In Strat Comm, our readings for the coming week are on issues of collective memory. One article we read in particular is titled “Public Identity and Collective Memory in U.S. Iconic Photography: The Image of ‘Accidental Napalm’” by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites (2003). The authors look at a specific image from the coverage of the Vietnam War (“Accidental Napalm Attack,” 1972) and how it functioned and continues to function. I thought this was interesting particularly for this class, as this sort of image analysis really gives shape to some of the theory we’ve been reading. Hariman and Lucaites take these theories as their framework to examine the concept of collective memory as it is shaped by visual communication – how images work to construct collectivity.
To discuss the rhetoric of images, Hariman and Lucaites look at this image in particular. They take into account both the composition of the image and the context surrounding it to flesh out a fuller understanding of the different readings the image can provide. Specifically, the discussion is of how images become iconic, or when/how they gain the capacity to constitute a public out of a group of strangers via identification with some element of the image.
They also look at the production of images, particularly in terms of how images can be manipulated – the examples within the article are two specific intentional manipulations of this image and how they convey their own messages as extensions of the original.
While the specifics are extremely interesting (and disturbing), the set-up of the framework for this discussion was what caught my eye in terms of this class. In the beginning of the article, the authors tackle some of the issues we’ve been discussing, specifically those from the week we spent on Semiology. They discuss the differences between visual media and discursive media – a question from the first class which we have yet to return to – and the suspicions of how visual media can function relative to discursive media. This leads into a brief discussion of the concept that all media is mixed media, that there is never any purely visual media. This reminded me of Barthes and his caveat for denotive messages; he says essentially the same thing when he posits that theoretically there can be a purely denotive message but that it is virtually impossible to ever encounter that message because of the cultural knowledge and perception we bring to the image.
Obviously, because the focus of the article is a photograph, the authors then go into a lengthier discussion of the pitfalls of reading photographs as texts – all of which are reminiscent of our readings from the week on Semiology. The authors talk explicitly about Barthes and Eco, specifically in terms of an acknowledgment of the “representational autonomy” of photographs – what Barthes discusses, when he mentions how photographs retain some elements of their object and thus can be confused as neutral representations. The discussion in this article, however, really leans more towards Hall’s conception of what goes on with photograph – the subtle difference of the degree, rather than the presence or absence, of ideology in a photographic image. For these authors, as for Hall, photos appear to be value-neutral representations of their object but always convey some value system; this appearance works to relay naturalizing concepts of ideology that aren’t natural at all.
This is a long and complicated dissection of a very complex image; because of that, and because not everyone else has read the article, I realize that this is probably a poor example for discussion. That said, I thought it was a really interesting – and helpful – application of the theoretical perspectives we’ve been discussing so far.
Hariman, R. & Lucaites, J.L. (2003). Public Identity and Collective Memory in U.S. Iconic Photography: The Image of "Accidental Napalm". Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20(1 - Mar 2003), 35-66.