CONFLICT IN CENTRAL AMERICA: THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIALIZATION ON
PHOTOGRAPHIC CONSTRUCTIONS OF REALITY
Department of Communication
1 College Circle
Geneseo, NY 14454-1401
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Visual Studies Workshop
39 Prince Street
Rochester, NY 14607
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Submitted to the
Visual Communication paper competition
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Los Angeles, CA
August 10-13, 1996
CONFLICT IN CENTRAL AMERICA: THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIALIZATION ON
PHOTOGRAPHIC CONSTRUCTIONS OF REALITY
The traditional view of photojournalism places photojournalists in
the position of purveyors of reality. Photographs appear to capture without bias
a moment in time, and the only perspective often seen by the public is from the
major wire services. More frequently, however, traditional photojournalistic
practice is being challenged by more interpretive visual reporting. This study
compares one Associated Press photographer and one Magnum photographer's
coverage of conflict in Central America. Members of the mass media must strive
to be unbiased observers of day-to-day events presented as news. Although many
journalists would insist that their reports are "objective" observations of the
world, there are factorsDpertaining to the individual, the organization, and the
professionDthat affect the construction of "reality," making those observations
less than objective. CommunicationD
and photojournalism specificallyDis in part "a symbolic process
whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed" (Carey, 1989,
p. 23). Photographs have often been used as strict representationsDas recordsDof
reality, but in truth, of course, they can be highly subjective, especially
through their context and use.
This study explores how coverage of conflict in Central America was
constructed by two photographers, Pat Hamilton (AP, Reuters) and Susan Meiselas
(Magnum), who had differing educational backgrounds and worked within vastly
different organizational structures. Ultimately, photojournalistic constructions
of reality are shown to be no more unusual than other forms of mass-mediated
messages, in that the same event can be covered differently based on a number of
factors, including the photographer's education, and the organizational
structure in which he/she works and his/her interests and intent.
Within photojournalism, as in any form of communication, it is
desirable, if not imperative, that the encoder use language (whether verbal or
visual) that is consistent with the intended decoding of the message, in order
for the message to reflect the most effective interpretation possible. According
to Stuart Hall (1981), because news photographs are communication acts
consistent with a particular society's view of the world (its shared
experiences, notions, knowledge, and myths about the world), such visual
messages are thus defined and circumscribed by ideology. Because it links a
theme to a specific event or subject, ideology permits classification of the
world in terms of a particular set of moral and political values.
The photographic medium has a pervasive and convincing quality
synonymous with reality. Because news photographs appear to reproduce events
faithfully, they are capable of diminishing their ideological dimensions;
offering themselves as legitimate constructions of reality. But verisimilitude
is not equivalent with "truth." It is because of the medium's potential to
affect a seemingly valid but ideologically-based reality, that photographs can
capture a scene and imbue it with legitimacy and emphasis. This hidden ideology
plays an especially important role in war photographs in which photojournalists
serve as important mediators between a geographically-distant reality and its
intended audience (Lewinski, 1978).
Some photojournalists have college education in journalism while
others have been educated in fields such as political science, history,
anthropology, and social science (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1986). Others taught
themselves photography and perfected their skills working for media
organizations. Their varied backgrounds contribute to differences in style.
Those who covered Central America came from different personal backgrounds,
educations, and professional experience.
Style refers to the individual photojournalist's perception and
personal means of documenting reality. Styles exist in a larger photographic
cultureDthe general system of understandings, notions and traditions that have
developed over time through the accumulated experiences and social interactions
of photographers, and their appreciation and knowledge of others' created
images. And culture, in a broader sense, serves to shape their work of
reflecting and influencing the visual world.
This study reasons that higher education plays an important part in
the maturing individual's personal system of values and social understandings,
and so contributes to individual style. It is because these traditions are
maintained as a set of standards for those working in the field that the
professional culture in which a photojournalist works heavily influences such
constructions of reality.
In "Encoding/Decoding" (1980), Hall suggests that the reporter is
strongly influenced by a "professional code." The professional code is the set
of technical practices embraced by the photojournalist that influence production
of a photographic message offered as newsworthy. It includes concepts of
newsworthiness, ethics, objectivity, visual aesthetics, and technical standards
of photography used to attain meaningful content. These practices are considered
standard within photojournalism classes.
Attwood and Grotta (1973) studied the role of university journalism
classes in shaping the news values that students subsequently embrace. They
found that the news values of journalism students are greatly influenced by
their instructors, even within the course of one class. The study suggests that
a journalism education can help establish a high degree of homogeneity among
journalists concerning their news value orientation.
In addition to education, the particular social structure and
practices within a given news organization can account for differences in
photographic style and approach. An individual's immersion in the work
environment involves a socialization processDlearning and internalizing the
ideology, standards, and expectations of colleagues and superiors. The dynamic
socio-cultural influences of the newsroom lead to conformity, as certain
established policies and practices are followed. Like any workers,
photojournalists seek acceptance, status, and reward among co-workers, as they
re-define and shape their original values to fit those of the newsroom group
In keeping with the desire for acceptance, a photojournalist's work
usually adheres to a set of professional "standards"Da model, set of rules,
principles, or valuesDestablished by the organization and the profession.
Standards are applied in daily routines and decision-making, and among other
things, help address work quality and ethical questions. These standards make up
the professional code.
This study compares styles of photographic war coverage in Central
America by examining the work of two photojournalists who exemplify very
different approaches and backgrounds. Hamilton attained two years of college
education in journalism, and Meiselas's four-year undergraduate college
education emphasized anthropology. Both photojournalists covered Nicaragua and
El Salvador during the same periods from 1978 to 1983. In this study, the work
of Meiselas and Hamilton are compared to each other in style and approach, not
simply to prove without a doubt that such differences exist (one assumes that
they do), but to suggest how and why, and to begin to provide a means or
structure of critical analysis about photojournalistic styles and some insight
into what informs them.
Patrick Hamilton and Susan Meiselas
Through his education and work experience, Patrick Hamilton attained
the traditional values and standards of photojournalism. He photographed for his
college's weekly newspaper, worked on an internship basis for The San Antonio
Express-News, and was later hired as a full time photographer for that
publication. As a staff photographer, he had six to eight assignments a day
encompassing advertising, fashion/society news, sports, features, and hard news.
Journalism courses helped prepare him for the profession, but through working in
newsrooms as well, he developed the standards of his profession beyond those
learned in the classroom.
The Associated Press (AP), of which Hamilton was a member, embraces
the traditional approach and values of journalism. Most AP staff photographers
are trained in journalism school and have experience working in the profession;
therefore, they learn a specific circumscribed approach. Another characteristic
peculiar to the Associated Press affects staff photographers; many AP news
editors seem to perceive photography as secondary to the reporting and editing
of text. This becomes obvious in the treatment of photojournalists and their
work. AP photographers are not given individual photo credit and cannot retain
publication rights to their work or ownership of negatives. The AP photographer
is, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.
Meiselas, by contrast, was not influenced by the same professional
socialization process as Hamilton. She was not formally trained in journalism
and does not have extensive experience working in a newsroom. Meiselas is a
member of Magnum Photo, Inc. in New York City. Magnum contrasts with the
Associated Press in purpose and organizational structure. Magnum is strictly a
photographic agency, specializing in journalism and corporate work. Its members
retain editorial control over the use of and rights to their images. Magnum
photographers are generally able to select, create, or promote their own
assignments and deadlines. They are also able to participate actively in the
organizational aspects of the agency by serving on a board of directors.
(Meiselas has served as vice president and president). Many members of Magnum
were not trained as photojournalists and do not consider themselves specifically
as such, although few in the field would deny that they are exceptionally
As a result of differences in socialization, it is expected that
Hamilton's photographs emphasize major daily events and newsworthy individuals,
and Meiselas' work concentrates more on ordinary citizens conducting the
routines of life amidst conditions of warfare.
Meiselas' photographs were taken from two books, Nicaragua: June
1978-July 1979 and El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers. Hamilton's
photographs were obtained directly from the photographer. According to Meiselas
(1989), about 25-30% of her photographs in the books were published in
newspapers and magazines. The photographs in the Meiselas books are uncropped.
All of Hamilton's photographs were used by the Associated Press and ran in a
number of daily newspapers, if not other sources. It is not known, however,
specifically which publications his photos ran in (he did not himself know), and
World Wide Photos (the AP's archives) does not have a clear system of tracking
such information. The photographs analyzed here are a representative sample of
published work by both.
Photojournalism and Semiotics
The interplay between style and the presence of subjective
interpretation in news photography can be explained in terms of semiotic theory
in addition to photographic or journalistic terms. Semiology/semiotics is the
study of the social production of meanings from sign systems (Peirce, 1931-35).
Hall (1973) applies Barthes' two orders of significationD"denotation" and
"connotation"Dto analyze news photographs. Denotation, the first order of
signification, involves the literal relationship of a sign to its referent. This
relationship is assumed to be objective and value-free when examined separately
from connotation. Denotation is largely concerned with technical aspects of
image production and physical or formal attributes. Composition and lighting,
and the mechanical and chemical actions of photography, are denotation. Barthes
(1972) defines the denotative quality of the photograph as its "analogon," or
uncoded representation of the subject or scene. At this level, the photograph is
devoid of all cultural and ideological determination.
Connotation, the second order of signification, occurs when the
encoder applies or assigns cultural values to denotative qualities of signs. The
connotative level reflects expressive, associative, evaluative, and attitudinal
shades of meaning. There is significant agreement among press photographers as
to how selective focus (the choice of focusing on one subject rather than
another), camera angle (the physical position the photojournalist takes in
relation to the subject), lighting, contrast, and tone can be used to convey
connotative meaning in photographs (Fosdick & Tannenbaum, 1964). Semiotics is
particularly helpful to describe and explain the existence of latent meaning and
underlying structures of meaning, and is uniquely applicable to analysis and
interpretation of visual media texts.
In this study, several photographs by each (Meiselas and Hamilton)
are examined to distinguish subtle differences in the use of visual
communication techniques to construct the "reality" of Central American
conflict. Using semiotics and Rudolf Arnheim's (1972) criteria for analysis of
visual media, similarities and differences between the photographers' styles are
In figure 1, Meiselas placed compositional elements within the frame
to emphasize the interplay of foreground and distant subjects. These
juxtapositions serve to make the scene more visually dynamic, as well as to
communicate a very specific message. In the foreground, a burnt corpse
decomposes on a hillside. The background scene (Lake Managua) is pastoral,
beautiful. The figure (body), and ground (the hillside and lake), reside within
one frame, yet might appear at first, as separate images. The photograph fits
the conventions of landscape photography and its characteristically strong use
of horizontal lines emphasizing the image frame (the wide angle lens contributes
to this effect). However, the figure in the foreground breaks the traditional
form of landscape photography through its shock value. Attracted first by light
areas in an image, the eye is drawn to a bare space in the photograph's center,
then moves to the reflective lake in the background. Still, one senses that
there is something wrong with the scene. Only after a moment does the eye move
to the dark mass in the foreground. At that point, one begins to recognize parts
of a human body scattered in the foreground.
This image communicates a strong message. At the denotative level,
the audience sees a body decomposing on a hillside. At the connotative level, a
metaphor for the Nicaraguan conflict has been created. Through the irony of two
seemingly disparate images, the photojournalist evokes a question, "How can such
horrors occur in so beautiful a land as this?"
Another Meiselas' photograph (figure 2) depicts a group of Salvadoran
children next to a concrete pavement and wall. The eye is first attracted to the
brightness of the concrete and then to the dark pools of blood on the ground.
One then perceives the group of children standing to the far right. The image is
divided compositionally into three parts. The bright pavement and wall extend
from the center to the left of the frame, the rightmost part contains the
children. The figures of the children balance the relatively minimal amount of
information to the left. Expressions of horror on the children's faces
contribute to the message conveyed by the blood. The children's reactions verify
that the stain is, in fact, blood. The fact that the children are gathered
together as if to witness something also contributes to the effect. Meiselas
uses these visual elements to symbolically represent a human body that has since
been physically removed. Because the "subject" itself is missing, the viewer
must reach for meaning and comprehension. This shock value effect can be
compared to the previous photograph (figure 1).
Figure 3 is a stunning example of light and shadow, in which the
event, as indicated by the caption, is a bus hijacking. As in figure 2, the main
subjects of the story are not actually depicted in the photograph. In this case,
human subjects are defined only by the contrast of their shadows cast against
the brightness of a mud-adobe wall. (The photograph was made in the early
morning or the late afternoon to produce long shadows). A dynamic composition is
created by the intersection of two lines of shadows just below the photograph's
center. One line forms from the upper left and extends diagonally through the
center of the frame. The other extends from the center-right to the center of
the frame. What is depicted is a line of bus passengers who are being
searchedDthey extend their arms above their heads. One line of human shapes
directs the eye to the central activity: the searching of an individual;
another figure, the "searcher," eclipsing its shadow.
Figure 4 represents the setting of a marketplace, in which a boy as
the central figure/subject looks at a handful of plastic toys held above his
head. Two arms are outstretched in the foreground, holding the colorful toy
soldiers in the direction of the boy's stare. Other toys (miniature plastic
guns, army trucks) are seen on a table in front of the boy as he appears
transfixed by the soldiers.
Compositionally, several lines of interest converge in the center of
the photograph, leading the viewer's eye toward the center. A wide angle lens
enables the inclusion of many elements within one frame. At the denotative
level, this is an image of a boy interested in toys. The connotative message,
however, is much stronger. The image suggests that the boy is obsessed with the
political conflict in his country, as symbolized by toys of warfare and the
child's intense expression and posture. The unidentified figure with arms
outstretched, appears to lure the boy; and war appears simultaneously glamorous
Figure 5 is a photograph of a Good Friday procession in downtown
Managua. The photograph demonstrates the use of a wide-angle lens to emphasize
lines of direction. The lines that converge from buildings, in addition to the
direction of faces in the crowd, guide one's attention to the center of the
imageDin which a statue of a crucified Christ has been erected to celebrate Good
Friday. The most obvious technique used to draw attention to the statue is the
contrast between light and dark tones. Clouds in the background are a puffy
white; the statue with its symbolic implications, appears dark and imposing in
the center of the photograph. Strong vertical planes created by the buildings
serve to direct interest toward the statue.
The connotative level of the image provides a societal context for
the photograph that speaks of the role of religion in the lives of many of the
Nicaraguan people. One could argue over whether it is a major newsworthy event,
but context and timeliness may have been factors in its consideration of
In figure 6, San Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero is seen at a
pulpit performing Sunday mass. Soon after the image was made, Romero was
assassinated. (Romero was seen by many Salvadorans as a voice of peace. He was
not afraid to criticize the right-wing government for its activities, especially
human rights violations and support of the death squads.) In the image,
Hamilton uses back-lighting to create a spiritual, religious aura that appears
to surround the Archbishop. The spiritual quality is accentuated by Romero's
gesture (arm lifted) and his upward gaze. This position leads the viewer's eye
toward the top right corner of the photograph, a bright area of light spilling
through a window. (The photograph is taken with a telephoto lens, which tends to
create a shallow depth of field, emphasizing the figure against a soft-focus
background.) The photograph is of an important event/personDa news "value"
emphasized by traditional journalism training and practice.
Figure 7 emphasizes a traditional approach of portraiture, in which a
closeup (head and shoulders view) of a Sandinista guerilla is shown, with an
automatic rifle in his hand. The caption tells us that he is indeed a guerilla,
but he wears a military officer's dress hat (possibly taken from a captured or
dead soldier). It is a very literal representation. The composition, contrast,
and lighting are striking, but do not appear to contribute to any particular
connotation. The photograph provides the irony of an individual from one side of
the conflict (the political left), wearing the trappings of the enemy (the
political right), but it may serve to be quite confusing, unless it is made
clear with a caption or other accompanying text.
In last photograph (figure 8) Hamilton shows a refugee camp along the
El Salvador-Honduras border, representing the life of refugees of the Salvadoran
fighting. The strong diagonal line created by tents in the foreground flattens
out to a nearly horizontal line toward the back of picture. There are three
definite compositional parts: the first is the area of dirt in the extreme
foreground, the second includes the tents, the third consists of trees in the
background which (through use of light/dark contrast) cause the tents to stand
out from the much larger area in the foreground. Here again, the representation
appears very literal, and little can be said about the photograph outside of its
denotative meaning, which is embodied in the caption.
Summary: Similarities/Differences in Meiselas' and Hamilton's styles
Although both photojournalists demonstrate an understanding of the
situation in Central America, the subjects and methods used by the photographers
are quite varied. Meiselas consistently uses a wide-angle lens, often to combine
two seemingly disparate situations in one frame, producing a heightened sense of
irony, context and symbolic meaning (metaphor) in any given situation. (This
also puts her in very close physical proximity to her subjects.) Hamilton uses
lenses according to what is necessary in a given situation to make the subject
appear closer (telephoto), or to include more subjects in the frame (wide
angle). He tends to concentrate on newsworthy events and individuals, perhaps
more so than Meiselas does. Hamilton's photographs appear literal and objective;
Meiselas' are more interpretive, sometimes using shock and emotional appeal as
devices to add context and invite various interpretations through multiple
layers of meaning.
The two different constructions of reality can be explained, but
perhaps only in part, by the socialization process that photojournalists
undertake in their given work situations. While learning journalism in college,
Hamilton internalized the standards and technical practices strongly adhered to
by the profession. Meiselas by contrast, came to photojournalism with a more
historical anthropologically-based, humanistic approach. She attempts to
interpret situations, whereas Hamilton concentrates on recording newsworthy
events and individuals mostly in a more straightforward and literal way to tell
Hamilton's socialization process differs from Meiselas's in the
manner and degree to which their organizations embrace a journalistic
professional code. The Associated Press, historically, has been credited with
the formation of the professional code of journalism as practiced today.
Hamilton created photographs that adhered to the standards of the
A.P.Dobjectivity, newsworthiness, and literalness. Meiselas, on the other hand,
is not bound to the tenets of traditional photojournalism, partly because Magnum
permits photographers a greater degree of freedom and flexibility and also
because she is not trained in, or an advocate of, such codes.
The ultimate question which arises from this study is: why aren't
there more Susan Meiselas-style photographers hired by traditional
organizations, and should there be? The more traditional style of photograph is
often seen in the regular sections of daily newspapers, whereas a more
interpretive style of photography is relegated to supplements and photo essays.
If the intent of journalism is to portray events as they happen, what is to
prevent photojournalists from using more stylistic techniques as does Meiselas,
and if they are creating these types of images, why are they not chosen more
routinely and more often for publication by newspaper editors? Given that the
images made by Hamilton and Meiselas portray different versions of reality,
shouldn't both be acceptable to photo editors?
In summary, although Meiselas and Hamilton covered the same region
and subjects during the same time period, their photographs tell different
stories. While Hamilton's photographs recorded life in a direct, unmistakable
manner, Meiselas's photographs are easily viewed as more interpretive and open
to complex readings. Despite their differences, both photojournalists are
talented and capable technical photographers whose works are considered to be
among the best in their field. REFERENCES
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