Can a picture speak a thousand words?

by Alix Barré

Images are a big part of our lives, we take them to remember the places we’ve been and moments in our lives, and now we share them online with the world. Then of course, importantly, there are the images we see in the media. An article always comes with a picture, having them helps us visualize what is going on in the news and often, they are stronger than words. But have you ever thought about what you are being shown? Out of all the pictures the photojournalist might have taken, the one you are seeing has gone through careful selection steps. So why did this picture in particular make it? And can you trust them blindly?

credit: Mark Anderson,

credit: Mark Anderson,

It is extremely difficult to capture moments in an aesthetic way while making a picture powerful. It takes talent and training, a big responsibility lies on those who decide to pursue this career. Sadly they often do not get the final word on which of their pictures are used, if they are used. What you end up seeing is always an edited version, with sometimes a second agenda.

In wars and conflict times, pictures are commonly used as propaganda tools to get the desired message across. One of the many examples of when this process of framing was used is during the US War on Terror. After 9/11, the pictures that came out in the media sent a message across of “freedom endures”. America was presented strong despite the attack and of course the enemy, the terrorist, was represented as the ultimate bad guy whom the Americans should hate. Newsweek in October 2001 published an issue that had as its front page a young enemy – a child holding a gun. The caption read loud and clear: “Why they hate us”, and further down you could read “The roots of Islamic rage – And what we can do about it”. Using this kid holding a gun looking angry has a much bigger impact than an adult doing the same action. A kid is supposed to be innocent, but by putting this picture you can say: look even the children hate us, there is no humanity in them, only hate. All is fair in love and war, right?

A very interesting case of framing happened during the protests of Genoa in 2001. During the G8 summit in July, where eight of the world’s largest economies meet to discuss international finance, several thousands gathered against the economic conference. This was not exclusive to Genoa, anti-globalisation protests have been common scenes whenever the meeting happened since the early 1990’s. During the ones in Genoa, a photographer called Dylan Martinez took pictures of the protester Carlo Giuliani, before and after he was shot by the carabinieri, the military police force of Italy. It was the first death to take place at an international economic summit.  Can you guess which picture made it to the front page of most media outlets? If you guessed the one of Carlo Giuliani dead, you guessed wrong. You would think that one would have the most visual impact to accompany the story. However, the picture that was chosen shows him before his death. He is wearing a black balaclava standing at the back of the jeep of the carabinieri, holding a fire extinguisher. The protesters were attacking the jeep in question and they were throwing things against the windows. From behind the jeep, a gun was aimed right in the direction of Giuliani and seconds later he was shot.

credit: Dylan Martinez

credit: Dylan Martinez

The question that should have been raised is, was Giuliani about to throw the extinguisher or was he simply holding it up in protection? If he was going to throw it, is the response of shooting him in the head appropriate? But aside from this, now ask yourself why were you shown almost only the picture of Giuliani holding a fire extinguisher at the jeep? Only because, instead of showing the police being violent, it shows the protestors being violent. The picture itself doesn’t lie; you are seeing something that truly happened. However, the one chosen is not a natural selection. The captions that accompany it help to frame the image furthermore. The Los Angeles Times accompanied the picture with this caption: “A policeman points a gun at a protestor lifting a fire extinguisher in the air. The demonstrator was killed shortly afterward.” And the New York Times had a similar one: “Just before he was shot, a protester, Carlo Giuliani, tried to hurl a fire extinguisher at a police vehicle in Genoa as an officer aimed his pistol.” They tell you to see the picture as Giuliani being in the process of throwing the extinguisher before dying. The Monitor had a different caption, which suggests a different story: “The protesters with the lumber appear to be ready to flee – they have taken the lumber out of the window and have turned away.” Carlo Giuliani now has the fire extinguisher in his hands right in front of his face. He is not poised to hurl it. Looking up, he may just have noticed the carabiniere with the gun.” The captions don’t change the picture, but they change the way you look at them.

David D. Perlmutter and Gretchen L. Wagner, explored the framing the media did with this picture. They explained how important media framing is because it frequently tells us, “what we should think about what we are being told and shown.” We rely on the media to report to us what they have seen, but  “rather than summing up any reality of event, persons, place and time, they offer cut-out frames of a fraction of a second and a narrow view.” The picture of Giuliani holding the fire extinguisher is only a moment of what happened. Another picture that could have been shown, as well as the one of Giuliani dead, would have been the picture of the jeep driving off and running over his dead body. But these pictures would show the police being violent and change the story told.

credit: Dylan Martinez

credit: Dylan Martinez

When you are being shown something, or when you read an article always question why. Never accept what you see as a given truth, because even with the technology available, you are only a seeing a second of an event. Can a picture speak a thousand words? It is difficult, but it must and furthermore as Perlmutter and Wagner wrote,  “a picture must stand for a thousand words, but also must replace a thousand other pictures.”

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