We live in a culture that privileges words, both spoken and written, over the visual.We learn at an early age how to manipulate and control language, without giving too much thought to the influence images have on how we view the world. We construct sentences, punctuate, and deliver words strategically, yet the way in which we create and consume pictures seems far more casual, subjective and intuitive.
Our children are encouraged to make images with abandon. Then something happens in the development of our creative processes. We become self-conscious about the visual objects we create. We begin to compare our drawings, paintings and pictures to those of others. Eventually, we become discouraged and many of us stop creating. At this point, we tell ourselves — or perhaps others tell us — that we have no talent for art. We get discouraged and find other things to occupy our time.
Later in life, our desire to capture personal events in pictorial form forces us to use a camera. Many of us simply pick up a camera, point it at an object of desire or interest, and shoot. Then, when we look at the results, we see what we have done –– a head is cropped off, someone has closed their eyes, telephone wires run willy-nilly throughout the background, or we have taken the picture directly into the sun, making all our subjects become dark.
In this example, a language of the visual — a pictorial grammar — emerges. Terms such as cropping, framing, focal length, decisive moments, and exposure are all part of a photographer’s vocabulary. As in learning any language, practice is key. We learn by making mistakes and doing things repeatedly.
Even if we haven’t taken the time to practice control over composition and technique, we are quick to judge what we like and dislike about a picture. We think we know when a picture flatters the likeness of someone. We think we know when a picture makes someone appear like a gargoyle. In many ways, we acquire a visual literacy informed not by aesthetic convention or an understanding of technique, but through the subjective construction of personal and cultural taste and judgment.
Walter Benjamin once suggested that there is no single, absolute or correct interpretation of a picture, since every viewer brings something unique to the process. At the same time, photojournalistic images can constrain how viewers respond emotionally and intellectually through an aesthetic form that is directly related to context and content.
The Jill Greenberg Controversy
Controversy surrounding photographer Jill Greenberg’s  recent portrait of presidential candidate John McCain on the cover of The Atlantic illustrates this point well. After Greenberg posted outtakes of the portrait session on her Web site, people began to question the photographer’s motives and criticize her politics.
Critics complained that Greenberg’s images made McCain look less than presidential. The use of low-lighted camera angles and strong shadows produced what many decried as an attack on the character and integrity of the candidate. Even the author of the article jumped into the fray, arguing that the photographer had violated her contract by making McCain look bad.
Many photojournalists learn that the images they make must often conform to the expectations of audiences, both professional and public. Obviously, in the Atlantic case, the photographer was working outside the norms of audience expectations and obligations. Greenberg’s images raise awareness of the persuasive determinacy of pictures, especially in an election year. The photographer’s work makes transparent some of the underlying issues related to the use an informational/representational system that is bound to larger social institutions of control — politics and the media.
Preconceptions of the Powerful — and Powerless
Greenberg’s pictures challenge long-standing assumptions and preconceptions of power and what it should look like. All media practitioners, be they conservative or liberal, are subject to explicit and implicit rules for representing people of power.
Why is it that we see so many more pictures of homeless people than we do those living country-club lifestyles in gated communities? Seldom do people complain that a refugee dying of starvation in Darfur was made to seem too powerful or presented in a light that might dignify the human condition. Why is it that only when the powerful are construed to be powerless in an image that we become concerned?
Critics begin to attack the visual grammar of an image when they feel it misleads or lacks veracity. However, we are fickle and inconsistent in how we apply grammar to images. Learning to read the grammar of images is a starting point for a larger discussion — one that must include photojournalism’s role in the construction of our social reality.