Why the Wrong Picture Matters

On Friday last week,  a Q&A appeared on The New York Times website between journalist James Estrin and photographer Ami Vitale.  The story pertains to the now widely recognized hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls, meant to raise awareness and perhaps pressure officials in our own countries to do everything possible to rescue nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in Nigeria.  At issue are three photographs of young, African women that have to a great extent become the faces of the campaign, spread throughout the Internet and featured on mainstream news broadcasts.  The problem is that these three photos, used without permission, were taken by Ms. Vitale as part of her documentary study of the society in Guinea-Bissau, a country located more than a thousand miles from Nigeria and whose residents have nothing to do with the victims of these kidnappings.

Vitale is angry for several good reasons, I think, not the least of which (if I may paraphrase) is that the appropriation of these images, even in the name of a cause as dire as the Nigerian situation, implies a tremendous cynicism about the civil liberties pertaining to the likenesses of the subjects; and in this case, is further aggravated by cultural insensitivity.  In other words, nobody’s image should be used without permission as though it were a generic stock photo — I know I’d be angry if my daughter’s picture were featured in an anti-sex-trafficking campaign without our permission — and this particular misrepresentation implies that faces can just be interchanged because, well, they’re African, and nobody around here really knows the difference.  Ironically, that homogenous view of Africa is an impression Vitale is seeking to contradict with this particular series of photos from Guinea-Bissau.  To quote:

“I wanted to put a human face on conflict. But when I got there my story changed. Because I realized the way Africa is generally portrayed in mainstream media is either wars, famine or stories like this terrible abduction. You see the horrors or the other extreme, beautiful safaris and exotic animals. There’s nothing in between.”

Photographs can, of course, be very powerful; but the power of a single image I believe is tied to the manner in which it becomes encoded into long-term memory rather than passing through short-term memory.  And the tendency now to gist our way through constant absorption of images through social media could well be turning us into short-term memory beings, who outsource long-term memory to the cloud.  Certainly, this would be consistent with some predictions coming from technologists who promote this modification as an enhancement to the human condition.  But if this is in fact the new reality, it seems to me, that when images like Vitale’s photographs are stripped of their legitimate context and applied to another context of tremendous gravity, that what’s being lost is anything but trivial.

No matter how this horrific story in Nigeria unfolds, doesn’t it matter if Vitale’s photos of the girls in Guinea-Bissau could theoretically become icons associated with a completely unrelated story?  Wouldn’t this betray the principles of journalism and all non-fiction storytelling?  Or does a hashtag campaign like #BringBackOurGirls exist as some collective activism similar to but separate from journalism in which the goal of awareness-raising is more important than the integrity of the story tied to a single image?  Personally, I don’t think so.

Cynical as it sounds, I think we have to admit that hashtag campaigns about highly complex and deadly serious issues have a somewhat contradictory nature.  On the one hand, there is a measure of practical and social value to the kind of global vigil being held at this moment; but on the other hand, sadly, the Nigerian kidnapping story is just what’s “trending” this month alongside celeb gossip and other bits of fluff.  In this recent article in The Daily Beast, terrorism expert Christopher Dickey suggests that when our momentary attention to this story wanes and the girls are very likely still captives, that what may well effect their release is the unsavory option of a large ransom and a slow negotiation with the devil.  Whether that’s the case, or intelligence services and special ops can locate and rescue these girls, the hashtag campaign is, to an extent, just something the rest of us do because we can do nothing.

Dickey’s assessment is based on several decades worth of knowing who the players are in global terrorist organizations and about the motives of individual actors.  And this relates the work of Ami Vitale in an important way.  When we all move on to the next story from the safe distance afforded by our devices, it’s the photographers and journalists and documentarians who stick around in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, and Guinea-Bissau so they can tell the rest of the story.  And it is essential that those stories be kept intact and not casually remixed, even with the best of intentions.

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Thanks, David. I’m deeply impressed with your measured and informed approach to matters like copyright, use of images and so on. I appreciate how you are taking the plight of these Nigerian girls and the use of an unrelated picture with the hashtag campaign on their behalf to the next level.

  • Sam Flintlock

    Good piece. This particular story seems to me to be a combination of the old school ‘if it bleeds it leads’ sensationalist journalism and social media clicktivism and it’s not a good mix.

    I had to give a (entirely humourless) laugh at this though:

    doesn’t it matter if Vitale’s photos of the girls in Guinea-Bissau could theoretically become icons associated with a completely unrelated story? Wouldn’t this betray the principles of journalism and all non-fiction storytelling

    That betrayal already happened. Stock photos are standard practice for stories, including ones as serious as this. What makes this unusual is that whoever made that editorial decision was stupid enough to do it with a photo that wasn’t stock, which led to it actually being noticed.

    This is part of a wider malaise.

    All of what I’m about to say applies to the ‘respectable’ media organisations, not just the tabloids. The BBC slightly less, but even they have to take commercial pressure into account these days. The hard data I have is about the UK, but from everything I know (including contacts in the US), it applies equally to the US media.

    If you want to know why this ever hit the publication stage, start by looking at the major scaling back of fact checkers and copyeditors by all the national and international media publications.

    Then take into account that not just many, but most stories you see in the press are taken either directly from the wire or from PR sources, often without even cursory checks.

    Realistically, the Western media has never been great at covering Africa. But these days, I’d be very surprised to find a news organisation with a single person based on the continent full time. The foreign desks have been pared to the bone, because they’re expensive and don’t necessarily bring in a bigger audience. Ami Vitale’s work is excellent, but she’s based in Montana and seems to be working freelance, apart from her contract with National Geographic. (Who are possibly a special case; I don’t feel qualified to comment on them). Often, photos and even stories will be sourced entirely locally, again without much fact checking. If you consider a situation as complicated as the Ukraine, you can see why that can be really quite problematic.

    So that’s the context to this story. As you can probably tell, I’m pretty bitter about this particular issue. I guess what makes me most angry about this latest development is that I’m so fucking numb that it didn’t surprise me in the slightest.

    • David Newhoff

      Didn’t mean to ignore this, Sam. Just really busy. You’re absolutely right, of course. This normalization of half-assed journalism is a crime and is entirely driven the the economics of mass diffusion through cheap digital portals — the illusion of more, if you will. The problem is precisely that news entities need traffic to survive and cannot charge a premium for their premium quality work. So, we get misleading but catchy headlines, context-free images, and aggregated stories with little or no editorial oversight. And the Silicon Valley folks say the problem is that there isn’t enough “content” out there.

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