interests.” Fittingly, the panel gathered on Monday for the opening of “The Icon Industry” reflected this spectrum: journalism (Francesca Dillman Carpentier), documentary (Wesley Hogan), and visual art (Pedro Lasch). Kelly began by asking each panelist to discuss what it means to represent something “well” in their respective fields. Carpentier mentioned a list of rules utilized by journalists to best depict “what’s there”—rules, essentially, for the representation of subjects and/or events deemed newsworthy. I immediately recalled Kelly’s piece. In Advance for Use Sunday, the AP’s “Guide to Good News Photography,” uncannily similar to this set of journalistic “rules,” critiques photojournalism’s traditional standards—and, by extension, the ways in which the media employs iconic images to flatten the public’s understanding of complex events.

After the panel discussion, I chatted with Kelly next to a snack table of cheese cubes. Kelly, whose master’s thesis in visual anthropology examined Vietnam War photographs on the front page of The New York Times between 1962 and 1973, told me that the “picture of a child burned by napalm” was taken, and taken up by the media and the public, rather late into the war, in 1972: a visual coup de grâce for an overseas struggle that, by that point, faced near-universal negative public opinion. In this context, it was the “right” image—a “Good News Photograph,” emphasis on the capital “G.”

Gallery-goers at Monday’s opening of “The Icon Industry.” Photo by Christian Ferney.

But, and as Lasch suggested in the panel, situating this discussion of news images—and I’ll go a step farther and term them “human rights images”—in terms of “good” and “bad” already brings up questions of, as he said, “morality and taste.” These images, once publicized and “rallied around,”[1] become morsels suitable for critical judgment; a critique, in a sense, but too often evaluated only within the framework of the discipline and assignment in which the image came to be. It’s one thing to understand details of the event that produced an iconic image. But, as Hogan pointed out from the documentarian’s perspective, it’s another thing to consider—and take dead-seriously—the photographer’s intent in capturing the image, the circumstances in which the image came to be, the type of relationship between the photographer and his or her “subjects,” the extent of aesthetic control, etc (the list could go on forever). Each of these considerations alters our value-added assessment of an iconic image—or any image, for that matter—and this multiplicity seems the only logical starting point for any discussion, or possible “use,” of such images. But when our culture needs the news, and needs it now, such discussion is quickly shunted in favor of what makes headlines pop and sales go up.

An Image in Caitlin Margaret Kelly’s ‘Advance for Use Sunday.’

Is such a forum for discussion possible, then? In a way, the panel ended with this question, and we were unleashed to wall-mounted art and refreshments. I spent a while in front of Advance for Use Sunday. If you stop by the exhibition, you’ll see the flippable paper captions atop each photographic print. The exhibited side of each piece of paper provides a condensed description of what’s happening in the photo and categories such as location, event, and action verbs. The large photo to which these captions are attached, however, is immediately discordant. For a description of “a man look[ing] at female sex workers” in Yangon, Myanmar, we see two young white girls chasing each other in apparent playtime glee. The trick is to flip the paper caption: on the other side is the AP image that originally accompanied the AP caption on the front.

Antoine Williams’s painting.

The space between these two images is the zone that’s begging to be discussed, to be flipped over constantly, to gnaw on while chewing cheese cubes. It’s an invitation to critical practice in lieu of one-sided critique, and more than anything this exhibition feels like an endless forum for such practice. One of my favorite moments last night was sidling up to Antoine Williams’s enormous painting, characterized by hybrid figures both human and not (it reminded me stylistically of Wangechi Mutu’s collage works, recently exhibited at the Nasher Museum). The person standing next to me turned out to be Williams, the artist, himself. We talked about the painting’s content and his desire to represent race- and gender-based hierarchies in a visually ambiguous way. We “rallied around” his own iconic images for a few minutes, but only in the sense that we immediately got into the thick of the issues Williams wanted to treat in the painting. And then, eventually, we parted, lending our voices to the overall [critical] din of the hallway.

[1] “This rallying around iconic images can be important,” said Kelly. “But to me, the lack of critique afterwards is what the exhibit was trying to start talking about…the lack of understanding that an event or a group of people or a thing is often much more complex than what the iconography shows it to be.” (Recess, Duke Chronicle)