It’s a strange little mashup that would be right at home in the Newspeak dictionary Winston Smith helps curate in George Orwell’s “1984.”
The photo op is an example of what historian Daniel Boorstin called a “pseudo-event,” an event that takes place solely for the purpose of being covered by the press. Closely related is the staged photo, supplied by institutions of all stripes to project an idealized and in essence persuasive image via the credible medium of the press.
The mayor cuts a ribbon with a gigantic pair of scissors. A CEO with palms like butter plunges a silver spade into a mound of dirt to signal the groundbreaking for a new building.
A member of the Islamic State stands over a terrified American photographer he is about to murder.
In each case, the image is intended primarily to convey symbolism rather than information. It serves what communication theorist James Carey identified as a “ritual” rather than a “transmission” function of journalism.
Ribbon-cuttings or groundbreakings are relatively harmless because they are transparently promotional. The execution of James Foley, however, resides at an uncomfortable intersection of news and virulent propaganda. Would the Islamic State have killed Mr. Foley if his death did not have publicity value, if the Islamic State’s leaders could not be sure the image would race around the globe carrying its message of defiance and resolve, a message perhaps legitimized by its very publication in mainstream newspapers in print and online?
Predictably, the tabloid New York Post and New York Daily News played the photo big on their front pages, while more sober newspapers chose to run photos of Mr. Foley on assignment some years ago, prior to his 2012 abduction. The Washington Post blasted the tabloids for running the photo of Mr. Foley moments before his barbaric execution. (The photo, and accompanying grisly video of the execution, also exploded across social media, as it was intended to; Twitter and YouTube have attempted to ban these images.)
As a journalist and teacher of journalists, I’m in awe of Mr. Foley’s courage and commitment to bear witness to the Middle Eastern chaos that will surely affect every facet of political and economic life across the West, probably for decades to come.
Still, I wonder. Mr. Foley was a photojournalist. Had he been given access by the Islamic State, or by the Kurds or by some other faction in the chaotic conflict, to shoot an execution, would he do it? Would he or others play their role in such a photo op? Would they shoot it? Would they transmit it? Would their editors run it?
And would it make a difference if the victim was a fellow Westerner? Or a fellow journalist? Or an Iraqi national? Or a rogue member of the Islamic State itself, executed for some lapse in orthodoxy? Some of the most famous photos in American journalism history capture horror staged specifically for the camera’s lens. (For instance, Buddhist monks who opposed the corrupt regime of South Vietnam in the 1960s had no chance of influencing their nation’s war policy through quiet protest, but by immolating themselves in public — for the photographer’s lens — they were quite effective in catalyzing international outrage.)
And isn’t it the role of journalists to tell us and show us what happened? Isn’t that what news organizations are supposed to do?
And why is it acceptable for the press to publish staged, ideologically purposeful photos of President Barack Obama drinking a beer with John Boehner, or of George W. Bush in a flight suit posed heroically beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner, or, just recently, U.S. jets streaking into the dawn to bomb Islamic State positions, but inappropriate for the press to publish pictures whose collateral effect allegedly helps the cause of terrorists?
Maybe publication of the Foley photograph aids and abets the ideological aims of the Islamic State, and maybe it doesn’t. It could well have the opposite effect. In any case, it documents a moment that really happened.
I’ve worked with some amazing and courageous photojournalists and photo editors, who were constantly criticized for shooting this or running that. One old friend shakes his head ruefully when he recounts the time an editor rejected a graphic news photo as “too real.” That same shooter once told me, “Our job is to show people what happened. It’s not to not show them what happened.”
The frame of sensationalism tabloids put around everything from a Kardashian wedding to a world war is a fair target for criticism, but I’m not so sure running the James Foley photo is de facto out of bounds. The fact that Mr. Foley was a photographer ostensibly in-country to document what was happening amplifies the professional and moral complications that surround his tragic and horrific death. He was there to show us what happened and in a terrible irony found himself on the wrong end of the lens, the subject of the violent story he and other brave souls risked their lives to document.
Two important morals of that story are: This is the world we’ve consented to have our leaders put us in. And this is the reality of the enemy who now challenges us.
A million words could not communicate those urgent facts with more power than a single staged photograph of a man about to die a senseless death.
Mike Dillon is chair of the Journalism and Multimedia Arts Department at Duquesne University (firstname.lastname@example.org).