(Since writing this piece, the police used teargas to disperse the student protest outside parliament. The photos I am seeing are too raw to talk about yet.)
The lack of empathy apparent in the media’s characterisation of the #feesmustfall protests as violent appals me. Even worse is the kinds of commentary I have been reading on social media and news media comment sections which perceive the protestors as ridiculous, savage, lazy, irrational, entitled, unnecessary and misdirected. This peanut gallery is always tinged with racism (I’ve left out some choice epithets from the list above), but also refuses to see a bigger picture around social transformation or black pain.
Social media has also been providing alternative narratives. Inspired by these, as well an article published in Africa is a Country which analyses media response to the protests, I thought it important to try and break down the role of photographs in the public perception of the protests.
It is no deep insight that news media are businesses whose profit motive is entangled with journalistic rhetoric and ethics. Photographs are an important part of the narrative of journalism, enriching the story and offering an eye witness. At the same time, pictures help a news story become saleable. For me this is epitomised in the recent move by news outlets like Times Live to use stock photographs (often generic images of guns, knives, police tape and stethoscopes). In terms of a protest, the winning images are those which depict action as it involves the viewer in the moment. There is a tension in photojournalism between aesthetics and objectivity, but often effective cropping and dynamic compositions (both aesthetic devices) trump distant, calm images. There is a bias, then towards images which show violence or imply it.
There is a second tension in photojournalism between
neutrality and framing. A photograph has an undeniable indexical relationship to the world, which implies the photograph is a bearer of truth values. The implication is that photography is denotative. And yet the way a photograph is framed (the angle of view, the crop) bears its own set of connotations, which undercut this denotative value but are often invisible. While we trust news photographs to be objective, they hold a secondary set of meanings.
One of these meanings is a production of alterity, a sense that the image is a window that separates the viewer from the people depicted. There is a distance, which may provoke sympathy, but very seldom empathy. This is emphasised by the point of view that journalists often take, literally how they stand outside a protest and look in. While this appears to be a neutral position, it ultimately sides with authority. It reinforces received notions of otherness and delegitimates the protests.
An interesting alternative take is the photos I have seen by Imraan Christian. Christian’s images present students who are smart, aware, in control and legitimate. Of course, these images have another bias altogether, but it wears it on it’s sleeve.
Protesting is part of us. The students are not others, with irrational concerns, but kids who have the courage to stand up and start a social movement. Perhaps as non-students, graduates and bourgeoisie we can start by challenging the language of our media.