August 7, 2006

The Right to Caption

The Right to Caption

Images don’t speak for themselves, they come with captions. People are fighting over who gets to put the caption on the image… It’s the caption that anchors those free-floating images, and right now, everybody’s trying to anchor the photograph in their side of the war… Now with the Nokia effect, you see a democratization of what the caption is going to be, what [meaning] a blogger will attach.

James Der Derian on Open Source

Last week, we discussed the Optics of this War; thinking towards our upcoming show about the Value of Life, a moment from our show Israel at War came to mind:

Resilience and normalcy has its disadvantages, I have to point out. In a normal society, when you’ve got people who are dead or dismembered or bleeding, you don’t call the international media to come take pictures of them. We’ve had children who’ve been killed and hurt and wounded as well, and because we are a normal society and we respect certain limits of dignity, our children are not all over CNN and all over the US networks… That is a disadvantage… when we try to be resilient, and try to be tough… we come off in the international stages, in the stage of public opinion, as cold and heartless.

Allison Kaplan Sommer on Open Source

This war is in part about producing and controlling images, those of children — wounded, traumatized and dead — in particular. As fast as photojournalists can snap them, bloggers have been latching on to the latest photographs from the Middle East and posting them with captions and references of their own.

A few examples from a very wide sea: Baheyya, an Egyptian blogger, contrasts graphic details of wounded children with the smiling conversations between Arab leaders. A website called electronic intifada chooses a small girl among an army of angry young protesting men to headline an article pleading for help from the Arab world. A Flickr user writes a makeshift thank you letter to Israelis, reacting in this case to a set of photographs. (After a little blog digging, it became clear that this particular reaction was massively reproduced and distributed after the events at Qana.)

In newspapers as well, dead and wounded children are at the top of the page. Monday’s Guardian brought the death of a child to the front page, a decision which is given some new light by news editor Shane Richmond. In the German Der Spiegel, one photograph of a group of children stands out as deeply upsetting, and questionably serendipitous.

Pictures of children in war aren’t new, but it’s become exponentially easier to pick apart and reassemble content from a broad and accessible range of material.

… I wonder why it is so difficult to think a little, to get it into our heads that television news and photojournalism manipulate our thoughts and emotions.

Lisa Goldman, Putting Things in Perspective, On the Face Blog, July 20, 2006

Related Content

  • I think what’s interesting about this ‘democratizing’ of captions is that we may learn one of two things, or both: which images are most important to people (that is, what they choose to publish when the newspaper editors don’t have all the control) and/or the lowest common denominator of self-promotion (use the pornography of war to get attention for yourself or your cause.)

    Can we tell yet, whether the public responds differently, better, worse, faster, more slowly to events around the world with all these images floating around?

  • rc21

    Of course it would help if the images we were seeing were actually real. Reuters today acknowledged that it was showing doctored images of the bombing of Beruit. Conservative bloggers have also pointed out some major problems with photos taken in the past weeks that also appear to be doctored. The PM of lebanon has just admitted today that only one person was killed in what was earlier called by the press another mass killing of civillians. And to top it off deaths from last weeks bombing have now been downgraded from over 60 to about 29. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story. Especialy if it makes Isreal look bad.

  • When I worked at the Earth First! Journal we had a picture of Al Gore hammering a nail. According to the source of the photograph he was working on a habitat for humanity house. We captioned it, “Al Gore Spikes a Tree!”.

    (We expected our readership to get that it was a joke).

  • jdyer

    Not only that rc21

    “Fuad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, told the foreign ministers of the member-sates of the Arab League that Israel had killed 40 people in a bombing strike on the southern village of Houla. And, to be sure, 40 including many children. He cried. As it turned out, one person was killed.”

    The worst thing that could happen for those of us who do care about needless civilian casualties is for officials of various government and non government organizations to lie about the figures.

    The real numbers are bad enough but to hype the figures will only lead people to disbelieve every figure mentioned.

  • jdyer

    Here is an interesting idea:

    Through a glass, darkly

    “A journalist’s reflex defence against accusations of bias is to say it is in the eye of the beholder. To which your response might be: well he would say that, wouldn’t he?

    Such a debate could disappear down an ever-diminishing hall of mirrors or, in the case of the media’s coverage of the war in the Middle East, could become the rope in a tug of war between Israel and various Arab states.

    Watching the fervent debate on this issue in recent weeks, I wondered what would happen if representatives of both sides were invited to play foreign correspondent for the day and rewrite a news report. Not an opinion piece but a news report…”

  • I was in school taking a class called “Visual Communication in the Twentieth Century” when the Oklahoma City Bombing happened. We examined the news coverage. The event had a theme song and a title. DUN dun DUN… “TERROR IN THE HEARTLAND”. There was a film clip of a Fireman carrying a dead baby out of the building that they played over and over and over again. It was highly pumped up and overly dramatic. I had not watched TV for a while and I was appalled. I thought it mocked the reality of the tragedy that it was depicting.

  • peggysue: I agree. Life does not come with background music. The most traumatic events in my life have been eerily quiet. I don’t watch TV news. Haven’t for years because it feels pornographic. Turning someone’s tragedy into entertainment.

    Now we have the internet. There’s a pornography to it, as well. You really have to do some research to find sources that you trust are informed and respectful.

    When I walk through life and meet with people, I never hear the kind of invective I see on TV and read online and in these ridiculous politically evangelical books. In person, people are just not as fanatic as they are when operating remotely.

  • joshua hendrickson

    We are manipulated by images and/or their captions in order to make us feel: we must feel good about ourselves, or bad about somebody else, or enraged, or exalted. In no case are we manipulated in order to make us think. Thought is the ultimate enemy of power; emotions are power’s greatest allies.

    When I saw the images of destruction on 9/11, I felt, yes, of course I felt; there was no way around it. But long before that day was done, I had ceased to feel much one way or the other, and had begun to think. And what I remember thinking in that afternoon was this: this is the perfect excuse for fascism in America, the perfect excuse for the erosion of freedom that power is always seeking. And I thought that most people wouldn’t even realize that; they would be too busy feeling horrified, outraged, angry, vengeful. As far as I could see in the months afterward, I was right; after all, the damnable Patriot Act came into existence even before our war of revenge in Afghanistan had begun.

    I wonder: is there even a way to provide images and/or their captions to the public in such a manner that the manipulation of emotion is kept to a minimum, and the stimulation of critical thinking is maximized? I know that is not what power wants (and perhaps not even what the powerless want either), but is it even possible, given the will? Or are we simply programmed to feel before we think? Is our serpent-brain, being more deeply rooted than our higher thinking, simply fated to always be in the driver’s seat? Or can we transcend ourselves?

  • colin

    This is great stuff… thanks to everyone for pushing this question forward from where I was thinking about it this past week.

    I wonder, in response to Joshua: would that ideal situation –in which manipulation of our thoughts and emotions is kept to a minimum– be more likely to occur with more or less decontextualization of images? In other words, does access and ease of distribution, (blogs and the internet) lend itself to a better world of freer thought, or are we just compounding the problem we’re trying to solve?

  • joshua hendrickson


    Man, that’s a tough one! I’m inclined to say that it would lend itself to a better world of freer thought, if only because the less centralized the sources, the more unlimited the sought-for range of responses. But such a state of things need not necessarily lead to better reactions. Our nature may simply not be capable of tilting closer to thought than to emotion. I still have hope, though, that increasing the number of sources will in itself be a good thing; even if such a course does not change human nature, it will at least broaden the potential for critical thought in those people best suited to it.

  • Joshua: “Is our serpent-brain, being more deeply rooted than our higher thinking, simply fated to always be in the driver’s seat? Or can we transcend ourselves?”

    In our evolution we relied on visual information way before we began to use words. Those images come into our consciousness at a deeper level. For example if you write the names of colors with different colored felt pens and write each color in a different color than the word describes say, you write the word BLUE in RED ink, the brain is likely to think you wrote the word RED. Try it on your friends. Advertising uses visual manipulation all the time. The hidden (or not so hidden) sexual content in the ice cubes in liquer ads is one of the most well known. I think the more we understand the better we can transcend but it doesn’t help that Madison Avenue (I don’t think I’m being overly cynical to say this includes TV news) spends billions figuring out the best ways to manipulate us.

  • Transcendence. There’s something to ponder. I believe it is the challenge of this existence.

    On 9/11 I was living in a community without TV. It was days before I saw images, though I was only about 150 miles from NYC. So, my first responses were intellectual. I thought about how nobody in this country was going to question what we might have done to cause people to feel so angry that they could do this to us. I knew that most Americans would consider that act the beginning of something rather than the culmination of something. When I finally saw photos, I was emotionally overwrought. It was horribly painful to see people hanging out the windows and falling from the buildings. I was deeply saddened. But, I think because I didn’t see images for a while, I was able to keep those emotions limited to the suffering of the people that day and not bring that into my realm and claim it as my own experience and put on the cloak of victimhood. (And I did know people in that people. Some that got out. Some that didn’t. I used to live in Battery Park City. I went to college in NYC, worked there for years….

    I wonder how differently information would be processed if people received words first, then images. Usually, papers put photos on the front page then a little text that jumps to another page. What if you couldn’t see the photos until you have read about the story from at least 3 different perspective. And, then, what if you saw photos from the 3 different perspectives. Would we be more discerning about our responses?

  • rc21

    My question to Allison is why after hearing that 3,000 innocent people living in your own back yard have just been slaughterd would your first thought be what have we done to cause people to kill innocent americans?

    At the time we were not at war with anyone. and we were not occupying any foreign land. That seems to me to be a somwhat bizzare line of thinking. Wanting to know who did this seems more like a better first thought.

  • fiddlesticks

    Right to caption, right to lie:

    The NY Times Hezbollah Photo Dust Up

  • fiddlesticks


    I am not suprised that you would blame the US for the attack on the WTC and the murder of 3000.

    Try this thought experiment, Ask yourself what if we didn’t do anything to provoke that attack? What if the Islamic murderers blame us for not being Muslim?

    How would you handle such a fact.

    Do you think we should all become Muslims? Are you ready to live under Shariah? Or are you a Muslim already?

  • fiddlesticks

    More caption news:,7340,L-3288887,00.html

    New York Times ‘used fraudulent photo’

    “Man seen ‘dead’ in Beirut photo essay appears in other photos from same scene up and walking around, blog blasts ‘unbelievable fraud'”

    Yaakov Lappin

  • rc21

    Those crazy right wing bloggers. Why are they always trying to bring truth to the news. Cant they just let the NY Times, Boston Globe, BBC, Reuters ,CNN, and the rest of the msm go on deceiving the public.

    Why do they always have to ruin a good story.Is there any way we can pass legislation outlawing these bloggers.

  • Old Nick

    At 1:00 PM Eastern and 10:00 AM Pacific (Thursday, August 10th), KUOW’s Weekday will air – and stream – this:

    Middle Ground in the Middle East?

    Audio available at 11:05 a.m.

    The war in Lebanon continues. There’s speculation about an expanded conflict involving Syria and Iran. This leads to a question: where’s the middle ground in the Middle East now? Today on Weekday we’ll find out who the moderates are on all sides. And we’ll ask what they’re thinking. What proposals have a chance of bringing the various sides together?


    Ellis Goldberg is an expert on middle east politics and a political science professor at the University of Washington.

    Daniel Levy was a member of the official Israeli negotiating team at the Oslo and Taba talks and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

    Walid Jumblatt is a Druze leader who sparked the Cedar Revolution in February 2005. He heads Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party.

    It will be available as a streaming archive, and it podcasts too.

    It will also stream ‘live’ again at 12:00 (Midnight) Eastern (Friday, officially, but Thursday night) / 9:00 PM Pacific (Thursday night) here:

  • fiddlesticks

    We need a show about anti-Israel world wide media bias:

    “Israel says BBC not reporting war fairly”


    Aug. 10, 2006

    “The Foreign Ministry is under pressure from Israeli citizens to resume its boycott of the BBC and to withdraw credentials from its reporters due to “one-sided” reports on the war in Lebanon, Israeli diplomatic officials said Wednesday.

    For seven months during a wave of Palestinian violence in 2003, Israeli officials boycotted BBC news programs, declining interviews and excluding BBC reporters from briefings. The boycott was ended after the BBC appointed a panel to oversee its Middle East coverage and to ensure it would be unbiased.

    The diplomatic officials said the network had not been reporting the war fairly. Senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem went as far as saying that “the reports we see give the impression that the BBC is working on behalf of Hizbullah instead of doing fair journalism.”


  • chilton1

    I remember a caption in a US newspaper under a photo of Nicaraguans voting in their first election after Somoza.

    It said;

    “18% absentia from poles in Nicaraguan election”

  • Fiddlesticks: I am not suprised that you would blame the US for the attack on the WTC and the murder of 3000.

    Do you think we’re all such simpletons? You clearly think I am. I did not say we were to blame. I said that we needed to accept some responsibility for why peope might hate us. Your tendency to blow things out to the most extreme interpretation is not conducive to constructive self-reflection or problem solving.

    Do they hate us simpy because we’re not Muslim? Certainly, some use that rhetoric and others are trained from childhood to believe it. But I don’t believe it’s at the core. I do believe that within Islam there is plenty of room for peaceful coexistence. Religion is being used and skewed to serve political purposes.

    So, you don’t think we’ve ever done anything to deserve scorn from Middle Easterners? We’ve had a benign or only constructive influence?

  • chilton1

    Allison….you are absolutely right

    In fact, religion IS politics (in disguise maybe)

    well, a tool of the political

    Mao called it Opium -but it’s more than that

  • I appreciate this post. I got a better understanding between Resilience and normalcy. I also appreciate the intelligent comments in here.