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  Photographs, Illustrations and Big Fat Images
Nanette Hoogslag
posted on April 18, 2013 at 19:32

“A telling shift in the way newspapers discuss content is the way in which photographs are now more often described as images.” This opening statement by Chris Elliot in his commentary in the Guardian immediately caught my eye. The article very interestingly analyses the issues around stigmatisation through images, a serious subject for illustrators. But also it touches upon how photography is performing more and more the role of illustration.

Image, or picture, is a generic term used for visuals in a newspaper, or any other publication for that matter. There seems to be an implication that their function is part informing through visual representation, part embellishment of the written text. In this definition photographs and illustrations are lumped together as if their qualities are equal. But what Chris Elliot is pointing to, though not explicitly, is that there is a difference and a shift in the way we use and read them. The photograph is no longer exclusively used in the newspaper as a visual witness to the world’s events, but more and more it is used as an ‘image’, I would say used as an illustration.

The photograph as illustration is an interesting ‘in between category', that can tell a different story from both the photographic representation of the individual and the unique and the handmade illustrated representation of the concept. Elliot refers to the visualisation of the articles around obesity issues. Often these are accompanied with a photograph of a ‘headless fatty’[1], “No head, shown from the back, shown spilling out of their clothes, shown putting a doughnut into their disembodied mouth”.  Where he ponders over the position of the obese people and the stigmatizing depiction through generic usage of images, I’m intrigued by the ‘need’ for these images to be photographic rather than handmade. Only the depiction of a real fat person, rather than an imagined one can do the trick. After all, we all know precisely what ‘big-boned’ people look like and what the cause of it is, no mystery here, but perhaps every time we read about the subject we do want to remind ourselves of human fallibility and feel that we ourselves have escaped this fate. On the one hand, the display of human excess can be seen as a freak show, on the other a visual punishment for those who have succumbed. (Question how many obese picture editors would propose these images in their magazine?) Susan Sontag, in her book Regarding the Pain of Others[2] writes a strong analysis of this phenomenon. 

No matter how generic a photograph, no matter how manipulated and staged, the photograph’s indexical quality - the fact that at one point a machine copied what was in front of the lens - is what for ever separates it from the handmade illustration. And sometimes, we just crave to see, that whatever we are told, is inescapably real.

Read the article by Chris Elliot


[1] Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available: http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07

[2] Sontag, S., 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others New Ed., Penguin.