Images have an immediate effect, they grab our attention easily, are universally understandable and we encounter them everywhere, day in day out. Images shape events and our understandings of them and influence our realties in the way they depict people, situations, and things.
How we perceive reality depends heavily on the images we see every day. This holds particularly true of how we see minorities. Images tend to construct realities rather than depicting them objectively. How images are used clearly reflect relationships of power and dominance in society.
In contrast to a written account— which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership—a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all.
Susan Sontag, Essay Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)
It’s virtually impossible to escape the power of images. They help our brains categorize the world around us. We believe what we see. This is precisely why images that portray racist and other discriminatory stereotypes are so powerful - and so dangerous.
Stereotypical imagery can negate a text - even if it is critical of those very stereotypes. Articles are often just skimmed over, read superficially, it’s the images that stick in our brains. The emotional and unconscious power that images have is correspondingly great.
The power of images could be seen in reports on COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic. Many reports resorted to stereotypical and cliché-laden images of Asian-looking people to illustrate their features. Not infrequently, they created unobjective and inappropriate text-image combinations that triggered certain associations and stirred up anti-Asian resentment.
Korientation e.V. have regularly criticized anti-Asian racism in reporting on the pandemic and have collected a number of negative examples on its website.
In reporting, social minorities and marginalized groups are often (visually) reduced to certain clichés and stereotypes. Admittedly, there has been some improvement in the choice of images in journalism in recent years. Where the subject of migration and integration is concerned, pictures show more diversity. Pictures of black-clothed, veiled woman weighed down with plastic bags from Aldi and three clamouring children as the standard picture to illustrate a piece on integration are becoming a thing of the past.
But most pictures still show women wearing headscarves, even though more than two-thirds of German Muslims do not cover their hair and not even a quarter of all immigrants come from Islamic countries.
Stereotype and stigmatising portrayals are still commonplace even of women who do not belong to a recognisable minority.
90 per cent of sports coverage is still about men. If a female athlete does get mentioned, so does her appearance. Only male athletes enjoy the privilege of being judged solely on performance and not on body shape.
A lot of media reporting during the Covid pandemic also portrayed sexist stereotypes. During the pandemic, many people worked from home. Reports on remote workers usually featured women juggling office work, home schooling and childcare. Often, these women were portrayed as unkempt and overburdened. Men were hardly portrayed in such contexts. Instead, they were shown relaxing on the sofa after work. Single fathers weighed down by the same double burden were nowhere to be seen.
Photographers position themselves directly in front of the pit during long jump events, waiting for the legs to spread during the jump and then they press the shutter. They hardly ever do this with men.
Track and field athlete Rebekka Haase in Übermedien
Likewise, the topic of disability is almost always symbolized by pictures of wheelchairs - even if this has nothing to do with the reality of most disabled people.
And the images used to illustrate reporting on LGBTIQ+ issues mostly depict white homosexual men, often shot from behind, walking hand in hand. How terribly monotonous.
Such clichéd depictions also mean that other characteristics such as age, expertise, professions, or hobbies of the people portrayed in the pictures remain unseen. Precisely because images play such a fundamental role in media reporting, it is important that they depict the diversity in our society as accurately as possible. After all, the job of good journalism is to show the realities of society.
Just ten years ago, our top-selling image of women showed a half-naked lady on a bed. In contrast, today's top-selling images feature women leading business meetings, working in technology and science, or playing sports. Of course, we still have a very long way to go. But we have made it our goal to show realistic images of people.
Rebecca Swift, Getty-Images, in WirtschaftsWoche
This means minorities should not be shown only in problematic contexts - which often hardly affect many of them - but also in everyday, normal contexts and situations. As a mother with a disability in an article about raising children, as a Muslim expert for French cuisine in the Wine & Dine section, or as a homosexual couple in the article that talks about tax relief for married couples. That’s showing diversity.
The images favoured by the media, on the other hand, are frequently shaped by clichés, stereotypes and the presumed viewing habits of the recipients. Very rarely are people actually asked how they would like to be portrayed. Most picture editors fall back on sock images, and these are full of one-dimensional images. It’s time for new symbolic images.