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Crime, Punishment and the Force of Photography (7)

Crime, Punishment and the Force of Photography

The picture of a crime presented in the right stage conditions is something infinitely more dangerous to the mind than if the same crime were committed in real life”- Antonin Artaud (1970)

The above statement was made by Antonin Arthud in response to what he termed as the “psychological theatre” (Artaud (1970) in Huxley & Witts 2002, p.33). These are theatrical acts, performances, and scenes imitating realities of life not only for entertainment but exploitation of viewers’ feelings, sensitivity, and expectations. The danger he was referring to was the theatre’s portrayal of crime, cruelty, and terror done with almost realistic scene, sound, objects, and actors greatly affecting the hearts and mind of the audience. This is because the theatre’s perturbing construction of realities produces more psychological impact than the actual situation.

The connection between Artaud’s view of theatre reproduction of reality and imagery is the fact that both can produce more than it should reproduce (Carney 2009, p.18). For instance, photography from sociological point of view is a social and cultural practice wherein images are only reproduction of something in real life or environment while others see it as more than an image but spectacles with force affecting social practices and individual desires (ibid, 19). The theatre as described by Artaud was similarly influential in the sense that it instils ideas and explores the limits of the audience’s sensitivity while the spectacles create a new social meaning. Good examples of these photographs functioning as spectacle rather than a mere reproduction of real-life moments are mug shots of convicted or wanted criminal displayed in the police gallery and images of execution behind prison walls (Grant & Valier 2004, p.6).

Mug shots, scene of the crime, photographic evidence and alike are images assumed to represent the truth, conclusive, and unadulterated (Rawlinson 2009, p.125). It is a demonstration or spectacle of power capable of identifying, embarrassing, as well as branding a suspected criminal (Carney 2009, p.23). Similarly, photographs produced in lynching during the 16th and 17th century was personifications of power and spectacles of ritualized torture (Hubbard 2003, p.203). According to Potter (1998), three of John Herbert Dillinger’s (a famous American gangster in the early 1930s) men – Makley, Clark, and Pierpoint were arrested because somebody recognized them from mug shots in a detective magazine (p.143).

Note that these criminals were not identified by the police or from the police photo archived but from a commercial enterprise suggesting that such images are institutionalised to provide a visual map highlighting the features of common criminals (Gross 2006, p.137). It serves as a form of graphic stereotyping and sometimes contributes to bias against people based on their gender, age, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and others (Kendall 2005, p.77). For instance, photographs of celebrities caught shoplifting or involved in drug use tend to be different from those belonging to the working-class with same violation. Aside from being portrayed as an individual with complicated reasons for doing such deviant act, rich and famous often gets additional images highlighting their status in life, charity or fund raising involvement, and good deeds while those with less tend to be portrayed as either product of poverty or inherently corrupt. Their good deeds were never considered and all that matters were their crime and past and future conviction (ibid, p.77).

In contrast, malicious crime coverage and dubious practices motivated by monetary value of photographs (Ferrell & Van De Voorde 2009, p.38), portraits of victorious men and casualties of war (Carney 2009, p.22), and so on. These images were produced with human engagement in mind, a visual confrontation between viewers and the horrors of war, an exposé expecting human reactions, crafted images altering its subjects everyday lives, and representing the complex relationship between subjects and the photographer (Ferrell & Van de Voorde 2009, p.42). A good example of this relationship are images produced by photographer name Weegee in the early 1940s where he transformed gazing spectators into subjects creating an emotional bond between him and the crowd (Dimendberg 2004, p.49). These photographs specifically made a spectacle of urban culture by sensationalizing its crime and pleasantry in seems invasive and voracious manner (Entin 2007, p.54).

Producing images with human engagement in mind include consideration on the socio-cultural and personal association of images to those who will view it. Connotation in photography is context dependent since it is highly dependent on the viewers’ class, age, gender, ethnicity, and others. Therefore, photographs intended for specific audience are crafted in a way that it would attract more attention. In contrast, denotation may be viewed as the purpose or value of the subject being photographed or another connotation intended to please the audience. This is because “connotation produces the illusion of denotation” (Roland Barthes 1964 in Chandler 2007, p.138).

For above reasons, a photographic image may or may not describe reality, a mechanically reproduced denoted meanings of basic objects or acts of a particular person, a certain smile, a place , and so on (Ribiere 2008, p.63). In other words, a photograph of a child represents a child at the denoted level regardless of who took the photograph and how it is done. The meaning of the child’s photograph will only change when the photographer intentionally change the way audience will view the child. For instance, sentiment for the child may be acquired by applying soft-focus or close-up crop of the face that can heighten interest on the child’s emotions and experiences- connotation limited by viewers learned rules and conventions (Crow 2010, p.55).

The intrusive nature of such photographic works is what American author, theorist, and political activist Susan Sontag viewed as photography with no boundaries transforming the world into a “museum-without-walls” (Bierut et al. 2006, p.49). Consequently, people turned into consumers of reality dependent on the capacity of photographic images to realize their fantasies. This is what media guru Marshall McLuhan termed as “brother-without-walls” or the ability of people to access, embraced, and thumbed images of favourite celebrities and other objects of interest in significantly lesser cost (ibid, p.50). Moreover, photography has been commoditized and retooled for easy access of even the most unskilled amateurs thus extends beyond space, places, and realities of life (Gottdiener 2000, p.269).

Although induced by theatre and evident cruelty in its portrayal of life, “the picture of a crime presented in the right stage conditions” in Artuad’s statement signifies the link between the various aspects photography and crime. Similar to theatrical presentations, images as mentioned earlier can be either produce denoted or intentionally manufactured to attain a certain effect. The latter is evidently “infinitely dangerous to the mind” as it can invoke different responses from the audience. Photography as spectacle is not merely attractive images on display but much more. For instance, a visit on a photo gallery does not necessarily represent the perspectives and desires of the visitor but also an attempt of the gallery owner to establish himself in higher level of society or promote photography as an elite art. Similarly, photo journalism is not conveying news alone but selling of newspapers (Wells p.168).

There is thus a connection between images encouraging sensationalism and commodity culture where people are mostly engaged in decoding visual messages and believing what the maker want them to believe. The development of mug shots from mere identification instrument to branding, photographic spectacle delivering various messages that are eventually affecting its audience, the Weegee style crime photography, connotation and intrusive nature of photographic techniques all suggest that picture of a crime manufactured maliciously and absorbed by the audience can cause more harm than the actual execution of the crime.


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