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August 17, 2014

News Photos, Victims of the Propaganda War

If the news is wall-to-wall Missouri right now concerned with the killing of a unarmed young black man by a white cop, this photo from Gaza remains more than pertinent.

You might look at the central element in this photo as a window, a simple metaphor revealing the grief of so many Palestinians for so much punishment and loss. (If you read the caption, you know that this wall not only captures the effects of an Israeli air strike but looks onto the courtyard of a family grieving three members killed in the attack.)

In this polarized world, however, in which one partisan or another is quick to discount a news image as propaganda, or worse, I think it’s more accurate to speak of that element as a frame. But window, frame, what’s the difference? Well, the former tends to takes us further inside in a way we generally trust with our own eyes. The latter, on the other hand, has as much to do with where the rectangle is placed, and by whom.

To the extent governments, political parties, armies or police departments have become active and increasingly sophisticated visual combatants, the difference between news photography and propaganda is being lost. As both political and military conflicts come to be waged as much in virtual space, people view the news photo less as a window than an object of bias or a perceptual Trojan Horse.

News photos are much more revealing of power (and power differentials), however. To the extent they are fodder for partisan persuaders and ideological combatants, that window is more like a mirror. As purveyors of ideology have also crowded their way into the media space, the burden of equivalence, the idea one photo negates the next one, or the belief that a photo propagates one position more than it reveals, or invites more inspection of the conditions and consequences that empower it, is coming from the reflection.

Update 8:45 am PST. Added conclusion.

(photo: Suhaib Salem/Reuters. caption: Finally back to the northern Gaza Strip where a relative of the Wahdan family looks at a badly damaged house at the Jabaliya refugee camp. Witnesses said it was hit by an Israeli air strike that killed three members of the family.)

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