Synopses & Reviews
Images of people about to die surface repeatedly in the news, particularly around the difficult and unsettled events of war, political revolution, terrorism, natural disaster, and other crises. Their appearance raises questions: What equips an image to deliver the news; how much does the public need to know to make sense of what they see; and what do these images contribute to historical memory? About To Die addresses these questions by using images of imminent death as a litmus test for considering news imagery and visual meaning more broadly. The depictions, freezing action at the elemental moment when a person's contribution to history is registered, elicit contemplation and emotion. Used in ways that counter traditional understandings of both journalistic practice and the public's response to news, such images drive the public encounter with important events through impulses of implication, conditionality, hypothesis and contingency, rather than through evidentiary force. These images call on us to rethink both journalism and its public response, and in so doing they suggest both an alternative voice in the news--a subjunctive voice of the visual that pushes the 'as if' of news over its 'as is' dimensions--and an alternative mode of public engagement with journalism--an engagement fueled not by reason and understanding but by imagination and emotion.
Tracking events as wide-ranging as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Holocaust, Vietnam War, famine, Intifada, 2004 tsunami, and 9/11 and the 'war on terror,' this book suggests that a different kind of news relay, producing a different kind of public response, has settled into our information environment. It is in a development that has profound and under-explored implications for society's collective memory, the full breadth of which are tackled here.
"Zelizer bolsters her arguments with extensive primary research, including readers' reactions from letters to the editor and blog postings regarding daring and shocking images. Her seventy-nine pages of notes are a treasure trove to readers and researchers because they are so detailed and thorough." --Journalism History
"Why are some deaths fit spectacles for the camera and others off-limits? What philosophical and social purposes do news images serve? Barbie Zelizer answers such questions in this ambitious new book, a stunning examination of a little-explored aspect of modern journalism." --Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From The Crimea To Kosovo
"In Barbie Zelizer's most powerful, profound, and disturbing work, she shows that news photos do not document reality but are suspended precariously between the 'as is' and the 'as if,' touching feelings, touching off imaginations. With an astonishing cascade of evidence about iconic news images and the stories behind them, Zelizer offers little comfort, no certainty, but much illumination." --Michael Schudson, author of Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press
"[About to Die] is an audacious and often chilling examination of how visual media handle the moment of death, from engravings of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to the Pacific tsunami of 2004. With an obvious and admitted debt to the academy's favorite photography buff Susan Sontag, Zelizer treats these images as both rare and powerful."--The Austin Chronicle
"[An] enlightening new book" --Slate.com
"[Zelizer] produced an engaging history, with accounts of the best-known about-to-die images and their post-publication trajectories." --Obit-mag.com
"If, like me, you think that Big Money exerts ever more influence on the way politics gets covered in this country; and if, like me, you think that Citizens United, the recent Supreme Court decision that lifts the lid on corporate campaign spending, will speed up, reinforce and otherwise extend this unfortunate trend; and if, like me, you believe that for the past fifty years the main way corporate money has worked its electoral will is by manipulating news images via television commercials (watch Mad Men if you don't believe me), then you will want to read Barbie Zelizer's new book, About to Die . . . a refutation of this 'words matter and images don't' perspective . . . [a] densely packed, closely reasoned book." --Victor Navasky, The Nation
"An extraordinary contribution to the literature...Aside from value of the theoretical construct within which Zelizer contextualizes specific images (and types of images), there is value in her fair, reasoned, and engaging investigation of the authenticity and authority of certain of the most controversial photographs of the past century." --Political Communication
Due to its ability to freeze a moment in time, the photo is a uniquely powerful device for ordering and understanding the world. But when an image depicts complex, ambiguous, or controversial events--terrorist attacks, wars, political assassinations--its ability to influence perception can prove deeply unsettling. Are we really seeing the world "as it is" or is the image a fabrication or projection? How do a photo's content and form shape a viewer's impressions? What do such images contribute to historical memory? About to Die focuses on one emotionally charged category of news photograph--depictions of individuals who are facing imminent death--as a prism for addressing such vital questions. Tracking events as wide-ranging as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and 9/11, Barbie Zelizer demonstrates that modes of journalistic depiction and the power of the image are immense cultural forces that are still far from understood. Through a survey of a century of photojournalism, including close analysis of over sixty photos, About to Die provides a framework and vocabulary for understanding the news imagery that so profoundly shapes our view of the world.
About the Author
is Raymond Williams Chair of Communication and the Director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the editor of several collections and the author of Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera's Eye
and Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Journalism, Memory and The Voice of the Visual
Chapter Two: Why Images of Impending Death Makes Sense in the News
Chapter Three: Presumed Death
Chapter Four: Possible Death
Chapter Five: Certain Death
Chapter Six: Journalism's Mix of Presumption, Possibility and Certainty
Chapter Seven: When the "As If" Erases Accountability
Chapter Eight: How News Images Move the Public