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Images of Impending Death in Journalism

Over the next few days I'll be blogging from the ANZCA 2009 conference - one which I didn't have to travel very far for, as it's held right here on the QUT Creative Industries Precinct down from my office. We begin with a keynote by Barbie Zelitzer, President of the International Communication Association, whose focus is on the visual depiction of death in the news. Such images require the viewer to imagine what we cannot see, but then, news is supposed to tell us what is there. The moment of death is one of the most powerful images in the news, and raises (amongst others) a wide range of ethical issues. Key recent examples include images related to the 'war on terror', from the 11 September attacks to the hanging of Saddam Hussein.

How do images function in crisis? Today we accept ruptures between the visual and the hidden, but in news we must assume that what we see is what is; if journalism relies on images, this accepts a role which contradicts journalism's own claim to reporting the news. In journalism, denotation is privileged over connotation; this is important for the journalistic image as well as for journalism as a whole. And yet, connotation plays a major role in photography - meaning is drawn from the interpretive frames available to the viewer.

At best, journalists are ambivalent about images and lack clear guidelines on how to use them; photography (in the field) and image selection (in editorial meetings) are far distanced from another. An overreliance on images indicates a fundamental crisis in news, then (often associated with major world crises). In addition to denotation and connotation, then, it is important to consider the image's voice: something besides denotation and connotation helps facilitate selection criteria.

We already expect a certain type of image in reporting given stories - voice elaborates what we see in images by complicating and elaborating it. Voice plays on emotions, imagination and contingency, it represents what could be rather than what is, and adds conditionality, supposal, and hypothesis. It provides a contingent, possible, liminal, uncertain, hypothetical, or playful space in which audiences are able to interpret news images and stories.

About-to-die images are particularly powerful here (and have precedents in classical painting); they are suggestive of what has gone before and what is about to follow, and of course appear in sequence and context with other images from the continuing reporting of news events. Viewers are illogically positioned as both naive and all-knowing - viewing a moment in the middle of an unfolding story, but usually also knowing from news reporting the events preceding and following it.

There are a number of different categories here - presumed death images, depicting breaking news especially of large scale disasters (they are inanimate and substitute photos of large-scale physical or structural devastation for images of people); possible death, where images follow rather than preceed stories, and where images are used to depict large-scale events causing multiple deaths at multiple points in time (they use depictions of individual deaths to stand in for such multiple deaths, and often depend on the efforts of non-journalists to reach a global audience); certain death images, which depict inevitable deaths (so that the public is already aware of the death, making the image unnecessary and drawing the most active debate).

How do such images work? They freeze the sequence of an action, and thereby illustrate the distinctiveness of visual images from the verbal; they depend on viewers positioned as naive and all-knowing; they facilitate a reenactment of trauma, perhaps even raising the irrational hope that the death may not have occurred. But their shared attribute of showing impending death reduces our awareness of the differences between them.

The 'war on terror' provides obvious examples for such imagery - from wide-lens presumed death shots of the World Trade Center towers collapsing to certain death photos of individuals jumping to their deaths from the towers; and public reaction to them was deeply mixed (and while many images quickly disappeared from screens and front pages in the US, they remained prominent for much longer elsewhere).

A second group of images emerged from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and showed the treatment of prisoners at the hands of the Northern Alliance and other partners of the US-led coalition of forces. These images were mostly framed by the US press as possible deaths, failing to state in detail the fate of the persons depicted - again, this was different in many countries outside of the US, where there was much greater outrage about the war crimes committed by 'pro-Western' forces (if more frequently in the tabloids than in quality papers). This is contrasted with photos for example of the kidnapped and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, which were framed as images of certain death (in keeping with the rhetoric of the 'war on terror'). This image (and those of other captured and murdered Westerners) were framed in various ways depending on the framing considered to be appropriate by the different sides of the debate around the invasion of Iraq.

Finally, depictions of the execution of Saddam Hussein were able to draw from both an official video of parts of his execution and a camera phone video of the entire execution and its aftermath; here, again, different interpretative choices were available to journalists and the public, and the image of the noose being placed around his neck invited such divergent interpretations and required audiences to take a position on this story.

Why do such images matter? They help create emotional engagement around events which require interpretation and for which no rational response can be stabilised in any other fashion. They complicate journalism's role especially also because image selection is made often by non-journalists.

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