"A picture is worth a thousand words"

Posted by Cathaleen Curtiss — 2 Apr 2012

We all know the saying "A picture is worth a thousand words". But what if the picture isn't quite the truth? Or what if the picture is taken out of context?

This has been a topic of much debate over the last month, as countless news organizations, institutions and blogs discuss the use of certain photos depicting Trayvon Martin and George Zimmeran. Most media organizations used a photo of Martin smiling at the camera in a red t-shirt, slightly younger than his actual age. For George Zimmerman those same outlets chose his 2005 mug shot, when he too was a younger man. Other photos exist of both men that more accurately reflect their ages.

Martin Zimmerman.jpg

The difference is, in the age appropriate photos seen here, in The Inquisitr, Trayvon Martin does not appear as innocent and George Zimmerman does not appear as sinister.

This is not the place to argue, right or wrong. That should be left to the courts to decide. Instead let's talk about the power of a photograph to influence people and change perceptions. As photographers we all need to be aware just how powerful our images can be and how they can be used, and sometimes even misused.

Years ago, as a very green newspaper photographer I was sent to photograph a woman and her three children. It was a very difficult and sad story, the father had recently died, the young mother was unemployed, alone, struggling to make ends meet, and provide for her children. This was supposed to be the kind of story that might encourage the community to help this family. Instead, readers reacted with disgust. They penned letters to the editor in outrage. Why? Our readers were upset because in the photograph of this desperate family, the mother was smoking a cigarette. It was a lesson for me of how easily a photograph or a small element of a photograph can influence perception.

In September 2010 the International Center for Photography created an exhibition that showed the influence of photography in encouraging the revolutionary movement in Cuba.

Politicians have long known the power of a photograph. Just think of the photo of Michael Dukakis wearing a helmet in his 1988 presidential bid.

There was considerable discussion about media bias after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is not uncommon during major news events for several photographers from competing news outlets to end up in the same place shooting the same thing. Journalists often travel together for safety, shared expense, connectivity and because that is where the story is. In his 2007 essay on Hurricane Katrina, JPG contributor Erin Clark pointed out areas impacted by the storm that did not get mainstream media coverage. 

How and why we create photographs often depends on who we are working for. Is it an editorial assignment that requires the strictest adherence to objective documentation? Is it a photograph for commercial or advertising use? Is it for art, where your imagination is set free to create? Or are you an advocate for a cause where you control and guide the message? In my opinion they all benefit from integrity, truth and adherence to your vision.

The challenge is balancing how you envision the photo while being fair to the subject and still satisfying the demands of your viewer or client. New York TImes photographer Stephen Crowley has managed this difficult task brilliantly while covering the American political scene with his latest column "Smoke Filled Rooms".

Unfortunately, sensationalism sells and because of this you should always make sure that the entity with whom you are working accurately represents your vision.

As media outlets vie to illustrate the stories of the moment - it is wise to remember - when we make our own images, to search for truth, to be fair and to recognize that most stories and photos have more than one side.

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