Context as a form of censorship

Sometimes a catchy title can really guide me along, working on a certain topic. The title “Bildverbot – eine Handlungsanweisung”, would be such a title, but unfortunately it doesn’t really work in English. A rough translation would be “Iconoclasm – A Operator’s Manual” , but that is not a perfect translation. Nevertheless, I am currently spending a lot of time thinking about the topic of images that are taboo within certain parts of our culture.

I find it quite fascinating that our society might appear to be far more liberal than anything before – at least that is the western idea of western societies – but upon closer inspection, social norms and rules limit the use of certain types of images more and more. Sure, religious prohibitions might be part of it, but I find other aspects far more interesting. What images of race and gender can be shown or created? Nudity – especially nudity of children? Violence? Privacy? Right in one’s own image? State and corporate secrets? How to deal with the colonial acquisition of images and objects? And what about the weird world of copyrights and trademarks? All these things should be considered, when discussing iconoclasms today.

Looking at copyrights and trademarks for instance makes the issue very strange. On one hand, international brands want to become a key part of our daily environment. Press releases by them are supposed to be treated like news. Logos become quasi-iconic objects and should be visible everywhere. But if you dare to present them in a way, the company does seem fit, the wrath of being sued might come upon you. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion, that branding is just another way to create icons and therefore closely related to religious urges. One strange aspect is The News – at least here in Germany. On weekends the news programs talks a lot about the football results. Quite often for a third of the time. But once these programs are uploaded to the Internet, the part mentioning football is cut out. So on one hand, football is supposed to be considered newsworthy, but on the other hand, business interests can interact with the spread of news. I might be idealistic, but once something is “news”, access to it should not be limited.

The way you censor certain images or avoid them, can be very revealing. I did a work on that – well “work” might be a big word. For that piece I collected images from one particular event to look at the different ways this had been censored. The still came from a very short clip showing US soldiers urinating on killed Taliban fighters. The footage was taken with a shitty cellphone camera and is so grainy that it actually shows nothing. No penis can be seen, no flowing urine, and neither the faces of the soldiers nor of those killed are really recognizable. Interesting with this example is that this was considered “breaking news” all over the globe. Almost every news outlet wanted to talk about this event but everyone had only access to the same shitty footage of a few seconds. Still, even though talking about the same event by using the same material to report, the images they have used on their websites differ by quite a lot.

Remember, the footage is so grainy that almost nothing is decipherable. But some folks blur the faces of the soldiers, others those of the Taliban, quite a few times these invisible penises are covered by big black bars. A lot of the stuff becomes only somewhat visible by the use of these methods to hide them. And what does it say that one group of websites tries to hide the identity of the soldiers, while other hide those of the killed. Some even blur the entire image. Which is odd, because then the image isn’t shown, but has to be presented nevertheless. Even an image you can not show, needs to be somehow presented to make your story credible.

In general it is odd, if you use blurred images at all. If you don’t want to show something, than don’t show it. But by blurring, you might make things even more visible. In most other cases, there might have been a thousand different shots you could have presented. So why blurring?

Another strange form of censorship might be context – but that is something I am not fully sure about right now. Let me explain what I mean. Today, many images – and objects – have to be presented in a completely different context than at the moment they were created. That has to be done to be able to present them at all. Take for instance state art from the Third Reich. You couldn’t just present a Hitler portrait, no matter how well it is painted. It needs to be surrounded by a protective layer of context. The same goes for quite a few of the categories mentioned above. Photographs of naked boys from the 19th century by artists like von Gloeden might today be considered immoral and too close to child pornography to be presented in a regular exhibition. I am not arguing that this is good or bad, but my gut feeling is, that this might be somehow related to methods of censorship. You are not hiding the image itself, rather you change it to something that suits your ideas or moral standards.