What pictures do the public want to see? – Behind the spiderweb tree photos by Russell Watkins

Russell Watkins/Department for International Development - Trees cocooned in spiders webs after flooding in Sindh, Pakistan

“I wrote in my previous post about how photography can be said to explain everything and yet reveal nothing. And now I find myself realising that I may have taken some photographs that illustrate precisely that characteristic. I can hardly believe the reaction that these pictures have generated.” -Russell Watkins, The spider trees of Pakistan: a tale of two photographs and the web

Russell Watkins, the photographer behind the photos of spiderweb-covered trees in the aftermath of devastating flooding in Pakistan, has an interesting take on what it means for his photos to have gone viral in the past week or so. The photos have been published far and wide (including National Geographic, Wired, Reuters, CNN, BBC, Huffington Post, the Guardian, New Scientist, NBC, the Sun, the Daily Mail, and many more magazines, newspapers, websites, and blogs), and have been seen by orders of magnitude more people than have seen his broader coverage of flood relief efforts and the reconstruction of communities in the region following the natural disaster. His work is in the curious position of having been seen by millions of people without informing them. The video produced by his office, the UK’s Department for International Development, has only 259 views on youtube. It’s embedded below:

Watkins attributes the popularity of the images, in part, to their being released on flickr under a creative commons license (and expresses some reservations about the financial implications of such a move). I’m not sure CC licensing had anything to do with it–AP and Reuters photos have gone viral with full copyright. Rather, I think it’s another statement in the ongoing conversation about what type of photos sate the public’s appetite and what that means for the future of visual reporting.

On the opposite side of the coin is the reaction to Jake Price‘s images from the tsunami and unfolding nuclear disaster in northern Japan. BBC’s Viewfinder blog published a collection of his work recently. They’re a stylized black and white treatment of the disaster (interestingly, a few were published in color by BagNewsNotes), and judging by many of the comments on the BBC blog, they haven’t been well received. “Feel guilty just appreciating the artistic beauty of the photos due to the darkness in them,” writes commenter Sanji-san. “I’m sorry but I don’t think B&W photos should be taken of this catastrophe – whilst it may emphasise the tragedy of the situation I personally think we should avoid the ‘artistic’ view of this nightmare unfolding before us,” says Seanlookalike.

In the Japan photos case, many in the public seem not to want an overly artistic or aesthetically-minded approach to photojournalism. In the spiderweb trees case, it’s the aesthetic and abstract approach that has drawn millions of viewers to see image from an ongoing humanitarian crisis. In the former, the public learns about the situation but finds the method unpalatable. In the latter, the photos satisfy visual demand without informing.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t….

(via duckrabbit 1 and 2)

3 Responses to “What pictures do the public want to see? – Behind the spiderweb tree photos by Russell Watkins”

  1. duckrabbit

    Great post Matt … interesting to compare the two stories … made me think again.

    THANKS

  2. What pictures do the public get to see?

    […] get to see? Posted in: Contemporary Photography- Apr 12, 2011 No CommentsM. Scott Brauer posted an interesting story about the dissemination of photography, using Russell Watkins' photos of spiderweb-covered trees in the aftermath of flooding in Pakistan […]

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