Domestic violence: do we really get the picture?

By Loni Cooper
Mon 2 May 07:30 AEST
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This article contains references to domestic violence.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Though you’d be hard pressed to argue that the images the Australian media uses to represent domestic violence are worth quite as many as that. Our major newspapers and websites use a very limited range of photographs to depict what is an extremely complex and often misunderstood issue. As for the pictures that are there - we’ve all seen them before.  A nameless, faceless woman, cowering in a dark corner, with a menacing fist in the foreground. A girl with a black eye, or a tear, looking down the barrel of the camera, almost pleading for help. Or in the unfortunate cases where a victim has been killed, and is therefore identifiable, a profile pic grabbed from Facebook – or even a shot of the dead woman with her partner and murderer ‘in happier times’.

Stock image used in domestic violence coverage. Source: SMH
Stock images are often used in domestic violence coverage. Source: SMH

Finding the right images to represent the horror of domestic violence in Australia is something many journalists struggle with – including those of us at Uncovered. Should we be using stock images? Facebook pics? If not, what else is there?

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ben Cubby has edited both the print and digital editions of the paper. He said selecting images for domestic violence stories can present numerous challenges.

“Frequently you’re dealing with stories where an incident is alleged to have occurred, but possibly no one’s been charged, or a court case is underway and you’re obliged to report the issue in such a way that doesn’t interfere with the passage of justice through the courts,” he said.

Mr Cubby said the SMH website requires at least one image to accompany every story, which can create more difficulties.

“If we can’t use a picture of the people involved or the scene where an incident took place, then sometimes we just use a generic picture that seems to apply, like a picture representing an ambulance or police tape - essentially a stock image,” he said.

Dr. Georgina Sutherland is a Senior Research Fellow at Melbourne University’s School of Population and Global Health. She has recently worked with Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), looking at the nature and extent of media reporting on violence against women. Part of the research included an analysis of imagery used in media reports on the issue.

The study looked at a selection of print and online articles published over three months in early 2015. Ms Sutherland and her colleagues found accompanying images fell into three broad categories.

“The most common type was when there was a known perpetrator, a celebrity or a high profile perpetrator. Other common images were of a perpetrator being led to or from court, or with police, which reflects that a lot of reports in the media are written when they [perpetrators] get to court,” she said.

“There were also a lot of photographs that were clearly sourced from social networking sites- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. So you’d find pictures of perpetrators and victims together at social events, some that were clearly at a wedding, or at the beach – quite juxtaposed to what the story was about.”

Ms Sutherland said stock images were widely used. “Common images were of a cowering woman with her hand up, often black and white, or shadowy types of images.”

Stock image used in domestic violence coverage. Source: The Courier Mail
Representations of physical violence can trigger victims. Source: The Courier Mail

Kristine Olaris is the Chief Executive Officer at Women’s Health East in Melbourne, and works with survivors of domestic violence. She believes the stock photos Ms Sutherland describes can cause difficulties for survivors.

If you’re a woman who has experienced violence you don’t really want to see explicit photos of it in the paper. That can be triggering,” she said.

According to Ms Olaris, stock photos also reinforce harmful stereotypes about the nature of violence.

“The stock images are almost always unnecessary depictions of violence and almost always physical violence. It’s playing into a myth that violence against women is always about physical violence, whereas we know that it’s actually about a whole range of forms of violence – sexual violence, verbal violence, financial abuse, emotional.”

Ms Olaris thinks stock photo agencies could provide more diverse imagery – and media outlets could be more thoughtful about what they select.

“We would love to see a library of stock photographs that’s very broad and gives [journalists] a whole range of things to choose from,” she said.

“If you have to show violence, show a range. It could be a credit card being cut up, for example.”

Louise Brown* left an abusive relationship last year. She thinks much of the imagery used by the media fails to communicate the nature of domestic violence.

“When you see an image of a woman in the corner, beaten and broken with her partner standing over her, it’s depressing. And this is something that does happen and there’s nothing wrong with portraying that. But what it does is it says all of these women are crouching in the corner. Whereas I look at my own relationship and the reality is, there was physical violence but I didn’t spend the whole time cowering in the corner,” she said.

Stock image used in domestic violence coverage. Source: The Herald Sun
The 'helpless woman' is another common image. Source: The Herald Sun

“The most abusive part of my relationship was not the physical violence. The psychological, verbal and emotional abuse, which you can’t see in that picture, was where the most abuse came from. So it means a lot of people can’t even identify with it. From an educational point of view, which is part of the job that the media has, it sort of minimises the non-physical aspects of domestic violence.”

Ms Brown also has concerns about the media’s tendency to republish photos of victims taken from social media.

“On the one hand it’s great to see someone who’s had a lot of torment in their life smile, instead of seeing someone battered and bruised. But even though Facebook is public, I don’t think anyone should be taking images without consent,” she said.

“I find it really hard when the partner that’s accused of [committing violence] is in the picture as well. I think that just completely negates everything. Because what you often get are these judgements - ‘Oh, he looks okay, he looks like he wouldn’t do that.’ Putting a lovey-dovey picture of a woman with their partner - I think that actually starts to take away from what’s happened. I’ve got plenty of pictures where I was smiling, with my ex, but I wasn’t smiling inside.”

But Ben Cubby believes sourcing photos from social media can be appropriate - and powerful - when reporting on this issue.

“Obviously there are sensitivities for all people involved - particularly victims and their children are paramount,” he said.

“But you can be overcautious about using images and as a result you get whole genres of coverage – and domestic violence is a candidate for this – where there are very few photographs of real people at all. So it almost creates this kind of mentality of remoteness for the viewer.”

“It’s one of those areas where you have to bear that in mind, and not be overly conservative, because otherwise you’ll never properly tell anyone’s story or give people a real feel for what’s going on. And pictures are a huge part of that because they can be really emotional and they can sum things up sometimes better than words can.”

So how to find an image that is powerful enough to convey the realities of domestic violence without having a negative impact?

Kristine Olaris believes media outlets should involve survivors in the process.

“Often a woman will be happy to be photographed, but it’s important to ask her how she would like to be photographed,” she said.

“We would always encourage that you could empower that woman, to show her for the strong woman that she is. For women who are speaking out about their experiences, that takes a lot of strength to get up and do that,” she says.

Ms Olaris has a final piece of advice for journalists looking for pictures to accompany their stories.

“Use imagery that doesn’t demean women or accentuate that power difference between men and women,” she said.

“There’s a great opportunity for the media to really be active in shifting the public discourse on violence against women - through words but also through pictures.”

*Name has been changed.