Why Can’t We Celebrate An Image Without Snark?

Why Can’t We Celebrate An Image Without Snark?

I’ve read The Onion headlines and McSweeney’s pieces that have knocked me off my chair. I can still remember staying up late during high school to watch Saturday Night Live sketches like “Change Bank,” or Dave Chapelle’s Killing Me Softly on HBO. I’m a person who can appreciate good humor and satire.

This is neither.

Slate staff writer Heather Schwedel’s attempted to make light of a multi-year research project to image a black hole that involved a consortium of over 200 scientists across the globe.

In doing so, Einstein’s 100 year old General Theory of Relativity was proven (again), even though Einstein could hardly believe the implications of his own theory.

Also not lost on many people was the incredible contributions of Dr. Katie Bouman, who led a team that developed the algorithm for crunching through the five petabytes of data that were required to create this computational photo. Women in STEM have a hard enough time already without having their accomplishments turned into a punchline.

The trivialization brought to mind Lana H. Haroun’s photo of 22-year old engineering and architecture student Alaa Salah at a protest against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s ruthless reign.

Haroun’s photo might appear unremarkable. It’s not perfectly framed nor particularly sharp. But it’s an incredible moment rife with symbolism as interfaith educator Hind Makki explained in a Tweet thread:

Al-Bashir was ousted from power three days after Haroun posted the image.

As with the black hole image, the context and meaning of the image is significantly more important than the layout of pixels within a grid. The New Republic’s Matt Ford put it succinctly, “This level of cynicism is better understood as ignorance. The image itself might indeed seem unimpressive. But judging it as you would any other digital photograph, shorn of all context and understanding, would be shortsighted.”

No image should be exempt from criticism – including both its appearance and how it was captured. But Schwedel’s piece is nothing more than snark – a cynical and unfunny reaction to an incredible achievement of computational imaging.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 9 comments for this article
  1. Eddy Furlong at 6:12 pm

    That kind of short sightedness is often found in our photo industry and here it reflects poorly on the organization & on the authors. I confess I did not look up the article as my clicks could be the reaction they were after for commercial reasons. You make an excellent point. Thank you.

  2. Cary at 4:24 pm

    Actually I would counter that the image, this image, is in fact aesthetically pleasing; even more so than a couple of details that have been published. It is quite attractive.

    Hopefully, however, this is only the first step in being able to see what the phenomenon looks like in sufficient detail to be able to visually grasp its nature. But as an example of fact, the image only invites us to consider the possibility of whether it is what it is represented to be, perhaps not much different from the blurry desert images purporting to show mobile missiles that were used to justify a massive military invasion in Iraq, that later proved to have been false.

  3. Matt Brandon at 1:06 am

    Finally a voice of reason! Saying that either photo is unremarkable is like critiquing the John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio and saying it is bad because it has a pole going through her head. Give me a break! Maybe it’s time we obsess less over the pixels or even the compositon and more over the message a photo communicate!

  4. ronald at 3:39 am

    millions of mauis dollars paid to build the biggest telescope in the world to take this pictue and it sucks by he way its in hawaii the black hole was photographed

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 6:09 pm

      This isn’t accurate at all. The data was collected from multiple sites around the world, and it’s not a photo, it’s a computationally-derived image.

  5. David Lyons at 5:18 am

    With the search for the black hole it is not surprising that tunnel vision leads to tunnel expressions. Independent verification of what is really represented is impossible.

    The Sudan example is something different. I remember clearly when the “Arab Spring” was announced by the Western media the Syria situation was declared a triumph of social media revolution. That rapidly declined into a nightmare for the people who actually had to live through it.

    A bubble is a remote, isolated, self-defining, self-sustaining body. The modern phenomenon of fake news often comes from bubbles. Burst the bubble and there’s nothing there.

    People see in things what they want to see. That is human nature. What has changed is they can now “prove” it to unquestioning millions on the internet in milliseconds.

  6. Steve M at 4:18 am

    Whilst Dr. Katie Bouwman’s computationally-derived image is a tremendous achievement requiring years of work and great dedication in an attempt to provide ‘us’ mere mortals with a 2-D image which we imagine we can understand and find aesthetically pleasing, the truth is that we (non-astrophysicists) cannot possibly understand the concept of a black hole and what it really is.

    This black hole with its pleasing form and warm tonality tends to give one a warm and fuzzy feeling whereas, as any astrophysicist will tell you, black holes are something you wouldn’t wish on your worst interstellar enemy. They are outliers on the extreme far edge of relativity with a physics so off-the-planet to what us ordinary mortals conceive as being ‘physics’ that they truly defy ‘understanding’.

    As Professor of Physics, Al Bartlett, once said, ” “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” He was referring to more earthly matters but black holes are the exponential function in interstellar spades and even with our photo-like image, we still don’t stand a chance!

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