PRINT September 1986


the News and Its Pictures

IT’S APRIL IN LIBYA. The United States has just ordered 32 fighter-bombers and attack planes to bomb Tripoli as a springtime message for Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. Within days the Associated Press sends out photographs with labels such as Another Media Trip to Hospitals, in which journalists are seen crowding around badly wounded men. The message of the pictures, which other news agencies also carry, is clear: Qaddafi is trying to manipulate us, and it just won’t work.

The manipulation of the viewer—from each and every angle—is yesterday’s news. Every privately initiated bombing, kidnaping, or hostage display has as its subtext a bid for media attention, which means world attention. In their attempt to speak or to scream or to rage, the politically and economically marginalized, who are largely without representation, have learned that in order to attract media attention they must reduce their political concerns to a series of gestures that are both newsworthy and photogenic. They must project themselves as images seductive to the major media. Some depictions of the news are simply more salable than others. But their path from invisibility to the nightly news is not a simple question of exhibitionism. Decisions about who gets represented and how they will be represented are still made far from the townships and refugee camps where the powerless reside. What we end up seeing is determined by a network of sometimes conflicting, sometimes harmonious power relationships among governmental prescriptions, stockholder concerns, corporate interests, and advertising imperatives, along with audience demographics and the need to produce news with high entertainment value. These factors combine to produce an explosive but reductive picture of the world. The world-aspicture is sorted, categorized, stored, and retrieved within the confines of yet another industry—the picture agency.

The explosive, reductive logic at work in news programs, newspapers, and magazines is smoothly fed by the way news photo agendas are organized and by the types of pictorial products they supply. Finding a picture at many photo agencies means understanding the process of categorization at work. First, there might be the category of country: say, the Philippines. Next, the category of event: recent elections. Then the event is broken down into subcategories: for instance, violence. Finally, the subcategory of violence is further categorized: preelection demonstrations, pro-Marcos rallies, anti-Marcos riots, murder of Aquino election workers, postelection clashes, demonstrations at Malacanang Palace after Marcos flees. This process rarely permits anything other than what it had previously defined: a US client country, political unrest, explosive elections. In any given situation, an employable news photographer must know exactly which of these categories to fill and which aspects of the event should be left unrecorded because there is no viable category to contain them. The process of politics is progressively atomized into tiny, abstract particles which condense into a cloud that hovers, creating fear, uncertainty, and a sense of powerlessness.

The stampede in the ’80s to art galleries and museums—picture agencies of a different sort—is in part a run for haven from doomsday headlines and their accompanying eye-catching, mind-bending images, such as the New York Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy” special: a retouched photograph of what the Libyan head of state might look like if he were done up in ’50s drag. (The ’80s are in fact the ’50s in drag.) Art holds the promise of a respite from all this. But the spheres of cultural production and economic and political production irrepressibly flow into one another: news into movies, advertising into painting, television into books. Painters synthesize the disjunctive broadcast of the mass media, advertisers use the moods and myths of individual artists to peddle alcohol, and the networks highlight daily disasters as ads for their news shows. At every point in the cultural chain, atomized representational forms are at work. Only those individuals—whether politician, photojournalist, or artist—who take into account the blasted vocabulary inherited by the present have a chance to succeed in effecting a change or a statement that has both meaning and hope.

Carol Squiers is a freelance writer and curator who lives in New York. Her column in Artforum appears bimonthly.