Seeing without context, looking at the powerless with impact

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.

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American Gothic photographed by Gordon Parks (c) 1941, Woman pictured is Ella Watson
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)

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LIFE Magazine 1961 (c)  Photographed by Gordon Parks
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)

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Life Magazine 1961
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.

 

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Life Magazine 1961 (c)
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:

  1. the dramatic loss of manufacturing in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan area, which left thousands of blue collar workers unemployed;

  2. 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.

 

References:

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

Cosgrove, B  2012, ‘A fierce and tender Eye: Gordon Parks on poverty’s dire toll’, Time Life, 29 November, viewed 28 March 2017, <http://time.com/3875106/gordon-parks-classic-photo-essay-flavio/>

Dahmen, NS 2015, ‘Watchdog, voyeur, or censure? An eye-tracking research study of graphic photographs in the news media’, Journalism Practice, vol.9, no.3, pp.418-432

Doud, R 2016, ‘Gordon Parks 1964: Oral History Interview’, Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.9, no.10, pp.317-333

Parks, G 1990, Voices in the Mirror: An autobiography, University of Michigan, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990

Perlman, JE 2006, ‘The Metamorphosis of Marginality: Four generations in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 606, no.1, pp.154-177

Perlman, JE 1976, The myth of marginality: urban poverty and politics in Rio de Janeiro, Berkley, University of California Press, 1976

Rice, CL [dir] 2000, Half Past Autumn: The life and works of Gordon Parks, television documentary, HBO, 30 November

When absence says it all: minority representation in film and television

Growing up in Australia was a very different experience as a member of a minority. I was the only black child in a white family, so when I came home trying to explain how I was treated different, it was just my imagination…apparently. When people stared at me walking down the street or touched my hair with wonder it was “just because you’re beautiful…like a doll.” So not feeling like I fit in was how I felt…ALL the time.

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Garry Pankhurst, Skippy & members of the Aboriginal theatre in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land

When it came to watching television or movies, I can remember Gordon on Sesame Street and maybe the odd Aboriginal tracker on Skippy… Mostly people that weren’t white just weren’t there.  As I got older and met so many other African-American/Australian bi-racial children, who also didn’t have any contact with any other black people, I watched how they derived much of their black identity from television and film portrayals of black characters and from music.  So when we were asked to research the spatial nature of media, its (film and television) affect on identity of minorities came to mind.

So here’s what I’m doing, I’ve put together a quick survey on film and television. If you’re not from Australia, feel free to answer also (as I found a number of really old Hollywood Films made in Australia), I’d like as many responses as I can get.

For those who have something to share I also have requested video responses.

Where you can either post me a response on Youtube or send a video clip to my email: cherokee_flower@yahoo.com

This small qualitative study will be compiled into a movie and blog as part of my university work looking at media and audiences.  I also have a wide network of people online, so it’s a fantastic time to educate through storytelling.

I would love to listen to your thoughts. And if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comment box below. I always read them.

Identities adopted or created by media

Let me be honest, I’m only halfway through reading Nick Couldry’s article ‘Constructing a digital story circle: digital infrastructure and mutual recognition’. But, I know what I want to research for Media, Audience & Place, therefore I will put digital pen to digital paper now, while I am still filled with the spirit.

As usual, in an effort to be reflexive in the foundation and inspiration for my research I will submit two examples if I may. Which will also start some sort of narrative.

Example One

John Pilger filmed a documentary called ‘The War Behind the War’.  The documentary exemplifies how during the Iraq War the commercial media in the UK, USA and Australia was complicit in creating a false identity for the allied forces by reporting propaganda and censoring what information was broadcast to the public.  So the media was framed in a way that was not objective or balanced. And we are still experiencing the fallout from that in the form of Islamophobia as we were not allowed to feel compassion for the Iraqi people, or to see them as human.

Of the many outcomes of this misinformation is cultural identities being changed or upheld in both a negative and positive capacity.

Example Two

My Dad lives in Tennessee, so you can imagine that when I visit from Australia, I’m something of a novelty.  When I would go to shop or talk to people on the street, after the shocked “Oh my God! Where are you from?”  I informed them that I was from Australia (Austria? No Australia), I would immediately be greeted with “OH! Just like in Crocodile Dundee”, yeah.

The phenomenon that I’m steering towards is the ability of television, film and other medias to create identities globally, real or imagined.

The Research Proposal

Taking this idea of media creating identities and making it specific to minority identities. Using peoples memories I would like to create a story circle with people from different minority communities. Using their their memories and experience of media overtime to create a narrative on how the portrayal or absence portrayal off the minority group affects them.  Nick Couldry explains how, ‘Three main dimensions of a digital storycircle are explored: multiplications, spatializations (or the building of narrative around sets of individual narratives), and habits of mutual recognition.’Couldry (2013, p.1) I will do this by also including the experiences and memories of members of the dominant culture in relation to the media’s portrayal of minority cultures.

As part of the narrative existing data, such as the research study quoted below, will be used to supplement my small research project. I’ll be sourcing other projects from around the world with larger sample sizes.

Research findings using college students’ perceptions have consistently
shown that negative exposure to African American portrayals in the media
significantly influences the evaluations of African Americans in general (Ford,
1997; Mastro, & Tropp, 2004; Power, Murphy, & Coover, 1996). Other res-
earch has shown that Black depictions on television have an effect on view-
ers of all ages and of all races (Bryant & Zillmann, 1994; Dates, 1980). Punyanunt-Carter (2008, p.242)
The way minorities are portrayed on television, film and other media has changed over time is an important facet of research. The below study looked at white peoples reactions to watching black comedy, ‘Stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans in a humorous context increase the likelihood that whites will perceive an African-American target person in a stereotypical manner.’ Ford (1997, p.266) So there are some very clear studies showing the impact of the portrayals of minorities on audiences.
This cartoon today is so offensive to me. But, it would be interesting to have the discussion with someone who has the capability relaying a history. It may even be interesting to make a compilation of scenes of television and film over time and have my subjects give their impressions of each one.
Looking at how violated do minority people feel in their own homes may be a point of discussion. Do they turn off certain music or advertising because of the portrayal of minorities? What do they let their children watch? Why? If they have white friends or family over, do they watch different things in order to not offend?
Given that this will be a small study I will have to make it smaller and more specific. I do think that affect of minority portrayals on media on audience identity or perception there of it is a worthy area of media research.

References

Couldry, N, Macdonald, R, Stephansen, H, Clark, W, Aristea, L, Aristea, F, 2015, ‘Constructing a digital storycircle: digital infrastructure and mutual recognition’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, p.p.1-29
Ford, TE, 1997,’Effects of stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans on person perception’, Social Psychology Quarterly, vol.60, no.3, p.p.266-278
Punyanunt-Carter, NM 2008,’The perceived realism of African American portrayals on television’, The Howard Journal of Communication, vol.19, no.3, p.p.241-257

The Story of Us

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(Credit: Ghislain and Marie David de Lossy, CU, Group of friends watching television in living room, Saint Ferme, Gironde, France, Getty Images 2016)

Flicking through the pages of blogs with respect to our elders and their memory of television, the theme is clear. Although the interviews were about television, the answers revealed stories of people and the rituals they create that involve the television.

“My father would sit in his arm chair with a beer in his hand, and my mother would sit in the armchair next to him, with a chocolate bar and Pepsi in each of hers [hands].”(Amy, 2016)

“My mums first memories of watching TV at home was being in her lounge room at night time sitting on the floor next to her sister watching a show like the Brady Bunch.”(Irving, T 2016)

“So, me and my brother were only allowed to watch maybe 2 hours of TV a day total. Of course we never did this, I have some great memories of waking up super early some mornings and sneaking the TV on so I could watch some more. I would also sneak into the kitchen and grab a tub of milo and eat it straight from the tin while I watched my favourite cartoons.” (Moses, N 2016)

Again and again the research of the humble students of BCM240 unwittingly points at  communal behaviour. Human beings, acting out similar scenes in separate houses that center around family interaction and joint experience (with a strong emphasis on food).

So how effective is using memory and interview as a research technique. As a form quantitative research I don’t think memory is very reliable. Even in my own interview, my subject remembered watching the Lawrence Welk Show as a child. However, when I researched the dates of the Lawrence Welk Show, I found that by the time it aired the subject would have been in his late teens.  I suspect that had I come armed with a list of shows that were on TV at the time of his childhood, his oral recount would have changed quite drastically, but it would have been led by myself and may have influenced authenticity of the memory.

Even with my critic of using memory as research, I think it is not without value. While not being relied upon for the hard data of any issue, an oral recount can communicate quite accurately the ritual, ceremony and emotional connection that coloured the landscape around the television. Hard data is rarely able to capture this landscape and dynamic that possibly only lives in people’s personal stories. As identified by Nick Couldry in ‘Social Semiotics’,

The proposed new paradigm is disarmingly simple: it treats media as the
open set of practices relating to, or oriented around, media. (Couldry, N 2004)
The memories described by our interviewees and the experience of remembering are examples of what happens around media. To capture more meaningful data we would have to have spent a great amount of time with the participant and recorded a detailed account of the surrounding circumstances that contributed and shaped their personal stories. As discussed in the Elizabeth Loftus TED talk (above), memory is unreliable and requires independent corroboration.

The brief experience did bring meaning to the term collective ethnography. A process where through collaboration with the participant we drew out an oral picture of a culture, space, time, experience and memory all revolving around the television.  The study become more meaningful to me when we reciprocate by creating contrast and comparing similarities to our own experience. Also, by researching the culture of the time and acknowledging how what was happening in the greater world impacted peoples viewing and ritualistic behaviours.

 

My Reflection on Screen

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Publicity photo of Freeman Gosden as Amos and Charles Correll as Andy from the radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy CBS

As I talk to my subject who shall be named Steve, though it’s not his name, we are both transported to some other place. Steve is in a place constructed by the skeins of memory, me, in the place constructed by his words and my mental Rolodex of 1950 media cliche’s.

 

The topic under recollection is television (TV). Steve grew up in 1950’s mid-west America in the small town of Jamestown Ohio. Steve was born in 1953 and is African-American and lower class, facts that all affect his memory’s construct.

The television was a solid structure, cased in brown wood and too heavy to move alone. The image it showed was black and white. The TV was placed in the corner of the room, with two lounges facing each other in the center of the room, the preference being given to people rather than the wooden box. It was a comfortable room that never saw plastic covers.

Steve was the only child of a single mother, who wasn’t always home. So his relationship with the TV became that of babysitter, teacher and companion.  As a boy, he was usually alone with the TV, watching Howdy Doody  or whatever else was on, since the choice was limited. Sometimes there was an uncle or his mother sitting with him, in his one bedroom house, in the sparsely populated town.  Steve remembers imitating the actors on the TV.  One time he was watching a crime show, the man was wearing a hat. Not having a hat of his own, Steve found the top of a coffee tin in the garbage and repurposed it with the milliner’s savvy of a five-year-old. The man on the TV shot his accomplice, when asked why he killed the man, he remarked “he was bleeding too much”. It was later while mimicking the show that Steve cut himself on his coffee-tin lid-hat. His mother returned to the house to find her child [Steve] cowering with fear under the bed, should his mother kill him for bleeding too much.  I laughed at hearing this as my own children have often had trouble distinguishing reality from the drama playing itself out on the screen.

When describing the shows he watched, time became elastic as he jumped from time period to time period, the shows all melting together like a surrealist landscape or the wardrobe of my eighth grade maths teacher who refused to give up her crocheted antique-pink dress. I prodded him about what shows he remembered. Where there any black people on TV? Nah, Nah there weren’t. And then there was a moment ‘Oh yeah! I remember! The Laurence Welk Show!’ Steve’s energy escalated and he sat up straight on his McDonalds’ stool. ‘There was that one guy on the Laurence Welk Show, the tap dancer.’ He described how the house would be full of people not really paying attention to the TV that was playing in the corner, someone would say ‘That brother’s on the TV again’, and everyone would stop what they were doing and come into the room and watch the one person who looked like them, Arthur Duncan.

The cultural space that TV filled was so aptly described in this one example. Television existed in Steve’s space, but is also was a re-enforcement of the oppression that existed outside the home, breaking down boundaries in what would have previously been a culturally exclusive space inside the home. In this context Steve exemplified how even though television was welcomed into homes as early as he remembers, in 1964 black people in America were still dropping everything to watch themselves on screen. Such discussions open the door for research on the construction and destruction of identities through television.