Susan Sontag, Quai des Grands Augustins, Paris, 2002 © Annie Leibovitz
Protest marches in London © Jade Jackman
Protest marches in London © Jade Jackman
The romantics of resistance carry an intoxicating smell. Since the dawn of time, words have settled in people’s minds, prompting them to take action, or inspiring them to be journalists or visual activists. However, we are not held safely in the relics of time gone by or inside a 35mm film canister. We are reprimanded for being the most nostalgic generation but, surely, we must come to embrace and appreciate how the media landscape has changed forever with the dawn of the Internet, fast developing new technologies, and social media.
There is nothing more irritating than the patronising signs that peer down at you from hipster cafes. You know, the ones that say something that is meant to make you feel guilty. No WiFi - talk to each other! Recently, a popular meme has been making its merry way around the Facebook circuits, using Einstein’s quote, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction; the world will have a generation of idiots” with a picture of a group of women in shorts clutching iPhones in their hands. But, really, is this true? Is our relationship with technology genuinely ruining the world for us?
Some technophobes argue that technology is also ruining our relationships. Our screens are awash with too many stories and images. It is overwhelming and numbing. Well, to some degree, this is true - we are becoming desensitised. Susan Sontag discussed this in her celebrated 2003 essay, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’. According to Sontag, the way that the modern media operates causes a distancing affect. With every new image of horror, the viewer is brought further and further from the reality of the image. Evidently, there is one flaw in this statement. For the individuals actually suffering in the image, the pain is the reality, and so the title of ‘viewer’ reveals a certain amount of privilege. Therefore, the showing of harm and cruelty always ends up ‘othering’ the subject.
At the time of Sontag’s writing, there was a shift in the nature of photojournalism. The amount of amateur photographers grew, and the price of camera equipment dropped, meaning that there was a greater body of imagery. Plus, the Internet meant that there was a mixture of competing sources that people could turn to in order to get their work published. And, if that failed, anyone was able to self-publish. Previously, documentation and the recording of knowledge, was the pursuit of a select few. White, privileged, and male, the writers of fact and history came from a very unified background. While most creative industries are still dominated by middle class white men, things are starting to finally shift.
Nevertheless, Sontag's words provide an interesting framework by which to consider the developments in journalism today. Sontag notes that images of the destruction in Savarejo were relatively unrestricted whereas photographers documenting international conflict would have been posted with an army regiment. These two elements combined provided the background for her essay. They also contributed to her belief the ordinary viewer was becoming gradually more desensitised to violence and harm.
Here, the journalist or image-maker is faced with several conundrums. How do we make someone understand violence without using shock? How do we create unique visual narratives without our work falling meaninglessly into the matter uploaded each second? Can an image really move us into action? How do we avoid associating violence to a certain type of subject and prevent ourselves from ‘othering’ them?
For arguments sake, lets assume that the motivation of this journalist or image-maker isn’t arrogance or the thrill of the chase of a difficult story. Rather, one of their aims is to get people to feel differently and engage in a new form of perception through their work. Today, this is trickier for the swathes of young people who hope to make a career out of documentary photography and reportage. For the first time in history, cameras are cheaper and the likes of the Internet and Instagram mean that almost everyone is documenting and visually recording their life on a daily basis. Each day, we attempt to make sense of ourselves (and others) by making narratives from sea of fragmented imagery - selfies, advertising, Facebook, Snapchat. This is having a positive impact as new voices are beginning to emerge in the mainstream, which help break down the overwhelming whiteness of the media. But, evidently, there are drawbacks.
The most obvious of these pitfalls is the fact that there are so many images that it can be overwhelming. As we blindly flick between faces, our sight can suffer from confusion due to overstimulation. On an institutional level, it is also having a negative impact as it has been remarked that freelance journalists will often put themselves in dangerous situations just to make themselves standout. This relates back to some of Sontag’s concerns, we are so used to the constant stream of images and news stories that things have to become more bloody, more murderous, more shocking for us to react to them. The trend of poverty porn, people snapping photos of others daily suffering in order to ‘set themselves apart’ is increasing. In a time when there are so many images, it does make sense to start to question them.
Lifeless and limp, the body of Aylun Kurdi reminded us of the power of image. Before that, the photos of people in Calais had been spun by the media to appeal to a commonplace dehumanisation of refugees, people who were desperately attempting to reach Europe for their own safety. However, the photograph of Kurdi washed up dead on the beach acted as a spark to change public opinion in the United Kingdom. Shortly after the photo was published, London saw the biggest march that had ever been held in support of refugees. While I was at the march, a lot of people who I interviewed referenced that photo as a factor that brought them to central London to show solidarity with those caught in the middle of the crisis.
But, the mind moves on. Despite the attention that Kurdi’s death garnered, people forgot. Technology helped spread the image around the world, but it could never stay imprinted because there was so much more to see. Several more Syrian children have drowned on the same shores while very few look on. Of course, there are practical considerations that mean only certain stories make it out of newsrooms and onto our screens, and there is a truth in the need for ‘new’ stories because people lose connection and attention. However, to go back to my original point, technology appears to exacerbating this tendency.
So, what are we to do? The answer is obvious. We must rise to the challenge. We, as creators, must create. Rather than appropriating and relying on death and trauma to give us a story, we must look elsewhere for our inspiration. We should look to our artistic counterparts to see how they conceptualise stories in order to move away from regurgitating violence into the visual. We must make journalism and politics more human.
Virtual reality and cross-platform journalism is bringing some of the human intimacy back to reporting. For example, Project Syria, developed by the University of California’s Interactive Media Lab, uses virtual reality goggles to bring the stories out of Syria and to place the viewer in the middle of the war-zone. The overarching intention of the work is to fully immerse the participant and to make them feel as if they are somewhat sharing, and invested in, the experience. As of yet, the visuals are not perfect - it still looks like a videogame rather than real time - but it raises questions about the ways in which empathy or understanding is created through a far more participatory experience.
One of the most commonly made critiques of virtual reality is a basic one - that it isn’t reality. Personally, I feel like this is a rather redundant point. Although what you’re experiencing is not ‘real life’, the possibilities that it opens up for access, storytelling and ways of engaging audiences are exciting. At some point, it would be wonderful to see someone unite the immediacy of online behaviours with live action in order to affect some sort of ‘change’ or show an act of rebellion to a wider audience.
To conclude, the point of this article is to encourage others - as well as to myself - to not be nostalgic. Times have changed; yes, we all know that much is true. Rather than lamenting the amount of content that appears to be flooding the screens, let us revalue what these platforms offer us as journalists and storytellers. The way in which we share media, imagery and news has already begun to be remade, let us embrace that and use our creativity to bring about action - in real time.
Jade Jackman is a multimedia journalist and filmmaker. She is currently studying at Goldsmiths for her MA in Documentary Filmmaking. Jackman is also one of the founders of Eye Want Change, a smartphone film competition that aims to engage more people in storytelling and to encourage others to think creatively about issues they care about.