Demystifying Media Reflection – Week 4

Jason Wambsgans
Last Thursday, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and videographer Jason Wambsgans gave a presentation about his work with the Chicago Tribune. Most of the shots Mr. Wambsgans featured were from his professional work focusing on the shooting and violence epidemic in Chicago. There were powerful shots of the aftermath of shootings and violence, and somber shots of the emotional toll the violence was taking on the neighborhoods that are affected by the epidemic. While Mr. Wambsgans’s still photography was a powerful tool that showed the emotion behind the violence of the city, his video work was even more emotional.

One particular video that left an impact on me was called “Benny and Jorge and the quest for peace in Little Village.” The video focused on two men, Benny Estrada and Jorge Roque. Estrada and Roque were former rival gang members who were trying to bridge the differences between people who lived the in the neighborhoods controlled by two rival gangs. Their goal was to create calm in a place that was wracked by violence. The video, while focusing on Estrada and Roque, also showed the aftermath of a shooting that took the life of Gio Garcia. Garcia was a teenager that was unaffiliated with the prevalent gangs in the area. Mr. Wambsgans shot footage from Garcia’s funeral. The funeral was the most somber part of the video because it showed the real emotions that people feel when they are affected by violence. People were shown crying and mourning over Garcia, but the wailing of an unidentified woman could be heard in the video as well. Mr. Wambsgans’s interweaving of imagery and the sound of grief was very powerful. It’s the sound of the woman’s grief that left an impression on me.

I tend to be very critical of the media, especially the news media. Although Mr. Wambsgans’s work is phenomenal, the quality of his work doesn’t dismiss it from my critical eye. I have ethical concerns about photographing people who can be considered experiencing their worst. In Mr. Wambsgans’s presentation, he showed a shot of a teenage male who was lying in the street — dead from a gunshot wound. The victim was not covered. You couldn’t see his face, but his body, and his blood puddle were in full view. To me, death (especially by violence) is a very private moment. It’s up to the deceased or the soon-to-be deceased on how their death should be witnessed or portrayed. In the case of the teenage victim, he was alone, in the dark, lying on the street. By taking a shot of the victim with the intent of sharing it with others, there is a removal of that privacy.

I’ve thought a lot about the ethics of this type of photography, and I asked Mr. Wambsgans about the ethics of such shots. While I believe he does care about the victims, the answer he gave seemed to not fully address my question. He noted that ethical decisions about what to file for a story are commonly held by the photographer, because the editors the photos are delivered to may not hold the same ethical standards as the photographer. It was an interesting answer, but there wasn’t any substance to his own ethical beliefs on this type of photography. I guess I can’t really blame him, he was there to showcase his work, not defend the ethics of his work.

Does photographing the victim create a public good, or does the public learn something? If so, does the public good outweigh the fact that death/pain/misery is a private moment for the victim and their family? Do photographs and stories about violence in Chicago hold ethical weight when they are making money for a corporation? In my opinion, there is no ethical weight, but as with anything, there are exceptions. With Mr. Wambsgans’s work on Tyshawn Lee’s family, he had permission to photograph his funeral. With Estrada and Roque, he had permission to film and shoot them. There was a respect given to those who are alive and connected to a victim or a community that has been victimized, but in shooting a dead body on the street, there is no apparent respect given to the victim. I only assume it’s because no one is there to speak for them.

In the end, I found Mr. Wambsgans photographs and videos to be emotional and visually telling. While I have ethical concerns about the type of photography, I can also firmly say that his photography and his stories have done more to highlight the issue of violence in Chicago than my sitting at a computer and debating ethics could ever do.

Visual Media — More Popular?
For this week’s TechCrunch reflection, I’d like to talk about their Media section. As a budding media scholar, former media producer, and experienced media consumer, I cringed a bit when I first saw the types of posts (content) that were available in the section. After a cursory glance, it appears that about 85 percent of the posts are related to television, movies, and streaming video platforms like YouTube and Amazon Prime. A first look at the new Han Solo movie trailer, a review of the new Netflix edition of the Cloverfield franchise, and how to stream the Super Bowl were the top three stories. There were also stories about TiVo, YouTube, and DreamworksTV. The media section of the site is a visual media paradise.

It’s hard to tell if the amount of visual media related stories is due to chance, or if there is a propensity for that type of story. There isn’t a noticeable repetition of authors in the section. Maybe visual media related stories get more clicks? Maybe the stories just appear to be showing up more this time of year, and there is no rhyme or reason? It could also be that the sample size is small. Again, I admit I did a cursory glance at the section, and didn’t do an exact count of stories over time. The frequency of visual media related stories on TechCruch would be an interesting thing to keep track of over a longer period of time. A longer time period would better show if there is a historical propensity to write those kinds of articles.

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“Time is free, but it's priceless. You can't own it, but you can use it. You can't keep it, but you can spend it. Once you've lost it you can never get it back.” - Harvey MacKay