On How We Portray Ourselves In Images
March 10, 2015
This came up today on a Facebook thread, and it occurred to me that:
- I haven’t updated the blog this week
- It’s a good topic that hasn’t been addressed in a while.
Not necessarily in that order…
First, have a little context. The discussion came from Hank Shaw’s Facebook page, Hunt, Gather, Cook. It’s a private page, created by Hank for hunters, foragers, and cooks to share information, knowledge, experience, and so forth. Members range from basic hunters like myself, to professional chefs who use wild game and native, foraged foods. The membership also includes vegetarians and non-hunters.
A few days ago, a younger hunter posted up a photograph of a hog he’d killed. In the picture, the hog was shown bleeding on the ground with two arrows protruding from his head, just below the eye. Earlier, the young guy had posted up another photo, this time a close-up of a squirrel impaled on an arrow shaft. Both pictures were fairly gruesome, but common of the type we often (too often?) see shared on social media. In both cases, his caption was essentially, “look at this animal that I killed.”
When he posted the squirrel photo, a few people, myself included, “gently” questioned his choice to show that particular photo to this particular audience, asking him how he chose to prepare the animal for the table. No one was particularly vocal about it, though, which sort of surprised me… although this is a pretty respectful group of folks for a social media page. But then he posted the photo of the hog. One of the more immediate (and unsurprising) responses was to question his choice of shot placement. That, of course, put him immediately on the defensive and left him explaining how he came to make those shots (coup de grace after the initial shot in the boiler room). A few other folks jumped in to defend, while others criticized. At this point, it was becoming what I’ve come to recognize as a classic social media donnybrook.
The youngster finally jumped back into the conversation, shocked at the responses and apparently upset that no one seems to have paid attention to his explanation of the questionable shot placement. And that’s where I realized what he was missing… what a lot of hunters are missing when they post pictures of their successes.
I don’t remember who coined the aphorism that a picture paints a thousand words. I think it’s accurate enough, but the devil is in the details (like how I worked in two clichés in consecutive sentences?) when it comes to this one. The picture certainly invokes a story, but the words are provided by the person who is viewing it. The skilled artist or photographer can provide context and clues to guide the tale, but when it comes down to it, interpretation is entirely up to the viewer.
With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people took one look at the photo of that hog (I sort of wish I could share it here, but it’s not mine to share) and came up with their own story. I know I did.
I imagined that I saw a post from a young man, proud of what he took to be some excellent shooting, looking for approval/validation from a group of Internet “friends”. Even further, in light of recent threads discussing head shots (which contained several strong opinions in favor of head shots), I imagined that I saw a young hunter taking what he’d learned from the older, more “experienced” hunters in the group and applying it to his own practice… which of course, is my whole problem with promoting the head shot on big game in the first place. Within seconds of seeing the photograph, I had concocted this entire storyline in my head. I think it’s obvious from the rapid degeneration of the thread that I’m not the only one who came up with an unfavorable storyline, except where I kept my response to myself, other people are not so restrained.
That’s how this works… Which brings to mind another cliché regarding first impressions, and the difference between sitting around a campfire and sitting around the computer.
If a few of us were sitting face to face with this kid, and he pulled out the picture and said, “hey, check out this hog I shot,” we’d look at it and someone would probably question the choice of shot placement. He’d explain what happened, and that would be that. He’d put his phone back in his pocket (the portable photo album), we’d talk about hog hunting, and maybe share some coup de grace experiences of our own.
On the Internet, people (especially strangers) are often more critical and reactionary. You often don’t get the chance to reconcile a bad first impression, and if you do, your argument is likely to be drowned in the background noise. There’s a tendency in Internet “arguments” for antagonists to stay blind to mitigating information, or to simply miss it when the signal-to-noise ratio goes off the dial. A lot of people don’t read back through the comments, but just jump in midstream and flail away with abandon.
Like any other mass communication medium, if you put something out on social media, you really want to have it right the first time. That requires forethought, consideration, and restraint.
It was with this in mind that one of my final comments to the kid, after he’d taken the beating (and still didn’t seem to understand why), was that he step back and think about what story someone might tell about his pictures. If someone looked at it, without knowing anything else, what would they imagine?
And there’s the bigger lesson, I think, for any of us who might post pictures on the Internet. If someone doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your background, your motivations, or the context of your photo, what story might they come up with to explain what they see? What if you don’t hunt… don’t know anything at all about hunting, or wildlife management, or any of that stuff… and you look at a picture of someone sitting on the back of a dead “zoo animal”? What story might you imagine?
I’m not trying to justify reprehensible behavior, here. I’m just pointing out where some of it is probably coming from, because it still seems to catch folks flat-footed. I think the kid in this story was honestly blindsided and befuddled by some of the responses he got.
Something else I suggested in my effort to be helpful, was that he consider the images that are used in magazines and on TV. Those images are reasonably sanitized, and are composed to tell a fairly specific story. I think they provide a pretty good guideline for what we, as amateurs and hobbyists should follow. And I’ll repeat that suggestion here, for anyone else.
We can’t all be professional-level photographers, but consider whether the photo you want to share would appear in a magazine? Is it too gory? Does it show really questionable shot placement? Does it represent the story you want it to tell? Or do you need to tell the story before you share the photo?
We have to think these things through. None of us should ever be surprised by the reaction to a photo we share.
I can’t leave off without including this. I know there is a faction of folks out there who will be offended by any photo depicting a dead animal. There is a faction that is offended by the fact that we’re out there making animals dead in the first place. I can’t fix that, and I’m not really concerned this minute with trying. That’s another issue for another day.