copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
the academic traffic in images
by Catherine L. Preston
We chose titles for our papers before we selected the actual subject matter we would discuss. At the time it seemed like an interesting exercise, an interesting idea for a conference panel. We would choose an image currently in the public media, and each of us have at it, dissecting it with our various tools, bending it to our own devices, having our way with it. Used as a form of symbolic capital, it could be exchanged for a couple of days away from our home institutions. Thinking in this way, I felt a bit cynical at the time. Thus I titled my paper.
I did not know who Terri Schiavo was at that time, had never heard of her and could not anticipate that our treatment of the image would come within sight, so to speak, of the way the media, the religious groups, and the governments used her. So, I did not change the title of my paper, and it was with certain caution that I proceeded. On the other hand (and there needed to be that other hand because this is, after all, what I do for a living) there is a necessary link between studying culture and theorizing power. I intend my approach to help us understand the social, cultural, religious, economic, and academic traffic in images: How does analyzing various images of Terri Schiavo help us understand the issues involved in the struggle over this woman's right to die/right to live? What part might images play in that struggle? What practices or beliefs can be said to have contributed to a cultural or at least social preference for the images that became salient?
My approach to pictures, still or moving, is to ask how have these images come before us? What is the trajectory that these pictures take to be placed before our eyes? This paper represents one stage, a relatively early and certainly not conclusive stage in the study of possible trajectories these pictures might follow.
An important point here is that it is not just an image, but a person who had come to stand at the locus of the individuals’ right to privacy as opposed to the right of governments to intervene and surveil. And that is one of the tricky things about the academic analysis of images. The images we subject to scrutiny most often depict real people, with actual lives, actual families, ongoing consequences. Nick Couldry and Janet Staiger have written that cultural theorists and critics should move away from studying texts as objects to studying textual processes, or "events." Images that circulate widely and attract a lot of close readings are not simply there: they emerge as part of a "textual event." It is this event that needs to be studied. Similarly, the textual event is multitextual, and involves multiple media. Ideally in any study of visual culture we want to go beyond "visual media" to a notion of "mixed media." Following W.J.T. Mitchell, the notion of "mixed media" leads us to a specificity of codes, materials, technologies, perceptual practices, sign functions and institutional conditions of production and consumption that go to make up a medium or event.
One approach to the analysis of visual events that helps us specify the workings of "mixed media" is to construct a cultural biography of an image event. It means to look at the trajectory of the images that mark out the parameters of an event, to look at those images most in circulation as definitive of the event. The focus then becomes the process through which an image or series of images become part of a textual event, how they acquire resonance across a whole textual environment or field.
We started with an event that had "resonance" across the whole media field because it was strongly weighted with various meanings for a large number of people. Though the size of the group is not necessarily definitive of an event's significance, in this case the event came to have national significance. Lehrer News Hour reported on March 24, 2005 that the Terri Schiavo story was the number one story across all media—TV, radio, and internet sites including bloggers. The mainstream news organizations, ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC had devoted more discussion to the issue of her right to die/right to live than any other story since Elian Gonzales had washed ashore in that same state of Florida in November 1999. And, in fact, Terence Smith said by way of explanation for this “wall-to-wall coverage,” in a thinly disguised swipe at cable news in which he also inadvertently pointed to the key iconicity of any successful news story today, “It has all the elements that cable news needs. Basically it has a sympathetic central picture and, a person rather, and there are pictures of that person.”
Our expectations of pictures of Ms. Schiavo might include a place of honor atop a mantel, a respected place of memory in a family photo album. We might expect that photographs of her from the time before her collapse would be more prevalent than those of her afterward. And we might expect that because the nature of the tragedy is a personal and familial one, that pictures of her would be singular rather than multiple, that her physical condition would militate against public display of her current condition and encouraging photographs from an earlier, happier time.
Also important are the various spheres in which the pictures circulate. And one site that does treat her image as singular over time and utilizes a photograph before her collapse is the New York Review of Books. The two pictures I focus on in this paper are from a video of Ms. Schiavo after her collapse. They seemed to be the two most in circulation. They were most reproduced in the broadest number of media sites. However, another picture, pre-collapse was chosen to accompany an article by Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books. In this photograph, taken the caption tells us before “she suffered catastrophic brain damage” she looks smiling at the camera — at us — her head and shoulders visible, blond hair with bangs, wearing a sleeveless shirt. And this same photograph is used again, two months later, in an exchange in which the New York Review of Books published two letters to the editor from doctors quoted in Didion’s first article, and her replies. This time, cropped just below the neck, eliminating the shoulders, it is closer than the typical head shot. In addition, the caption shortens the reference to the subject from "Theresa Schiavo" to "Terri Schiavo," a process of familiarization that was carried out in all media. It is the generic “sympathetic central picture” of a news story that is required (and cynically) to represent a person.
But if we had expectations of singular rather than multiple pictures of this woman those expectations did not hold. The result of a Google search yields page after page of "Terri" Schiavos. Google is the great leveler, no respecter of singularity or status or meaning, its great maw reaches out and reduces all uses to thumbnails. And so perhaps it should be in this case. There seems to have been a veritable feeding frenzy on her image.
We collectively decided to base our analysis on the six videos from the website of the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation, and I decided to look at which of the stills taken from the videos were getting the most circulation as still images and to explore why that might be. I decided I would be able to take this as one definition or framing of the "event." In fact, the still pictures most commonly used in print media and television were taken from just one of the videos.
Based on the Google image search the pictures of Terri Schiavo used to represent this event are varied. But one of these (Figure 3) is used more often than the others. It comes from the video "Terri and her mother." The text surrounding the image defines the dispute as between the husband on one side and the mother and father on the other. This image that is in wide circulation is of a mother and daughter. This relationship is a particularly privileged one in this culture and may offer an explanation of the picture’s resonance.
But looking closer I realized that this picture is not identical across all media and in fact it is two stills of two different moments separated by a few seconds captured from the same video. In the first image Terri's mother, Mary, is holding her left hand against the right side of Terri's face as if cradling her head. Terri seems to be looking at her mother and smiling. In fact when compared to the second image, (Figure 4), we can see that in Figure 3 Terri may actually be looking slightly more center frame and past the right side of her mother's face.
Nick Couldry reminds us that it is the business of media to create textual events and that such events are inherently multitextual and involving multiple media. The difficulty of this image is that Schiavo is not looking at her mother and not looking at us but looking away, or looking in-between. This looking in-between is similar to another very famous photograph, Migrant Mother taken in 1936 by Dorothea Lange. It is a photograph in which the far-away look was marketable because it could connote looking to the future and persevering in hope for a better day, or looking at nothing, a hopeless, helpless look used in arguments for more government aid for tenant farmers and misplaced dust bowl migrants. But neither of those connotations was marketable in Terri Schiavo’s case. The far-away look only reminded the viewer that the problem was she may be farther away than anyone realizes, existing perpetually in-between life and death. It served to make her situation look absolutely hopeless.
While it is the case that several news sites use other pictures captured from one of the six videos, this picture, Figure 3, is most widely used. It appears on news web sites such as Washington Post, MSNBC, Tampa Bay's television 10 News, Sydney Australia Morning Herald, Slate News, and Yahoo.com, and one of the major Catholic web sites, catholic.org. These sites are larger, wealthier, and more mainstream sites compared to those that carry Figure 4.
Figure 3 may be taken from a moment before or a moment after the first image. In any case, while Terri and her mother are similarly arranged in the frame, Terri has less of what might be construed as a smile and in this picture does appear to be looking into her mother's eyes. There is also slightly more of a profile of Mary in this picture and we can see that her shoulders are raised compared to the other image, and that her mouth is open, perhaps speaking to Terri. Mary herself seems to be more animated in this picture. But this picture is a bit fuzzier than the other image. In explaining the greater use of the "far-away" look picture, we might take a clue from the sites where this picture is reproduced and speculate that copyright issues and reproduction costs prevented other sites from using the first, sharper picture. Figure 1 often carries a credit line, Reuters in one site, Getty Images File in another. The second picture does not carry a credit line and it is reproduced primarily on individuals’ web sites, non-news sites, special interest web sites, another Catholic web site but one that appears to be more proselytizing, less legitimate perhaps, speaking less officially in the Name of the Catholic Church. This image is also the one used on two foreign news sites. Finally this image and not Figure 3 is used on two sites that created composite prayer cards or posters. Figure 6 is an image of Terri and her mother placed within a framed image of St. Theresa with a prayer underneath. Figure 7, similar in form, copied Terri's head from Figure 4 and placed it next to an image of Jesus with a prayer over the two.
Certainly I would argue that the use of Figure 1 is an attempt to construct the notion of evidence of a presence in the viewer's mind. Similarly with the videos, there is a concern that just enough be seen of her behavior in order to display what could be taken as cognizance, as awareness. Thus, the use of six still photographs in a print sequence from the "Open your eyes, Terri" video. This sequence was used in at least three sites, all special interest, pro-life sites. What resonates possibly was that her eyes do open and she seems to be responding to an order, and that she seems to be looking at the person who commanded her to open her eyes. But, as is true in any film or video or still photograph – a lesson rehearsed again in the images of Abu Ghraib, how the depicted action came to occur in order to be photographed may be wholly other than what is claimed.
W.T.J. Mitchell, in a debate about what constitutes the object in visual culture, wrote that the object cannot be defined without attention to visual "nature." The issue of visuality is a key concept, here defined as the importance of analyzing both the practices around vision in terms of their construction by the cultural and social and the social and cultural practices as constructed by vision.
Terri Schiavo seemed to open her eyes on command and through this we could "see" that she was responding. We wanted her to open her eyes and look at us and us at her as confirmation of her "being there," being present as opposed to absent. The very important notion of interpellation, difficult to theorize but so necessary to social stability, is that people respond when they are addressed. The requirement that those addressed should "look at me when I talk to you!” is both a desire for control and a confirmation of subjectivity, ours and theirs. That is visuality, a visual practice that constructs social and cultural practices and is simultaneously constructed by them.
Figure 8, taken from this same video, also known as "Terri Big Eyes," is a quite different image when seen alone. Used by a mainstream and major news site, it utilizes the conventions of the police photo or mug shot, one in which the subject and viewer confront one another. The image is conventional, meaning it is coded in a particular way that indicates certain ideas to those who know the code, i.e. know the cultural communication practices. CBS chose this picture intentionally because it represents their editorial stand on the case which could not be stated in print or voiced by an anchor person. Terri seems to look directly out of the image at the viewer, her mouth hangs open, and she appears tired. Rather than state that "she has lived through the use of a feeding tube," The caption notes she "HAS BEEN KEPT ALIVE" as if against her will, and because she could not will herself not to do so.
Getting back to Figure 3, the one with widest circulation, if we consider visual images as go-betweens in social transactions, as a repertoire of screen images that structure our encounters with other human beings then we might consider this one of the primal scenes, the face of the mother, as Mitchell notes, “the evidently hard-wired disposition to recognize the eyes of another living organism.” Asking why this image is more palatable than the image in figure 8 is where I will leave you. In the answer to that question, mediated pictures may get us to better understand unmediated face-to-face relations. Here again I would stress the importance of using this method to attempt to answer two questions: How does the social world construct the visual? And also, how, at the same time, do visual worlds construct social and cultural relations?
Ideally, a cultural biography approach traces not only the trajectory of the picture itself through space and time but also viewers’ interactions with it, those elusive agents responsible for moving the picture and being moved by it. The complexity of consumption needs to be taken into account. Recalling Christine Geraghty’s insight Couldry notes,
“Some pictures are glanced at, used infrequently; others appear in a larger sphere and more often. And there are some moments when a particular picture comes to be read closely and accepted by many people as a coherent unity, as an icon. At such moments, pictures can acquire resonances across the whole textual environment. They become agreed means through which history can be "read" as it is formed, and as such, important historical evidence.”
On the basis of this picture's circulation, it seems to be on its way to becoming iconic, a signature image of this event. It is because of this that the “density of meanings that can be condensed into one text or set of texts has to be studied in its full cultural, social and historical context.” The cultural biography of pictures is one promising approach that allows a contextual understanding of the traffic in images.
1. Couldry, Nick. (2000) Inside Culture: Re-imagining the Method of Cultural Studies Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 86; Staiger, Janet. (1992) Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 9.
2. Mitchell, W.T.J. (2002) “Showing seeing: a critique of visual culture” Journal of Visual Culture 1(2) August: 174.
3. Kopytoff, Igor. (1986) “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective New York: Cambridge University Press, 64-91.
5. Didion, Joan. (2005) “The Case of Theresa Schiavo” New York Review of Books LII (10) June 9: 60-64, 69.
6. Mitchell, W.T.J. (2003) “The obscure object of visual culture” in Journal of Visual Culture 2(2) August: 249-252.
7. Couldry. (2000)