The interpretation of media we use to exchange information depends heavily on surrounding context. Writing and photos can turn from rational to offensive, possibly even illegal, all dependent on the way and means by which they are presented. Human communication, art, performance and entertainment all depend heavily on the surroundings in which they are created. Much of how we interpret something to be either funny or offensive is dependent heavily upon both the context the work is presented, and the culture in which an audience was born into and raised from.
In the documentary The Salt of the Earth, the photographer Sebastião Salgado descries his life and work; photographing some of both the most amazing and the most disturbing imagery around the planet. He captures everything from the struggles of miners to the reality of genocide. In the context of the documentary, Salgado is presented as a photographer who wants to show people the deep plights of humanity and bring awareness about a world that is often overlooked. However, I found this one very interesting review on IMDB by fanbaz-549-872209
Wim’s subject, Sebastião Salgado was born in Brazil. He went to Paris as a young man, grew a long beard and became famous by taking pictures of gold miners. His stock in trade is human misery. Pictures of the sick and dying. Dead children in coffins. Dead women. Starving women. His camera clicks and the images are saved. And his takes pictures of animals and trees. Not in his local park. But of place you will never see, or got to, or want to go to. That’s his thing. Why audiences gasp. The exotic. It never fails. I found this documentary fawning in the extreme to a man who has made a living off the dead of the earth. Forget the salt. As he talks without emotion of the pitiful sights he has flown out to photo I felt angry and sick at heart.
The documentary grants a context to Salgado’s work that paints him as a man trying to bring awareness of the harsh realities of war and poverty to the world. But without that context, it could easily be argued, as the reviewer above states, that Salgado’s work is exploitative. Does photographing the horrors of genocide truly bring about an awareness that can bring about change, or is it merely a way to turn suffering into art?
“Some minutes into the UK premiere of Wim Wenders and Juliano Riberdo Salgado’s The Salt of the Earth at the benefit opening of the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, someone whispers in my ear: ‘So what does this have to do with human rights2?’”
On the social networking site Reddit, a controversial community known as /r/jailbait was a forum where users posted photographs of women under the age of eighteen, often in poses that could be considered sexual. The community was shutdown in 20112, and in the following years, Reddit started to shutdown many other controversial user-run communities.
The interesting thing about /r/jailbait is that the community rules stated that the images must be legal. Many of them were of girls under eighteen taken by themselves or friends, and posted to various social networking sites. For the girls posing in the photos, these were simply images they wanted to share with friends or post on social networks. When people took these photos and compiled them into a community specifically geared towards the sexualzation of women under 18, the context of how the photos were presented changed. The context of the presentation is what caused the controversy, even though sexulization is something that happens within the mind.
“Sexualization occurs inside your mind, and anything can be sexualized if you want it to be. For example, some people eroticize feet or hands. I don’t know why, but they just do. There isn’t anything inherently sexual about feet or hands, or any other body part including breasts, asses, penises and vaginas. It depends entirely on context.” -Maddox3
Another example from Reddit is the banned /r/creepshots community, whose contributers posted candid photos of women in public. In response, many of the people in that community created /r/candidfashionpolice, a forum that has the exact same types of imagery, but has rules stating that every image title must be a critique of the womens’ fashion decisions. Critics say that the community isn’t fooling anyone; that the users are posting and promoting the same types of sexualized photos of women taken without their knowledge. The context is presented as almost a technicality; a loophole to justify the content perception. As of 2015, this community is still allowed on Reddit and active.
News and Propaganda
The leaks by the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden were presented to the public in the context of well recognized news publications such as The Guardian and Der Spiegel. This provided almost automatic acceptance of the information he disclosed even though much of the early evidence consisted of low quality slide show presentations and heavily redacted PDF files. People involved in the 9/11 truth movement have been presenting evidence for years that the collapse of the three building in New York City on September 11th, 2001 were the result of planned demolition rather than terrorist attacks.
The quality of each set of evidence is somewhat subjective, but the conclusion I’m trying to show is that the context in which a story is presented is often associated with its credibility. An article presented in a tabloid is often not given the same credibility as if it were presented in a credible news source. Interestingly, the entire idea of what is a credible news source is somewhat subjective. Creating a false sense of credibility is essential in presenting propaganda in the form of reporting. It is important to note that propaganda is not necessarily a example of information presented out of context. For something to be considered propaganda requires intent to misrepresent the context in order to create a specific narrative.
In 2007, Elton John had a photo he owned seized from an art gallery because it contained a naked child4. It was part of a wider collection by Nan Goldin that had been exhibited worldwide since 2002. An anti-child pornography group, CEOP Centre, made the following argument:
“People who have sexual interest in children come from all walks of life. You can’t tell who is in your gallery and why they are looking at images…There are some images which just don’t feel right. What is important is the lasting impression you get once you have viewed the image. If it leaves you with the lasting impression that what you are viewing is child abuse, then it probably is4.”
Mary Hayward for the Campaign Against Censorship argued the counterpoint, making the following statement:
“What matters is not only where the picture is being exhibited, but who took it; why they took it; and all the circumstances surrounding it. If you don’t consider all these things, then you might get into a situation where a parent risks arrest by taking innocent bath-time pictures4.”
However both of these opinions deal with completely and totally subjective criteria. The statement that “If it leaves you with the lasting impression that what you are viewing is child abuse, then it probably is.” is totally subjective to the viewer and argues that the work should be removed to prevent thought crime. Remember, sexualization happens in the mind3. What one may see as an abusive, another may see as an innocent picture. Both arguments focus around intent–either by which the photograph came to be or the intent of the viewer–as defining the context of its acceptability.
In July 2007, a US military helicopter killed twelve people and injured two children. The video of this incident was leaked in 20105. It depicts an illegal act that involves both killing and injuring children. Although it doesn’t visually show children being shot, there are many other videos on the Internet that do show injuries to children. They are legal to distribute and protected as free speech. The one argument that is not made in the above case involving the Nan Goldin photo is for the case of freedom of speech. Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, once made the extreme case for free speech in a radio interview. When asked, “So is child pornography not a good enough reason to censor the Internet?” he responded with the following:
“Certainly not, certainly not a good enough reason. There are videos I’ve seen that shocked and disgusted me, but I don’t want to censor them. I do not advocate censorship just because I or you find them disgusting. Some people say they want censorship of child pornography because making those movies was a crime … Consider for instance the collateral murder video that also depicts a crime and it was made by the vehicle in association with the people who were carrying out. Should that be censored around the world? I think that when businesses make child pornography and when it involves real sexual abuse of real children, then they’re carrying out a crime and anyone participating in the business of distributing that film is involved in it. So there’s a reason other than censorship to prosecute any of them. But those who simply redistribute [child pornography] are in the same position of people who redistribute the collateral murder video. They’re not participating in the crime and there are a lot of films that depict murders except nobody really got killed6.” -Richard Stallman
Taken out of the context of the entire quote, it could be said that Stallman is a supporter of child pornography or a pedophile himself. But the full context shows that Stallman is making the argument for freedom of speech, despite what he personally finds offensive.
What makes one work art and another work pornography? What makes one organization a legitimate news source and the other a tabloid and yet another a propaganda source? It comes down to a matter of context, and often not only the context the media is presented in, but also the intent behind generating both the media and the world surrounding it. Context is the social adjective that can alter subjectivity.
Whether it is writing, art, video or some other form of media, the work is the work. If it causes offense in one context, but considered inoffensive or even esthetically pleasing in another, the important thing to note is that the actual media in question does not change. The ability to cause joy, bring harm, instill inspiration or beget offense is purely a social construction that we impose on our interpretation of a static object.
“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” -Oscar Wilde
1 Sebastião Salgado, ethics of time. 10 April 2015. Shu Cao. Open Democracy.
2 Reddit shuts down r/jailbait. 10 October 2015. Morris. The Daily Dot.
3 Spider-Woman’s Big Ass is a Big Deal. 4 September 2014. Maddox.
4 What’s the difference between art and porn? 28 September 2007. BBC.
5 Massacre Caught on Tape: US Military Confirms Authenticity of Their Own Chilling Video Showing Killing of Journalists 6 April 2010. Democracy Now.
6 ONLINE ONLY: Richard Stallman – No censorship is good censorship. 17 September 2010. Ramli. ARN.