It’s all seems very innocent, checking into Facebook to be greeted by the latest rash of cute animal videos doing the rounds, along with them are videos of animal cruelty. Ironically they look different, but the impact is opposite to their appeal.
I love animals, I have always had dogs, I grew up on a couple of farms, I have a hard time going to the zoo, but I understand their existence in this world we have built. I’ve been to Seaworld in Florida when I was little being splashed by Shamu, but now I am old enough to understand that actions have consequences.
Years ago pictures of a furry little wide eyed primate eating a banana graced my feed almost every time I looked at my feed. Some time later there was a campaign called “tickle is torture”, which brought to my attention that our tendency to anthropomorphise animals had once again been shown to be wrong. Behaviour that internet users had been identifying as enjoyment and play was in fact stress and fear. We made the assumption that because we like to be tickled or touched, so did the loris.
The Loris’ Facebook fame led to a rise in the demand of the slow loris as an exotic pet.
A study was conducted by the Nocturnal Primate Research Group at the Oxford Brooks University in the United Kingdom into public perceptions of cute videos of threatened species, specifically the slow loris.
“Focussing on a group of threatened and globally protected primates, slow lorises, we quantify public attitudes towards wildlife conservation by analysing 12,411 comments and associated data posted on a viral YouTube video ‘tickling slow loris’ over a 33-months period. In the initial months a quarter of commentators indicated wanting a loris as a pet, but as facts about their conservation and ecology became more prevalent this dropped significantly.” Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V (2013)
The problem is with exposure. Many of these animals are relatively unknown, which is partially their saving grace. “Slow loris videos that have gone viral have introduced these primates to a large cross-section of society that would not normally come into contact with them.”Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V (2013)
With eyes that look like Puss-in-Boots and movement such as eating that is so incredibly like a furry human, their appeal to the animal seasoned crowds is easy to see. But that some people go from ‘aw that’s cute’ to ‘aw I want one’ and then enacting that desire out is an unintended impact of most people who forward the viral animal video.
Like most one stop shopping websites Facebook has a range of groups who engage in the sale and import of exotic animals,
“Many threatened species or their body parts are explicitly advertised for sale on websites, including charismatic Asian flagship species such as elephants, tigers, and marine turtles. Pet traders increasingly resort to the internet, e.g. in Thailand  and in China . Improved packaging and infrastructure allow ornamental fish and corals to be ordered on the internet and shipped to one’s door in a matter of days. Internet trade is also used to offer legally protected species for sale as pets , . For some species, like Iranian Kaiser’s spotted newt, rising demands in internet trade of live specimens has seen an increase in their harvesting from the wild, leading to near extinction of the species.”Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V (2013) Other complications are the spread of disease and placing native animals in habitats outside their natural habitat.
Facebook commerce policy prohibits the sale of animals on it’s site. But, it has been hard to police what happens in closed groups.
Although loss of habitat is by far the greater threat to all the species of loris, across much of Asia, the pet trade, in particular to Japan is drawing heavily on the already threatened species.
The solution to stopping the trade of exotic animals may also in part lie on the internet. After the release of the “Tickling is Torture” video (shown above) by internationalanimalrescue.org sharing of Loris videos stopped and Facebook and YouTube users started exercising greater consciousness of the impact of sharing these type of videos.
The illegal animal trade has always been a thing, but with the internets ability to create higher visibility, with higher accessibility for potential clients, animals are being assaulted on yet another front. The internet as a tool of conservation education show potential for hampering the trade though. Government and corporate regulation are most definitely going to be the gatekeepers of the internet exotic animal trade, as well as the Facebook end-user, it can be as simple as not pressing share.
Nekaris, KAI, Campbell, Nicola, Coggins TG, Rhode, EJ & Nijman, V 2013, ‘Tickled to death: Analysing public perceptions of ‘cute’ videos of threatened species’, PLOS One, vol.8, no. 7, p.p. 931-935
I was sitting a Macbeth Way Community Centre, we were in a medium sized room with a high ceiling and highly-polished white-tiled floors that continuously bounced sound from one hard surface to another, no matter how many people were in the room. It was a TAFE outreach class on governance being taught in the middle of a public housing estate in Rosemeadow, a suburb of South-Western Sydney.
A group of women from Macquarie Fields and Claymore were talking about a program that ABC’s Four Corners produced about the social housing estate in Claymore. The women were talking about how it is hard enough to come from Government housing estates and how much harder media coverage like the Four Corners program ‘Growing Up Poor’, made it for residents of the estates covered to find employment due to existing stigmas being confirmed and sensationalised. They felt by robbing them of their humanity and context the program left them to be judged as object. The residents of Claymore in my class continued, speaking of the invasive journalists who would hang out on their streets or around the shops trying to get residents to speak with them. “I wouldn’t talk to ’em,” one lady said, “I know what they want.” She’s speaking about a the portrayal of marginality that seems to be the lens through which we view poverty, the framing that forms the dominant discourse by which we discuss poverty and powerlessness.
So as public communicators, the subjectivity, lack of context and possible impacts of using the visual medium need to be explored to be employed responsibly and without undue negative impact on the subjects of the image. The image itself does not exist in a vacuum, and despite the intention of the photographer, journalist or film maker there is a world that exists before during and after the image is taken and then publicised. By using the work of Gordon Parks, a photographer, writer, poet and composer, who gained fame by photographing what he saw around him, poverty and the struggle for civil rights, we can look at this case and its impact.
Firstly let me just state that I do not wish to ignore that this discussion could easily be about the aestheticisation of poverty as Gordon Parks’ photographs are indeed beautiful. But here for this post I consciously chose to look at the experience of the individual, the intention and possible impacts on the practitioner, subjects and audience.
Gordon Parks was an African-American photographer who was born in 1912 and died in 2006. Parks was a black man in America. Born in Kansas and raised in Minnesota, he never finished school, worked as a waiter on the railway, in road gangs and many other forms of employment. Unable to afford education he did what he could. Inspired by photographs of the bombing of the “Panay” he saved up his money and bought a camera for seven dollars; it came with two rolls of film. He wanted to shoot fashion, which he did, but some of his most notable work came from the world directly around him, “the photographs that I made there [Chicago], aside from fashion, were the thing that I was trying to express in a social conscious way. I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake. I, you know, thought I had the instinct toward championing the cause. I don’t know where it came from but… Possibly the cause was my own early poverty.” Parks (1964)
In 1961 LIFE magazine sent Parks to Rio de Janeiro to create a story focused on poverty in Latin America. To accomplish this Parks focused the photo essay on the family of Jose and Nair da Silva and their eight children.
LIFE showed its readers a frightening, brutal world where the da Silva children — and, by implication, countless others like them — spent their day “penned in their shack [built of tin cans and broken orange crates] or roaming the foul pathways of the favela where the filth of the inhabitants is tossed out to rot.” TIME LIFE (2012)
There’s an unromantic version here that LIFE magazine doesn’t speak about. But, Parks says in his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, “The detailed Life assignment in my back pocket was to find an impoverished father with a family, to examine his earnings, political leanings, religion, friends, dramas and his frustrations.” Parks (1990) So that’s what he did. In the same autobiography he explains his own motivations for wanting the assignment,
“I’ve never lost my fierce grudge against poverty. It is the most savage of all human afflictions, claiming victims who can’t mobilize their efforts against it, who often lack strength to digest what little food they scrounge up to survive. It keeps growing, multiplying, spreading like a cancer. In my wanderings I attack it wherever I can—in barios, slums and favelas.” Parks (1990)
Parks, sees himself as self-determining through exposing the ugly face of poverty. There is a conversation to be had though that in order to be allowed to photograph these topics in a way that he would be published, the subjects had to be shown through the lens of disgust and powerlessness. That by imposing himself on the de Silva family (the subject of the LIFE article), that he too was exploiting this family’s powerlessness, “José, the father, viewed us with skepticism. Nair, his pregnant wife, seemed beyond tired beyond speaking. Hardly acknowledging our presence… Later, when we got down to the difficult business of obtaining permission from José da Silva to photograph his family, he hemmed and hawed, wallowing in the pleasant authority of the decision maker. He finally gave in, but his manner told us that he expected something in return.” Parks (1990)
Parks goes on to create a relationship with the then twelve-year-old Flavio who is the eldest boy and a parental figure in the de Silva family. Flavio makes a sympathetic figure in the western press and is consequently ‘helped’. Brought to America to be cured of tuberculosis with the assistance of President Kennedy and the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver. The Life cover and article demonstrates how poverty has a value that makes the audience feel good about themselves in a way that is public and self congratulatory, “The Compassion of the Americans Brings a New Life for Favio” the article was titled. Parks made a film about Favio, writes and sponsors the boy in a way that was sustained throughout Parks’ life.
In an excerpt from the HBO documentary Half Past Autum: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks Parks returns to visit Flavio, who is now in his fifties with a family of his own. Everyone there is visibly moved, “Gordon Parks is really something that happened in my life and my brothers and sisters’ life, and my mother’s ” says Flavio, “it’s something important, it’s an act of a father. We kept in contact by writing letters and thinking in our minds, in his there and me here, it’s the way you keep in contact, just not forget the person.” Towards the end of that section of the documentary, Parks reflects on the real impact that their interaction had on Flavio:
“Age had fallen hard on Flavio da Silva’s head, neither time nor goodwill had overcome the poverty that still stalked him. The house was in shambles. Life‘s cover had portrayed Flavio smiling his thanks to those who saved him, but now it was clear that in molding human lives money alone was not enough.” Parks (1999)
This quote realises for Parks that after a life spent photographing, filming and writing about the plight of the poor, he realises that poverty is a problem that is bigger than money, it is a social problem not to be solved by publicity portraying them as victims, marginalised citizens and/or the powerless other.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in 1960 the population of the favelas were 337 412, in the year 2000 it had risen to just over a million.
Maria Perlman is an anthropoligist who has spent her life studying the idea of the marginal community and the links between the social systems that support the existence of the myth of the other and the reasons for its existence. In The myth of marginality:urban poverty and politics in Rio de Janeiro, Perlman connects sustaining the the current ideology around ‘marginal’ communities as functionally convenient for the dominant political system. Her longitudinal research of the favela’s of Brasil points out many causal indicators for their existence that were never dealt with through looking at Life’s expose on poverty in Latin America.
The portrayal of the Savio’s and other residents of the favelas as ‘other’is problematic
Perlman writes, “My conclusion was that the favelados are not marginal, but inexorably integrated into society, albeit in a manner detrimental to their own interests. They are not separate from or on the margins of the system, but are tightly bound into it in a severely asymmetrical form.”
In Parks’ coverage of the Savio family the father was painted as a type of a villain, blaming him in a way for his family’s situation and standing in the way of Flavio being adopted in America and having a ‘better life’.
Perlman writes, “The ideology of marginality, with its moralistic “blaming the victim” narrative has persisted,” she goes on to explain how this ideology serves the dominant culture.
The coverage in the LIFE magazine article did not investigate the significant societal factors that led to the poor of Brazil in the 60’s and 70’s not being able to overcome their social and economic distress which were:
the dramatic loss of manufacturing in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan area, which left thousands of blue collar workers unemployed;
the consolidation of the physical space of the city and consequent reduction in construction jobs (which had been a mainstay for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the boom of the 60s and 70s); Perlman (2005)
Perlman also lists: a downturn in domestic employment due to the financial insecurity of the middle-class; technological advances replacing jobs; higher education standards for job entry; increase in drug violence; and the stigma of living in a favela as a barrier to employment.
No person or society is an island, so it seems irresponsible to the subject to portray them as such. There is a direct correlation between portrayal and public opinion, “portrayals of poverty are important because they have an impact on public opinion.” says Rosalee Clawson and Rakuya Trice in a research study called Poverty as we know it:Media portrayals of the poor,
“In turn, public opinion has an impact on public policy (Page and Shapiro 1983). Thus, if attitudes on poverty-related issues are driven by inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of the poor, then the policies favored by the public (and political elites) may not adequately address the true problems of poverty.” Clawson & Trice (2000, p. 61) “Graber’s research on television suggest that themes are more memorable than verbal information (Graber 1990, 1991) Although news magazines are a very different medium than television, it is certainly possible that magazine photos capture the audience’s attention in the same way as television visuals. Psychological research suggests that vivid images of particular cases are more memorable and influential than dry statistical data (Fischhoff and Bar-Hillel 1984) a finding that is confirmed in the quantitative study Watchdog, voyeur or censure? An eye-tracking research study of graphic photographs in the news media which investigates peoples beliefs about American intervention in foreign countries after exposing research subjects to selected graphic images. Dahmen (2015)
This discussion is in no way meant to be exhaustive and there is no blanket way to control where, how and which images are released. But, a concerted effort by employers, educators and individuals to be aware of the real impacts that any information, specifically regarding the powerless has to impact lives that have very little recourse to fight. As shown by relating the Perlman article to the Life Magazine story, it would have been more socially responsible to educate their readers on the context around the images, possibly by showing through the images why the poverty existed in that place, rather than adhering to existing stereotypes of the filthy dirty poor, who are just there.
The Life article did encourage giving aid to South-America for a time, but it did not cure the employment, education, housing, drug or social stigma problems as they still exist is Rio de Janeiro today.
Clawson, RA & Trice, T 2000, ‘Poverty as we know it: Media portrayals of the poor’, Public Opinion Quarterly, vol.64, no.1, pp.53-64
At around eighteen-months of age I uttered my first sentence , “Mum, look at me!” Now at that age when brain development is still coming to terms with the self as a concept, children will often try to get their parents attention just to be witnessed in whatever activity they are engaged in or just to ask “do you see me?” Now so many years later my own children are at ages seven and ten and can still be heard saying “Mum, look at this.” or “Mum look what I can do.” with such regularity they are like my personal push function for sixteen hours a day. Our need to be witnessed in almost everything we do is seems to be so intrinsic to who we are as human beings that the selfie as a form of witnessing seems like a natural extension of a specific human need. A form of validation of the “I am here” or “look what I can do” drive.
Now let me be clear, this conversation around witnessing and the selfie is a tunnel visioned one only for the purpose of this discussion. The motivations behind the selfie movement are as diverse as the stars in the sky. This discussion of the motivation of witnessing and how it may relate to selfie taking and viewing is only exclusive for focus, not because it is unrelated or does not act in combination with any other behaviour.
The term ‘witness’ has many uses and meanings, but its use in this blog post will be in reference to its meaning as a discursive term, “of stating one’s experience for the benefit of an audience that was not present at the event and yet must make some kind of judgement about it. Witnesses serve as the surrogate sense-organs of the absent.” Peters 2001 (p.709)
I don’t believe for a second that the importance of being witnessed is purely a human concern. Many a David Attenborough special can be seen showing a male bird of paradise performing some spectacular choreography on the forest floor, or a baboon shaking their bare-ass at a mate, just waiting to be noticed. But, naturally humans took it a step or ten further, painting pictures of their daily activities on cave walls, making frescoes depicting their wealth and exploits or developing photography so that their likeness will continue long after the organic being is gone. Long before the term ‘selfie’ came about, people have been asking other people to take pictures of them as part of the environment.There is an importance around witnessing and being witnessed that the selfie can now fulfill with ease due to technological accessibility. It may be important to note here that the behavior appears to have remained constant with the medium changing or expanding due to technological advance.
In ‘Selfies: Witnessing and Participatory Journalism with a Point of View’ Michael Koliska and Jessica Roberts describe witnessing as “crucial to communication”, they say that “Before information can be shared or passed on to news audiences it has to be first acquired or witnessed.” They are referring in part to the essential nature of witnessing within the profession of journalism, but the principle could be applied to people’s need to be witnessed in their relationships, cultural activities and life events. The idea of “truth and experience, presence and absence” as well as “the trustworthiness of perception”(Peters, 2001, p.707) (2015 p.)
At the age of fourteen I spent two months in traction in Wollongong hospital. A girlfriend had decided to have a bit of fun and scare me by jumping beside me as we jumped from the rocks at the ‘grotto’ in North-Nowra and into the Shoalhaven river. As often happens when kids decide to do something stupid, something went wrong and a broken left femur was the consequence. After two months in hospital I had lost all concept of my face. It sounds strange, but how I looked was not part of my sense of self at that time due to spending two months without a mirror.
I remember seeing my face for the first time in two months, the pallor of my skin , the shape of my face, my blue eyes looking back at me deep and alive. Maybe it was shaped by the idea of Narcissus staring into the water entranced by his own reflection, but our mirror image has always fascinated us. As if we can find clue to our true identity there, hidden away in the upturn of our mouths. My eyes tracing the newly unfamiliar features of my face, my visual identity slowly returning and with it the awareness of how I witnessed myself and how my external presence was witnessed. It gave me insight into how image is present in the construction of the self.
In her paper “Bringing sexy back: reclaiming the body aesthetic via self-shooting”, Katrin Tiidenberg discusses how our stories of bodies and sexuality have often relied of images to discover or create their truth. In reference to the role of selfies in constructing the self Tiidenberg says, “Traditionally photographs were seen as showing us the reality (cf.Bogdan & Biklen, 2003); according to Rose (2001), some historians of photography have argued, that the use of photographs in a specific regime of truth (Foucault, 1977), resulted in photos being seen as evidence of “what was really there”” Tiidenberg (2014 p.2) She goes on to discuss how this is no longer a prevalent view among visual scholars, that photographs are now seen as a ‘negotiated reality’. Tiidenberg however contests the idea of ‘negotiated reality’ particularly in the case of sexuality and candid shots, saying that in the case of candid photography it can be a case of the individual taking back the right to tell their own story of self, “According to Lasen and Gomez-Cruz: “self-portraits seem to be taking part in embodiment processes and in the shaping and knowing of the self” (2009, p. 206). Taking an active role in one’s sexual storytelling through both, images and text, can serve as empowering exhibitionism that allows us to “reclaim a copyright to our lives” by rejecting the “regime of order and the regime of shame” (Koskela, 2004, p. 206-207) or an act of “self-storying as activism” (Crawley & Broad, 2004, p. 68 as cited in Sheff, 2005). Tiidenberg (2014, p.2)
Selfies as a form of witnessing is a fairly new area of exploration particularly in relation to citizen and professional journalism. In the era of fake news journalists have been using selfies as tools of credibility of their witnessing of events and by extension validating their experience. This is another form of self-storying and places the journalist in a position of power by exhibiting their role as witness to their audience, but also as validation for the self.
So, despite the relatively new term of ‘selfie’ and the popular obsession of discussing it in a predominantly negative light. As the discussion progresses and accusations of narcissism are cast aside by psychologists who have a solid understanding on the psychological drives of the disorder, the behaviour of reflecting the self back to the self and exhibiting it to others will gain perspective. The behavior is not really new as evidenced by Foucault and other scholars (some discussed here), even though the medium is. Perhaps the focus could be brought to how the conversation or manifestation of self images changes in content, use and impact according to accessibility. Perhaps the objections and uproar of how the self is being portrayed through selfie is due to the possibility of wider distribution and its different temporal relationship to us than that of its predecessors thanks to the immediacy of the technology.
Durham Peters, J, 2001, ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol.23, p.p.707-723, University of Iowa, Iowa City, SAGE Publications, London
Hall, K, (2016), ‘Selfies and self-writing: Cue card confessions as social media technologies of the self’, Television and New Media, Vol.17, No.3, p.p.228-242
Koliska, M & Roberts, J, (2015), ‘Selfies: Witnessing and participatory Journalism with a point of view, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 9, p.p.1672-1685, University of Maryland USA, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China
Tiidenberg, K, (2014), ‘Bringing sexy back: Reclaiming the body aesthetic via self shooting’, Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, Vol.8, No.1, Article.3
I thought I’d get a jump on blogging and start practicing for all those coming blog assignments.
First tute Dr Nicola Evans, a fresh faced and soft spoken woman who has the most delightful accent, started us off. “The average life of a web page is 100 days.” She began citing issues that are coming to the fore as a consequence of the temporal nature of new technologies and the speed at which they rise and fall. Many case’s legal notes that are citing URL’s as their references are finding that the links have disappeared.
Instantly my mind jumps to Orwellian ideas, where changing what is recorded in the past and making history appear as you wish it to be today becomes reality.
And so the discussion in this subject instantly tied with my other subject’s lectures that week and started a snowball effect in my overactive mind. One of the emerging issues is really an old issue, now with greater capability for healing and/or damage; the mediated message.
Anyone can start a news website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account etc, there is little to no accountability, I’m not saying their needs to be more. But with such a high amount of information being viewed everyday it’s not easy for the average person to wade through it and to come out with a story that is not a product of someone else’s agenda.
The powerless still have a problem of accessibility and it is up to the powerful to tell their stories. But for what purpose?
For instance here is a discussion between journalists about what is happening in Syria. There are many stakeholders in this discussion. There are accusations about the White Helmets, there are accusations about false stories coming from aid organisations. Unless you are on the ground in eastern-Aleppo you are stuck with the task of wading through a wide range of second, third, fourth, tenth hand information that is contradictory and obviously has become the play thing of multiple stakeholders.
Much like economics, much like policy or climate change the mediated message has gained volume, speed and access in a way that can influence the way that large populations of people think about an issue.
My first ideas for a focused research area is the way that NGO’s working abroad use technology as a way of promotion and possible proliferation of a mediated message or propaganda. My father has a lot of interesting things to say about the Red Cross during Vietnam and there is now documented evidence of their role in WW2. It may be interesting to compare the enabling of aid organisations as false fronts for government propaganda versus their advertised role.
One of the things that I decided in past semesters was that deciding on a topic in the first couple of weeks and starting the planning and reading phase would be of most benefit. So this is me making good on that.
Am still stupidly excited to be back asking the pressing questions of our time (which I have a fleeting suspicion will be the same as 2000 years ago). This is my last core communications topic, and if my brain flow is anything to judge by, it promises to be one hell of a ride.