Why Study Photos?

Paired photos of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, on NBC, Oct. 15, 2012

In today’s era of tablets and smart phones, news outlets have come to recognize the draw of a pungent image.   In fact studies suggest that some readers never “read” the news, they just “look” at the photographs.

Eye-tracking studies from Poynter have found that online readers “enter a screen through a dominant element, generally a photograph.  Faces in photographs and videos [attract] a lot of attention.”  Poynter’s most recent eye-tracking study, released in October 2012, confirmed the paramount importance of the photograph on a page:

Noted eye-tracking expert  Dr. Pegie Stark Adam in an interview with Dr. Mario Garcia: “designers knew the eye always went to the dominant element first, but eye track showed that for almost 100% of the readers in both the first study [in 1991] and the one done in 2007 and now [in 2012] in the tablet study. Having scientific analysis to show that was and is important.”

The original photo was taken by Mannie Garcia for the AP. Then artist, Shepard Fairey manipulated the photo into the iconic poster from Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Image from http://www.thehydrilla.com.

Photos are the way that online news consumers access and evaluate the news.  Photos are an even “faster” way to assess what is happening than reading a 140-character tweet.

Yet the inherently subjective nature of photographs means that photos — especially simple ones — are in essence the political cartoons of today’s digital age.  (And the new trend of posting live gifs of political events are today’s vaudeville.)  Photos have become less aesthetic “filler” on a page, than visual commentaries on the candidates’ performances.  

And what you “see” in a photo at a glance may not be all that is happening.  Split-screen images, for example, can become just a cheap journalistic trick to signal a rather trivial “balance” in coverage (two or more candidates are given equal photographic real estate and shown making similar faces and/or gestures) or a cheap way to suggest conflict (hence the frequent use of paired photos where the candidates appear to be staring at each other).

Whether intentionally or not, photos are neatly wrapped packages for sending sophisticated messages about what they picture.

Consider for a moment two “saintly” images of the 2012 presidential candidates Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.  The halo of light surrounding each head, the slightly raised eyes, the camera angle looking up, even the white shirts — all these elements conspire to communicate that each man is someone anointed to lead and to serve.  (Also, see here for a brief discussion of a photo of Mitt Romney with a “tarnished” halo.)

Pres. Barack Obama, photo in Huffington Post. Oct. 19, 2012.  The flare of light behind the president appears to canonize him; interestingly the photo illustrated an article critical of his statements about Libya.

Gov. Mitt Romney, photo in Politico. Sept. 18, 2012.  Note that while Romney’s hair is gilded by the light, it’s not quite as “saintly” a halo as Obama’s.  Interesting too that this photo also illustrated a “negative” slideshow — of Romney’s “10 gaffes caught on mic.”

How should a media-literate viewer “read” these images — even excluding the headline and caption, the accompanying article, and such other considerations as the credibility and political leanings of the news outlet in which the photo appears?

Researchers can make objective observations about an image.  But the ultimate “effect” of the lighting, the gaze, the camera angle, the clothes, depends on the individual viewer and the political and cultural context in which the photo is seen.

To take just one problem in evaluation:  The image on the left with the dramatic disk of light shining behind Obama’s head more obviously makes a “saintly” connection — but does that photo wield too heavy a metaphorical bludgeon?  Is the more subtle light gilding Romney’s hair a more effective nudge to think well of him, because it is noticed subconsciously?  If the wizard behind the curtain is not so evident, is the trick of light more persuasive?

Then compare those two “positive” images, with two “negative” images below — of the candidates looking down, one man glaring or one looking defeated.  The backgrounds are dark as in the photos above, but so too are the men’s suit jackets.  The subjective assessment of these images?  These men are ones to be wary of.  Does every analyst of these images evaluate these images in the same way?  No.  But the general perception that these images are not as positive as those above — or of the very top image of the two men smiling, is likely one that all can agree with.

Romney (and former VP Dick Cheney), Huffington Post. Oct. 1, 2012. The photograph notes that “Romney’s Debate Surprise May Be Channeling Cheney.”  While the photo of Romney is relatively neutral, it “reads” negatively because of the intentional correspondence with Cheney’s expression.

Obama, Bloomberg. Oct. 4, 2012. The president at the first debate. The article’s headline reads: “Obama’s Rocky Mountain High? — Gore Suggests, It Was the Altitude.”  Obama’s downcast and wrinkled face visually signals his “defeat” in the opening debate.

This PrezPix study of over 8700 images* does not try to answer nuanced questions about individual images.  Coders did evaluate each of the thousands of images collected from the 21 news outlets, but the focus of this study was to identify broad trends.  This website collects and presents those trends and analysis.

This study also intentionally invites its readers to ask their own questions and seek their own answers.  By using the transparent platform of Pinterest to gather all the thousands of photos, researchers give the audience for this study the raw materials to both confirm the conclusions of this study and to draw their own further conclusions.

NB:  Researchers applied the same collection methodology for all the news outlets studied.  It is likely that the researchers on this survey did not collect every photograph published, and, on occasion, certain photographs that could be viewed were not collectible by Pinterest.  The total number of photographs studied, therefore, should be understood to be representative of those published on the news outlets, not an absolute set of all photographs published on all sites.  
It is fair to note, however, that the number of photographs of any individual candidate collected for any given site is a rough indication of the commitment of that site to photographically covering that specific candidate.