Monday, July 18, 2005

Images, Words, and Time

I sent this letter to the editor of Time magazine (not for publication) about a year ago. Curmudgeons do some quixotic things on occassion, I know. We try to "escape through understanding" (as McLuhan said) much of the time. But sometimes...the fire has to come out (Jeremiah 20:9).

James Kelly
Managing Editor
Time Magazine
Time and Life Building
Rockefeller Center
New York, NY

June 1, 2004

Dear Mr. Kelly:

I read with interest your editorial of May 31, 2004 called "Brokering the Power of the Image." You indeed bare a colossal responsibility for the images you select and reproduce for the masses of souls you influence every week.

Let me give you another perspective on the matter. Some things should not be seen—not merely the extremely gruesome things, but indecent things that do not befit the dignity of human beings (which I believe bear the likeness of God). For example, those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers should not have been photographed. Neither they nor their families would want them to be seen dying in this hideous way. Decency looks away. Some things should not be seen. The same insight applies to the burned bodies of the American contractors in Iraq. This inhumane event should be described, discussed, denounced, and reflected on, but not seen. St. Augustine ruminated on this in The Confessions, Book X, where addresses curiosity as a vice, a sin. He speaks of the urge to see a "mangled corpse," even though it gives no pleasure. That is an indecent thing—to gape at a mutilated dead body. (Augustine does not have funeral visitations in mind—a very different situation.)

I am from Littleton, Colorado, home of Columbine High School. When the demonic apocalypse struck in 1999, reporters were immediately on the scene shoving cameras and microphones into the faces of traumatized teen-agers just minutes after they barely escaped the carnage with their lives. This should have not been done. A friend emailed me from England aghast. She wrote, "Here they would never allow the reporters to accost these children with cameras and microphones." But in America, we must have the images—at all costs, no matter the impropriety or the indecency.

Moreover, images, which dominate American and most western media, are very limited in what they can communicate concerning truth. They cannot directly convey propositions, but instead evoke emotions. Yes, some are telling and unforgettable, such as the photography of the young Vietnamese girl running naked in the streets after being napalmed. But for all their poignancy, images may mislead or overwhelm without informing or educating at a deep level. This image-saturation (if not image-mongering) has lead to the pandemic debasement of intellectual discourse in our country.

Compare the text-to-word ratio of a Time Magazine (or Newsweek) from 1950 to that of today. I reckon that the May 31, 2004 issue of Time had roughly a 50/50 ratio of images to text. The 1950 issue would be dominated by text, not images. But today we are no longer typological society (see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, on this), eager to wrestle meaning from texts over time. This move away from the text and toward the image (whether stationary or moving) cheapens discourse and fosters intellectual impatience. We think the pictures tell the story when, in fact, they can (at best) tell only half the story. The moral imagination is better served by careful and nuanced descriptions in words than by a raft of images.

Malcolm Muggerridge (a distinguished British journalist) was close to the truth when he said in Christ and the Media, "The camera always lies." As a Christian, I don’t take it to be an accident that God gave us a Book (really 66 varied books) and no photography. Moreover, the Second Commandment (Exodus, chapter 20) warns us to not make images of God. That by itself should serve as a general warning as to their limitations (as Postman notes). For a masterful study of this reality, see Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985). Daniel Boorstin’s classic, The Image (1961) treats the same general subject with great insight as well.

Mr. Kelly, I hope you will consider these points as you reflect on your role as a public gatekeeper.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.,
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary


Jeff said...

Great post. I appreciate these thoughts.

I actually have a problem with the media when they tell us that a little girl (this is a general comment) who was recently abducted and murdered...was brutally raped.

Why in the world does the world need to know these types of frighten the parent who are listening.

I'm sure there is a place for this, but not the morning or evening new broadcasts.

Josh S. said...

Amen. An excellent, concise explanation of our current plight. Now only if they would listen and understand...

David said...

I mostly concur with your thoughts, and definitely think that images can be overused at times. But consider this counterexample: in the midst of some genocide in a far-away land, do you think viewing images of decaying corpses (however grotesque this might be) might actually awaken people to the horrors of the atrocity and spur them on to take action? It might be easier to distance oneself from these kinds of events if they are only described in the words of a newspaper. I think the relevant expression here is "I'll believe it when I see it," and there is something very powerful in seeing with your eyes the devastation caused by humanity's sin and hatred. In a sense, it becomes more real when it is experienced in this way, at least as being more at the center of my attention.

Jeff said...

David stated the following do you think viewing images...might actually awaken people...and spur them on to take action?

In my opinion, I think this could be the case. Pictures (motion or still) are used for educational purposes.

We certainly live in a visual society. Scott Klusendorf and other pro-lifers are advocating the use of graphic visuals to change opinions on the abortion issue. One reason they are advocating this is that they believe the word abortion is a vague concept for most people.

Jeff Burton said...

Along the lines of the other commenters - how do you feel about the pictures of starving people used to raise money for relief work?

Jody Harrington said...

Thanks for an outstanding refutation of the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of the news media.

Susan said...

While evocative "visuals" might move people to some people action, this means of motivating the masses comes with some serious problems. The first is the law of diminishing returns. Electronic images, because they are out of context, tend to deaden and callous our senses rather than develop tenderness of heart over time.
The second is that rarely are these images presented along with real, practical, effective opportunties to DO SOMETHING ABOUT what we see - because that is rarely the point when it comes to the media.

David said...

I think there is a difference between discussing how visual images are currently used in mainstream media, on the one hand, and how they might be used for redeeming purposes in the hands of wise and discerning individuals, on the other hand.

As I mentioned in my original comment, I tend to think that images are overused in today's culture as a means to convey truth. That is precisely why so many people's senses are likely dead and calloused to them. But that doesn't mean that in theory certain images, at certain times, may very well inspire people to feelings of compassion, as well as to prayer and action on behalf of those suffering.

And I don't necessarily agree that images always fail to have context, as Susan stated. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. It depends on how the image is used and to what degree the presenter of that image works to explain all of the data and background relevant to it, thus allowing the viewer to have all the facts before developing any firm conclusions.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Images, words, and thou: I am not a complete iconoclast. My worry is over the uninterpreted image, the misinterpreted image, the distracting image, the noxious image, the indecent image, the superfluous image--all of which are in abysmal abundance today in our media. We are saturated in them; our minds are marinated by them; our souls are addled by them.

Yes, images properly displayed and interpreted can invoke and provoke the moral imagination. Most images today, however, serve other purposes.