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Which 'thousand words' are these pictures referring to?

Publication Date : 20-08-2012


In the age of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Flickr and the Taiwanese favourite, the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” cannot be more true. The proliferation of visual materials aided by technology advancement increasingly make them the prime medium of mass communication. But the useful question to ask is: which thousand words?

Thousands of words have been written on two photos on yesterday's newspapers. The first one shows activists from China and Hong Kong in a rare landing on the disputed Tiaoyutais. Equally rare is the sight the Republic of China's flag and the People's Republic of China's flag coexisting in that photo, which was featured in many front page newspaper stories across the Taiwan Strait.

Some mainland newspapers, obliviously self-censoring over a sensitive topic, went to great lengths to “disappear” the ROC flag that was featured in the centre of the photo. The Xiamen Economic Daily doctored the photo and changed the ROC flag into a simple red one.

The Hainan-based South China Metropolitan Daily retouched the photo to make the flag disappear altogether. The Beijing News and Wuhan Morning News approached the issue with a bit more journalistic integrity and creativity by technically covering the flag with an embedded headline and banner. Others such as some newspapers in Shanghai published only the portion of the photo that shows the PRC flag.

Ironically, these attempts to circumvent the sensitive ROC flag issue only succeeded in putting the flag at the forefront in the mainland blogosphere, where many criticised the media's shameless alteration of front page photos. The Xiamen Economic Daily was forced by netisen pressure to apologise for retouching the photo. Perhaps even more ironic is that The Global Times, the sister-media to the premier Chinese state newspaper The People's Daily, ran the untouched photo with the ROC flag on its front page. Taiwanese newspaper The United Daily News reported that The Global Times' decision was based on the belief that the photo was in accordance to the theme of “cross-strait union.

Another possible reason is that in this age of rapid photo dissemination there is no point in hiding a detail readers are going to find from other sources anyway. The Xiamen Economic Daily's red flagging might have succeeded 20 years ago, but nowadays everyone with Internet access, even the censored variety as in mainland China, can cross-examine photos with a simple Web search. Indeed the mass dissemination of photos and the increasingly common practice of “Photoshopping” pictures make cautious photo connoisseurs out of many netisens in the mainland. Like their parents who can smell text propaganda miles away, they can spot a doctored photo when they see one.

The second picture that launched a thousand words yesterday came from the Facebook page of a Taiwanese melodrama actress. It shows her in a make up strikingly similar to that of traditional tattoos in the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes of Atayal and Seediq and comes with the caption “Go hunting.” The tattoo was featured in an episode of a local melodrama series depicting the actress's character's attempt to violently gain revenge on her former lover. The photo and the episode incurred outrage from an aboriginal celebrity blogger who criticised the misrepresentation of an aboriginal cultural tradition as a symbol of violence and senseless vengeance.

The producers of the series denied any connection between the actress's makeup and the aboriginal tattoo but the similarity between the two is unmistakable. While the similarity is too clear for the producers to claim innocence and merits a formal apology from the series, they perhaps have more of a point than they realise

As the world becomes increasingly visually oriented, words are having difficulty catching up with images in storytelling. The image of the aboriginal tattoo was made popular by the Taiwanese epic “Seediq Bale”, a movie based on the historical Wushe Incident in which over 130 Japanese in the Taiwanese village of Wushe were killed by Seediq attackers and the subsequent Japanese attack that killed hundreds of Seediqs in retaliation.

Despite many historical documents and the movie itself explaining the ritual and spiritual significance of Seediq practices of tattooing and beheading, the images of bloody tattooed warriors in the movie are so vivid and powerful that they defy explanation and come to have lives of their own.

An image like this is worth a thousand words; not the correct thousand that explain it but the thousand that people want it to mean. Therein lies the danger of our visual generation.

Other photos have recently created a firestorm in Taiwanese celebrity circles, but enough words have been said about those and this column will not add to them, at least not today.


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