A Thousand Words Not Worth Saying

Two photo-related events entered the news this week. First is the death of Hugh Van Es, a Dutch photographer who took this iconic image during the fall of Saigon. Often mislabeled as a picture of the evacuation of the American embassy, it actually portrays South Vietnamese who had worked for the U.S. during the war trying to evacuate from the roof of the Pittman Apartments, residence of the CIA leadership. According to Van Es, the craft departed with about a dozen people, leaving many more waiting for the next lift. No other helicopters came.

The second event is the injury of Lynsey Addario, a New York Times photographer, in a Pakistan car crash. A Newsweek photographer was also injured and their driver killed. Lynsey’s work in some of the most troubled (and for Americans, relevant) places on the planet right now—Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq—carries great potency, revealing the world with that unglamorous, insightful power of quality photojournalism.

Compare these examples of photojournalism to the “Most Viewed Photos” of Yahoo! News. On 19 May, the gallery is dominated by lingerie football, cute zoo animals, and evidentiary photos of the corpse of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, former leader of the Sri Lankan terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers.

So what thousand words do the Yahoo! pictures say about us, the viewers who have so elevated them? Clearly, we are less interested in spending our leisure time on sobering perceptions of world events when we have sexy women, baby animals, and gruesome remains available. Normally, I would just dismissively shake my head and roll my eyes at this contrast of interest. But Clay Shirkey’s blog entry on the pending collapse of print journalism forces a new perspective.

When traditional print media—which does most of the journalistic “heavy lifting”—has succumbed to the Internet revolution, will the only available news coverage focus on what people want to see (e.g., lingerie football and baby rhinos)? For decades, the professional press has shouldered the responsibility for deciding what we should see—choosing what’s good for us to know. With others now usurping that role, such as hobbyist iReporters and those journalistic voices (like TMZ, Perez Hilton) unfettered by traditional ethics, the responsibility shifts more to us, the viewers.

That doesn’t require that we subject ourselves to a weekly review of depressing images from war-torn countries, but surely we can we be more selective in the news topics and sources we patronize.

Ian Smith blogs for Gemstone Media, located in Boise, Idaho.

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