Moving Images: A Conversation on the Power of Photography
A conversation with Lynn Johnson and Jennifer Tucker
October 29, 2019
Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
7th Floor Commons
20 Cooper Square, NY
Kavli Conversations are hosted by NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program with support from the Kavli Foundation. Events are open to the public. Webcast will begin at 6:30pm.
>> So what kind of volume do you hear when I speak? I’m just speak a natural tone. Should I speak up?
>> We’re starting.
>> Hi, everybody, my name’s Dan F. and I’m a professor here and the director of the reporting program. The science communication workshops and we are about to start. A very exciting conversation on multiple levels it’s the first one that we’ve ever done about photography and I’m very excited about that. We have two very smart people. Three because of Lee H. our long time moderator to talk about the power of images and we also have some very exciting technical complications that we’re working our way through so we’re hopeful that it’s all going to work out and thank you for being patient with us. I’m very grateful to both Jennifer and Tucker and Lynn Johnson for appearing in Jennifer’s case in person and in Lynn’s case virtually, via Skype, from Arizona where she’s attending to her parents. And as always, very grateful to Robert Lee for all the work he puts in to these events. I will leave the formal introduction to Lee and just say thank you, Lee, for all that you do, especially for this one where there was a lot of interesting setup that was necessary. So with that I here is Robert Lee, he is a distinguished writer of residence here and a science writer for Wall Street Journal. Take it away, Lee.
>> Thank you, Dan, thank you very much. Welcome to the conversations on science communications. Now our purpose here this evening is as always, to explore how we report science. When we bring together the best in science journalism with the best in science communications to explore how new research reaches the general public, and, can we do it better? It can take more than words to create effective science journalism. Sometimes it takes no words at all but some very powerful images. And that is really what we’re going to talk about tonight. I should say these conversations are sponsored by the foundation and the NYU science and health environmental reporting program which is directed by Professor Dan. I should say we have one more in our fall series here on November 12th, we’re going to have something very special. We will be screening a new documentary on implicit bias, a topic of considerable medical and scientific controversy. And we’ll be joined by fill maker Robin. And then Harvard University psychologist who actually pioneered most of what we know about implicit bias.
Will also be joining us and then will as part of our conversation about the film be conducting interactive testing with the audience on their unexamined and implicit biases. It should be extremely interesting. Now as we go, this is a conversation and so labeled not a speech. So I encourage you both here before me but also lurking somewhere in the ether, that you favor us with your questions as we go. This is a conversation, please use the microphone so those of you here who ask questions they can hear you online and can hear you for posterity. This is being recorded. And those of you online can tweet your questions by using the hashtag KAVLICONVO. I don’t know why I stare at the ceiling when I say those of you online if there’s angels gathered at the clouds. I’m not sure. I want to frame our conversation with some numbers. Everyday people upload something like 350 million images to Facebook. To Snapchat, users share something on the order of 8,796 photos every second. All told, people upload an average of 1.8 billion digital image s every single day. That’s 657 billion photos her year.
We may be taking pictures but are we photographers? That’s our canvas this evening. We want to focus on the selected power of the image in science journalism to drive story to drive narrative. We’re not here to discuss Photoshop. We want to consider attention, patience, story choice, trust, ethics, respect, rejection, collaboration, how a photo becomes news, when is it journalism and when is it not, how does it become history? We want to consider how the camera’s lens in the right hands makes the intangible visible and concrete. And that’s at the essence of some of of the journalism that we attempt to do and we’re going to go tonight where our eyes lead us. Guided by national geographic photographer Lynn Johnson and Wesleyan University visual historian Jennifer Tucker.
Now Lynn Johnson, normally based in Pittsburgh, is one of National Geographic’s women of vision. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for photography for her photo essay on gender. She worked on a National Geographic on the first U.S. face transplant operation. She worked on the trust prize for medicine and focus and among the boast photos of the 76th annuals pictures of the year international she earned first place in science and natural history and all of those are the least of the things that she’s accomplished. She is as you can see unavoid — unavoid BLI in Tucson, Arizona.
Jennifer Tucker is here with us physically. Studies scientific photographs to better understand history and culture and politics in areas from environmental history and law to Popular Science, medicine and gun regulation. At Wesleyan she is an associate professor of history, feminism and of science in society. Her scholarship traces the usual evidence of science, pollution reform and Victorian courtroom debates over air and river pollution. He’s — she’s the author of an extraordinary book nature exposed. And as an authority on visual culture, she’s written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME, the globe. If this all goes well, here’s how this conversation is going to work. Lynn is going to guide us through a set of her images. Each one of which is a potential talking point. She’s going to tell us a little bit about how she responds to them. How they might have been taken. I might question her. I might ask Jennifer to do so. And then Jennifer is going to guide us through a set of images that highlight her work putting this in a visual historical context and then a pair of images the two have chosen together. All of these are talking points in our evening’s conversation. So with some luck, Lynn, we’re going to begin and here I ask you, Lynn, to introduce us to a woman named Q.
>> First of all, thank you for allowing me to float in over the side there and I’m delighted to be a part of this. Jennifer and I had some great conversations about our imagery. So different and yet found some great common ground. So I will just begin and kind of talk briefly about each of these images and, Lee, please, ask any questions that come to mind.
>> Yeah, I suppose I should say, these are drawn from your images of journalistic pieces that you’ve done by and large.
>> Yeah. Each of these images are from a story almost likely done for geographic and I tend to get stories that are more about ideas or trends or moments or things like vanishing languages.
Et cetera. Issues or, you know, viruses you can’t see. But that deeply impact individual lives. And this young lady, Q, actually, I met Q doing a story about stress for geographic and knew I wanted to address this scourge of military sexual trauma and that found Q and she agreed to be a part of this project. And the trend of this sexual violence in the military, and in the church and I don’t think that it has been addressed in the military at all. So it’s at least one in five individuals, one in five women, I’m sure it’s more than that, and you see Q inert on her couch unable to really address her life. And she went in into the marines after 9/11 believing she was a patriot. And was similar she was raped by her gunnery sergeant multiple times when she served in the Middle East. So the next, I don’t know, do you want me to just go through these, Lee?
>> Can we interrupt you? I’m curious just as a practical matter, this is an image deceptively in repose.
>> It look — at first glance it looks like someone taking a nap on the couch and as it grows on you you start to feel something, one of the things that’s very interesting about your approach to these invisible topics as you see is you make them intensely human.
>> You know, I think — I feel so grateful to have these kinds of challenges. Because they are deeply human and are dependent on developing relationships with people. And at the same time, they’re kind of intellectually challenging, you know, how do we — how do you help someone who will never meet these people to see the impact of a blast, of an act of violence, of something disappearing, of something internal. And so there are always so many strands at work and the way one thinks and how creative you have to be and how you have to bring every part of yourself to building the relationship and the trust. And I spent many, many weeks with Q. This was just partway into our getting to know each other and so she felt she could be completely herself and hopefully what the reader, the vie — viewer is her kind of inert energy.
And then we want people to enter the photograph, to feel the photograph. And then ask, you know, what is going on here? And learn more. We’re really calling out to the curious. And — so —
>> Please, go ahead.
>> So — and I think sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not, but in every case there’s always so much more to the story than what you see. And I think all those numbers you mentioned at the beginning as you introduced these ideas is people are not seeing anymore. They are simply amassing imagery which is a different thing. That’s like shopping. That’s not seeing. And to be in the presence of someone who has suffered and to know that they are asking you, giving you permission to put their story into the world. That is a deep responsibility. And so it’s not a thing.
>> You said something just a minute ago that leads us to the next picture. You are working with this idea in this photograph but in the next image, the idea of making something internal and invisible visible. Tell us about this.
>> Yeah, so this is Major Jeff Hall and his family. He experienced, his time in Afghanistan he experienced blast force injury which actually cannot be seen on any kind of brain scan. It happens that blast force injury in the brain happens in the cellular level. And completely alters a person’s ability to remember, to conform to any societal standards, to control their behavior and their violence and so he was suicidal and his wife, courageous soul that she is, said “I am not going to clean your brains off of the bedroom wall. I am not going to tell your girls who love you that you couldn’t go on, that you didn’t have the courage to go on. You will not make — you will not destroy all of our lives.” So he finally found some help at the intrepid center for excellence in Bethesda and was part of a creative process where they made these masks.
So I got the assignment from Geographic. It was presented to me on a piece of copy paper, a series of twenty masks on this page. And I didn’t have any idea what the story was. But I looked at those, kind of horrific suggestions of life experience and I thought, the editor said, you want this story? And I was like, yes, I have no idea what it is but I want to do it. And he said that this mask that he made was an Amal gam of all the violence he had seen and all the violence he had created in the lives of others.
And by making it it helped him subconsciously unbury those memories and deal. So a very important and odd — an important moment to be back with his family and alive and perhaps a little odd rendering of that, but meaningful I hope.
>> So, you know, as journalists we’re so often told like you can’t, you can’t pose a photograph if we catch you, you know, rearranging the scene, moving the baby booties closer to the wreckage of the car or whatever, you’ll lose your pew prize. Doesn’t this make you uncomfortable to create this tableau as a photo journalist?
>> Not at all because I think photography as a language has many possibilities and incarnations. And I am always a journalist.
I am always curious and searching for information and doing research but the moment that one chooses to represent the reality of the story, I think has to fit with the intention. The intention of the people that you’re photographing. Their choice to face the camera and face the viewer is a powerful one and, you know, we can’t just be tourists in other people’s pain. At some point it’s much more dignified to say, yes, let’s meet the eye. Let’s both have courage on either side of that photograph.
>> Let me go to the next image. And Jennifer, I’m going to be interested in hearing from you on this too because here we’re talking about — wait a minute. There we go. An inanimate object but it’s an inanimate object with special resonance to New Yorkers and Americans in general. And it’s presented, I don’t know, as evidence almost. Of something. Tell us about it, Lynn, and then Jennifer, I am curious about that aspect of this picture. So, Lynn, what are we looking at here?
>> Well, yes, I chose this picture because of Jennifer. Because she had me thinking about evidence. And photographs as evidence and how an image and a substance can be altered in meaning so this is dust from the pile from 9/11 from that time that seared in everyone’s memory and it’s being held by someone at the New York historical society so it is actually, you know, these are — this is dust of, you know, people and buildings and cars and dirt and paper and the reality is that it is now an artifact.
And it’s been kind of purified in some way. But it still holds the power of that kind of collective memory. But it’s definitely Jennifer that I looked at this picture and I was like, yes. This is a Jennifer photograph.
>> What do you make of this image, Jennifer, since you’re the one who inspired its inclusion?
>> I’m very drawn to this picture because one of the things that we often see when we are looking at photographs of — that were taken, some of the photographic coverage around 9/11 is the photograph right before, just as the plane is about to hit the towers. And that was a photograph that was — that became iconic and if I am remembering correctly I think one of the decisions was made editorially not to show some of the photographs of what was happening below the buildings because there was so much dis — destruction and gore. This image of life and death and the kind of as if, the moment arrested in time when it wasn’t clear exactly what was happening.
I think what’s so powerful about this image is it’s showing, you know, it was the dust from the artifact from the aftermath and presented, I mean, with these gloved hands coming out with — sort of disembodied. That kind of reinforces its representation as forensic evidence and the context of some of the legal discussions around first responders. I think it has a lot of resonance. It’s just a very powerful image and picks up the history of the visual language of specimens.
>> I mean, it’s interesting because as an image it takes something that — an event that was of course, you know, very powerful and very emotional, but also in some respects photographically was considered too painful to show. The photographs of the jumpers which were published the day or two in the aftermath of the event. And then vanished from public memory because they were sort of by journalistic agreement expunged from the collective because it was too, what, invading the privacy of the person whose made that choice? Because these were all people who chose. This has abstracted that, this jar is strangely compelling and yet I wonder to those of us who were seeing it for the first time you need a caption. You need an explanation. You need to wrap this image in some words. The really — to get its meaning.
>> I love words. And I think we need words and that marriage of words and imagery and I said to Jennifer when we were working with this, something about, you know, the words on her im — images and she said I have too many words and
I said I love words.
I think we need the context. That’s just arrogance to believe that a photograph can do everything. It can’t. And I think when presented with an image like this that is sort of spare and curious, once you have — once you know the back story, once you have the language, then it becomes more powerful. We need those layers. But I think that, you know, the bigger conversation is why are we being excluded from seeing the powerful images that help us be realistic about what is going on in the world? And I know that’s something that we’ll deal with later in this bed of images but it’s — it’s certainly, I think more and more on the mind.
>> It’s — now to a more conventionally journalistic image.
>> A young man in a hospital. He’s 21 and he is actually dying of the Avi Yan traveling primarily throughout Asia.
Looking at the impact of this virus that was considered to be deadly and a scourge and animals slaughtered and people sequestered. He actually survived this attack of Avi Yan flu and went home to his village and at this moment it was unclear whether he would
And so he is kind of oddly disembodied without identity. But the gauze over eyes and mouth is to protect him and to keep him from being, you know, dehydrated and even more at risk.
>> In order to get to this photograph, Lynn, you had to work, you were not in a culture, you new well the language, you had a collaborator, you had a fixer. That was a challenging relationship. How did you work that?
>> So this young man had a father of course. He was our fixer and interpreter and he was very much worked against us in the beginning, us being the Tim, who was the writer on this story and science editor at Geographic at the time and at some point I said, why are you standing in the way of us telling this story? It can be — it’s so important for people to know the truth of this disease. And he told us about his dad and how he had suffered in the war and of course he blamed every American and we just then started to build very consciously a different kind of relationship of listening and understanding and I just said we have to be a work family. We have to be, you know, a team to tell this story. So I went off to Thailand to shoot something else for this project and he actually called me and said there’s someone that you can photograph at the hospital. We don’t know if he’s going to live. But his family has given permission for you to be present to see the doctor’s work and save his life. And so without that trust it’s not just the trust of the person on the other side of the camera but even that you work — everyone that you work with that is critical to telling a story in a meaningful way.
>> Your next image.
>> Yeah so it seemed to make sense, even just visually to continue to think about identity. Because this young man, robbed of his, so then this is a story for Geographic about this transplant. Katie, at a very young age tried to commit suicide and destroyed about a third of her face. She was given another opportunity at life. Thanks to a young woman who passed and her grandmother allowed a full face transplant. I was actually told not to photograph the donor. And so I thought, well, hm, actually one doesn’t think much and just reacts. The face is no longer the donor, this is a completely unattached not just tissue but identity. It has its own identity. And so it is in this no man’s land, clearly the doctor’s and nurses and the assembled medical team felt this kind of odd moment as well. Everyone was quiet and thoughtful as the young lady snapped these two images and then they picked it up and put it on Katie and 18 hours later she had a new identity.
>> So you were told not to take this photograph.
>> Actually I was told not to take the photograph — not to photograph the donor’s identity.
>> What is this if not the essence of identity?
>> This is the essence of identity but it is no longer on the donor. So this is an in between state. And I think such an unusual and kind of magical suspend, unique moment. I know that the photo editor on this project —
>> Let me get a better angle.
>> Getting permission to use this photograph. So —
>> Was it a struggle to get it used?
>> I believe there was a great deal of conversation around this. And yes.
>> What were the editorial reservations if you can tell us those?
>> You know, unfortunately, photographers at Geographic are not as much a part of those conversations as we used to be. So I cannot report detailed because I wasn’t present but I do believe that there was concern that it’s just — it’s disturbing at some level and and awe inspiring.
>> Jennifer, does this suggest anything to you in you got a kind of thoughtful look on your face.
>> Do I? I’m interested in evidence of identity so I think later on we’ll talk more about that but, yeah, it’s remarkable.
>> Let’s keep going.
>> Well, but isn’t — like evidence of — I know that’s —
>> Is this an evidence also or something else because it’s identity within the context of a moment that is —
>> Yeah. I think maybe when they go look at —
>> No, we’re asking you now. You got to — you got to rise to the moment. You’re stuck.
>> I work on facial recognition so one of the things I’m very interested in the visual language of
faces and so —
I mean for me, I’m interested in context. So I think, for me, it’s part of a visual field right now. This photograph belongs to a kind of a visual field of new imagery that we’re getting. Not only of facial recognition technology but also possibilities through science technology to change how we appear and lots of different motivations around that. So —
>> It’s interesting. Considering facial recognition. Something perhaps more conventional, Lynn, what this?
>> So — I had an assignment to find imagery that help us understand a moment of death. That challenge of when —
>> The moment of death you said?
>> — what does it mean? So these folks are standing at the curb of a road where a young man died. The son of the two young folks who are — who have their hands on John’s chest. And the mom, Dianna, said — she workses for a transplant organization. This young man’s tissues saved multiple lives. She feels that her son is dead.
And she’s at peace with that, but the dad says, no. Just put your hand on his chest and you will feel his heart.
>> You brought them altogether. You didn’t come across these people standing alongside the road. You created this moment.
>> Absolutely. I called Dianna and with the help of a colleague at Geographic who has this great website that promotes organ donation. And asked her if she thought everyone who received her son’s tissues would come to this scene. Would come to the place where he died. And it was really a remarkable experience for everyone. So, it’s not just a photograph. It’s the transformative power of physical presence in a specific place that was the best and most amazing part of the day.
>> Okay, in an entirely different vein let’s then look at this.
>> So a story about disease. This child was taking a monkey arm and a Gambian rat to market and these are animals that are very, sort of known to carry disease that impacts human. So — and then you can see that the impact of monkey pox in the next frame, this young man named Robert, he contracted monkey pox from bad meat probably picked up off the floor of the forest and, so, this is the reality of that. That he is — he is suffering a great deal. Because of that — ingesting that meat.
>> And then this. Striking image.
>> Yes. So this is someone holding the frozen remains of a woman named Susan Potter. He developed the invisible human by slicing two convicts and man and a woman and reConti constituting their bodies in computer form.
So you could actually navigate the body. So this woman, Susan Potter in her 70s said I want to be the next visible human. I’m going to die in a year.
>> And he said, well, it was all in conversation anyway. He said, after some resistance, okay. And then it took her fifteen years before she —
>> I was going to say how long did you work on this story?
>> Fifteen years.
>> Fifteen years.
>> Fifteen. 1-5. Yes. So we followed her through her life and illnesses and feistiness and Vic actually I found to be a man of great integrity. He kept every promise to her. And — but he’s a man of science. And he, in the end he sliced her and then the next image you see a cross section of Susan being rendered one point my chrome at a time and it will take another number of years to actually turn her under a computer model that anyone can navigate.
>> So we’ve gone from clinical medicine with Ebola to kind of classic strange but geeky science experiment with the visible human. What are we looking at here? This just looks like, well, I don’t know.
>> So I live in Pittsburgh and up river in spring dale there is the homestead of Rachel Carson.
And this child is on a trampoline directly across the street from her home. And as you can see behind her there’s power plant belching noxious and toxic fumes. So again, I was very much influenced by Jennifer and the images that she showed me, the work that she’s doing, that she collected from Victorian times and, you know, the fact that we’ve been poisoning our environment for, you know, how many years. So these next two images speak to that but in modern times. So this child and the industrial sort of fouling of the air. And in the next image a family in Guatemala and the household air pollution they have to face there. Household pollution actually heating with wood and cooking with charcoal is one of the leading causes of the most serious chronic health problems in the world. So I just think these flow nicely and powerfully hopefully to Jennifer’s work because these are specific individual who is — individuals who are suffering because of this.
>> I will now yield control and let Jennifer set her space here. And not do that but what do you want to do? Okay. We’ll lose her though. It’s All right. Go ahead.
>> You can’t see it —
>> That’s why I will let you do it. While you’re setting it up. One of the projects —
>> This is what we have to work with. I’m sorry.
>> — is — is Victorian photographic pollution albums so I’m interested in the politics of evidence and Lynn and I had a great conversation about the history of visualization of pollution. So this is just one of the projects. I’m just showing you like four or five slides of some projects I’m working on so you get an idea of the kind of things I think visual historians are interested in. On the left is a photograph from 1898 of a town in England which is the crucible of the Victorian chemical industry. On the right is a photograph from a nuisance law case in 1857 which is one of the first nuisance cases that was brought in environmental regulation law in the UK. And it happens that this was also an early case where photographs were used as legal exhibits in Victorian law and one of the things you can see with the photograph, the materiality of it is that even the chemical surface of the paper is affected by the chemical surrounds so that’s a project. And another project is — has to do with the British filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. I’m interested in a project he worked on. He was a surrealist artist, also a British filmmaker and he put together a scrapbook of press clippings from the — that covered — that spanned the kind of early history of industrialization. He was interested in the impact that industrialization had on emotions and the inner landscape of the UK. It was one of the first modern histories to tell the history of modernization through images. This is a project I’ve been working on with some colleagues in Europe and Australia who are interested in magic lanterns and magic lantern slides and so this is — this is a project looking at the kind of institutions that have collected images and circulated them. Sort of looking at changing modes of spectatorship and viewing. The next one, this is a project I had been doing some research lately on firearms and history and law. So going beyond the semantic connections between photography and guns, sort of looking at the history of the business of technology and cameras. So, you know, someone like east man Kodak was also a hunter. He took his life with a gun.
There’s lots of interesting connections. So we think of them as separate but actually they were both connected both at the level of triggers and BeltLine assemblies and all of that. Especially in the 19th century. That is project, the evidence of identity project we —
>> I’m just screwing it up here.
>> This was about the — this is a project looking at the role of photographs as evidence in court cases. So lawyers don’t really like — judges don’t like to create new categories of evidence so photographs had to enter into existing categories. This is a case, it’s a case from the 1870s where photographs were used as evidence of identity in an impastor case and what you’re seeing on your right is a photograph that was made to try to use photographs of two men to try to prove that they were the same person by showing that the diameter of their IRS — irises was the same.
It’s a very interesting example of how, you know, in this case, photographic experts were on both sides of that debate and then this is another project looking at the entanglements of photography and law. This is from the graphic, from the illustrated newspaper showing a prison — an artist rendering of a prison never in jail. Thinking about photography as a detective medium. A lot of times scientists talked about photography being a detective medium also and so on the newspaper in the newspaper — in the pages of the newspaper there would be stories about photographic detections of murderers and thieves and so on as well as coverage of the news of the first photographs of the come met. These kind of the talk was overlapping.
So these are just — as I was — as Lynn and I were talking about things, you know, I work on sort of context of photography. I deliberately selected images that aren’t iconic and that’s because I think there’s been — we know a lot about some of the iconic images and yet there are just lots of images out there. We need to know more about them, about the work they do in society, how they circulate, how they are used and what their meanings are. I tend to be kind of — I tend to try to avoid talk about the essence of photography because it really is so poly seemic and there’s so much contestation around it.
That is really interesting to me. This is one of the first photographs by deGAIR. We see the outlines of someone shining someone’s shoes and yet we can see in the next image, this is a print from a — the exactly the same time by a French artist.
It’s a lithograph, Theodore who is imagining here what the — the title is type mania and it’s just picturing what the world would look like in the future with the type. So even though photography hadn’t really started yet we can see in the print and you can look at it online if you want to see the print in more detail, aerial photography, the photograph of the sun, in the top left, you’ve got, you can’t really see but you can see the gallows. Those are painters. So it’s anticipating that famous saying that painting is dead. So he’s got also mass culture, people lining up to have their portrait taken on the back is a train, those are cameras. So he’s really got the whole idea of the industrialization of photography and it’s commodification in 1839 —
>> Also from the beginning it looks like we also had issues of authenticity and deception. The wonderful one you showed us of the person getting their shoe shined. That’s famous because it’s the first photograph of somebody by themselves and of course as you just pointed out, in fact, it’s a very crowded street but the artist showed how long it took to expose those pictures. We value that as a historical artifact for something it is in fact not.
>> That’s a point that a lot of these artifacts. When the context changes we see them differently and value them for different reasons. So this next one is I selected this one, this is the golden record which Karl Sagan and his team at JPL put together this record of images to send up on voyager
two in 1977.
They were trying to make contact with intelligent life in outer space and gathered 118 images, photographs of — a lot of them were drawn from National Geographic, newspapers, live life magazine and otherwise. A postcard of intelligent life if they come across this record which is attached to this —
to voyager two.
And it was kind of reminiscent of a key who rebuilt Babylon and who put praises into the bricks as it was being built for posterity. Sort of what to.
And I think it raises — the whole project raises questions about where do these images go? Who sees them? Whoever is going to see them and — in this case they weren’t really sure. They didn’t know if Martians have eyes. It’s not photographs of war or poverty. It’s a cheerful image of earth.
>> Earth as we would like it to be.
>> Yeah. So these are just pairs of images showing on the left is from 1865 it’s from the illustrated London news and it’s a do pinks of a scene at the meeting of the British association of science which was an organization trying to bring together scientists from different disciplines and to really promote the poplarization of science. So they’re gathered together looking at projections on the screen and on the right is a photograph by a photographer. It’s showing the medium monitors around the single individual. Just showing how the modes of transmission of these photographs have changed.
To this is just a couple imimages to stimulate discussion of data. On the left is a photograph of lightening taken. And on the right is data, visual data depicting some of the mapping of Mars.
And in both cases, even though they’re made at different times and different places with different kind of media there are teams of people behind them. It’s partly to connect to the point you raised earlier about storytelling that behind these images the production of them isn’t as seamless as it might appear. There’s a lot of work behind creating these images. And some of this work — there’s a sociologist who has done a lot of work on the depiction of Mars, the Mars rover project. And this is — so 1905 the first successful photographs of Mars were taken and there they are on the left a big plate of mini Mars. And — but the problem was, and — in 1907, Wall Street Journal published a story. Its lead story was that the first successful photographs of Mars had been taken. There was a lot of question of whether it proved existence of canals on Mars. By enlarging the photographs you lost the canals. Many newspapers created these drawings to try to convey the excitement of it so here you have the angel with the Kodak camera. It’s actually a drawing. It actually says a photograph of Mars but it’s actually a drawing. Just problems with translation. Is it this one? And also just photography as a subject of experiment. On the left an instrument for estimating photo exposure so just — on the right is their daughter May. She’s a teenager in this picture and in this notebook are photographs of her helping with experiments as she’s testing. So she’s — it’s also just part of the sort of social relations behind the production of photography. And I just have a couple more. You know, because we’re in New York I also wanted to mention there’s this photographer who was a scientist who won a lot of awards for his photographs in the 1930s, he made photographs for the Museum of Natural History in London and he created a method for doing ballistics. But he also made lots of photographs for magazines and I think that phrase in the ad that he did for Waterman’s, these amazing photo micro graphs tell their own story. It’s part of the idea attached to the photography for a long time.
Photography is the pencil of nature. These are both slides. On the left from the 1890s and on the right from the early 1900s and we might not necessarily think of these as being scientific photographs but I think really thinking about a lot of the work that Lynn’s been doing and the photographs, I would argue that they are. The one on the left is evidence of work in the alkaline industry and on the right of the brutal exploitation of rubber plantation workers and so on the left is actually a drawing reproduced by means of the slide showing alkaline worker. And on the right are two children in the Congo free state in the 1890, their limbs might be chopped off if they didn’t supply the requisite amount of rubber. So it’s — I think it’s part of that kind of contest over imagery. And this was — there was — I don’t know how many people might have seen an article last week.
>> Tell us about this because it’s an interesting editorial decision that is itself an interesting editorial commentary on the nature of news. Explain to us what you were eluding to.
>> Last week the guardian newspaper reported on its editorial decision to really reflect more on the photographs that accompanied its stories about climate change and they said, you know, there’s been an idea that photographing, including photographs of the polar bears on the ice, are another — and also some of the big data visualization have their place. That they’re worried that they’re not showing enough of the human impact of climate change so sometimes stories about heat, you know, how hot it is will be accompanied by photographs of tourists at the beach trying to cool off. This is an intentional decision that they’re making to change the visual field of this story.
>> It’s interesting because it’s an editorial decision and it’s an editorializing decision. It’s like the guardian which is made, it’s a wonderful newspaper but it’s made very clearly climate change reform is a central editorial tenant and they clearly came to the realization that they could print as many pictures of heartsick forlorn polar bears as they wanted. We honestly in the end don’t really care. So what they need to do to marshall our support is picturing us as victims. So it’s news and not news. And editorializing with images.
>> Lynn, have you ever editorialized with an image? Have you tried to stack the deck there, I’m going to walk away ready to give money to the environmental defense fund or save the whales?
>> Well, I think one has to be clear on who you’re working for and with and there’s work I do as an activist and work I do as a journalist and that’s why having integrity in the work is so important. You have to know where those lines are and I think it takes a lot of thought and consideration. But one thing that you said, Lee is that nobody is being moved any longer by the — well actually images of the struggling animals so let’s do struggling humans. No one seems to be caring about the struggling humans either so I think that’s part of the conversation is are we so saturating — this is not an old conversation. But I mean this is an old conversation. That we’re saturating the world with imagery of suffering. For various reasons. And people are becoming immune to those images and, therefore, it takes more and more extreme messaging to move people to action and I think this is where it gets very complicated because then photographers, writers, editorial boards, are faced with this conversation, do we consciously become, you know, take — step over that line into activism because the world is, you know, it clearly at a critical impasse.
>> I would like to step over that line myself into a question.
>> Yes, it’s actually very related to this issue. So we are talking here about photography as a way of evidence or like facts. But I think photography has also been used like in ideological artifact. I remember recently actually the national agree owe graphic issued like this big edition on kind of saying sorry for the way they were portrayed nonwhite cultures basically.
All around the world. So it — that makes you reflect on how actually factual is photography. It’s not editorial like from scratch, like from the moment you decide to portray something as the way you portray it. The same way with writing I think. I think I want to hear your thoughts on that, on, is there actually a line between photography as a fact or is it just every photography bias which I think is something we will touch more on in our next topic but I just feel like, I don’t know, I think it’s important to have that conversation.
>> The line, what — it’s —
>> If there’s a line even.
>> Photography by its very nature presents itself willingly or know as a fact. You believe the evidence of your eyes and of course the evidence of your eyes are not necessarily that. Lynn, what would you respond to that question?
>> Well, I think that photograph is always at risk of not being the truth. It’s the truth of the moment. It’s the truth of what you witness at the time. You can have all the integrity in the world and do great research but you’re only there for a moment. And in somebody’s life. And so you see that current truth. But you bring to the process all of the bias of who you are. You know, your ethnicity, your language, your gender, your birth story, all of the societal worries that you embrace or deny. And so we are imperfect filters. That’s why you have to work so hard to be informed before you go to document any issue, person, environment. But that’s why we need an educated populus who can look critically at images and we need to be educated about the ciphering imagery and that’s why I think the work that Jennifer is doing is super important because we cannot always — you just can’t look at the surface. You must look deeper.
>> Well, and increasingly you have to sort of do a pixel by pixel analysis to determine the authenticity of an image. Jennifer, you studied this, what do you think.
>> I think it’s a great question and one of the reasons why, I think, what interests me about photographs is that they do seem sometimes carry this sort of authority. And yet, you know, again and again we see their authority undermined or challenged or critiqued and so it’s the debates over that that really interest me but one example I think of that, and there’s some great work on National Geographic photography and also some of the ideologies around the photographs and colonial classification and racial classification. I’m thinking about some work by Jane L. who has written a great book on photography and humanitarianism and empire. One of the things — one of the — well, one example we could talk about there is that in UNESCO in 1950 I think it was came up with this idea of bringing together an exhibition of human rights. And so there was behind it this idea of photography as a universal language and they were gathered together photographs of war dead, of families, of house — across the world and finding examples of photographs that seemed to show similar activities across different places and it was part of this idea of partly it was coming after the world war. Trying to figure out what people shared in common but one of the things, looking back, what’s really clear is these were also about a certain imposition of cultural values on the story. So there wasn’t really a lot of universal language connecting all of them. It was completely ideological. So you had this kind of tension between it and I think that, yeah, I think these are socially constructed. So that’s why we can’t really stop thinking about photographs at their moment of origin but what happens when they go out in the world and what kinds of motivations, you know, bring them into the world to begin with? That’s really what’s behind it.
>> So let’s go back into a set of images, Lynn, if we can, you know, quickly walk through these. This is, what are we looking at here? These are really sort of pairs of images.
>> Yes. And actually this speak to the conversation we were just having
about putting —
Doing a story that is in balance with whatever the reality is. This is a story about cannabis for Geographics.
>> About cannabis?
>> So this little girl actually had a lifetime of seizures and was almost completely incapacitated until her mom gave her cannabis oil and she literally has a completely different life now. So the story ended up being, you know, really about the cannabis that can be addicted and derail the life of an intelligent young woman like using per body to sell this weed and a child whose life is saved by cannabis. The next story, the next pairing is begin for the gender issue and this young lady on the swing so was born mail and is a young transchild.
She’s female, has been female in her mind and will be in her body. From — from very, very young, two years old. So this is really about society and how we treat people who we perceive as different. In Jamaica, this trans woman actual fears for her life everyday. So she’s been like, stabbed and shot and has a Machete hack at her face and again, a portrait and I think a portrait like lifts itself out of the realm of journalism. It might be good research that gets you to the person but then, you know, the — this is not trying to be a documentary image. This is an image that is making a statement about brutality. And —
>> And themselves — next image on the swing.
>> This is someone living on the autism spectrum and I thought this little boy photographed in a special school in America where he has the benefit of this sensory room. o different than the next child that is in the x-ray room that was blown up as they say by a land mine. So he’s Burmese. And you know, these — it’s just be, like, where were you born, what kind of life will you have? To — and I think the photography one of the great parts of photography is that you have body language. As a strand of communication and so I’m always look for that sort of beautiful grace within the frame and within the photograph to SPUL someone in — pull someone in and get them to want know about the situation.
>> This is about vanishing languages you said?
>> Yes, vanishing languages. This is Johnny Hill. He is one of the last speakers of a language. He lives in Arizona. And the next — so — you know, trying to figure out how to make language visible.
Was challenging. I would either start with the word or a significant phrase in another language and look for an image that resonated or go in another direction just like immerse myself in a culture, look for beautiful imagery and then find a word that would speak to that image.
>> And what word does this picture of the child represent?
>> This is shot in Siberia and new babies are called my little goat. That’s a translation obviously. So that’s the word that we used under this image. You know, that precious moment of fragility at the beginning of life. It’s very tender. So not so tender the next image, this is actually Columbine. Jennifer and I have interests in these areas. It’s interesting to hear you talk about this genre and the language you use. So different. But, you know, this is a kind of evidence picture. This is a scene of a crime really even though it was shot recently this is where Dylan and a friend killed their classmates. And this next image is Sue, his mom, she is in the process of figuring out how to take this great tragedy and help people understand that it is — that act of violence is tied to a mental health issue. An issue that really hasn’t been paid attention to.
>> Who is she here with, Lynn?
>> She’s with a woman who was the child of a teacher that was most likely shot by her son. The next image is Sandy Hook. In my research I learned that the flagpole of the original school was a young — item that was not destroyed. Actually I’m not sure that was still true but they completely ground the original school to dust and rebuilt. So — but this symbol of the flag, of the American flag, of, you know, our country, that cannot seem to solve this problem of gun violence. I just felt that it —
>> So — Lynn, as a practical matter if I may just ask as a matter of craft, I’d like to know how you got this image? How did you get this angle on this? Where were you standing?
>> So I was in town for about a day or two. And I just kept driving back to the school in different times of day to see the light. And I would walk around and — and I saw this shadow start to encroach on the pavement there. And so I just came back to kind of haunt the shadow. You know? And just stood on the roof of the car —
>> You stood on the roof of your car?
>> Yeah, I’m like five foot tall, Lee. So I had —
>> And how long did you wait standing on the roof of your car for the image to line up right?
>> Yeah. For B — a couple of hours. I just wanted it to be just right and then the wind would stop and then it would start again and then it would, you know.
So once you see the potential of something I mean I just felt I needed to stay with it and to feel that place and is it a haunted place? I mean, you know. It is not without energy there.
>> And this image.
>> These are the hands of a young man who was a psychopath. There’s a gentleman doing a lot of research into the brains of young offenders, really truly violent psychopathic offenders. So he’s holding a chart that shows his behavior, his violent behavior over the course of, you know, a week. And in this institution they’re trying to change the behavior of these young folks. Using all kinds of behavior modification, reward systems and believing that the neural pathways can be altered. The neural pathways that have to do with violence.
>> I think we have a question here.
>> Yeah. So Lyme — I’m looking at these incredible photographs and I am just feeling I couldn’t do that. I’m thinking of the kind of photos I used to take when I was in the position of being able to take photos for my own work were more like the documentary photos that you were showing us.
From Victorian times. I would like to — unfortunately today that Nat geoissue is typical and we do more documents than we do
communicate emotion well.
I wonder in the few minutes we have left what kind of practical advice do you both have for those of us who you know, want to try to do better with our photos but we wind up just sort of doing basic documentation.
>> Jennifer. How would you answer that question?
>> I have a question for you I guess. What are the photographs for that you were thinking of?
>> Well that’s kind of a deep question is what is a photograph for? Photographs have multiple purposes. You know, honestly in a digital environment, really the purpose of a photograph is to draw the reader in. But we want to do more than that. You know. We want to — we want to try to communicate some emotion and we also want to document something important to the story. We want to be able to communicate to the viewer what something looks like and ideally also what something feels like.
>> I feel she’ll have more to say on the issue. I think in terms of — if I could — well in terms of looking at photographs for the news, I don’t think even though we call photographs evidence they’re really — it’s part of the visual storytelling so I think one of the things that would be great to see is in relationship to a lot of these stories.
Lynn’s examples are so unusual in terms of how photographs appear in the newspaper I think. So if we look at — because hers are very distinctive so if you could think about the way that epidemics get reported. A lot of times it’s photographs of people in hazmat suits. I think — I feel like I — have been thinking more about interpretation and — you know, maybe — be more aware of how — we maybe kind of a bit lazy in how we think about photographs illustrating a story and need to be more reflective about how the images are working in relationship to the words. And not just drawing attention to the story.
>> DAP — Dan’s making an important point because many of us are stuck taking pictures in a journalistic context because the search algorithm demands an image so you have to have an image, big, borrowed or stolen. Lynn, how would you answer Dan’s question?
>> I think if you collect twice to this image of Ms. Jeffries holding the autopsy image of her DARTH — daughter it’s so powerful because if you — click two down.
It’s the next, yeah. This image that Jennifer brought. This photograph I think says kind of answers the question. It is evidence. She’s holding evidence. It is a stark and disturbing photograph of her daughter’s body. And, yet, it’s a photograph. Of this mom. And her emotional state. In what is appears to be her home. So it is a storytelling image of a woman holding an artifact. And evidence. And it’s kind of the blend. It’s the perfect blend of everything we’ve been talking about. And I, you know, sometimes I think we try to be too artful and we forget that sometimes you just need the facts. You just need to be raw and just need to put the, you know, the truth of what you see right in that moment out there. And I — that’s why I love this image and I love that you included it. Because the shock of that child and how her body has been, you know, harmed is important for us to see. We have to see —
>> These are also are they not Jennifer and Lynn, the very images that we were protected from seeing even though parents wanted to show them of their children who were killed in this incident. They were considered more than we should have to bear or something, Jennifer, what was the context here?
>> Yeah, this is — the next screen, yeah, so — a lot of parents were after — these are, well, I think what, in relation to the shooting at Sandy Hook there’s the debate over freedom of information. So journalists wanted to see the photographs that were taken at the crime scene and there were — there was a lot of debate of whether or not those should be released to the public and they all except one voted they should be. And some of the comments that were made at the time, that the reasons why they shouldn’t be. So a lot of the families didn’t want them released. And so, you know, and one of the — and there were a lot of quotes from the senators and the — in the general assembly saying, you know, who would want to see these anyway? These are awful photographs. There was one who said, you know, I think there’s a bigger issue here and that has to do with you know, who would want to see them? These are photographs that were taken by police officers and they represent a crime scene. So it raises a question, it’s not easy to answer and these photographs, are they family albums, are they privacy or things that the public needs to see because if we think about the history of a social movement around the atrocity photographs a lot of times photographs mobilized public opinion about it that we happen to see in gun violence, disparities around that and racial disparities around that, that kind of gun violence so this is an example of archival exposure of showing photographs from an autopsy photo that she stands in front of — there’s debates about guns often she’ll stand there with the photograph of her daughter because it’s not the kind of photograph that people will normally see.
>> So we’re drawing near the end of our time and I’d like to ask a variation of Dan’s question. Which is, you know, what’s my job? As a journalist when it come to photography. What is the thing I should be doing, Lynn? What’s my job?
>> Oh, your job is to decide for yourself. What you’re trying to say and who you’re speaking to and who is in front of you. I — you know, I think all of the lines are blurry. And but the essence is to be as educated, informed and considered as possible. And to dig deep because it’s so easy to stay on the surface of a situation. And every situation is very complicated. So I, you know, I don’t think it’s a black and white thing. It’s not. It’s more complicated than ever and so, you know, you have to decide, that’s part of being a professional and part of taking it seriously. And I think one of the really delightful parts of this presentation that Jennifer put together is these last four or five pairings because they show you how complicated some of these decisions are.
>> The last one, the vanishing languages, how do you depict them and on the one hand we’re learning a new language in a way together we’re learning new language as a visual language. So that kind of pairing. I mean, I think for reporters the story is the changing ways we visualize the world. I mean, I feel like that’s another dimension of reporting that we could be talking about more.
>> I could not think of a more apt way to close. Except to say, this is taken place under the most difficult circumstances. That spanning thousands of miles and centuries of photography and enormous reservoirs of goodwill from Lynn, from you, Jennifer, from our audience both visible and invisible and I just thank you, all of you for what you’ve done here together tonight. Thank you.
Lynn Johnson in an award-winning photojournalist for National Geographic and other outlets.
Jennifer Tucker is a visual historian and author at Wesleyan University.
Robert Lee Hotz is a science writer at the Wall Street Journal and a Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU Journalism.