‘The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world — a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.’
- Liam French, lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John
‘What is wrong with people? 🤬 These 3 hanging out for 20 minutes in [X location], not social distancing, are all the security cameras off?’
(taken from a post on Facebook)
You may well have seen it too — on a Facebook group or WhatsApp thread — but the pattern is becoming quite familiar now. A picture is posted on social media showing the crowds out on a Saturday, or groups of people standing too close to each other — some incident of flouting the social distancing rules.
The content might be disputable — are these documented moments showing people flagrantly disregarding lockdown guidelines? Or are they some misunderstanding on the part of the photographer or simply capturing one of the many grey eras about how we should behave in these times? But the intention of the poster seems to either be encouraging a sort of citizen policing or just lobbing shame at strangers. Whatever it is, these posts then often generate their own orbit of outrage in the comments.
Perplexing as this behaviour is, what’s interesting to me is not the neighbourhood watch zeal, but the tools of the act; photographs as weapons of shame.
And this weaponisation of photography, sadly, isn’t new. In fact, the very qualities innate to photography, might well suit it perfectly to these purposes.
One good example of photography’s historical intertwining with shame is that of prison and police mugshots. These are photographs, taken of someone who has allegedly committed a crime or broken a rule, by a powerful actor (often the state), for the purposes of recording the detention and for wider communication purposes.
The subject of these photographs, within the narrative and framing of mugshot photography, is thus denoted as ‘criminal’ and therefore deviant in some way. The photograph then serves to deliver an extra layer of social punishment and stigmatisation, in addition to incarceration (as if that wasn’t bad enough).
You can see how I got here. With all the limitations on our freedoms at the moment and that ever-present sensation of being trapped, it’s no wonder prisons have been on the mind.
Rather than asking why we’re seeing a spike in communities attacking each other for not social distancing, I’d like to think about why photos are such an easy medium for abuse.
A photograph offers such a narrow slice of life to the viewer. A slim frame of space and a thousandth of a second of time. It’s not just that it’s easy to manipulate reality this way, but that most often there’s simply just not enough context provided by the medium for the viewer to fully understand the contents of the framed message of a photograph (if such a thing is indeed possible).
Essentially, it’s easy to take a picture from the crow’s nest view of your home (in itself, a position of privilege) of something that you don’t fully understand (because you don’t know the reasons why someone might be behaving in a certain way — often the worst, not the best, is assumed) and then present this version of reality as fact to another group of people on social media.
And it’s quick. It doesn’t take any time at all to whip out your phone, snap a pic, and post it, in a bout of anger, online. In fact, perhaps it makes you feel better in some way. This speed and ease, however, prevents us from taking our time to think things through a bit more.
Speed, ease, muddy context, combined with a sense of authority or reality and you can see why photographs are ripe for mudslinging.
This feels depressing. I’m a photographer. I like photography. But, not all photography. And of course, while all media can be used badly or for nefarious purposes, it still weirdly hurts to see images being used to attack people. I’m against that. There are better ways to process our frustrations with the world, there are better ways to resolve conflicts (real or imagined) than using photo weapons to sling mud, confirm biases or just try and be the CCTV, police and judge all in one.
By anecdote, writer Pete Brook offers a way out. He tells the story of Jeremy Meeks, whose mugshot image was shared on the Facebook page of Stockton Police Force in the USA, and subsequently went viral. The ‘hot felon’ was later given a modelling contract as the image was re-translated by the public, once released from the contextual confines of the police’s archive.
Obviously such a radical reinterpretation of imagery is not always possible, but it does neatly illustrate how perception and ‘seeing’ is fluid and not fixed by authorial intention.
Maybe in times such as these, the best thing we can do is look for alternative readings, question the framing, and at all costs, use our tools well.
Thanks to Lewis Bush for helping me think through some of the ideas in this piece.