Passepartout is all about documentaries and visual stuff I find worth seeing.

A photo can speak 1000 words – but does it speak the right ones?

Every now and then, someone (re)discovers photos of the traditional yearly whale fishing in the Danish Faroe Islands. He or she posts the link or the photo(s) on a social media channel, and then, the reactions begin. They are always the same, always emotional and always predictable. The truth is that the photos are quite intense, super bloody to be more specific. The truth is also that a discussion about this practice seems necessary. But never in the years since I came to learn about this practice myself have I seen one decent discussion based on arguments.

Depicting sensitive issues is difficult. Spreading such photos – according to the photojournalism ‘creed’ – is meant to provoke debate and analysis, to create awareness and to change things. But does that really happen? This is something I have been questioning and trying to understand for years. What happens when you show the world sensitive issues from places they have never seen, in this case a combination of animal rights and tradition?

At the end of December, just before New Years, the photo above was selected in the Pictures of the Day selection of the New York Times photography blog. It was posted with the description ” Dancers from Romania’s northeast region near Moldova performed the traditional bear dance, a new year’s ritual for good luck, during a parade in Comanesti, about 200 miles northeast of Bucharest. In pre-Christian rural traditions, dancers would go house to house in villages while singing and dancing to ward off evil”.

The aggressiveness this photo stirred among its viewers did not leave any space for a debate, or an attempt to understand what was going on. The image was posted on the NYT Lens Facebook page as well, and the reactions were so out of control that the photo was further on removed. What happened is that people only saw the dead bears in the photos, animals being killed for a nonsensical pagan ritual. Many Romanians, fond of this tradition, felt attacked and hit back verbally. Very few took the time to ask questions. And very few took the time to respond and explain.

I am not on the side of the tradition. In fact, quite often I feel traditions should be questioned and revised. But I am also not a big fan of throwing stones and feeling morally superior.

Fact is, after Russia, Romania has the largest bear population in Europe. Also fact is that trends in bear costumes don’t really change, so these costumes are there for generations. Another thing is that no bear is being shot for the simple purpose of making a costume. This is not to say that the bears don’t need to be protected. Nor it is to say that illegal hunting does not happen. No, it’s only about the fact that the tradition itself does not harm them.

Anyway, no one asked about these things. People were quick to judge the photo as representing a brutal practice, animal harm in a backward country. And the response was not better. The Romanians responding to this outnumbered by far the foreign comments. And very few took time to simply explain, most of them attacked the commenters in a personal manner. In the end, instead of a photo depicting an old tradition and people discussing it, there was a photo needing to be removed and two categories of people: the backward brutes and the ignorants with no traditions.

This is not the first time I see this. In such image-stirred reactions, no matter what you do, you end up being ‘one of those’. One of those treehuggers, vegans, leftists. Or one of those capitalists, heartless, immoral bastards. People stop focusing on the issues and their merits. It all becomes a sort of competition to see who can slap the other better verbally.

In this, the process of selecting photos for the media is very important and rarely questioned. This particular photo was not chosen because it can inform well. And the capture it had was terribly minimal.

This photo was selected because it is unusual and therefore it will stick to your mind. It will intrigue you and might make you click the link that comes with it. Its composition is unusual, a man looking straight into the camera, right in the middle, surrounded by a large group of others, less visible, dressed in those skins. Because you cannot see where the group begins or ends, it gives the feeling of a mass, a large compact group of people dressed in bear skins. And then there’s the contrast between the brown and the bright red from the ornaments and the inside of the bears’ mouths, suggesting blood or a certain aggressiveness.

It is a remarkable photo, this is why it was selected. For years now, editors have been selecting ‘strong photos’, most of the times based on aesthetic criteria because it more likely people will click a link if it has a good photo attached. Because these photos attract and sell. But is having a visually remarkable photo enough to make people think or understand an issue? In a visually saturated world, aren’t we all quick to process and categorize what we see? If a photo can speak 1000 words, shouldn’t we ask ourselves which ones precisely?

These photos might create awareness. But I think most often, especially without a balanced account of what is happening in them and why, they end up stirring emotional online discussions and worse, creating terrible misunderstandings and precipitated judgements. That might be great for website traffic but for sure not so great for understanding the World.

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