“Hurricane Porn”?: The Aesthetics of Authenticity and Nature’s Wrath

Among the most widely circulated manipulated Hurricane Sandy images was this storm cloud imposed on the Statue of Liberty (image from snopes.com)

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy photographers shared ten images every second on Instagram, documenting the storm, testifying to the power of nature, and underscoring the internet’s power to shape our collective imagination.  The most ridiculous images following the storm, though, came from Brazilian model Nana Gouvea, who wandered about the hurricane-strewn landscape posing for clumsily seductive pictures alongside crushed cars, downed trees, and refuse-strewn streets, producing what Huffington Post dubbed genuine “hurricane porn” (she was immediately lampooned with a tumblr page and a facebook page).

While Gouvea parasitically stumbled about New York, a host of other photographers posted images that were not quite so voyeuristic, but they also were not utterly “authentic” representations of the storm.  The Tumblr page Is Twitter Wrong? posted images of the storm that were clearly manipulated; snopes ridiculed several of the most obviously photoshopped images; The Atlantic posted a series of images emblazoned “real,” “fake,” and “unverified”; mashable posted many of the same images; and the Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog ran an article “Caution: That Hurricane Sandy Photo May Not be Real”.

This image of storm damage in North Carolina is not photoshopped, but it was taken from an angle that few if any instagram photographers had (image courtesy North Carolina Dept of Transportation).

This discourse over storm images illuminates how aesthetic representations shape our imaginations of complex if inexpressible realities like the experience of a natural disaster.  Much of this discussion is a journalism discourse about authenticity, a conversation on attribution that matters in news rooms where the press aspires to present something in which we can believe.  Craig Silverman, for example, counsels his followers to verify all images before re-posting, re-tweeting, or otherwise sharing them socially.  This is good advice for a journalist, but much of what circulates online is more important for its power to simply evoke responses, and doctored images can induce us to humor, outrage, sympathy, or response.

Sharks did not really enter New Jersey as flood waters rose, but this is an amusing thought (image from snopes)

Authenticity may not be the most useful metaphor to understand these storm pictures in particular and aesthetic representation online in general.  That is, we increasingly live in an internet environment that is akin to walking down Main Street USA in Disneyland; Disneyland announces itself as a lie in which we willingly participate from the very outset, and most of us expect if not actually desire clever if not beautiful distortions and misrepresentations in such popular culture.  A discussion focused on the most conventional notion of “objective reality” risks being reduced to a simplistic polarization of authenticity and artificiality that does not capture how anybody with instagram, photoshop, or the most commonplace camera-phone shapes every picture they take.  Flickr and instagram are loaded with straightforward pictures of the storm and its aftermath, but they share space with a host of images that attempt to articulate inexpressible experiences by doctoring with images in small and dramatic ways alike.

If the hurricane was not sufficiently intimidating or impressive, this image renders it breathtaking (image from paul maszlik)

Pictures are compelling representations of the power of nature, so astounding funnel cloud images and turbulent flood waters appear in numerous pictures of natural disasters.  Even the best-timed images taken by gifted photographers fail to capture the concrete experience of uncertainty and powerlessness within a disaster, so photographers and artists aspire to produce visual representations that will evoke such an experience.  In the hands of the media that representation often has struck observers as parasitic: weather reporters find a place out on the boardwalk where they’ll be buffeted by winds and risk being swept away by breaking waves;  people emotionally gutted by the bad fortune that destroyed their homes are paraded in front of cameras unable to capture what they have lost; and intensive if not ceaseless media coverage of meteorological disaster brings every possible apocalyptic threat to our doorstep.  Simply telling a compelling or amusing story is not always acceptable, because there is a genuine social impact to disaster narratives and their representation in the media.  In 2010 David Sirota blasted media coverage of an earthquake that savaged Haiti, arguing that “Like any X-rated content, this smut is all flesh and no substantive plot. The lens flits between body parts and journalists pulling perverse Cronkite-in-Vietnam impressions …. But there is little discussion of how western Hispaniola was a man-made disaster before an earthquake made it a natural one…. The destitution is tragic — and a reflection, in part, of colonial domination.” This is when representation becomes voyeuristic and risks effacing human suffering or ignoring the state’s failure to respond to a genuine tragedy.

Hurricane Clouds over Statue of Liberty image taken from Snopes.com

North Carolina Coastline image courtesy NCDOT Communications

Statue of Liberty image from Paul Maszlik deviant art.com

Shark image from Cinemablend

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Posted on November 2, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 52 Comments.

  1. Solid post. I think the doctored photos that circulated so widely is a great example of “evoking emotion” as you stated. As a person in the media, it saddens me that we are sometimes more concerned with “disaster porn” than we are real people. Death counts as opposed to helping.

  2. Thank you. I have never followed so many links on a blog and did enjoy the FB and Tumblr pages although my Portuguese was put to the test. My reality is distorted enough without the press turning into HG Wells.

  3. “As a matter of Fact” post.

  4. I was wondering about the first manipulated picture, I didn’t think the first picture with the Statue of Liberty was real, but I saw it shared a bunch of time on Facebook. Interesting post, I like your perspective!

    • Its not entirely clear to me why some people are so committed to thinking such images are “real” or even what the notion of “real” means to various people. The vast majority of us experienced this storm through media representations, so none of us can claim an entirely “real” experience from the eye of the storm.

      • I agree, I definitely had an inkling that that particular picture was manipulated, but you’re right! who is to say what is real anymore, it is hard to tell!

  5. I don’t think using the word “Porn” in any fashion is the correct thing to do! Don’t you agree?

  6. Perhaps some of the phenomena you talk about work on an ego self-preservation basis. Listening to some of the programs on the CBC, for example, one is compelled by the journalists to live through and experience the horror of others’ tragedies, on a daily basis. Access to the world’s woes after a hard day’s work through the TV, computer, and radio, may provoke a flight into desensitization, creativity, or humour. Body counting would fall into the first category.

    • TV is completely visual, so in some ways it cannot capture the experience of a storm without putting a reporter out into the middle of it. What they are saying is irrelevant, they are simply there for the visual spectacle underscoring that this is in fact a real storm. At the end of the day you may be right: we may simply be watching the news, but not really listening to the words.

  7. I have always thought there is something voyeuristic about the way that disasters are reported. And so like reality TV – I found myself talking out loud to Jim Cantore as he stood in Battery Park reporting on the storm. “Get out of the water….time to pack up and go to a safe place.” Sort of akin to those who watch sports. I guess I am sort of an armchair meteorologist. Armchair politician, too.

  8. Before I was a writer, I was and still am an artist. When I saw the first photo, I shared it on Facebook, knowing that it had been photoshopped. I thought it beautifully depicted the ferocity of the storm and the strength of the American people.

    As soon as I shared it, someone posted, “FAKE!” underneath. I felt that was really rude. I posted, “Well that’s obvious.”

    There is a difference between photography and photojournalism and wouldn’t think that the social media would be a place where people would depend on accuracy…
    I agree that when obtaining a story in the face of disaster, there should be a level of respect shown to the victims.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • I am inclined to agree that the polarization between “real” and “fake” is not especially useful in most popular discourse, and I am not completely convinced it even works in the media anymore; I am not sure the distance between press and popular discourse is all that great anymore. But it is interesting somebody accused your image of being “fake”: that notion of an objective truth in media persists in a lot of our minds.

  9. I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

  10. I think we really saw the line between reporting and art blur with all the images produced from Sandy. I guess in the end, they all make us think, but it’s somewhat troubling when reality is no longer real enough for us anymore. I think undergirding this is the fact that people are really after excitement. As horrible as the damage was, you could almost feel people wanting a disaster in some way, if only to spice things up for a bit. I guess it’s part of the problem, the banality of modern living.

    • That comment has more complexity than I can unpack alone. The point you raise that is really interesting is what constitutes “reality” at all: is it of necessity everyday banality, or is it only the spectacular experience (which in this case was not a genuine experience for many of us as much as a representation in the media)?

  11. A huracane hitting hard outside of my state was pretty hard to believe.
    It seems like a lot to ask from modern science – but if we could harness
    all that power . . . it would be worth it.

    Just like those awesome pictures – there is a difference between “Fake”
    and “Art” No one looks at the statue of Liberty and calls it That giant fake
    lady with the fake torch and its fake fire –

    - nature is probably the only entity that can cause so much devastation,
    and still be loved. Imagine if there was person like that – the things they
    could get away with . . .

    I can see what you mean by porn – all size and no substance – there is
    something about the footage of all those people that disgusts me – what
    if that woman doesen’t want to be filmed in her pajamas? What if that man
    doesen’t want people to see him crying? I can sense a general lack of
    respect here. I mean, no one films a dead body – but it’s a live body that
    can actually be offended.

    There was a controversy concerning a cival war photographer that
    supposedly arranged corpses so as to create better shots. There
    is also a story where native americans were dressed up in “injun”
    outfits, because a journalist diddn’t think their real mode of dress
    was interesting enough to his readers, so I guess this license can
    be abused.

  12. So true – social media has manipulated reality in so many ways. All glued to our various screens, we don’t even know what the truth is anymore.

    • Perhaps we need to re-think our notion of “truth” now in a mass media age where we experience a vast range of global happenings in media representations and feel connected to that which is not part of our everyday life.

  13. wow! I never new humanity could stoop so low

  14. La desinformación se enriquece con la participación indirecta en los acontecimentos relatados por medios de comunicación irresponsables, encargados de llenar espacios.
    Acudir al amarillismo pareciera ser la mejor forma de llamar la atención. Pero, más preocupante aún, parece ser la forma como las personas prefieren imágenes y enlaces que no enriquecen su diario vivir.

  15. Thank you for this thoughtful discourse. I studied journalism long ago and far away when integrity and honesty were integral to the craft. Since those earnest days, infotainment has become the norm, but I still hold out hope for the representation of consciousness and reason,

    • Yes, it may be less about “truth” as much as it is about our desire for integrity in the interpretation of news; that is, we understand all news is an interpretation, but we want to be able to assess the social and political voice in any media’s representation of an event.

  16. It’s interesting how some people can manipulate a disaster into an entertainment. I appreciate creativity but when I read news and a picture is there, I hope it’s genuine.

  17. the reason why many young journalist and even common people get lost to the real essence of the photojournalism that is because what we are doing today is so much manipulated. fake as they say, photojournalism should be used as an entertainment medium per se but basically they are meant to inform and give a life to the real story happened. I hope, young journalists like me, must be very careful in using media especially social media so that the future journalists must not follow what we are doing today.
    let us try to separate entertainment and information. Information is very essential to the growth of the person and the community. entertainment is always there but let must use it at the right place and the right time.

    Anyway, great article . It made me realize a thing or two. thank you

    http://paulokevin.wordpress.com/

    • On the one hand, I am inclined to think that the distinction between “objective” press and entertainment is now ambiguous at best, and if I can read the politics of a reporter or channel I accept they are reporting their own interpretations. On the other hand, we risk simply fragmenting journalism in to niche media so that everybody can find a station or web page that satisfies their pre-existing vision of the world, and the media is meant to challenge how we see collective experience.

  18. Great post. Thank you for compiling all of the info and writing it and congrats on being Freshly Pressed. This one definitely deserves it. Your post makes me think of the Don Henley song “Dirty Laundry,” and reminds me how nothing ever really changes. Our media forms may have evolved or devolved, depending on how you look at it… but for some reason, we’ll never stop thriving on tragedy, death and destruction.

    “I make my living off the Evening News
    Just give me something-something I can use
    People love it when you lose,
    They love dirty laundry…

    … We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who
    comes on at five
    She can tell you ’bout the plane crash with a gleam
    in her eye
    It’s interesting when people die-
    Give us dirty laundry “

    • I am jealous that I did not think of Don Henley first. I am not certain it is really about “dirty laundry” as much as it is that popular culture represents distorted and spectacular reflections of society: We do not want to see ourselves in the media (increasingly the press has fallen into this category), but we want to see spectacular dimensions of us that are vaguely familiar but overblown versions of us. Thanks for the thoughts.

  19. I love your use of the word “porn”. Quite appropriate. I have nominated you for the Beautiful Blogger Award, check it out. Thanks for giving me inspiration.

  20. Reblogged this on Mind Storms and commented:
    Interesting

  21. Reblogged this on Mic Smith Geographic and commented:
    In the last par Paul Mullins talks about the lack of substance in the photo coverage and photoshopping of Hurricane Sandy.
    His blog has made me think about a big story that I covered as a journalist from a phone booth in a radio station. I have been reflecting lately on how much deeper my coverage of that story should have gone.
    I have just finished reading Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ in which she comprehensively covers the story of Senior Sargent Chris Hurley and the cell death of Cameron Doomagie on Queensland’s Palm Island
    I had covered the same story in a surface way for my radio listeners by simply talking with lawyer for the Palm Island community at the inquest, Andrew Boe over the phone.
    I just spoke to him, I didn’t visited the place or speak to witnesses. I didn’t have any idea of the history that Palm Island has or how that history was important in the context of this cell death.
    Hooper’s account in the Tall Man did. She visited all these places, talked to every person, felt and experienced it, described it.
    At least the coverage that I gave to the story, if it didn’t lead to a great understanding for my listeners, it didn’t try to mislead.
    But this business of photo shopping and portraying photos as reality mmm. I can appreciate it, but it has got to detract from the real story, it has got to detract from people empathising in a real way.
    Creating untruths is like mud – it sticks and I think it is the lazy way.
    I think reality and honesty has to be the goal – it’s much harder work and takes much longer and more sacrifice.

    • I’m neither a journalist nor a photographer, but from my perspective it is less about authenticity and reality than it is about honesty and being open about why the media chooses to represent events in particular ways and how some events like disasters are very difficult to represent in the press or images. I am inclined to view all media coverage and imagery as story-telling weaving narratives in somewhat distinctive ways that share something with pure fiction but aspire to represent concrete events and interpret them for audiences. Maybe the appropriate metaphor is that all storytellers inevitably leave their fingerprints on a narrative.

      • For sure, but I think a lot of people don’t know that they should read newspapers that way, knowing thats its a fingerprint and not a fact. One of the great things I took from my Masters of Journalism was how to read newspapers and interpret them. Semiotics as well.

  22. not really in Cikupa ( Tangerang City ) from Indonesia

  23. Hi! Great posts! I am green with envy seeing the number of times you have been freshly pressed! ^_^

  24. Fascinating arguments on the aesthetics of storm coverage in the 24-hour news cycle. I’m inclined to agree with many of the above in re being desensitized to tragedy in a visual culture that photographs tragedy ad nauseam. It would seem the scales of pathos have been leveled, disconcertingly, through the medium of TV news, and I wonder whether it’s affecting our thinking and behavior on an interpersonal level…

    Hmm! Anyway, great post, and great food for thought!

  25. In the last par you talk about the lack of substance in the photo coverage and photoshopping of Hurricane Sandy. This blog has made me think again about a big story that I covered as a journalist from a phone booth in a radio station as I have been reflecting lately on how much deeper my coverage of that story should have gone.

    Just finished reading Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ in which she gets inside the story of Senior Sargent Chris Hurley and the cell death of Cameron Doomagie on Queensland’s Palm Island.

    I had covered the same story in a surface way on radio by simply talking with inquest lawyer for the Palm Island community, Andrew Boe, over the phone. I just spoke to him, I didn’t visit the place or speak to witnesses. I had little idea of the history of Palm Island, or how that history was important in the context of this cell death.

    Hooper’s account in the Tall Man did. She visited all these places, talked to every person, felt and experienced it, described it.

    At least in the coverage that I gave to the story, if it didn’t lead to a great understanding for my listeners, it didn’t try to mislead.

    But this business of photo shopping and portraying these photos as reality. I can appreciate it, but it damages the truth. It has got to detract from people empathising in a real way. Creating untruths is like mud – it sticks and can leave powerful impressions.It is the lazy way, the shortcut, the opportunistic way. I think reality and honesty must be the goal – it’s much harder work and takes much longer to create (as in the case of The Tall Man) and more sacrifice.

  26. Forgive the lateness – I’m just catching up on “Freshly Pressed” emails I missed during the year. Thanks for expressing these concerns in such a lucid way; the Sirota quote at the end really galvanises thoughts I’ve had for a long time about Photoshopping the news. Indeed, it captures well my thoughts about the general blurring of distinction between fact/truth and opinion/expression. Perhaps it’s an outdated stance but I don’t go to the media to be emotionally manhandled; I do it to be presented with reported events and some (separate) analysis of them, to be left to form my own opinions and emotional reciprocations. Fake photos or accounts presented as truths aren’t just irritating, they dilute the impact of the real disaster on our consciences, and that’s never going to be a good thing.

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