Terror and vision: Representations of the contemporary

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One of the more fascinating aspects of contemporary news coverage is the increasing dependency upon low resolution imagery. Reports from Afghanistan, or housing estates in the UK or political events are marked by mobile telephone motion images. These short snippets of digital video have become a considerable part of how we ‘read’ the world.

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This imagery litters our lives, particularly on the internet. Blogs, websites and television lend it an ubiquitous purchase on our visual horizons.

The mainstream news media utilise blurry out of focus imagery for news reports. Their raw immediacy and the very lack of professional editing or image manipulation lend them a remarkable credibility. One of the more harrowing aspects of the 7/7 Underground bombings in London in 2005 were the images taken on camera phones from stalled tube trains, and it was no surprise then to see it reiterated on the cover of the book in the first image above. Their vivid representation of that environment was reinforced by their seeming familiarity. To anyone with a mobile telephone the shaky image, the sudden abstraction as the digital cameras sought to deal with varying light conditions and the muffled sound combined to provide a window into that experience. And the very banality of the images, sometimes even the protracted periods of time where nothing much happens and the angle of visual access is limited, generates a sense of place quite unique. This is exacerbated by the necessity for imagery – any imagery – on the 24 hour news channels.

YouTube has developed in part because of the ability to digitise television and video imagery and upload it to computers. Suddenly everyone is an auteur. And predictably the output conforms to Sturgeon’s Law (coined by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon) that “Ninety per cent of everything is crud”.

Yet it is relatively easy to foresee a point in the near future when these images will mark out a very specific period in time, that period being the late 1990s and the early to mid-2000s when such technology was in nascent form. Resolutions have already increased in a relatively short period of time. The first integrated camera phone was demonstrated in June 1997 but the pace of development is such that 5M pixel cameras are now available and the video capability of some phones is advertised, perhaps optimistically, as ‘near DVD quality’.

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It is remarkable too, to see how much information is available through this currently poor or low quality imagery. The recent attempted attacks at Glasgow airport were confined to a limited number of media but a surprisingly broad range of individual viewpoints. So one saw the event built up as if it were a palimpsest from varying angles. Security cameras, mobile phones and then, much later television news video combined to provide an overall view. The spectator edits the grainy telephone image out of our individual recollection in order to create a sense of place. This is quite remarkable in its own way as previously mundane locations, take for example the facade at Glasgow airport, achieve a familiarity.

The idea of the simulacra, as proposed by Baudrillard, has some traction here. The reality of Islamist terrorism appears in some respects superseded by the significations of terrorism. The ‘War on Terror’ despite the provocative nature of its title reduces to essentially small scale – although no less terrible or, more often thankfully, potentially terrible – incidents that are captured in a way that is both everyday and somehow banal. This may reflect the reality of such a conflict where the near domestic sphere becomes the arena upon which it is played out. It may also reflect a societal dynamic where across the entirety of the 20th century war and conflict has moved ever closer to the civilian.

But this palimpsest is built up because we now live in societies where the means of photographic and video production are immediate and accompany us all the time. Our ability to reproduce these images is testament to the nature of these societies. Within the past two weeks there was a bomb attack in Algeria by Islamists. The news was reported without any visual imagery on various television news. One wonders if this was due to state censorship, although it is interesting to note that mobile penetration of the market in Algeria stands at about 58%.

So how will improved technologies impact? To some extent I don’t think it will make a great deal of difference to the popularity of YouTube and its ilk. The colloquial element common to all such imagery will be retained, if only for the obvious reason that those taking the images are not professionals, and are never likely to be. And that immediacy will remain in some respects the gold standard for significations of authenticity and credibility.

It has always been possible to make an assessment of the point at which any piece of visual imagery has been photographed or captured on film or video by reference to the specific qualities of the image itself.

But it still remains curious nonetheless to think that within a relatively short period YouTube footage from recent years will seem as antiquated and technologically redundant as the first black and white movies.

Ciarán Swan

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