hello@rosyedwards.com  / © 2017 Rosy Edwards

If a picture says 1,000 words, we're going to need more words

March 30, 2017

 

Once the flow of images of the injured and dying was stemmed in the wake of last week's Westminster terror attacks, a new picture started to make the digital rounds.

It depicted a young Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, walking across the very bridge that had been decimated and looking at her phone.

 

In the hours after the attack, with a dearth of information to analyse, the picture was seized upon, unpicked, unpacked, and denounced by some of the internet's most nefarious voices.

 

With bodies strewn around her, the woman was more interested in Candy Crush than an unfolding national tragedy, they trilled. Her apparent apathy was bad enough but it went beyond nonchalance: she was Muslim. She must have been practically in league with the attacker, who we later found out to be Khalid Masood – a man who just happened to be Muslim too.

 

Saner heads would, thankfully, prevail. They would call out the lazy, antiquated practice of lumping Muslims and extremists together. But in the interim the image had gone viral, and the damage was done.

 

Both the photographer and the young woman in the picture felt the need to release statements defending themselves. "It's wrong it's been misappropriated in that way," the photographer, Jamie Lorriman told Australia's ABC. Lorriman's subject declined to give her name but put words to her true experience, using a vocabulary that included, "devastated" and "shock", as if we couldn't have all worked out that of course that's what she felt. She also pointed out that the outcry would not have happened had she been dressed differently.

 

The image was powerful. All images that go viral are and that is why they provoke such a strong response. But images that are released into a vacuum of information, at a time when the public pleads for answers, are, plainly, irresponsible.

Without words there was no context, no explanation and no considered commentary as to what it represented.

 

Photojournalism plays a vital role in helping us to understand our world. An exceptional photograph can instantly capture mood and drama and convey a range of complex ideas and emotions in a direct, comprehendible way. Images are a universal language that have the power to bring us together, and push us apart.

Such photographs are not always easy to see. This is why we need to see them.

Yesterday, another photo emerged. 

 

It showed two women, seated in comfort and gazing directly at the camera in clear consent of having their photograph taken. It was a far cry from the wretched scenes on Westminster Bridge, though it has caused just as much furore.

 

Theresa May met Nicola Sturgeon to discuss Brexit. This is the image that emerged to illustrate their meeting. It does not tell us the exactitudes of what they discussed. It does not tell us about the mood in the room. It does not tell us discussions and deals that may or may not have been negotiated between the British Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland.

 

It tells us very little at all, in fact, apart from that two world-leading politicians did indeed come together. Another pesky information vacuum that the Daily Mail decided to fill with a sexist, salacious quip about their legs, of all things.

 

I wonder if any of us would have looked at that photo in the same way had the Daily Mail not reported it in such a moronic way.

 

I've heard all the arguments about words, believe me. As a journalist and copywriter with a penny for every time someone told me they have no time to read books, or that long form is outdated now that we have Twitter, I'd be a rich woman – ironic, as I am never going to make my fortune through writing.

 

My response is simple: if you don't read, you are subject to 1,000 untruths that a picture will tell you.

 

Our media is worryingly reliant on imagery to tell our stories. Photographs are open to extreme manipulation and misinterpretation in a way that is misleading at best, and dangerous at worst.

 

The poor woman on the bridge, who did nothing more than be there – she will spend the rest of her life knowing that her face is seared into the public psyche with unfavourable connotations. When the words of explanation finally came, it was too late and too unfair that they had to come from her.

 

The celebrities who edit and photoshop their images to promote a body shape and image that is unrealistic in every sense of the word. It is unobtainable, not because you don't have their money to spend on personal trainers and chefs, but because it does not exist. They do not caveat their Instagram posts, delineating exactly which filters and Photoshop tools were used in the image's creation. That discourse has been written but it lingers elsewhere in the media, too far removed from the source to be impactful.

 

Finally, Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon who surely can never have dreamt their official images would be demeaned in such a way. Here words were ascribed, yes, but they were intended to sell papers not convey the facts.

 

We need responsible journalism more than ever, words that are informed and factually correct, even if you don't agree with the author's inevitable bias. The world is in flux and it is not enough to just see what's happening; we need to understand what these changeable events mean.

 

Photos tell us what, and that's incredible.

 

Words tell us why, and we desperately need better answers.

 

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