Category: Media & Citizenship

Reflections on my proposed ‘Media and Citizenship’ project

The Republic of South Africa has a model Constitution which guarantees legal and political rights to all citizens including those who were previously discriminated against. However, many South Africans still suffer as a result of economic inequality and the inability fully to participate in the public sphere. (Von Leres. 2005: 23) Subaltern citizens remain handicapped with regard to full participative policy making. A sociologist like Patrick Heller (2009: 144) refers to the bifurcation civil society. The present South African government has futhermore defined the “authentic” citizen (Chipkin. 2007) as an essentialised African. All of these phenomena result in diminished citizen participation in decision-making. 

Journalism could be seen as the foundation of democracy. (Papacharissi. 2009: vii) It may, therefore, be possible that the media could be a vehicle for democratic deliberation. The media might be able to convince citizens that they provide reliable information to valuable participants, or potential participants in the democratic process and, in doing so, support and enhance the fragile but potentially great South African democracy.

The goal of my proposed project is to ascertain empirically the contribution of photographic images  to democratic practices or the lack thereof. The photographic data collected by me could possibly be taken cognisance of and be utilized by the media, civil society as well as the government to facilitiate future citizen participation in decision-making. A goal of my project is to provide insights which could assist media institutions to portray the needs and life experiences of citizens and in doing so assist their democratic participation in decision-making and planning.

As a student who specialized in Photography in the third and fourth year of BJournalism at Rhodes University, I should like to utilize my photographic expertise to compile and analyse a significant amount of  photographic data retrieved from publications and supplement these images by conducting extensive interviews. This database will be used empirically to assess the way in which media constructs citizenship. Extensive interviews will furthermore attempt to ascertain how audiences relate to these images of themselves and their situations. I am hoping that the insights gained by the compilation of the database on the one hand, and establishing audience responses to these images, on the other hand, will enable the media positively to contribute to the enhancement of democratic citizen participation. As I am primarily interested in the recording and mediatory role of images in society I would like to explore the role of photographic records in the realm of media and citizenship.

Benedict Anderson linked citizenship with imagery in his work Imagined Communities (1983). In this work he asserts that citizens of a country “hold in their imaginations an image of the national norm, which represents communal somatic affinity”. (Beeney. 2011: 8) Anderson goes on to say that this “nation-ness”, is “assimilated to skin-colour, gender, parentage and birth-era – all those things one can not help”. (Anderson. 1983) Mari Matsuda, a legal scholar states the following: “Everyone has a gender, but the hidden norm …is male… everyone has a race, but the hidden norm …is white”. (Matsuda. 1996)

Photographs tell a story. Photograps provide a visual record and portrayal of who is included and excluded by the media. Furthermore, it shows which images are constantly perpetuated by the media. Dona Schwartz (1989) asserts that, in order to use photographs in social research, one must have an understanding of how “pictures get used by both picture makers and viewers”. By integrating photography theory and practice into the research methodology of this project, I shall attempt to gain an understanding of how viewers engage with and understand photographic images.

Schwartz quotes Byers and Sekula (1964) by saying that: “There is a historical two-sided way of viewing photography as 1) an art and 2) a precise machine -made record of a scene or a subject. In the first view, the primary concern is the vision of the photographer-artist who uses the technology to produce a creative photograph of which the photographer is the “source”. In the second view, the primary concern is the accuracy with which the subject is recorded on film, in which case the subject is the “source”.” (1964: 79).

With the above in mind, the second view of photography as a record assumes that the image is a reproduction of “reality in front of the camera’s lens, yielding an unmediated and unbiased visual report”. (Schwartz. 1989: 120) However, this view does not take the photographer’s selection and combination process into account. My research project will inevitably also have to take cognisance of the social, economic and political role of the photographer. Furthermore, the photograph becomes the platform from which viewers, and therefore the participating community, generate meaning with regard to their role as citizens.

In the post-modern world of simulacra, on the one hand, coupled with the well documented lack of literacy on the other hand, visual images have become of enormous significance in the media. Any research project, therefore, which focuses on media and citizenship inevitably will have take cognisance of the visual aspects of media. I am hoping that my proposed project will be able to contribute in some way to the Melon “Media and Citizenship” project.

By: Stephané Meintjes 

Media And Citizenship – Between marginalisation and participation

All research starts in personal biography and experience, in fact it’s one of the benefits of the academic world that this environment gives one the permission to turn the most perplexing questions of one’s life into legitimate research.  And one of the issues that perplexes me most about my own life – at this point in our post-apartheid, post-colonial democracy – is the condition of my citizenship, the status of my belonging and what I’m bonded to or not bonded to. I remind myself often of the words in the preamble to the Constitution: “We, the people of South Africa … believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it” [my italics]. These are extraordinary, encompassing, generous words, and I often think “What were the drafters of the Constitution thinking? Were they drunk on post-apartheid freedom in that moment?” But maybe the move from the word “believe” in the preamble to the following paragraphs that deal with “citizens” (and therefore rely on the legal provisions of who and what a citizen can be) underlines the shift from an expansive idealism (as the apartheid shackles were thrown off) to a tying down and making functional for a bureaucratic reality (and increasingly so as we leave behind that giddy moment). We are, after all, talking about the difference between a sense of “belonging” and a right to assert myself as a voter and a client of the state.

If you want to study these conditions in order to understand them better, belonging seems to sit in the fields of psychology and anthropology and citizenship perhaps more with politics and sociology. But if you’re located in media and journalism studies (and especially if you’re located in education and are working with young South Africans) you know that these two conditions have an important, if strange, relationship because they crop up in and through our public conversations captured by journalists and other media workers. I’m very interested in how we talk about who we are, how dismissive we are of those who’ve “abandoned” us in this experiment of nation-building, how we allow racialised public talk (and sometimes extremely vicious forms of public dissing) to destabilise our journey towards creating new forms of belonging and bondedness, how we construe our very different relationships to our state (and its encumbent government with its liberation legacy), and how we do and don’t do this through the media we make in this country.

So if these issues preoccupy you too (whatever their shape or form) this is the space and an invitation to join our conversations.

By: Anthea Garman

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