On 14th anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks, a reflection on images of hope & despair

Editor’s note: Roy Peter Clark wrote this essay as part of a speech he delivered at an Images & Voices of Hope gathering in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2000. The essay was written in a pre-9/11 world, but remains relevant today on the 14th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. It’s being republished here with the author’s permission.


I begin with a quotation from a 1937 speech by Henry Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines:

“One of the inherent evils in journalism is that evil makes big news and good makes little or no news. Now to me the most exciting discovery which we have stumbled into, as other experimental editors have also stumbled, is the extraordinary power of the photograph to dramatize and lend fresh interest, news interest, to the good, which, for present purposes, I may define as the normal and calm as distinct from that which is disruptive or fantastic.

“A few weeks ago Life published a picture essay on wheat — I mean wheat, growing and being happily harvested.  The article had nothing to do with any frantic row in Congress over a farm bill, nothing to do with the horrors of drought and dying cattle. And it was the lead article and ran for nine pages. Now can you imagine any non-photographic magazine, intended to interest millions of readers, daring to devote its first nine pages to a descriptive contemplation of the fruitful and normal and quiet labors of farms and horses and harvesters and the wheat itself ripening beneath the sun?  And yet it is precisely that kind of thing which Life is doing.

True, we make great efforts to keep close to the news in the conventional sense of the word — but the photographic angle on the news is just as apt to be dramatization of the pleasant as it is of the unpleasant proceedings of the human race.

“The photograph is the most important instrument of journalism which has been developed since the printing press. The photograph, far from being the degradation of journalism, turns out to be an extraordinary instrument for correcting that really inherent evil in journalism which is its unbalance between the good news and the bad.”

I begin my own remarks with a catalogue of the images of World War II, my parents’ generation. The raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima. The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki. Naked corpses stacked like cordwood at Buchenwald.  A sailor kissing a nurse at a victory celebration in Times Square.

Now an inventory of some of the dominant images of my own generation: Jack Kennedy’s brains blown out on the grainy frames of the Zapruder film; Lee Harvey Oswald doubled over in pain as he’s shot by Jack Ruby; Voting Rights marchers being clubbed by mounted deputies in Selma; a suspected Vietcong sympathizer receiving summary execution, a gun barrel to his head; a naked little Vietnamese girl running down the road, the victim of Napalm attack; a teenage girl kneeling over the body of a dead student at Kent State; the Challenger rocket exploding in the sky; a federal marshal pointing his rifle toward a terrified Elian Gonzalez; a fireman holding a dying child after the Oklahoma City bombing.

A memorial now stands at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred 20 years ago in 1995.

It’s hard not to be struck by the negativity of these images.

All of these images happen to be captured by photography, but for our purposes we should not limit ourselves to either visual images or the products of journalism. My young life was formed by the textual images of a young character, Holden Caulfield, wearing his red hunting cap, and dreaming of protecting little children from falling off a cliff in “Catcher in the Rye.”  Or of Elvis gyrating on Ed Sullivan’s stage.  Or of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea.

Images reflect our lives, but also shape them — and in a culture dominated by Hollywood, this can have devastating consequences for the weak, the impressionable, the psychotic.  So John Hinkley stalks Jodie Foster and shoots the President after he’s seen “Taxi Driver.”  The two killers of  Columbine infamy (I won’t use their names) imagine who will direct the movie version of their massacre. Mark Chapman says if you want to know why he killed John Lennon, you must read “Catcher in the Rye.”

In Tampa Bay, a teen aged Valessa Robinson dreams of becoming like a character in a Drew Barrymore movie, wild and care-free and on the road with her boyfriend. Sadly, Valessa thinks she has to help kill her mother to make it happen. Consider how much attention Valessa’s defense attorneys paid to the re-creation of her image from a drugged out, sex-crazed, body-pierced little thug to a little girl in pink sweaters and mary janes. And it worked. Maybe image is everything.

Some of my friends know a little secret about me.  That I can’t watch the local news right before I go to sleep.  The images of violence, or arson, or child abuse disturb my sleep. I have to end my day, and begin the next, with images and stories that I find cheerful or therapeutic. At night, my medicine of choice is “I Love Lucy” or, if I’m still awake, a midnight episode of “Zorro” on the Disney Channel. The humor of Lucy, and the dashing valor of Don Diego de la Vega, soothe and amuse me, ease my mind, calm my spirit. In the mornings, I find the news tolerable only after an old episode of “Lassie.” Is there any media image more soothing, I ask, than a sweet smile from Timmy’s mom played by June Lockhart?

Am I the only one? If I, a teacher of journalists, find it hard to keep my spirits up in the face of images of violence, grief, and despair, is it possible that there are others like me? And is it possible that the images we journalists project have negative consequences beyond our imagination and understanding? Let me propose a possible chain of causality. We turn on the news and see images of crime and violence — carjackings, home invasions, burning buildings, abandoned bodies. These images reflect a world that scares us to death. We become more concerned for public safety. We elect officials who are tough on crime. They create stricter sentencing laws. We build more prisons to house more and more criminals. But prisons are expensive. What are we not spending money on because we’re building more jails? Are our schools that good? Is our environment that clean? Our health care system that inclusive? Our children out of poverty?

Negative images can promote hopelessness, and positive ones can inspire hope, love, and tranquility. I will be the last one to argue that we need more negative images in the media. But I must also add at this starting point, that, taken to an extreme, it is hopelessly naïve (and perhaps even dangerous) to suggest that journalists and other writers and artists should not be critical or negative. What alternative is there to contradict the Holocaust deniers than to bring forth witnesses and images that speak the horrible truth? What image of Buchenwald offers tranquility — the beams of sunlight that shone through the smoke and ash of the crematoriums?

But it is one thing to tell the terrible, morbid truth, to use a phrase from Francis X. Clines, and quite another to become a denier of hope. Journalism must be hopeful. It must offer the possibility of solution in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. It must help communities imagine reconciliation even in the face of violent conflict. Look at recent history. What conflict is irreconcilable: Not between East and West Germany? Not between factions in South Africa? Not, apparently, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland?

Let me offer some questions and challenges that puzzle me:

  • How can we create more images of hope, without turning our backs on our duty to expose corruption in the public interest?
  • How can we create more images of hope, without drifting toward censorship of works of art and popular culture that may seem negative and insensitive to many?
  • Is it possible that the effect of media images may be cumulative, that well-meaning stories and photos — created in the public interest — may have long-term harmful effects?
  • How do we create any credible image in an age when digital technology can easily alter that image? Some Miami Cubans argue that Elian’s hair in the photo with his father is too long. This photo must be faked. O.J. Simpson said he never owned a pair of Bruno Magli shoes, so those photos of him wearing them must be faked.
  • Is there a difference between people’s perceptions of negative images that are perceived as documentary, rather than fictional? Does it matter if we’re watching news about a racial riot, or a cinematic version? And do images actually influence the way we act?
  • How do we create images that can help people experience their common humanity, when we know that each of us brings his or her own autobiography to the experience of any image? I find Lucy and Ricky funny. Certain feminists might not. Certain Cubans might not. Look at the range of interpretations about the images surrounding the Elian Gonzalez affair. Truth, we ask. Whose truth?

What is truth? asked Pilate. I recall a story I heard about the late great Catholic preacher, the Reverend Fulton J. Sheen. During a time when the philosophers and theologians were arguing about the so-called “Death of God,” Bishop Sheen opined dramatically, as was his style: “Yes, God is dead,” he said. “But turn the page. He is risen.”

My religion, Roman Catholic Christianity, is dominated by two overpowering iconographic images.  The first is a profoundly negative one, the image of Jesus nailed on the cross, a crown of thorns pressed into His skull, a gaping bloody wound in His side. But turn the page. The second image is of the risen Christ, shining with light, his arms open in comfort and triumph, the hope of our salvation and redemption. One image has no meaning without the other. There is no resurrection and hope for immortality, without the despair that his mother and followers felt at the foot of the cross.

In stories, there can be no resolution without complication. Positive images mean even more in a context where negative ones exist. So where is the balance? And how can we hope to create it?

My colleague Chip Scanlan did me a great favor when he shared this quotation from historian Will Durant:

“Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues.  The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”


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