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Icon Economics: The Buying and Selling of Emotions

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Photojournalism is all about provoking a reaction. After advertising and marketing, it's arguably the most powerful example of using emotion to sell a product. Whether or not the digital age changes this is now a hot topic, as social media giants come under increased pressure to edit material, in the process conferring more responsibility for online content.

We need to question, debate and have a clear steer on what we want from public domain imagery. The 'we' is now a wide constituency, no longer neatly packaged into tabloid or broadsheet. We remain powerful consumers despite this fragmented market and as with any product it is us who demand images. Be they of fluffy royal babies (sentiment, not the baby) or horrific war scenes (Kenneth Jarecke's 1991 burnt out tank and soldier), they are taken on our behalf.

Re-reading Harold Evans' 1978 book, Pictures on a Page, in the 21st century provides the sensation of mixing Mrs Beeton with Heston Blumenthal - familiar ingredients, but curious results. Evans' guiding principles for images were animation, relevant context and depth of meaning. Perhaps, in the vast galaxy of the topic, this stands the test of time. In an era of sensory overload, we ingest many forms of information, often through moving and static images. When the camera shutter no longer clunks and the typewriter no longer clatters, does the nature of the subject change?

As time passes, images have had more interpretation and more photographer intervention. It's not surprising that the iconic image of the girder workers, lunching 800 feet above the streets of New York City, was a staged moment, part of the pre-publicity for the Rockefeller Center. A more chilling revelation, many years after the event, was that the Bihars bayonetting image taken during the war in Bangladesh in 1971 was a staged invitation to photographers, a modern form of gladiatorial murder to make a political point.

when wasn't imagery political?

Are selfies and live streams just modern versions of this? And when wasn't imagery political? To use a cliche, the list really is endless: the corpse of Che Guevara; the WW2 soliders on Iwo Jima raising the US flag; the Spanish freedom fighter; Planet Earth from space and the first moon walk; the student in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square; the investiture of the Prince of Wales; the Blackpool Belles on the front of Picture Post magazine; a helicopter on a Saigon roof; Patti Hearst with a gun; a burning Buddhist monk. They all told a story in a single image, some captured from a moving reel.

In defence of the static image, Evans writes: "The moving image may make an emotional impact, but its detail cannot easily be recalled." This quote pre-dates 9/11 but post-dates JFK's assassination, and these two axis events arguably provide macabre testament to it. What do we recall most clearly about the World Trade Center tragedy, the moving planes or the static shots of those who 'chose' to fall from the buildings? The grainy, open-top car footage the moment JFK was shot or that blood-stained Chanel two-piece, which Jackie Kennedy continued to wear for days after the event?

In a world where we increasingly emote first and intellectualise later, the power of the visual image increases. The rise of extremism preys on hooking negative images to emotions, a recent example being photography used by UKIP and the Vote Leave campaign to link our EU membership to vast and uncontrollable immigration into the UK.

Images become social history icons only with the passing of time and only if we, the consumers, accept this label. In keeping with other forms of captured media, we need to keep a healthy watch on the motivations and agendas of those who act as agents of our emotions.

Julia Moore

Next article in issue 135

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