Last week we talked about how new messengers are reviving the national dialogue on gun safety in significant and hopefully sustainable ways.
This week I wanted to address the power of images in creating and disrupting our predominant cultural narratives. Specifically: Do shocking photographs have the power to persuade? Can they nudge the public out of their ideological corners on issues over which we are deeply divided?
This week’s Time magazine is devoted entirely to a photojournalist’s two-year project visually documenting the victims of the opioid epidemic. These are gut-wrenching pictures; they feel at once painfully intimate but also oddly removed from the actual problem. We see the impact but not the cause. We know from research that this kind of framing can make it easy for the public to blame individuals or groups for their problems (like drug addiction) instead of the larger systemic issues at play (a market and regulatory structure that enabled the over-prescription of addictive medications.) An editorial before the piece acknowledges in a few paragraphs the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies and the failure of government to act. But the images are entirely focused on individual victims, family members, and first responders in the midst of traumatic experiences.
A missed opportunity–an entire magazine!–to redirect the narrative of a national tragedy toward national and local solutions and stories of potential and possibility. By telling more stories about people and communities that are exhibiting resilience and hope, a Restorative Narrative, media makers can empower others to be resilient and hopeful too, as research shows the former is an acquired skill.
There’s another story in the news dominated by images. A few days after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, a compelling personal account by a Parkland trauma radiologist about the severity of the wounds inflicted by semiautomatic rifles reactivated a call for releasing photos of the victims. Surely the horror of those images could jolt us out of our collective denial and apathy.
ivoh trustee Nicole Dahmen, a scholar who studies photojournalism ethics, was pondering this as well. In her recently published article on this topic, Dahmen begins by citing her research on visual reporting of mass shootings. In the research, Dahmen studied close to 5,000 newspaper photos from three school shootings and found only a small percentage to be graphic in nature – making these events seem “bloodless” and perhaps missing an opportunity to make a visceral connection with the public. Yet as Dahmen noted in the article, research has shown that grisly photos do not generate activism over the long haul and can have unintended consequences including re-traumatizing family members and inspiring similar events, known as the contagion effect.
Instead, Dahmen concludes that the images of student resistance likely have more power to create positive outcomes, even driving a reinvigorated movement for gun control. These images, of courage and resilience, are shifting and sustaining this conversation in unexpected ways.
I agree. I don’t believe that feeding the appetite for increasingly sensational images or information does anything productive. As ivoh teaches, this perspective is not motivated by a desire to gloss over difficult truths, ignore reality or seek fairytale endings. Instead a Restorative Narrative approach is about amplifying the best in human nature and, whenever possible, shining a light on the steps we can take towards the future we want. Stories and photographs focused on possibility and potential, and assets and gifts, are more likely to help us do that.