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All the photos fit to print: What a “selfie” can’t convey

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By Megan Fromm

It was the selfie seen ’round the world: President Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, leaning in for a quick click during a national memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Almost immediately, both mainstream and alternative media began analyzing the photo ad nauseam, criticizing everything from the act itself to the First Lady’s apparently stern reaction in the background.

In many ways, the selfie controversy out-shadowed the event itself, and all context was lost in the scuffle. While it’s easy to indulge knee-jerk reactions about how inappropriate this gesture may have been, critical news consumers would do well to consider a few questions before passing judgement.

For instance:

These questions all point back to an ethical mandate for context and photo selection. Visual literacy, and understanding the power of images, requires journalists to exercise as much caution in the selection and publication of images as they do in the selection and publication of facts.

The photographer who captured the selfie was quick to clarify the image after the fact, but what obligation is there to provide such context up front, at the moment the photo is distributed? Imagine, for a moment, that the information we have now—days post-selfie—was published in sync with the release of the photo. Would there even be a story? Probably. But it would be likely an entirely different narrative.

As your students curate the hundreds of photos they capture in the creation of scholastic media, take some time to engage in a critical analysis of what stories those images actually convey.

Try this exercise in visual literacy with your whole staff:

  1. Using a smartboard, display all photos related to a news event—one by one—for your class. (Don’t go into detail about the event).
  2. Each student in the class must pick two photos: the photo they believe best tells the story of the event, and the photo they believe will be most appealing to viewers.
  3. Now, discuss: are the two photos the same? If not, why? Which photo would they actually publish, and why? What are the ethical ramifications?
  4. Finally, have the journalist or photographer who covered the event give more detail about what happened: context, atmosphere, discussions, etc. They should give their perspective on which photo most accurately conveys the event, and therefore, is most suitable for publication.

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