Thursday, April 01, 2004

The Motley Crue Effect
I mean no disrespect, but I believe the gruesome events in Fallujah that took place in front of the cameras, where bodies of Americans were desecrated and dragged through the streets, is an example of on-site television media's power to encourage events rather than simply portray them with a detached distance akin to the "fly on the wall" perspective.

People do strange things when television cameras are trained on them. From fans making funny faces when they see themselves up on the stadium big screen jumbotron, to passersby who jump around behind the back of a television reporter doing an on the scene "man in the street" interview. The camera makes people act out beyond what they normally would, and depending on the nature of the moment, people will act out in varying degrees of abnormality. Take, for example, the hair metal acts of the 80's. It was required during any concert that the band take a pause in between songs to rouse the crowd. Invariably, the stadium's cameras scanned the crowd for women who were propped up on the shoulders of male companions, zooming in on such women with voyeuristic glee. Chants of "Show us your tits!" often showered down on said women and more often than not they did not disappoint the crowd. The bacchanalian atmosphere of the concert, coupled with the encouragement of the cameras and the crowds, induced an effect that under normal circumstances would not have taken place.

Indeed, the power of the camera, and the effect it has to encourage events rather than simply document them, is something that must be kept in mind when understanding the situation taking place in the Middle East. Footage that comes from there very often revolves around the repetitious portrayal of familiar images that convey particular storylines, such as the chanting crowds in the street and the burning of US and Israeli flags. The pantomime takes place for the cameras of the world's major news outlets when the situation calls for such a display. This photo of a weeping Palestinian woman is noteworthy because of the unfamiliar perspective in which it was shot. You see a crowd of news photographers crowding around her, capturing her sorrow. Seeing such a staging makes you wonder whether the Palestinian woman was really sorrowful, or was just simply required to portray sorrow as such for the world's news outlets to photograph and disseminate to their audiences expecting to see such things.

The strength of this industry of image production and reproduction invariably requires that new image archetypes be created. A specific example occurred during the US effort in Somalia back in the 90's when the bodies of US soldiers were desecrated and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That scene was replayed and became embedded in the tableau of imagery associated with the horrors and turbulence of the troubled Middle East. Just as the images unsettled the West with every reply, they also embolden those in the Middle East who found them empowering and cathartic. The images from Mogadishu became part of our understanding of the turmoil from that region and not only do these images serve a purpose to instruct us, but they also serve a purpose by those with specific agendas who wish to instruct. When it is known what images shock, leave to those who wish to continue to shock us that they endeavor to repeat the occurrence of shocking images. As news is dominated evermore by the use and display of imagery, people will portray themselves in vivid examples so long as the cameras are filming.

Even on a small scale this effect can be noticed when one looks back over the course of years that MTV's The Real World has been on TV. The characters of the early years were far less prone to "play to the camera" than what we see now coming from the characters on the most recent seasons. As "House Stud" or "House Slut" archetypes became embedded within the course of the show's establishment, each successive season offers up characters who, aware of the show and its popularity and place within our larger culture, attempt to out-stud or out-slut those than previous years. In the end we get a recurring cycle of familiar images that communicate and appeal subconsciously to what we expect. The imagery coming from the Middle East that is portrayed for us is no different. We expect to see the crazies of the "Arab Street" come out en masse and throw their boilerplate act of pumping fists and raised voices, chants and burning flags. They know we are watching and play up to that. Like the girl baring her breasts for the expectant crowd at the stadium, where all eyes gawk at the jumbotron, the crazies of the Middle East come out as soon as the situation demands it (meaning when CNN, BBC, AFP, or Al-Jazeera are there to tape it).

Who knows how many situations wouldn't rise to the level that they do if only the cameras weren't on display for them to play to?


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