Fred Ritchin began writing on photography and digital imaging in 1984 for the New York Times Magazine. Since then he has authored three books on the subject: In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (1990), After Photography (2008), and Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (2013), the latter exploring media strategies for social change. He was picture editor of the New York Times Magazine from 1978-82, created the first multimedia version of the New York Times newspaper in 1994-95, and is now Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography in New York.
Of the Iconic Image, and the Viral
I come from the age of iconic photographs, not that long ago. Certain photographs, often published on the front pages of newspapers, would require that readers pay attention, focus on an issue (frequently a calamitous one such as war, famine, a natural disaster), and focus on it for the first time, or even re-think their positions. The photograph, even those of events happening far away, demanded attention. And while thinking about it, the reader knew that there were many others doing the same thing, reading the image, reflecting upon its meanings, perhaps even asking what they could do to help.
Being confronted by the iconic photograph was part of a ritual of citizenship, a rite of belonging to a larger community that could be influenced by an expertise outside of the government. And implied in the image’s iconic, frequently visceral status was its power to motivate society to change, to provoke a discussion on important and often uncomfortable matters that might otherwise be neglected.
So that when a Christmas Eve, 1968, photograph of the earth as seen by an astronaut in outer space was published, appearing to be beautiful, fragile and alone in space, it was only sixteen months later that the first Earth Day was celebrated as a response, with people feeling the need to care for it. And when Eddie Adams photographed a member of the Viet Cong being summarily executed on a Saigon street in 1968, shot through the head by the national police chief, the next year the US, under the leadership of newly elected President Richard Nixon, began major troop withdrawals. (The photographer was prouder of his 1979 reportage on Vietnamese refugees fleeing in boats, “Boat of No Smiles,” which was thought to have helped loosen U.S. immigration laws for some two hundred thousand people who had been denied entry.)
Similarly, the 1972 photograph of a young, naked Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running down the road in excruciating pain covered in napalm, an image made by Nick Ut, preceded by only one year the complete withdrawal of US troops from that country. Or the 1976 photograph by Sam Nzima, showing twelve-year-old South African schoolboy Hector Pieterson being carried after he was fatally shot by security forces during what had been a peaceful protest contesting what language was to be taught in schools, according to Nzima was referenced as pivotal by Nelson Mandela, when he was unveiling a memorial for the child, stating that “When we saw this picture, we said enough is enough.” There is a museum in Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum, built in response to that photograph.
It is difficult to argue that the existence of such photographs by themselves provoked change. There were certainly pre-existing, underlying feelings that the photograph both confirmed and ignited; without them such an image might pass largely unnoticed. But it was an ongoing hope among photographers that their reportages, published in newspapers and magazines, might possibly change things for the better; otherwise it becomes exceedingly difficult to repeatedly place one’s camera in the faces of the wounded and the traumatized.
But now, as societies are fractured to the point where there is little consensus, when photographs and news media are typically disbelieved and the front pages of their print editions are hardly seen, displaced by the smaller, more ephemeral, quickly changing screen versions that are frequently curated by the individual readers (“My News,” as the BBC calls it), such a photograph has difficulty gaining sufficient traction to become influential. So that, for example, from the American military involvement in Afghanistan, the longest war in the history of the United States, no iconic images have emerged. Nor have there been any, other than perhaps an image of a polar bear on an ice floe, that have been able to represent the enormity of climate change and provoke a response that is of anywhere near the necessary magnitude.
In 2011 I curated an exhibition of photographs of the Libyan revolution by Bryan Denton, a former student of mine at New York University who had been working in Libya as a freelancer for the New York Times over a six-month period. Denton, who is nearly fluent in Arabic, had lived in Beirut for several years, and devoted himself to making imagery that explored some of the complexities of the general uprising, quite a few of which appeared in the Times. After a projection of his recent work that Denton presented in a public forum at the time of his exhibition, I asked a young Libyan woman on the panel—a student pursuing a career in health sciences—to comment. She first thanked all who had made photographs of her country’s revolution, and then referred to a specific photograph of her grandfather in Libya that she had received only the day before as being the one that was most important to her. She described it as a cellphone image of her grandfather, posing with the corpse of former dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in a meat locker. In the photograph, she said, her grandfather was smiling for the first time in forty years.
Aside from this photograph, there were no other specific images which she referenced. The young professional photographer next to her, who had just braved wartime violence to serve as a witness, was made to realize that, for a young Libyan woman living in New York, a family’s cellphone image was apparently the most consequential. Like so much else in an increasingly digital world, war is personal.
Today, if a photograph does emerge with something essential to say about contemporary events, there is a growing probability that it was authored and distributed by one of the many amateurs with digital devices. At this moment the work of these nonprofessionals—making awkward, raw, and frequently intimate imagery—is often perceived as more “authentic.” And rather than advocating for a publication’s worldview, a major flaw in the myth of photographic objectivity, the amateur may be explicitly advocating for his or her own.
A Tunisian computer programmer and blogger Azyz Amami, spoke in 2011 at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France, pointing out several essential ways in which his practice and that of his colleagues during the Arab Spring differed from that of the media professional. To begin with, Amami and his colleagues were clearly motivated by their personal stake in the future of Tunisia as a democratic society. His interest, as he explained it, was not in framing a scene—taking the time to frame might mean being spotted by the security forces and being arrested. Nor was it in photographing the dead and injured—a citizen journalist would likely try to help fellow protestors who are hurt, whereas the professional is often dependent on making more shocking photographs of casualties in order to come away with saleable imagery for the international press (“if it bleeds, it leads,” as the saying goes). On the other hand, a citizen journalist might have less compunction about inflating the number of people at antigovernment demonstrations in a caption, if it might help to attract new recruits to the revolution (although, one might add, professionals quoting official counts from ill-informed or biased authorities often get the numbers wrong as well).
This elevation of the personal was prefigured in conventional media responding to the rapid rise of consumer capitalism and individual entitlement. Paul Stookey of the US folk singing group Peter, Paul, and Mary once reflected onstage that, in the United States, after the demise of the mass-circulation picture magazine Life the next popular magazine was People, a title that left out much of “life,” which then was followed by Us magazine, excluding most “people,” which in turn led to Self, a title that excluded in its focus anybody and anything other than the individual. Publications began in earnest to privilege the consumer over the citizen in an attempt both to please advertisers and to boost or at least maintain circulations. Articles on personal health trumped those on world affairs, and the political, like everything else, became a source of entertainment, partially explaining the unanticipated rise of Donald Trump, reality tv star.
Now online, where each “user” can filter the news according to his or her worldview, society has been increasingly flattened, the prosumer on social media no longer expected to respect the expertise of journalists unless it matches their own pre-existing perspective. It is a post-enlightenment retrenchment that has largely eviscerated the power of iconic imagery, including its ability to provoke people to rethink their positions. It may be that in an era of prevalent government distortions, of increasing disdain for the fairness of media, of bots and cyborgs engaging in increasingly effective online psychological and political warfare, of manipulated and synthetic photography and video, it may be that the iconic image has gone the way of the grand narrative.
As Peter Pomerantsev points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “From Narratives to Networks: The Changing World of Protests,” now it may that be the catchphrase of the Hong Kong demonstrations, “Be water, my friend,” borrowed from martial arts expert Bruce Lee, prevails, displacing pitched battles of the past for a more liquid, local response that resembles something more biological and viral. As increasingly authoritarian governments invoke disinformation and conspiracy theories, “Protesters avoid giving the authorities an obvious target: Don’t gather in one place, where you can be encircled; don’t have clear leaders, who can be arrested; ebb and flow the demonstrations to keep officials confused. Protesters are taking on some of the liquid logic of their rulers to make themselves a harder target,” Pomerantsev writes. And he adds, “This ability to find connections and momentum in a fractured landscape is perhaps the underlying essence of the current protests. The regimes they fight have no single ideology, united only in their aim to demotivate people and break up common efforts.”
Rather than looking to topple the statues of leaders as iconoclasts, protesters, from a fluctuating world of “likes” and memes, better understand that the power structures that they confront have made themselves into post-truth shape shifters, invoking “fake news” rather than occupying any coherent position. Donald Trump, for example, evokes his own sense of reality, or unreality, multiple times daily, alternating positions for white supremacy and against it, employing racist invective while describing himself as “the least racist person in the world,” attempting to humiliate anyone he perceives as against him while calling for unity, and posing for a photograph thumbs up and smiling while his wife holds a baby orphaned in a mass shooting that quite probably was inspired in part by his own anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro fires the head of one of his government agencies for showing satellite imagery that depicts the rising exploitation of the Amazon, despite the photographic evidence, and then initially does nothing as it burns.
So rather than the iconic, one may engage the contagious. “Social photos are not primarily about making media but about sharing eyes,” Nathan Jurgenson writes in a recently published book, The Social Photo. They are, perhaps, to a large extent not actually photographs but an image vocabulary of experiences elaborated upon as memes. After the recent presidential debates in the United States, one of the candidates, Marianne Williamson, was asked if the debate had gone as she had hoped it would. She responded, while attempting to gain the most powerful political position on the planet: “I don’t know yet. I mean, I’ll tell you when, you know, later when I see the memes.”
The digital revolution of 0s and 1s coincided with a reconsideration of ourselves as code-based as well, via our own DNA. By favoring the genotype over the phenotype, digital media becomes a less hospital environment for the iconic image; it is the sharing of code in a kind of artificial or parallel life that is pre-eminent here. Furthermore, the digital, composed of discrete segments such as pixels, resembles more a quantum environment of probabilities and uncertainties than the analog one of continuity and a Newtonian cause and effect.
It makes every photograph, like so much else online, a statement of what might be rather than of what is—an evolution that encourages a healthy skepticism and an amplified consciousness, as well as a virulent disdain for the factual. As a result, the iconic image, like so many other hierarchical systems, is severely diminished. And the media revolution is real.
©Fred Ritchin, 2019