Who Needs Photojournalism When We Have Hollywood?

Normally I let the idiotic comments of our cable TV pundits wash over me like a megalomaniacal lullaby as I fade into oblivion each night. But Laura Ingraham said something on her radio show the other day that got me to thinking. She said that Americans no longer need photojournalism to cover the death and destruction caused by war, because we now have “high-tech Hollywood” for that.

The issue came up after freelance photojournalist Zoriah Miller appeared on Ingraham’s show. Miller, whose case has been covered on Black Star Rising by Dennis Dunleavy, was removed from his embedded assignment in Iraq after posting graphic images of dead U.S. Marines on his personal Web site.

Ingraham accused Miller of acting not as a journalist but as a member of the “anti-war clack,” then explained why the American public did not need to see images of war dead:

We know what it is like for people to be disemboweled by an IED or a sniper’s bullet. We’ve seen enough of the horror, with the high-tech Hollywood, okay. We know what it is.

A commenter on my Spin Thicket site responded to Ingraham’s remark this way:

This woman needs a reality check. Hollywood’s images do not hit home because we all know it’s fake.

It would be easy enough, then, to dismiss Ingraham’s comment as just another idiotic remark by another idiot pundit. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that, deep down, most of us agree with Ingraham — or at least want to agree with her.

Hollywood vs. Real-Life Images of Violence

Let’s play Ingraham’s Advocate for a moment.

At this point, we’ve probably all seen soldiers’ arms, legs and heads blown off in movies like Saving Private Ryan, right? Sly Stallone even cranked it up a notch in the latest Rambo by showing us innocent women and children having their arms, legs and heads blown off. Do we really need to see images of dead people in the news anymore?

It’s hard to argue that the Hollywood carnage isn’t realistic.

Then again, as the Spin Thicket commenter points out, it’s a lot easier to watch graphic violence when you can always stop and tell yourself, “It’s only a movie.” It’s different when it’s real, right?

Yes, it is — but I’m not so sure that’s the issue here.

Why? Because just as depictions of violence in the movies have gotten more graphic over the years, so have depictions of real-life violence on TV.

For example, true-crime shows (Dateline, 48 Hours Mystery) and channels (truTV, Investigation Discovery) have emerged as one of the most popular television programming categories in recent years. These shows increasingly have no compunction against televising graphic crime-scene photos.

I’ve seen close-up images of dead people with bullets in the head and worse on these programs. My wife turns away from them and wonders why the programs show them. Clearly, the answer is ratings. More people want to see them than don’t.

This isn’t Hollywood; it’s real violence. And people still crave to see it.

The Violence We Create vs. The Violence We Don’t

So why, then, does the public not clamor for images of violence and devastation from Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do we not protest when the Pentagon refuses to allow photographers at military funerals — even in instances where the family has specifically requested that the media be permitted to attend?

Certainly, photographic images of war’s devastation have impact beyond the sensational. Such images can have real news value — not to mention an enormous impact on public opinion, and on history.

Let’s put aside Vietnam for a moment — since, three decades after that war ended, it remains a political football. Instead, let’s look at World War II and its aftermath. What if we didn’t have footage of the horrors of Nazi concentration camps; what it we didn’t have documentaries like Night and Fog? How many more Holocaust deniers would there be today if we didn’t have images to document what occurred?

Could it be that we don’t seek out graphic images from Iraq and Afghanistan today because it reminds us of our collective responsibility for the wars we wage? Could it be that we want to think that real-life war is like Hollywood wars — where the violence is in service to a clear narrative, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them?

Or could it be that we simply would rather not think about it at all?

Sometimes, journalists have a responsibility to feed us bad-tasting medicine, the kind we don’t want to take. Which is why media outlets — and members of the public who value a free and independent press — should fight, if necessary, to see the horrors of war.

We need to see photographs that stay with us, that shake us into action. What we don’t need are more images that wash over us like the mollifying rants of so many idiot pundits.

[tags]photojournalism, war photography[/tags]

3 Responses to “Who Needs Photojournalism When We Have Hollywood?”

  1. WE don't need to censor the war, but we do need editors to be sensitive to not needlessly put these on front pages where children seem them so easily. We should publish them inside where adults can control the exposure to their younger members of family.

    We also need editors to think and edit. Tell the story without grossing people out for the sake of shock.

    I think in a democracy if they public isn't fully informed they will elect officials that get us into the wars we don't want to see in our living rooms. If we are having soldiers die, we need to know so we can decide if it is worth continued support.

    If we believe the public should not be informed then we really must really believe in a dictatorship and don't deserve to know and that we should leave it up to the few since "we the people" are not capable of making rational decisions.

    I choose to believe the informed public will make the right decision.

  2. I'm afraid i disagree with Stanley in regard to where things go, but not the view against censorship.
    British papers in the 1960s did great coverage of Vietnam, through the photos of people like Don McCullin. A photo that shows the unpleasantness of war is essential, unless you want kids to think that wars are just so damn cool, and it should be big and prominent.
    This country takes to war too easily.

  3. If one's point of view is that one should never go to war, then broadly publishing carnage in all its gore will serve that end very well. But if there are wars that must be fought then society has to find the balance between sober reflection on the consequences and the courage to endure some really terrible things. There is a reason why some warring societies placed heads on spikes, etc. It is a way to instill fear and break courage. Photojournalists and their editors are taking position on war each time they publish. Are they serving a just end or abetting an enemy?

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