They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But that's not quite the same as saying the camera never lies.
Indeed, the camera can lie and when it does, it speaks falsehood in a way that a thousand words never could.
I was browsing through Facebook the other day and came across an article a friend had shared entitled "Welfare Pissed After President Trump Requiring "Welfare to Work"--The Free Ride is Ending". I'm not going to get into the article itself right now. I want to talk about the picture that accompanied the article.
First off, posting this photo on this blog was no easy task. It doesn't appear on the actual website the Facebook share links to. You can't just right click the image and "save image as. . ." The image is expected to be shared with the article title, not saved "out of context." The photo is click bait, designed to quickly say what a thousand words can't, to deliver a message succinctly. And I was just unwilling to assist these folks in sharing their toxic view of America by sharing it to my own Facebook page even if only to critique it. In the end the photo you see above I acquired by taking a screen shot of my friend's Facebook page, and then cropping and saving it in my laptop's Paint software.
So here's my issue with the photo. The message it intends to send is that these people are the face of welfare. It's no accident that they are black. When we think of welfare recipients, especially those who would be "pissed" at being required to work, we are expected to think of them as people of color. A photo that showed a group of white people would somehow come across as less "believable" or perhaps require more "explanation" (despite the fact that welfare recipients are predominantly white--a function of being our nations largest racial demographic).
It's also no accident that the photo shows not just one or two or even ten people, but instead a massive crowd that stretches to the edges of the camera frame and beyond. I don't know what welfare office this is supposed to be but we can only assume that they are overwhelmed by demand. The message here is that it's not just one or two "bad apples" working the system but many (maybe even most). This mob is angry that they will now be required to go to work...and who knows it. ..it could turn ugly. You know how they are.
A picture like this is intended to provide answers not provoke questions. But I think it's important, perhaps more important than ever to ask questions. Is Donald Trump actually signing some new legislation in this photo? Probably not. It's more likely a random photo of the President at his desk. Is the photo on the right really of a mob of welfare recipients? This seems unlikely too. Indeed, as I studied the picture more closely, I began to wonder if the photo was even taken in the United States.
Here's another photo making the rounds on Facebook:
The caption reads: One of the deepest photos I've seen this year. Taken yesterday at a Confederate Rally in Stone Mountain. Here, we see police give a white man with his hand on his gun unending patience.
As someone as horrified by the recent verdict in the shooting of Philando Castille, this photo resonates strongly with me. It seems to vividly illustrate the contrast between the way police respond to black and white people who may present a threat. But the key word here is seems. Precisely because I feel strongly on this subject it's vital that I force myself to stop and ask some questions. What's really going on here? Is the man really about to pull his gun? Is the officer really "talking the man down"? That may be the case. But then again, we can't really know for sure. What I do know is that after doing some research about the protests at Stone Mountain, Georgia in the summer of 2015 and finding this picture and others there are no stories about an agitated, armed protester being talked down by police (there were reports of altercations between protesters and counter-protesters, but nothing specifically involving law enforcement). The caption tells us what to see. . .but it's not at all clear to me that that's actually what we're seeing. I agree that with the message the photo is trying to send..but I have to question if the photo itself is accurate.
Today more than ever, we need to ask questions about what we see in the news, in our Facebook feeds, and in our e-mail inboxes. But here's the trick. Most of us are really good at questioning things we disagree with. Most of us are terrible at applying the same critical gaze to news--pictures and otherwise--with which we agree. And that second skill is the one we really need badly in this country right now. I think we'd be a lot better off if we started challenging and questioning the images that we would ordinarily swallow uncritically, and whose messages we'd absorb without even realizing it.
Here's two questions to ask whenever you see a provocative photo. First, what is the message the photo is trying to convey? Second, is the message the photo is conveying accurate?