It has become a weekly if not a daily ritual in Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid newspaper The Sun : in big and bold articles it writes how ‘feckless’ citizens work or cheat the state’s benefit system in order to support a lifestyle above and beyond what average British families could afford. Although each case uncovered by the tabloid is different, in essence all articles on the benefit culture in Britain follow the exact same formula in which the benefit recipient is depicted as lazy, calculating and undeserving of state handouts. The Sun usually focuses on extreme cases such as workless households with large numbers of children, individuals with a history of substance abuse or anti-social behaviour, or recipients with more unusual cases of disability which the tabloid attacks with fervour. With a remarkable consistency, alongside such articles is usually a photograph which depicts the individual or the family in question. In this blog post I want to analyse these photographs, uncover how they conform to visual types and in doing so relate to a larger political agenda.
Even a cursory glance at the photographs that depict the benefit culture reveals that these images were produced by adhering to a fairly strict visual formula. In the first instance, the photographs depict the benefit recipients and their family within the private setting of their home which is most commonly provided by the local council. In order to illustrate the point in the article, the subjects are usually depicted in relation to the benefit that they are receiving. For instance a jobless couple with a large number of children is squeezed into the frame of the viewfinder in order to reinforce the notion that the parents are homebound (partially due to the amount of children), receive housing benefit and as such they are, as The Sun wants its readers to believe, a burden on society.
The fact that these images are all taken inside personal homes also reveals the degree of voyeurism with which these stories are told in the newspaper. The body language and the facial expressions of the subjects in the image reveal a certain degree of scepticism towards the photographer. It is difficult to know how much information the subjects were provided with before the photograph was taken, whether they know that the image would be published in The Sun or whether they know that the tabloid seeks to represent them as so-called ‘scroungers’. It appears that this scepticism also works vice versa – that in fact the tabloid wants the reader/viewer to see the subject with scepticism. For instance, inasmuch the benefit recipients are amongst the poorest of the poor, these photographs consistently depict in the background of the photograph objects or belongings that other ‘hard-pressed families could never afford’. These could be flatscreen TVs, video game unit, DVD collections, leather sofas, branded clothing or other items of value. The visual trick in these images is to create a juxtaposition between the subjects’ status as benefit claimant and objects of value, which, as the tabloid implies, those on benefits do not deserve.
In many cases this sceptical view of the workless is strongly reinforced by the photograph which tends to be taken from a higher vantage point. In most images, the viewer literally looks down into the personal space of the subject who is, as a result, depicted as weak and little. These images clearly lack any compassion or understanding for the socio-economic context of the people in it. In many ways, the images have virtually no context at all: they don’t show the local job centre, the school, the kindergarten, the medical centre, the library, the police station or any other entity (or lack thereof) that might actually explain why the individual or the family is in the situation that they are in. The tabloid’s striking format of visually depicting the poor without any context stands in stark contrast to the compassion and sympathy towards the poor that can be found in the work of Lewis Hine or Dorothea Lange whose work tended to highlight their subjects as dignified individuals.
The photographs in The Sun belong of course to a larger discourse which relates to the global economic downturn and what is commonly referred to as the age of austerity. While stagnating wages are increasingly squeezed by a sharp rise in the cost of living, the tabloids seem to indulge in a visual game which exclusively focuses on those already on the bottom of society. These highly voyeuristic and sensationalist images thus controversialize (Homeland Season 3 Episode 4 for those who remember) the workless poor to a readership that is largely considered to belong to a working class background themselves. The tabloid thus appears to have found a convenient and largely defenceless demographic for a wide variety of social and economic problems: benefit fraud, joblessness, economic stagnation, lack of public housing, rising government budgets, increase in government borrowing, increase in taxes and indeed the much-hated austerity measures themselves as well. The ugliness of this visual propaganda is not only the fact that the poor are blamed for their own condition, but that this message is produced for others who might be equally on the other end of the economic spectrum. It is not difficult to see that this campaign against the poor, vividly supported with sensationalist photographs, literally averts attention away from far more important, complex and equally unphotogenic issues such as multi billion pound corporate tax evasion, the increasingly perverse gap between the rich and poor, and an unequal society that provokes comparisons with a plutocracy. Ironically, then, the benefit photographs say far less about those receiving benefits then they actually reflect the slanted social and economic conditions in which these are produced and disseminated in.
By Marco Bohr