A Good Scene

by Jen Paton

“Everyone’s uniting again. It’s a good scene,” says a young man in this clip, on the day the world found out about Osama Bin Ladin’s death.

Osama_reactiOne way to understand the news value of objectivity, that grail of modern news media, is that it has the goal of establishing the greatest distance between observer and observed. Sometimes, that distance is closed not by those behind the camera, but by those in front of it. Perhaps as we become more hypermediated as individuals, we collectively become more comfortable in front of a camera. When we are so comfortable, we become like performers, and objectivity becomes more elusive.

Many images radiate out from September 2001, the media event, but the celebrating young people of a few weeks ago form a symmetry with one series of images in particular: people celebrating for a TV camera, chanting for a TV camera, jubilating at death for a TV camera. It might have felt so ugly, so hurtful to see people celebrating death on that scale, but that is what we saw, the performance of joy.

The same performance happened three weeks ago, when one man died, and some Americans came out on the streets to celebrate, or to see how others were celebrating, or reacting. Not everyone was jubilant, or rowdy, but some were. Clayton McKlesky of the Dallas Morning News wrote, describing the scene in DC:

Folks were lighting cigars and holding signs declaring “Ding, dong! Osama's dead!” and “America, F%!& yeah!” I saw couples making out. Since when is the death of a terrorist a turn on?

McKlesky added that “the crowd seemed dominated by those hoping to grab the attention of news cameras.” The images of young people look so familiar – in that eerie glow of a TV camera’s light, jubilation and chanting would erupt, just like they did on the MTV program Total Request Live, which these kids must have seen on television in the late 1990s when they were just children, or on one of the same channels’ myriad Spring Breaks, when the camera pans the crowd and everyone yells and undulates and gestures back in victory.

It’s not about our emotions: whether we feel happy or sad or ambivalent about Bin Ladin’s death: it is how we express those emotions or ideas in that most public of spaces, that cold medium of television. And plenty of Americans expressed themselves as if they were on MTV in 1999. How comfortable we are now, in performance.

It has been noted in political communications how media training is now part of professional politics: just how smooth the contemporary politician like Blair or the Clintons is in front of a camera stands in contrast to, for example, this interview with Indira Gandhi in 1971. Her impatience and discomfort with the television are palpable, and no one has told her not to look sideways quite so much. I think now that most any one of us would do infinitely better in front of a camera, simply by intuition.

The way we act in front of a camera is still a question of power. Sometimes those of us in front have it, and we perform just as we are expected to. Sometimes, the person behind the camera has the power, and shapes more actively the scene he wants. Renowned photographer Steve McCurry has recently come under criticism by former students of his photography workshop– photographer Arif Iqball said, though he admires the master’s work, that “he does it with a sadistic side that I don’t understand or want. I watched on a few occasions where he intentionally made children cry to watch the transition from happiness to sadness and for me, it was something that I would not like to do or want to have done to me.” What a camera does as it pans a crowd that is ready to perform for it, like those young people outside the White House on the 2nd of May, is a consensual version of what Iqball describes: let me show you the transition into happiness, they cry, hopping onto one another’s shoulders, let me show you what our feelings look like, what your feelings should look like.

Even in television that does not purport to be objective, but the same processes are at work, though the performance is obvious rather than implicit. Perhaps the continuing, and growing, success of programs like the X Factor, American Idol, and Strictly Ballroom are evidence of our need to escape from how hard life seems. I was reminded of this watching Eurovision last night.The contest was founded with the aim of “rallying the countries of Europe round a light entertainment programme,” before settling on the format of a pop song contest. At some point last night, during the interminable wait for votes to be cast, Anke Engelke, one of the Eurovision hostesses, told us, “there are no more walls in Europe.” Azerbaijan went on to win. Everyone was uniting again. It was a good scene.


The photo is from Reuters.