People take photos for a variety of reasons. Some do it as a job, students like you take photos to fulfill assignments, and others take them to use as a kind of evidence. The desire to use of photography as a kind of evidence is obvious since the medium is so accurately at making visual records. We typically think of evidence photos as crime scene photos, newspaper photos, passport photos, and even real estate or insurance photos. However, snapshots are the most basic and plentiful kind of photographic evidence.
We take snapshots to record the personal details of our lives. They include babies, birthdays, proms, parties, pets and just about every aspect of our relationships with friends and family. When we look at these photos, their intention is so straightforward and simple that it seems unnecessary to talk about them having any underlying meaning or subtext, which seems more suited for a discussion about a work of art rather than a simple snapshot. However, it is possible that the meaning of even a common snapshot exists outside the intention of the photographer and audiences may interpret the implication of photo in far different ways than the photographer intended.
An example of this is a photo made by some Penn State students that received critical international media attention in December of 2012. The photo, made around Halloween, depicted a group of 26 college age women who posed for a snapshot. Many wore fake moustaches and were dressed in stereotypical Mexican sombreros and ponchos. Two women were carefully positioned together centrally in the front of the group where they each held signs which read, “Will Mow Lawn For Weed + Beer” and “I Don’t Cut Grass, I Smoke It.” Technically, the photo was an awkwardly made snapshot, slightly out of focus, with a bright light glaring in the upper part of the picture. Its purpose is unclear, but perhaps it the photographer and participants intended it as a memento to be placed in a scrapbook or Facebook page. The media attention focused on the stereotypical representation of Mexican people by a group of predominantly white college-age sorority women.
Onward State, which describes itself as an alternative Penn State blog, first published the picture and an editorial article about it on December 4. The article explained, “The connection between Chi Omega and the racist image was discovered when examining the names of the girls pictured. This proved to be easy as those featured in the image were tagged on Facebook.” It went on to describe the event as a, “bigotry fiesta.”
The (Daily) Mail Online also published the picture and a story. The Daily Mail is a UK based newspaper with a 4 million reader international audience. CBS news and the Huffington Post ran the photos and stories as well. Huffington is the 11th most visited website in the U.S. and they used the article byline, “Racist Party Picture Lands Penn State Chi Omega Sorority In Hot Water.” Regardless of Huffington’s declaration of racism, we know very little about the photo from the media articles, beyond what we can see in it for ourselves.
It is clear that many people interpreted the intentions of the women depicted in the photo (and perhaps even the photo itself) as having racist overtones. So much so that the local sorority leadership felt obliged to issue a public apology and a statement, “ The picture in question does not support any of Chi Omega’s values or reflect what the organization aspires to be.” That leaves us to ponder, what the picture does reflect and why?
Despite the media characterizations of the photo and participants as being racist, the blog responses to the news articles by the audience of readers indicated split opinions; where some responders regarded the photo as overtly racist, others felt that there was no racism apparent and these were merely young women having fun. Others still felt it was only the inclusion of the signs, which made the pictures read as having a racist meaning.
It is unlikely that the women intended to send a message that would brand them as racists to any audience. They most probably failed to understand that the interpretation of their message would be substantially different than they thought it would be. Nor did they take into account that photography is a substantially different medium than it was a generation ago when film and prints ruled. Now, photography is very much a medium of collective digital communications, which means we can share any photo with millions instantaneously.
Perhaps with the spotlight on Penn State after the Sandusky scandal there existed a potential world audience for the photo who had a heightened appetite for critical analysis of anything coming out of the Penn State community. In this climate, the homogeneous culture of the sorority house collided with the diversity of cultures beyond its walls. Regardless of the women’s intent or personal motives, it is clear they discovered that they live in a world where photography is a tool for communal experience, not just within their small clique, but with the world at-large and the picture they posted to Facebook directly communicated complex messages about them to large diverse audiences.
This picture provides an example of where it is useful to take a critically rhetorical approach to understanding and discussing photographs and photography in the Internet age. With rhetorical criticism, we are primarily concerned with how the medium works as a tool of communication as opposed to simply focusing on aesthetics or content. Even a crudely made snapshot can convey powerful meanings. A rhetorical examination of a photograph scrutinizes the relationship between the photo, the photographer, and the audience.
With venues for photos as popular and audience-friendly as Facebook, it is more important than ever that photographers consider the relationships they form with their audience through their photographs. Audiences may interpret photos in a variety of ways, which may have little to do with the original intent of the photographer or photo participants. Nonetheless, as the author of the photo, the photographer is ultimately responsible for its meaning. However, authorship may not be the sole responsibility of the person pushing the button. With the Chi Omega photo, we can make a case that each of those women ultimately shared responsibility for its authorship with the camera operator through their active participation in its production.
An audience may reflect its interpretation of a photo as evidence of the photographer’s underlying motives. Correspondingly, a photographer (or critical observer) may acquire equally revealing knowledge about audiences based on their reactions to compelling images.
The Discussion Tasks:
Write a Position Statement:
For this discussion post a Position Statement that addresses any of the below questions. Feel free to address other pertinent issues on these basic topics beyond the specific questions listed.
1.In the Chi Omega situation outlined above, to what extent do you believe the participants who posed for the photo shared the responsibility of its authorship? Was this primarily a picture made of them or made by them?
1.In a recent controversy, several media outlets made public nude photos of England’s Prince Harry without his knowledge or agreement. Do you believe it is fair or reasonable that snapshot photos of famous or well-known people taken for personal reasons become open to public scrutiny?
1.In another recent story, Diane O’Meara is a woman who had her Facebook photo hijacked by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo to create the “fake woman” central to the Manti Te’o online girlfriend scandal. To what extent do you believe that posting photos online makes a person vulnerable to identity theft and other acts of deception? What are the risks vs. the benefits to posting your photos online?
Our Position Statements are short (500 words or more) research-based papers where you take an informed stand or position on a topic and then argue your position using your research as support. A key element is the concept of taking an “informed position.” That means that you should be able to back up your position with evidence based on research from credible sources. In other words, you need to know what you are talking about and be able to prove it.
A Position Statement is an opinion, however unlike the opinions posted to most blog sites, your work in PHOTO 100 must be critical and scholarly. Base your Position Statement supporting arguments on facts and evidence. Include at least three (3) footnoted authoritative references to validate your position. Use primary source quotations, statistical data, etc. to help build your case.
The basic Position Statement structure is as follows:
Identify the issue and state your position on it.
What does the reader need to know?
Evidence should logically lead to the position presented in the introduction.
Discuss various sides of the issue
Summarize the main concepts and ideas without repeating yourself.
Suggest solutions to potential problems you address in your position – (i.e. courses of action)
Grammar and spelling should both be at college level. Your instructor will reject late or incomplete assignments.
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