Indecent Exposures – moral censorship

September 5th, 1991Stephen Mayes

Third in a series of three articles exploring non-legislative control of information in the media. Although written in 1991 with specific reference to the United Kingdom, many of the precepts remain highly relevant.

First published in the British Journal of Photography, 5th September 1991

There is a big difference between the events that happen and what people want to know about them. The gulf is made wider by photographers and editors who decide what viewers and readers ought to want to know. The processing of information through this moral filter introduces a dramatic distortion, and some peculiar contradictions arise when the media asserts itself as a guardian of morality.

While purporting to report on actuality (and to interpret it – this admission of subjectivity is crucial), the further conscious act of bowdlerising material requires information to be either omitted or distorted to fit the mould of public decency. This process of constricting information and imagery forbids the development of attitudes beyond the socially acceptable modes of the moment. The sanitized product is worse than bland – it is dangerous in its exclusion of so much that is real and its promotion of so much that is unreal.

Publications take great pains to avoid giving offence, particularly with regard to matters of sex and violence: newspapers hate the thought of spoiling people’s breakfast. There is, of course, a commercial element in this when too many spoiled breakfasts result in lower sales, but the decision not to offend also reflects a strong moralistic bias. Ken Jarecke’s controversial picture of the burned Iraqi soldier was turned down by all but one British publication for a variety of stated reasons and by Life magazine ‘in deference to children’, but its publication in the Observer was electrifying. Whether one agrees or disagrees about its effect in illustrating the dirty nature of a war that was otherwise perceived as clean, it certainly expanded the debate on the subject. The consideration that it may be offensive is not in itself a valid reason for suppression: offence is not harmful, but ignorance is.

The moral judgements about what is and what is not offensive reveals a number of contradictions and hypocricies when applied in practice. Certain categories of pictures become acceptable for strange reasons: to show people in the process of dying is unacceptable (as the Daily Mirror discovered) if they are white and British and being crushed at Hillsborough; this is judged to be offensive, and such offence warrants Press Council censure. However, it is completely acceptable to run pictures of black people in the process of dying by starvation in Ethiopia, or of gay white men with AIDS facing imminent death.

Personally, I find it difficult to make a moral distinction between the situations, but it is easy to recognize the ‘moral’ judgment involved, that distinguishes between identifying too strongly with ‘people like us’ and not strongly enough with ‘people like them’.

Indeed, the fear of offending is very selectively applied and the sensibilities of many people are considered irrelevant; gays, women, disabled, people of colour and others are frequently trodden rough-shod into the mire of honorable journalism as though they were not part of the same society. The application of such double standards leads to crazy editing, the total censorship of many subjects and the silencing of many voices. There is, for example, very little access for minority groups to present alternative perspectives – such representation is often considered likely to offend the reader or viewer. When permitted, it is marginalized and belittled. By fearing offence, producers and consumers of the media demonstrate a fear of information.

The fear of corrupting the public is a similar, but bigger, button to the fear of offending, pushed when the editors feel their values to be significantly attacked. This threat of corruption is most readily identified in pictures representing issues of sex and sexuality. (Currently debate is seething about the corrupting influence of bona fide safer sex information, though it is hard to balance the ‘corrupting’ influence of an honest photograph against the effects of HIV.)

The fear of corruption extends to political, social and religious issues. However, we should not be afraid to know other people’s opinions and beliefs – we should even be able to benefit from seeing and understanding disparate and dissident perspectives. A brilliantly photographed, but brutally harrowing feature about drug abuse is sitting on my desk at the moment. It reveals the power of heroin and how it is accommodated in some people’s lives, making no excuses and offering no solutions. It humanizes a taboo subject while being informative, poignant, brutally explicit and unsaleable in Britain.

If such knowledge corrupts and depraves, the fault lies not in the work, but in ourselves. In the course of my work as a picture editor (and previously as a press photographer) I have seen much that is shocking and my horizons are wider as a result. Far from destroying me, I profoundly believe that such exposure has improved me. Sex, violence, bigotry, hatred, miscellaneous abuses and more – all these exist in the world and I am better armed by attempting to understand the forces that motivate the participants. It should be our duty as journalists to share such knowledge as widely as possible, not to hoard it to ourselves under the guise of protecting our readers. Knowledge is power, and shielding people from knowledge must surely leave them more vulnerable to the evil in the new world.

One of the major tools applied by the media to control difficult subjects is the process of simplification and reduction. In the course of this refinement, unreal attitudes and emotions are attributed to the subjects of news and features reports; an emotional two dimensionality becomes a new form of censorship being imposed on living, three-dimensional people in order that they comply with the moral stance of the publication. Photography is particularly important in the process of demonstrating the extremes of black-and-white, devaluing the shades of grey.
This is a problem not for photography, but for the editors and viewers who, lacking photographic literacy, are ill-equipped to interpret the ambiguities that pictures can brilliantly reveal. There are many examples, but I recommend a look at Donna Ferrato’s portrayal of battered women. Used insensitively the pictures could demonstrate a crass description of hate, whereas in reality a complex concoction of dependency, love, loathing, fear and longing are all in terrible balance. The media are mainly unable to cope with such ambiguity, and reality is all too often edited out of existence.

The ultimate censor will always be the viewers, and if they do not wish to see they need only turn the page. If the viewer rejects the information offered because they are repelled, offended or bored then we have failed as communicators. It is our job as photographers and editors to report and interpret accurately on reality (while acknowledging our subjectivity) and lead the viewer or reader through our perceptions. Adopting moral standpoints as objective positions for reportage is profoundly misleading and is the very core of censorship.

Britain is one of the most heavily censored states in the industrial (post-industrial?) world. Extreme control is exercised under the power of law (Official Secrets Act, blasphemy laws, more obscenity controls than could be dreamed of, contempt of court laws, libel, etc), but even more control is exerted covertly as discussed in these articles: censorship at source, self censorship and moral censorship. There is no ‘right to know’ in Britain 1991, and the belief that such rights exist is a dangerous cover that disguises the full extent of control of information within our media.
While the most extreme form of censorship involves the dissemination of misinformation and incorrect facts, this is not the dominant problem facing us (although with the election looming, watch this space!). By far the most pervasive form of censorship is the systematic exclusion of information and dissident viewpoints, which process is (usually) factually accurate but all the more effective as a means of telling untruths. There are many problems in society, but it is a crass misattribution to identify the information media as the source of these problems. Such a fearful approach is a classic case of ‘shooting the messenger’ rather than addressing the problems themselves.

In this situation more is permitted of the writer than the photographer. Written descriptions and analyses of many events are published in much more graphic terms than photographs are allowed to show. With the endlessly misleading tagline ‘the camera cannot lie’, photography is equated with the representation of truth, with an emotional immediacy that words cannot match. As such it is both a prime target and a tool for the censors. That includes you, me and all we work with.

At time of writing Stephen Mayes was Managing Director of Network Photographers, London