The Selfie

The camera snaps, the picture flies away, then lands in your news feed. It’s a flash of pixels and ideas on one of your many screens. You like it, or don’t; share it, or don’t; ignore it; or say something deep or witty or mean about it.

But do you understand it?

Along with the abundance of information about everything from everywhere, uncertainty is the other story of our times. Context, knowledge and even truth remain precious commodities.

Take, for instance, this week’s sensation from South Africa, a photo of a photo. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, sandwiched between British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama, took a group photo with her camera phone, a group “selfie.” They smiled, concentrated on Schmidt’s screen. Just like you would if she wanted you in the photo. Except they were three world leaders in the midst of a four-hour memorial and celebration of the late Nelson Mandela at a soccer stadium in Soweto. Shocking? Callous? Shameful? Or human, honest and normal?

In either case, it may turn out to be iconic.

What really happened? That’s the aching question and starting point of digital literacy. Fake news used to be the domain of The Onion and The Daily Show. But lately it’s been showing up all over, in news that turned out to be fiction, but only after it collected millions of views and social links at Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Gawker and Mashable. “Truth has never been an essential ingredient of viral content on the Internet,” The New York Times declared, thus casting suspicion on all that popular stuff out there.

The truth, of course, is more complicated, because truth is tricky, even when the evidence is bona-fide and eye-witnessed.

Seated beside her husband at the soccer stadium, Michelle Obama cast a more serious look. Toward something? Or nothing? Was she “VERY unamused,” as The Daily Mail declared in its headline? Or deep in thought? Or simply caught in mid-expression, her timing out of sync with her husband’s? “Cameron and Obama spark Selfie-gate,” a headline screamed in the The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper.

What really happened?

“In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her,” AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt explained in a blog post after his photo “exploded” around the globe. “Her stern look was captured by chance.”

In the networked culture, it’s worth remembering: images reveal what happened, but don’t explain it.

Experienced photographers apply technical and compositional expertise to both anticipate and minimize chance in their work. But chance is also the secret ingredient, the momentary magic of light, shape, angle, posture and expression. It’s why journalists, like artists, do more than repeat what they see. They help us understand it. A picture is worth a thousand words. But words still count.

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