Sunday 25 September 2016

Sometimes, there are no words, only pictures

Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30

Omran Daqneesh (5) in an ambulance after an airstrike on Aleppo, Syria Photo: Reuters
Omran Daqneesh (5) in an ambulance after an airstrike on Aleppo, Syria Photo: Reuters

'The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda' - Renowned war photographer Robert Capa

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Save for those seminal moments when a picture supersedes even the most eloquent of prose, traditionally and perhaps unfairly, photojournalism has played second fiddle to the printed word when it comes to breaking news stories. As communication channels change, the tectonic plates of news and media are shifting swiftly and challenging the conventional dynamic.

Former OCI president Pat Hickey being arrested in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Former OCI president Pat Hickey being arrested in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sometimes, a picture can succeed where words simply fail. Not just because pictures are, typically, instantly and universally understandable, but because images can evoke and provoke emotions. It is those emotions which make them uniquely indelible in our memories.

Geographically, photojournalism has no boundaries. Its only borders lie between the frames of the photographers' camera lenses. Through social media, a great photograph (professional or amateur) can have global appeal in an instant. A development not lost on the media industry, which is ploughing investment into online offerings to facilitate the voracious appetite of the multi-platform, hungry news cycle.

This, coupled with that investment, means a constant and relentless quest for content. Content which depends more and more on pictures than it does on people who write stories. Whether moving or static, images are now not only key to capturing a moment, they are key to capturing an audience.

We live in an era that requires a physical freeze frame and video evidence to confirm that events have really happened. It seems that only by seeing do we actually believe anything any more.

Another view of Pat Hickey's arrest
Another view of Pat Hickey's arrest

Evidence of the theory was supplied in spades by the police in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Former President of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) Pat Hickey was at the receiving end of it this week. Images and videos of his arrest on Wednesday morning sped around the world quicker than Usain Bolt chewing up a hundred-metre sprint.

In order to be seen to be taking the ticket-scalping claims seriously, Brazilian police felt compelled to invite a local camera crew along to capture Mr Hickey's arrest in all his naked glory. You see, it is no longer enough to say you did something, now you have to show you did it too.

Rare Good Samaritans on social media baulked at the profound invasion of Mr Hickey's privacy. Others questioned the necessity for the release of video footage of his naked behind as it disappeared into the bathroom. The general narrative went as follows: "look at this, isn't it terrible?" - as they simultaneously hit share.

In a world where information is distilled and digested through 140 characters, pictures tell us things that we are too lazy to know or learn.

The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York, USA, in 2001 Photo: AP Photo/Kelley Sane
The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York, USA, in 2001 Photo: AP Photo/Kelley Sane

Now, anyone can channel their inner Capa. Aperture and ability don't come into it - we simply point, press and hit send.

For professional news photographers, however, validating information is no longer enough. To make a real mark, they now need to be ahead of the news curve. And when they get it right, boy does it resonate. Definitive news stories of our time are seldom recalled by the written word but the images that are burned in our brains.

Planes flying into the Twin Towers and their subsequent destruction as they crumbled onto the streets of New York on our TV screens, for example. You will remember the images of people who jumped from those burning buildings. You will remember the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi as his lifeless body was cradled in a policeman's arms as he took it from a Turkish beach. You will remember the image of US President John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie as she scrambled from her dying husband after he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963 and the image of his young son, John F Kennedy JR, who saluted his father's coffin at the state funeral. The Chinese man who stood defiantly before tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The black power salute at the Olympic Games in 1968. The hooded detainee who became a symbol for prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. A screaming girl named Kim Phuc as she ran from a burning village in Vietnam. The list is as endless as the images are enduring.

The importance of pictures for news stories has never been denied. But now, given the variety of platforms, there has never been a time when a striking photo was worth more in terms of currency and news value.

The vast majority of this planet's population share one fundamental skill that is hardwired in our brains by Mother Nature. We have an ability to see the visual world and interpret it. In other words, no matter what language you speak, someone taught you to read, but no one taught you how to see things.

From those pesky paparazzi, to the most talented and revered photojournalists, all enjoy the universality of pictures and can depend on an increasingly prurient and news-hungry public to buy their wares.

In the wake of poor Pat Hickey's full-frontal, many of us took to the schadenfreude slide that is Twitter.

While we surfed online and sniggered at the unedifying sight of Hickey in the nip, a sobering and arresting image burst forth from the banality.

In the middle of all the hilarity and hubris there it was, the ghostly image of Omran Daqneesh. A five-year-old Syrian boy, captured on camera by a doctor in Aleppo. The image was shared across the globe, hundreds of thousands of times, in a heartbeat.

It showed the little boy in an ambulance, shocked and dazed. Blood seeping from a wound on his forehead, it looked as if his very soul had been ripped out from his eyes. Who is he?

It captured the horrors of Aleppo in one instant. I have read thousands of words about the horrors of Russian and Assad regime airstrikes, but none has ever made me question so fundamentally, or viscerally, what is wrong with this world.

Sometimes there are no words, only pictures.

Irish Independent

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