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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The use and misuse of photographs

By Sadanand Menon

Monday, September 22, 2008, was an extraordinary day in the annals of the Indian media. I would like to call it a day of shame. For, on that day, our media collectively displayed its herd-like mentality and its entirely uncritical attitude towards the use -- and misuse -- of the photographs it publishes.

At least eight mainstream English language newspapers (including The Times of India, The Indian and The New Indian Express, The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, The Deccan Chronicle) and many more in the language press from north to south, east to west, uncritically published almost identical photographs on their front pages. The photographs were not generated by any single agency. They were neither taken by ‘citizen’ photographers nor were they official handouts. They were shots by individual staff photographers as well as professional syndicated photographers. What is amazing is what news rooms across the country chose to do with the image.

The photographs were of three suspects involved in the Delhi blasts who were arrested at their residence in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar. Reports also claimed they were students of the Jamia Milia Islamia. What was fishy about the photographs was that they showed three totally unidentifiable people, their heads and faces swathed in generous lengths of cloth, flanked by gun-toting policemen in mufti and other hangers-on. Yet, it seemed obvious that this was a photo-op provided to the media -- not to protect anyone’s identity but to precisely create a definite sense of identity.

To mask the identity of all three suspects, they were dressed up by the local police in identical Palestinian rumaals or kaffiyehs or abayas or cassavas as this piece of head-dress is variously known. Though none of their faces were visible, to any casual reader of the newspaper it would be abundantly clear that they were of ‘Arab’, ‘West Asian’ or ‘Islamic’ origin. A clear case of racial profiling!

Some sceptical comments about this on the Net, primarily generated by documentary filmmaker Yousuf Sayeed who lives in the same area, led to a small critical piece in The Hindustan Times two days later, raising some crucial questions. The sceptics wondered how it was that the three arrested suspects came to be in possession of identical, brand-new rumaals, which they could readily pull out of their pockets to cover their faces. As if, on realising that they would be arrested soon, they went shopping and bought identical scarves so that everyone would recognise them as ‘Islamic terrorists’. Critics pointed out that, usually, suspects arrested on various charges mask their faces with their own handkerchiefs or borrow towels or a black cloth to cover their faces; never before had it seemed like such a costume drama as the Delhi police had managed to stage.

Then came the stunning revelation by the Delhi police commissioner. He confessed that it was his department that had dressed the suspects up in such a suggestive manner and, even more alarmingly, that the Delhi police had purchased these pieces of cloth “in bulk” for use by those arrested. Obviously, every arrested person could now be given a suggestive ‘Islamic terrorist’ look, thereby setting up dangerous subliminal propaganda within the media.

Repulsive as it is, most people will agree that the police and its dirty-tricks department are not beyond using such obnoxious methods. What is beyond explanation is how the media collectively fell into the trap and carried the images without a single question or doubt about what they were so readily displaying on their front pages.

For those not used to thinking about such things, the question can be framed a little differently. It has to do with conceptual issues related to the use (or misuse) of the image in the media. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of photographs are taken. Of these, by common consensus and governed by a largely abstract logic dealing with the received wisdom of ‘news-value’ or ‘news-worthiness’, around 500-1,000 pictures are considered for use within the media. After that it is a matter of chance or dependent on strong editorial choices as to why a particular photograph makes it to the papers, in particular the front page.

The front page photograph, in the world of the print media, is usually associated with having an iconic status. It is supposed be a quick encapsulation of what a paper or a region or a nation or a civilisation imagines as its primary concern. It frames the news of the day with a kind of visual evidence or back-up which then illustrates how it wants to set up the communication and how it wants readers to enter the narrative.

Very seldom, across 365 days in a year, do we find identical images on the front page of the newspapers. It is supposed to be the greatness and the strength of democratic media practice that the editorial position and interpretation of events could vary. It is also part of the notion of healthy competition in the media that variety, diversity and contrariness are seen as virtues -- that a news item or image which is used sycophantically by one section of the press can as easily be used critically by another section of the same press.

That is why, when you come across a substantial section of the national press using one common image on their front pages, that too without any critical remarks or interrogative comments, one begins to smell the workings of an ‘ideology’, which is nothing but a blind acceptance of certain ‘ruling’ ideas of a class or of a moment -- ideas that indicate the power structures within which ‘information’ and ‘meaning’ are manufactured.

To me it is shattering that on the evening of September 21, across the news rooms of the best of Indian newspapers, not one editorial discussion chose to evaluate the photograph of the three arrested youngsters draped in checked cloth and use their judgment to ‘read’ the picture in a dispassionate manner worthy of a free press. Instead, the Indian media collectively behaved as they had not even during the period of the Emergency and its draconian censorship. They all fell prey to their own prejudices and communal mindsets. The Nazi propaganda machine could not have produced better results!

Obviously, the Indian media needs to re-investigate the ‘frame’ within which it is presenting, colouring and analysing news. Such evidence of a collective cop-out is a serious failing, which it must critically examine to carry out correctives. In fact, this is a case fit to be taken up before the Press Council.

Shame, a little shame is all that the media needs. For shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment.

(Sadanand Menon is a senior journalist who has worked with The Economic Times and other publications)

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