A level contextual study.
From the camera obscura to the point and shoot, to the modern smartphone cameras, as people we have been trying to capture those still moments for centuries. If not in photos, then in paintings or drawings, this capturing of stillness, of the heart of the moment is a powerful tool. A tool that we can’t achieve with our eyes, or bodies, relying on the lens, on the pencil, on the paper. But what about moving image? How does that come into play? Now comes the question, a more hypothetical and holistic approach to the idea; what came first, the video or the camera? We know, in essence that it was the camera obscura, and the recording of still images, but if we look at it in a slightly more open way, then the ‘video’ came first. Let’s take this angle further… As humans we see through our eyes, we see in moving images from birth, and we keep these as memories, for me, I view them as if they were on a TV, a playback of a moment I’ve experienced. We don’t tend to see our lives in snapshots (in our brain at least) but that doesn’t mean that these snapshots are any less valid. A photograph can evoke these moving images in your mind, a springboard let’s say, to the full scene. But what happens when you have an image that you haven’t been present for, or a video that you could in no way predict?
Which one carries more depth, more meaning, more leverage on your emotions, is it the fleeting glimpse of a snapshot of a scene, or 2 minutes worth of camera footage that relies on your perception of reality and recognising how much closer it is to the truth?
The technique and approach to the shooting of video and how it is constructed seems more natural and closer to a moment that you would see in reality, whereas a photo can be manipulated by framing and composition to only show what the photographer wants you to see. I’m not saying that of course the cinematographer doesn’t do the same thing, story boards and careful planning show us this, but as a continuous shot there must be bits that aren’t meant to be in the shot, where I suppose in photography you can wait until the annoying kid is out of the way, or the fly stops landing on the lens before taking the shot.
But then there’s photography and videos that you just can’t physically plan, because you couldn’t imagine these things happening. There’s no point in trying to create a storyboard for a shot, let’s say, in a war torn country, everything could change in a second, this is what we find with the following media.
The Aleppo boy. Omran Daqneesh. The photo circulated national news the day after he was pulled from the rubble after an airstrike in his hometown. People were shocked, parents looked away in horror, only to be drawn back in by the hopeless eyes. The photo itself, a still taken from a video by Mustafa al – Sarout from Aleppo’s media centre is just a snippet from the problem happening in Syria right now.
The boy sits in the middle, thoroughly composed, and stares at you with confused eyes. Surrounded by vibrant, vivid orange, nothing distracts from the ashy skin, chubby childlike figure and blood smeared over one side of his face. Positioned slightly to the left, the image is naturally framed and separated into four parts; the cabinets, the boy, the unopened first aid kit and the side of the ambulance. The juxtaposition between the boy and the unopened kit is a strange one, on one hand, it feels like it should be opened, but yet the shock and the calm showed and radiating from the boy, even through the picture, questions whether the image needs anything else to distract from the boy.
He looks so unsure, so lost and so helpless, yet so resigned to his fate. As someone said to me, “It could almost be jam on his face, it’s the same kind of childlike confusion”.
Although the image isn’t sharp, the ‘fuzziness’ and slightly out of focus feel come from the image being taken from the video – no way of capturing a completely still shot. The viewer’s eye is drawn straight to the middle of Omran’s small body, moving from tummy with cartooned shirt to dishevelled hair and down the legs, which hardly reach the edge of the seat, let alone the floor. The hands, resting in his lap, show a candid side to the photo, a sense of waiting ensues ‘When will someone come and take me home?’
For me, this picture shows a kind of shock and childlike confusion that cannot be emulated in any kind of staged photo. The eyes follow you everywhere, desperate and fraught with unknowing. When I first scrolled down my twitter feed and saw this, the first reaction was to try and block out the amount of sadness that followed seeing it. But after scrolling back up and clicking on the link, I found a video of the same event, watched it and found myself even more so moved than with just the image.
The video shows him being pulled out of the rubble of his house and being carried and set down in the ambulance. Throughout the whole affair, Omran doesn’t cry, he doesn’t make any noise. His face doesn’t change expression until after he takes his slightly curled up hand and rubs his eye, ashy skin coming away with traces of blood from his wound. It’s only then when the confusion crawls over his face and like any child would, he tries to wipe it away by rubbing on the chair. It is this action that to me conveys slightly more emotion than the still image. The way that the shot is framed, executed and taken, shows to me that although not planned, the videographer Mahmoud Raslan is actually quite used to events such as these and knows very quickly how to frame and make a video in even the toughest times.
So there comes the question, what conveys more emotion in this situation? I find it intriguing that this would change from person to person. Some might find that the unmoving eyes of the child don’t leave you, following you around the room, always in the back of your mind. Some might find the confusion and bewilderment of Daqneesh to be even more heart-breaking, the actions of this child who has just barely learnt to play with toys, more poignant and a better representation of the Syrian war than a picture could ever be. It’s summed up in a somewhat clumsy way (considering the situation) by David Baines, a Labour campaigner when he commented
“That little boy in the back of the ambulance, alone and dazed. Bloody awful. What can we do??” he asked.
I don’t like this picture. I don’t like it because it shocks me and brings me out of the warm, cosy, privileged and most significantly, safe world that I am cocooned in (I absolutely admit to knowing just how much of a privileged position I am in). I dislike the video even more, because although the steady eyes follow me, the actions shown in the moving image confirm that the little boy could be anyone, from any walk of life, but it just happens to be this little boy that went viral, a previously completely anonymous little boy, born at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
This photo requires so many adjectives to describe its sadness, horror and lack of humanity, but shall we just look at it pragmatically for now?
Taken by Nick Ut, himself a Vietnam citizen, on the 8th June 1972, this image shows nine year old Kim Phuc (in the centre) and other children, some not even old enough to walk, running away from an ‘accidental’ South Vietnemese napalm bombing.
Kim Phuc (now known as ‘the napalm girl) is the only one not wearing clothes, which brings the viewer’s eyes directly to her, regardless of the fact that she is the centric subject of the photo. She is naked, but the image is not pornographic, it is the ‘naked’ truth of the war but within context to the image. Arms outstretched, face contorted in pain, Phuc screams ‘Nóng quá, nóng quá’ (too hot, too hot), as she tries to outrun her burns. But her face is the most naked and disturbing part of the photo, not any other part of her body. Her clothes have been consumed by flames from the napalm that now sticks to her skin, but the soldiers don’t seem phased. The soldier directly behind Phuc almost creates a juxtaposition, how can she be in so much pain and he be so not? It also creates a menacing feel, a ‘shadow’ of the effect and the atmosphere of the war raging on. The slight head tilt to the right could almost show the attitude of the people in the western world ‘look the other way and it’s not happening to you’.
The three soldiers shadow the three children, almost like dark angels, the religious aspect of analysing the image bringing forward a dark resemblance between Phuc’s stance and Christ on the cross. I can’t help but say now that I’m not religious (maybe slightly agnostic) but it brings forward the question if he ‘died for our sins’ then what does this make Kim Phuc?
Without even a thought of framing and composition from the photographer, the photo falls perfectly into the rule of thirds, groups of people fitting into each section, framed on the angle of the edge of the road. Although I say it fits into the rule of thirds, it somehow also breaks it at the same time, as Kim Phuc is directly in the middle, breaking the idea that the middle of an image is a no go area. But it works; it’s confrontational, it doesn’t let you look away, and even though the boy to the left’s face is more graphically contorted, Kim Phuc is the girl that draws your eyes, before anything else.
The background is dark; billowing smoke coming from the decimated village. The black smoke comes through the image, even in black and white, the lack of colour strangely making the image more powerful, as no colours are distracting you from the true nature of the scene. The darks are dark, but the whites are not vibrant white; a dull grey, created by ash and smoke. But they still bring forward a sense of purity and innocence, that now, we can safely say is dashed into the rocks.
This photo has caused a lot of controversy in the media lately, when the photo was taken down off Facebook and backlash caused even more fame to come to it and question whether or not the image was suitable for a site of that nature. Creators and editors argued that the automatic scanning features of the site were programmed to remove pictures that showed any kind of child nudity, without exceptions, but others argued that although she is naked, like I said before, it is not in any way pornographic. Many more people uploaded the same photo in protest, advocating the struggles and highlighting the injustice served to Kim Phuc, not just as a child, but as a grown woman who’s been through a life dictated by an act of war, much like Daqneesh will.
What we come to now is the question I posed at the beginning: moving image or still, in this case, what conveys more?
To answer that in full and properly, I would need to do hundreds of surveys and ask thousands of people to which medium gives them more feeling, emotion, and a lingering remembrance of the medium they’ve just seen.
The thing is with that photo, is that although it tells a precise story of that particular moment in time, wider reading or even embodied knowledge has to surround it. That is not a bad thing, the effectiveness of the photo is not made any less valid then the task of informing yourself about a subject. But with the video, the story is laid out in front of you; he is taken from the rubble, into an ambulance, you can clearly see everything that has just happened.
To me, seeing more of the napalm bombing would be too much, yet I can deal with the heartbroken face and cries of Daqneesh’s family, is it to do with the time that we live in? I guess what I’m trying to say is perhaps I am used to seeing these videos and feeling the heartbreak. But it also hits closer to home, because I find it difficult to connect to Nick Ut’s photo, the world at the time of the Vietnam War is so far removed from anything that I’ve ever experienced. I can’t claim to know how the atmosphere and be any closer to the situation in the middle East, but seeing videos from it every day, it makes me feel a lot more connected to the little child, especially because I know people and it wasn’t that long ago when I was the same age.
But should that be my conclusion? That I can’t make up my mind? It’s difficult to give an answer to something that my opinion changes on every day. But the war in Aleppo is ongoing, and slowly we start becoming slightly immune to the images and videos being distributed. Not because we want to, because just as the ‘dark angel’ soldier that I highlighted in the Vietnam photo creates a shadow of the West’s views on the subject, so we (subconsciously) take on this ideal now, because we are unable to do anything, and the ability to liken the situation there to one in the Western world is a stark one.
I don’t think this has a conclusive answer, I think it totally depends on the person, but after conducting a poll on twitter, I found that a larger percentage of people (67%) admitted to finding a short video more powerful than a still image (33%).
It changes from day to day, but even the subject matter of said video or image can sway your decision. For example;
If we (very) quickly dive into the world of fashion advertising (a stark difference, I’m aware) we can see a similar, yet all too different process. A TV advert, with its relevant magazine spread advert can advertise a product in two different ways, a moving image and a still image. Using a perfume advert let’s say, the TV advert would include music, sound and a more visual representation in terms of the inherent sexuality that is conveyed in order to advertise the product. It almost says ‘if you buy this product, you will become partly like the supermodel in this advert, with all the sensuality and allure that comes with it’. An image wouldn’t quite convey the same representation, but still could take a slightly oversexualised image still from the moving advert, using that, the colour grading, composition and clever placement of typography and design in order to make the page more alluring. So in that case, I would say the moving TV advert is stronger, the sound plays a massive part in conveying things for me.
Maybe that’s why I find it difficult to distinguish which one I find more striking in regards to previous images and videos – I watched the video on silent, and I’ve seen ‘the Napalm Girl’ many times in my life. So that’s where I leave it; arrested, but rather immune to the still, only appreciating them for composition and colour, and not characteristically moved by the moving, just used to it.
Sad, isn’t it?