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A picture tells a thousand words, and, often, a quite different story

Date

Annabel Crabb

Annabel Crabb.

Annabel Crabb. Photo: James Brickwood

Seeing is believing, but sometimes it takes a little imagination to know what's really going on

HUMAN beings are supposed to be the only animals with a fully developed imagination. Along with our opposable thumbs - and our ability to a) blush, b) reverse park, c) accept that in some circumstances a small cup of coffee can be called ''tall'', and d) reconcile ourselves as a species to the continuing career of Kevin Costner - having an imagination is a special thing that sets us apart from labradors and sea urchins and so forth.

But how limited the human imagination can be, at times. And how doggedly dependent we are - despite the limitless universes of conjecture and empathy available to each one of us inside our evolutionarily outsized cranial cavities - on what we can see with our own eyes.

Take this week, when Australia's two major newspaper companies presented their respective responses to what we in the trade like to term the ''challenges'' presented by the internet (''challenges'' being a peppy euphemism designed to stop us all sliding into permanent, full-time alcoholism and despair).

Fairfax announced that it would close its two biggest printing presses, shift its printing to other facilities and convert The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to the ''compact'' format simultaneously beloved of commuters and possessors of poky kitchen tables, and despaired of by people moving house with lots of breakable crockery.

The company estimated that 1900 jobs would be lost, and the rest of the week was devoted to staff dismay and smirking coverage from News Ltd papers, which favoured headlines about its competitor ''downsizing its future'', though the extent to which Fairfax ought to be ashamed of converting its own titles to the tabloid dimensions most of News mastheads have boasted for some time was unclear.

Fairfax is, I should remind, the publisher of this column, which I was relieved to discover - after all the headlines heavily implying the contrary - I would not be obliged to run off on my own Gestetner and hand deliver around the state this weekend.

Two days later, it fell to News to disclose its own plans, which also involved a fair amount of newspaper downsizing; the crunching together of formerly distinct entities, with what is expected to be a heavy loss of both editorial and support staff. News chief executive Kim Williams did not disclose a job-loss figure. (One of the perks of being wholly owned by News Corp - in whose global pantheon News Ltd is an irreplaceably Ruperty but nevertheless not crushingly significant asset - is that Mr Williams doesn't have to fish about for and publicly declare a number to sate his shareholders' incessant hunger for cost cuts the way Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood does; this is one of the reasons I wake up most days relieved not to be Greg Hywood.)

The next day, News headlines were delirious: ''Dawn of a Bright New Day For News'', ''News Unveils Bold New Vision for Future'', and so forth.

For journalists who are paid to take things with a pinch of salt, it was a frankly incredible group response.

Mr Williams assured workers that where possible cuts would be achieved through ''natural attrition'', a vague phrase that at News could connote anything from its orthodox meaning through to ''Oh … Frank? Yes, he left us through natural attrition. After we locked him in the coolroom for three days.''

This is the magic power of the seen over the unseen.

Does anyone seriously believe the News plan doesn't involve considerable job losses?

Of course not.

But because we can't see them, or at least count them, they are twinklingly assumed not to exist.

It's this same failure of imagination that allows the Australian population more generally to exist in a paradoxical state of anxiety about losing our jobs, even as the number of people in work nationally establishes record highs, as it did in May.

Why? Because job losses are visible. The ranks of the laid-off, gathered wonderingly outside shuttered factories or suddenly discontinued steelworks, are photographable, nameable, and - thanks to their unwelcome change in circumstances - limitlessly available for interview.

The people who are getting jobs, now - they're all over the place. OK, mainly they're in Western Australia, paying $23.90 for a flat white. But they're scattered, here and there, working hard, uncelebrated and undocumented apart from the quarterly hieroglyphics of an Australian Bureau of Statistics report, which of course any reasonably functioning person would rate as less convincing than a single photograph of actually retrenched people.

Similarly - and more horribly - our response to the regular tragedies befalling seafarers in the waters to our north-west is governed by the same pattern.

The unspeakable footage of asylum seekers being dashed on the rocks in December 2010 is our dominant recollection of such tragedies, even though four times as many people died one year later, lost from a boat of which no filmed images are available.

And in turn, when we think of asylum seekers more generally, we think of the people we can see - shakily unloaded from shabby vessels or lined up behind the wire of detention centres - and not the millions we can't see, hopelessly detained in refugee camps or situations of unimaginable fear and repression, nowhere near able to scrape up the money for the dicey deal that is a boat journey to Australia.

Here is where our human imagination fails us utterly, for if it didn't, we'd go mad.

Annabel Crabb writes for ABC Online at abc.net.au/thedrum, and tweets as @annabelcrabb

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