How do you visually craft the news of the brutal murder of more than 120 people?
Photographs, usually. They convey information and emotion. They grab attention. They are realistic. They are easily captured and shared.
Countless photographs were taken of the ghastly and bloody scene last night in Paris.
How do you select just one to be the “crowning image” that tells the story of such chaos and unthinkable horror? Another body bag? Another bloody victim? Another shocked and tearful onlooker? Another swarm of law enforcement? Another elected leader promising action? Another makeshift memorial?
Certainly, in the wake of breaking news we need photographs to capture all of these moments, from the gruesomeness of the scene to the resilience in the aftermath. And with the luxury of depth of digital space, news producers can curate online galleries that feature a collection of photos to convey the many facets (and historical record) of the story.
But what about a newspaper front page? Or a magazine cover? How do you tell the story of the brutal murder of more than 120 people with just one photo?
Illustrations can also beautifully and successfully tell a story. And with a news story as complex and multifaceted and horrific as that of the events in Paris, a poignant illustration can perhaps be as effective as any one photograph.
Several newspapers across the globe featured a dominant illustration on their front pages—and the effect was striking. The illustrations demand attention and convey emotion, without visually framing the story with any one photograph or creating an ethical dilemma in the use of a highly-graphic photograph.
If there is any concern or caution warranted, it would be that these illustrations could be said to convey a point of view rather than simply transferring information. But certainly choosing any one photo to visually frame a front-page news story makes an editorial statement. Moreover, in an age where the facade of objectivity has long been removed and transparency has become the standard, there is room for illustrations as editorial statements in the situation of such significant news. And surely political cartoons have long since performed this function. The value of political cartoons is in their ability to succinctly express a viewpoint and—ultimately—to make us think.
And, indeed we have already seen some memorable and thought-provoking political cartoons in just the few hours since the Paris news broke.
We have also seen some beautifully crafted illustrations, most notably this minimal yet elegant illustration of the Eiffel Tower as peace symbol.
And the beauty of the social media age is in the groundswell that allowed for this individual voice to rise and spread as dictated by the masses, rather than by the elite media. As of this writing, Jean Jullien’s tweet with his illustration has been retweeted more than 52,000 times and liked more than 35,000 times.
Peace for Paris pic.twitter.com/ryf6XB2d80
— jean jullien (@jean_jullien) November 13, 2015
As I have written about before, the elite media are no longer the sole dictators of crowning images. This fact—combined with the sheer volume of photos in a digital news and social media age—has contributed to the decline of the collective visual consciousness and the formation of iconic photographs. There is an overwhelming volume of shocking and jarring photos, and in their volume, they are too easily forgotten.
In the age of digital news and social media, is it possible that this elegantly crafted and unique illustration of the Eiffel Tower may become the collective iconic visual marker of the horrific events in Paris?
One could also conceivably argue that these illustrations and political cartoons perhaps lead to greater empathy and understanding than any one highly-graphic photograph that will inevitably be forgotten and fade into the ubiquity of harrowing images.
Header image credit: Jean Jullien | @jean_jullien