The Problematic Nature of Images

Added on by PS Cat02.

We have two new blurbs recently posted. You can find them here, on the archives page.

One is narrated by one of the ants from my AntFarm™, Ant 2-20. It's about the relationship between electricity and human beings' place in the universe. Very philosophical, those ants.

The other blurb is kind of/sort of about Thomas Edison. Before we posted the finished blurb online, Mimi, Bunny and I got into a discussion about whether some parts of it should be changed.

For example, there was a part in the video where I called Thomas Edison an "asshole". Personally I didn't think it was a big deal (because it's true and I still can't think of a more appropriate word), but in the end we edited that part out. Mimi especially felt that it wasn't necessary; that if viewers came to that conclusion on their own after hearing about some of the things he did, then that'd be a better way to present the material.

The other thing that was kind of difficult to decide on was the part where I mention Edison's interest in electrocution as a method of capital punishment. In the final version of the blurb I just show a picture of an electric chair during this part, but in an ealier draft I had included a close-up photograph of an electrocuted prisoner's face (Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis, convicted murderer, executed in Florida in 1999). I felt really conflicted about including that photo because on one hand, it's a very graphic and horrible photograph (face contorted/frozen in pain, blood spilling down from his nose and mouth) and including it felt a lot like exploitation and appealing to people's purely emotional side in order to make a point (i.e., that death by electrocution is not instant, painless, and/or humane, as it is often - and mistakenly - assumed to be). On the other hand, the image itself is shocking not only for how disturbing it is, but also because much of its power comes from the fact that the public never sees these kinds of images. It's kind of like images of war (real war, not glamourized/romanticized war) - I think it's easier for people to feel distant and disinterested when it's time to debate the morality of war (or capital punishment) when they've never been confronted by some of its more horrible aspects. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

To me, images are especially powerful, in some ways even more powerful than words. And sometimes only pictures seem to be able to engage people's emotions and prod them towards right action. Even off the top of my head I can easily think of quite a few photographs that, although emotionally wrenching to look at, moved human beings all over the world to demand action be taken - Ronald Haeberle's photographs of the My Lai massacre and Huynh Cong Út's photograph of napalmed civilians are only two obvious examples from the Vietnam war.

Actually, we had this discussion many times while we were making the Vietnam War episode - there are a lot of very disturbing photos in that episode and we actually sat around and debated the pros and cons of including or exluding every image. If there is a guide book regarding how to make ethical judgements regarding images in educational cat videos we haven't seen it yet. We make our own rules as we go along. [ post-entry note: I'm actually still kind of surprised that we have not received even one complaint or comment about the violent images in that episode. Those images made me so uncomfortable and sad on so many levels and I'm curious as to why no one has questioned our decision to include them... ~ p. ]

So anyway, in the end we decided to remove the electrocution photo. Which doesn't mean that we'll never use provocative or unpleasant photos in the future. For me it just means that I want to be careful about showing these kinds of images. If I honestly think that showing these pictures creates an opportunity to learn or change consicousness, I tend to think that it's okay. What I feel more uncomfortable with is reducing an image to pure shock value or (guilty) voyeuristic pleasure. In this particular case, we thought that the blurb-format is so short that it's more difficult to surround the image with some context for better understanding. It's a judgement call.

Anyway, I just thought I'd mention this discussion we had. It might seem like a 'nothing' thing to everybody else, but this kind of stuff seems really important to us and it's a big part of our learning.

~ pinky