Angle and Authenticity: Cultural Images on the Web

27 08 2011

The humble northeast region of Brazil and tiny Suriname are neighbors that share nearly identical geography and demographic composition. Yet the Brazilian image that dominates the internet comes from the distant south, in the megapoles of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The imagery of Brazil has an angle. In images, videos and news content, the whole of Brazil is presented with professional artistry and a slant toward exuberance, with a lens of magnification and vibrancy, as if everything in Brazil were larger than life. The objective of these images is to convey a sense of spectacle.

The more humble online image of Suriname, by contrast, is raw and direct rather than manipulated—in a word, it is more authentic.

No fashion models

No computer graphics

No creative consultants

Having seen how a media shoot can be choreographed to control every detail—how easily a skin blemish or bead of perspiration is eliminated in post-production— and having seen entire vistas created on computers, I am taken aback at how real the images of Suriname are. They are scenes from the every day life of everyday people, and could have been photographed by anyone. They resonate in their simplicity because we can identify with the humble person who captured them, as opposed to crafting them.

Brazil (above) and Suriname (below) tourism photographs

We are all inherently capable of this kind of capture: to take a simple picture, or to beat out a rhythm on a drum. The essence of what is captured by such an exercise is authenticity.

The first aspect to consider on how the country decides to portray itself is to look at the attractions promoted by the tourism sector. My content analysis of Brazil’s and Suriname’s online self-promotion indicates the following:

The tourism promotion of Brazil features five types of attractions: sun and beach, culture, ecotourism, sport, and business/events. Most of the images are either outdoors with a vista looking upward to the sky or downward to the sea. Indoor pictures of architectural attractions often look up to the ceiling. Relative few have a “head-on” perspective. Thematically, it features bright colors of the entire spectrum, not just the familiar green, yellow and blue of the national flag that dominate most products with the ‘Brazil brand.” Several of the images are intentionally over saturated with color. The words “exuberant” and “beauty” appears over and over, as do hyperbole. Virtually all locales are described with superlatives, and comparisons with the rest of the world such as “largest in the world,” “most modern in the world,” “attacks visitors from all over the world,” or “Here, the entire world feels at home.”

Suriname’s attractions by comparison appear primitive and even frightening. For example, a nature preserve is described thus: “hear the unearthly cry of howler monkeys echoing through the trees, see giant tarantula spider webs and huge termite nests.” An image of a run-down old bus on a dusty dirt road appears under the heading “things to do and see.” The images are stark, undersaturated and reflect poor composition. A photograph representing a national park for example, merely shows the naked branch of a tree against an empty sky. A cathedral in Paramaribo seems tilted on a slant. Another image show a microscopic view of an island from so far away as to make it appear more a picture of the sea.

Brazil in the news is sports, and sport in Brazil is spectacle. The vast majority of news stories about Brazil relates to soccer—perhaps because it is in soccer that Brazil is consistently world class. Whether it is the World Cup, or the Olympic Games in Beijing, the America Cup or the Confederations Cup, Brazilian teams are indeed worthy of note. “As the saying about soccer goes, ‘the English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.’”[1] The connection between Brazil and soccer is reinforced by the following photograph, combining the national flag with a penta, the Portuguese nickname for a soccer ball.

Brazil officially promotes is its business environment, and the country does manage to get some limited news coverage for its role in co-founding the Mercosur hemispheric free trade zone, opposition to a U.S.-led Free Trade Zone of the Americas, as well as for offshore energy development and its efforts to sell ethanol biofuel to the United States. An explosion that killed or injured 41 technicians and engineers of Brazil’s space program made the news, but massive death tolls are always likely to reap a headline.

Political coverage likewise receives limited attention; featuring Brazil’s leadership role in the region to help find a diplomatic solution to the Honduras presidential crisis, or the alliance between president “Lula” da Silva and other left-of-center leaders in Latin America such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Political news just as likely to break international headlines was the “diplomatic visit” to Brazil by the former U.S. president George W. Bush, despite that being merely an exercise in public relations.

For Suriname, the image it bears in the news is more diverse. If there is a dominant theme, it is that the print media coverage about Suriname addresses ongoing issues or trends rather than a scheduled event such as a soccer game or public relations phenomenon. For example, territorial disputes with neighboring Guyana that began in the mid-1960s found mention when a Surinamese gunboat confronted a Guyanese offshore oil rig. As one of the first nations to recognize “One China,” reports of diplomatic overtures from Beijing occasionally appear. Yet another example is any new development relating the fall of the military dictatorship in 1988. Ongoing business developments in the extractive industries are also part of the online image of Suriname.

Feature stories about Suriname enable readers to identify with the country’s remoteness and perhaps envision themselves off the beaten path. Certainly, the discovery by scientists of 24 new species, including a fluorescent purple frog, adds a sense of distant exoticism. Another story that conveys remoteness is one about the 7,000-mile sea journey to Cornwall—and back—of a leatherback turtle.

Sport does not feature prominently in the news about Suriname, and then only when something truly tragic or unique occurs, such as when a gold medal sprinter was stripped of her title after failing a drug test. One is far less likely to see a simple soccer score compared to Brazil, or a promotional announcement of an upcoming match. Rather, the pattern of coverage is more akin to that which exists with natural disasters, detonations and plane crashes.

Online photographs of Brazil and Suriname graphically illustrate the promotional angle common to Brazilian images, compared to the down-to-earth, honest portrayal typical of images about Suriname. Each perspective, both the angled image of Brazil and the authentic image of Suriname, conveys what the source regards as a reflection of truth. The Brazilian image focuses on what the targeted tourist or investor wants to hear and wants to see, which is a finished and polished “product.” The Suriname image is based on raw, unfiltered information, which some consumers actually prefer because it is more “authentic.”

The contrast of the more polished Brazilian image and the more raw Surinamese portrayal relates to what has been described to me as differing concepts of transparency between American and British philosophies in the business world. To the American mindset, information is “transparent” when it has been “netted out,” presumably to shave off any bias. To the British, however, information is only transparent if presented exactly as received, without any filtering. It is of interest because of its unfiltered purity, rather than being socially engineered.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman

[1] Arroyave, Luis. “Brazil vs. Argentina in the Copa America final.” Chicago Tribune, July 14, 2007.




3 responses

27 08 2011
Jason Whitmen

I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

30 08 2011
North-South Communications

Thanks for your kind words. If you have a topic in mind you would like to hear my perspective on, I’m all ears!


30 08 2011
Lincoln Torcelli

In a globalized environment, highlighting the “primitive” images of a region like Surinam invites people to rediscovered the beauties of authenticity.
Great job!

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