How many times have we heard it? “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Unless, of course, it isn’t. Or at least it is not the thousand words you first thought it to be.
In this age of social media, spontaneity and instantaneous storytelling, it is rather remarkable that the still image is of such continued importance.
Of course, we all have our own memories of iconic photographs. How about John F. Kennedy at his desk in the Oval Office with John F. Kennedy Jr. playfully peeking out from underneath? What a great story it told the instant you saw it. No words were required. President Kennedy, the ultimate family man.
Do you remember the grainy newspaper image that seemed to perfectly capture the high emotion of the May 4, 1970, tragedy at Kent State?
Photojournalism student John Filo snapped the image of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the lifeless body of Jeffrey Miller, who, we assumed, must have been her Kent State classmate or friend and was just gunned down by the Ohio National Guard.
There it is, in one photo, the story of unrest on U.S. college campuses, the oppression of free speech by an arm of the government, the deeply personal expression of anguish by a college classmate at the senseless loss of life. Filo won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo.
Unless, of course, it wasn’t that at all. It may still be a deeply personal expression of anguish and may also accurately reflect the turmoil of the times, but the rest of the “story” kind of falls apart.
As reported by Wikipedia and many news organizations over the years, did you know that Mary Ann Vecchio was a 14-year-old runaway (probably still in the 7thgrade) from Florida who, after the photo appeared, shared her story with a local reporter in exchange for a bus ticket to California? Seriously.
How about this image of Prince William, who most certainly has had his fill of the paparazzi following him. Good reason to fly the bird, right?
The photo that first garnered attention was originally published without the reverse angle attached to it. The story we may have wished for clearly changes.
And, it appears we may be living through this again in recent days with the photo that went viral of a young male student from a Kentucky private high school – wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat – contemptuously smirking at a Native American protester in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The story is clear, right? White privilege meets oppressed minority. Racial insensitivity. Trump-inspired conflict. Youthful arrogance. Build the wall. It’s all perfectly clear and the story is captured in a single shot.
Unless it’s not.
Turns out that the story may not be as it seems. Videos of the moment are not so reassuring of the original “narrative.” And, according to CNN, that narrative seems to have originated from one now suspended Twitter account attached to a blogger from Brazil. Get this, the account tweets an average of 130 times a day and often contained, “highly polarized and yet inconsistent political messaging.” Twitter shut down the account when CNN brought it to its attention. Can you say “troll”?
Even the New York Times David Brooks wonders, “Will the Covington Catholic High School fiasco change social media?” In his 1/21/19 column he writes that social media today is, “… about finding images that confirm your negative stereotypes about people you don’t know. It’s about reducing a complex human life into one viral moment and then banishing him to oblivion.”
The intent of this blog post is not to wade into current or past controversies. Nor is it to wax nostalgic about the way things were. My intent is to reinforce how impactful still images still are, even in this age of social media, spontaneity and instantaneous storytelling. It is also to reinforce the need to slow down and take a deep breath before you post, tweet, retweet, like, share or whatever.
We all do the same thing. We react emotionally in ways that reinforce a perspective we share or favor. Many times, we shape the story that we want. Because of the still images, many of us wanted JFK to be Ward Cleaver (look it up), Mary Ann Vecchio to be the slain student’s lover or roommate or friend, to catch a Royal being naughty and, most recently, for that CovCath kid in the MAGA hat to be a privileged punk.
Like the old carpenter used to say, “Measure twice and cut once.” Even in this age of social media and instant gratification, we should click-through a couple of times and make sure the story is really what we believed it was. Even then, we should probably watch an episode of some Netflix Original series before we hit “post.”