We could post about the war in Vietnam–oops, I mean Iraq–every day, but since continuing the quagmire depends on a loss of perspective, we should turn to other things as well. Like feet. Next week John and I will be giving a paper at a photography conference, where we will discuss why photojournalism features hands and feet when one could show more of the individual pictured. Like this:
This example may be somewhat more artistic than others we could show, and it has more of a pretext as it was part of a New York Times “Trendspotting” story on the custom at Reed College of going barefoot just about anywhere and any time. Even so, it’s not a typical news photo, which suggests that something else is going on.
Most of the images in the Trendspotting photo essay were mildly informative and less evocative. They showed students standing in line, standing in groups, and so forth. In each case we saw young people much as we often see them, and they happened to be without shoes. This much more distinctive photograph removes the student body (sorry, I couldn’t resist), but for the sharp focus on a pair of bare feet resting on a desk between books (front) and computer (middle). In the back of the photo we see the blurred top of a student’s head. He is wearing earphones, and the effect of the image comes in part from the contrast between the student’s heavily mediated experience–books, computer, digital music, even the food is processed–and the unmediated, elemental experience of resting his bare feet in the air. Whereas the other images showed more of the local culture through stock scenes such as standing in the lunch line, this one joins the special experience of higher education at an elite school with a seemingly universal symbol of youth.
Most people have neither occasion nor inclination to go around barefoot, or to study as much as is the norm at Reed. The photo does double duty at making the story significant: by foregrounding books, computer, and the obviously habitual posture of the student reading, the seeming frivolity of going barefoot–rather than working for a living–acquires a serious cast. The student isn’t working, but he is in training. Likewise, Reed’s foot fad stands in for the peculiar subculture of good higher education and makes it appealing through an iconography that channels the barefoot boy of American myth. Huckleberry Finn now goes to school, and leisure time is spent not on the river but drifting through the liberal arts.
Reed’s reputation includes both intensive study and liberal politics. Note the student’s longish hair. And so this post is about Iraq after all. Those feet are the feet of privilege and are not likely to wear combat boots. But there are places where privilege is used to learn, to discipline judgment, and prepare for both innovation and good stewardship. The press now provides many images of boots on the ground, and while honoring the sacrifice of working class youth it becomes too easy to forget their betrayal by those who benefited from the privileges of wealth without bothering to learn from history, deliberate carefully, and act with regard for others. We need boots on the ground, but we also need good education and good government. And not just for the few.
Photograph by Molly Gingras <email@example.com>.
Nothing about the student depicted leads me to the conclusion that it is definitely male. Long hair and blue jeans are freely worn by memebers of both genders.
That doesn’t undermine the point, however. Social privilege and responsibility are no longer exlusively the domain of men, and so the figure at ease still has all of the associations that you have mentioned, no matter it’s gender.
Nailed me. I almost added a sentence about the gender ambiguity but did not for three reasons: I thought it would interrupt the flow of the argument, the gender was bent a bit in either case and thereby supported the more pertinent supposition that the student was liberal, and I thought the left-side part in the student’s hair suggested it probably was male. But, of course, I often interrupt the flow of the argument, I still could have used gender neutral diciton, and the student’s hair is parted on the right–in my haste to finish the post I forgot to reverse the image mentally.
You also are right (and gracious) to point out that the rest of the analysis isn’t pulled down by the mistake. Even so, your comment reminds me that compositional decisions are political decisions.
I think that the misgendered student is the perfect example of the somewhat self-centered semiotics you use. In the photo, the “special experience of higher education” is unfocussed, bland, and tilted towards green; everything except for the feet seems undifferentiated and unreal. Your interpetation requires you to seriously misuse the term “foregrounding”. The books are in the foreground. The student is in the background. It is difficult to distinguish between the foreground and background, because of the soft focus and green tint, but as I said that just unites the two. The natural contrast is between the erupting, organic feet in the middle ground, pink-tinted and sharply-focused, and the unreal sea of academia that surrounds them.
A great deal of your interpretation depends on these feet being “the feet of privilege”; hence the further assumption that the subject was male. From there you make specious comments about Iraq. But those are very feminine feet, and the natural opposition to bare feet for most Americans is not combat boots but professional shoes; for women, heels. Note also the thoroughly non-corporate jeans the subject wears. That the feet are bounded by the fuzzy gray-greens of work makes the image emblematic of the brief, meaningless freedom the average American feels in college before entering the sterile corporate workforce.
The corporate life and our war in Iraq are connected, so a natural and organic segue suggests itself here, much more naturally than a freewheeling Freudian ride through your subconcious associations as you try to figure out why you dislike rich college students.
Like Hariman the Younger (begs the question: female or male variety?:), I also wasn’t sure of the person’s gender. I realize it’s not crucial to the overall point, but it’s still interesting that more than one reader had this reaction. While I see why you didn’t want to break up the flow of the post with a related side comment, ironically, by assuming a male gender, my reading of the post was broken up, because I stopped reading and went back to look at the photo several times to figure out how you’d made that call. In addition to the head, the feet also made me think that this could well be a female.
Another point you make that also made me pause is that you refer to the student reading. But given the presence of the laptop and the headphones, I figured the activity in question may well be watching videos. Again, not a central issue, but I think it’s worth remembering that nowadays sitting in the library or in your dorm room staring at your laptop can mean many things. That’s not to say it would be any less educational than reading, but it is a different activity.
Finally, you didn’t comment on the presence of the chips, but I’d argue that that makes this a distinctly American scene, especially if we assume a library location.
I’m starting to think that if I didn’t make mistakes periodically, I should do so intentionally because the corrections are so revealing. These reveal that the conventions that trapped me trap others as well, including my critics. For one, both Homer and Eszter assume that if the subject has feminine feet (and let’s think about that), then that person must be female. But I’ve heard many women complain about their “masculine” feet, and men teased for having “dainty,” i.e., feminine feet, and, of course, variation within each group is greater than the variation between groups.
If I had to rewrite the post today, I certainly would mark the gender ambiguity, and if I had to make the call I’d guess that the student was female. I’ve thought of another reason I made the mistake, which is that I probably was projecting myself into the picture. I attended a college much like Reed (Macalester College) and had a fabulous, absolutely life-changing four years there. When looking at the picture above, I also was looking back into my past. Homer might take note, and perhaps learn to do his homework before he analyses someone he’s never met.
Two other claims by Eszter raise interesting questions about how we use language to describe our world. She claims that I didn’t “comment on the presence of the chips.” But I thought I had: ” even the food is processed.” The interesting point is not that the phrase may not have registered with Eszter, but that she saw the chips as signifying American culture, where I was pointing more toward a transnational modern culture.
The question of “reading” is even more revealing. Of course, the student could be doing many things other than scanning text: watching a movie, organizing photos, whatever. But many of the operations–doing email, browsing craigslist, etc.–would in fact involve reading. And the student probably is spending the preponderance of her time in that environment reading something, whether on screen or in the books stacked on the desk. The term “reading” really is catechretical in the digital world: it refers to a field of diverse operations, none of which are strictly reading but for which no literal terms are available (think of the “leg” of a table). And that will apply to books as well, since people probably now read differently than before going digital. The really interesting questions are, what are we doing when we “read” today, and what new words would better describe the phenomena involved in working with digital media today?
Thanks for the response. Just to clarify, I wasn’t trying to make a claim for the person being female, I was pointing out the ambiguity. I would not have made a call myself.
Regarding the chips, oops, I did miss the processed food bit. The reason to me chips on a desk in a library (assuming that’s the locaion) signify American culture is because based on my experiences elsewhere, people don’t eat in libraries (or lecture halls) and even if they do, they wouldn’t leave the remains out. But my impressions may be outdated and they are certainly limited to just a few other countries.
You raise a very good point regarding lack of a word for what we are doing when we’re interacting with material on our computer screens. I’ll have to think about that more.
Hariman, I did assume you went to an expensive liberal arts school. The hatred I reference is not an outsider looking in, but self-loathing. That was the point I was trying to make–the symbols and evocations you mention (Huck Finn, for example), all seem to have a stronger presence in your mind than the actual specifics of the image. It never occurs to you, for example, that these are actually working-class feet in on scholarship.
As for the feet, I think the reason that people can say things like feminine or masculine feet is that there are recognized characteristics that most men and women’s feet usually have. Of course there are exceptions, but you immediately assumed this person was male, against the visual evidence. You also assumed a great many other things, without any visual evidence. This is why I think your analysis was compromised by your thematic goals.
Thanks Homer. I haven’t thought it necessary to post until now. I didn’t want to speak for the image of me, until I may have agreed with another’s thoughts. My name is Lisa, I identify myself as female, I am from a working-class background, and these are my books, my computer working on processing my essay on the social underpinnings of bebop music in late 1940’s America, and my feet of undeniable (yet poorly interpreted) privilege.
Thanks again. Until now, I have felt terribly and irreparably objectified, irresponsibly gendered, and willfully misrepresented. Perhaps the author of the original analysis “might take note, and perhaps learn to do his homework before he analyses someone he’s never met.”
Lisa, I’m sorry that my comment hurt you. I also believe, however, that everyone involved needs to make some distinctiions. First: in commenting on the photograph I was not talking about you. The image was anonymous, and I saw that as one of its most important features. Had the paper identified you as a person, I never would have called them the “feet of privilege” because then they would have been your feet alone. I don’t know you and am not in the business of commenting about you. The feet in that photograph, however, were taken–explicitly–to represent Reed college students. That is how they were presented by the photographer, the New York Times, and the Reed College Web site. If you are critical of me for objectifying you, then you also should fault Molly Gingras, the Times, and the College. Note also that I contacted the College to notify them of the post; I also asked them to notify the photographer that her work was being featured. I assume that is why you and others at Reed know of the post. I did not ask them to notify the student in the photo because I didn’t know who she was and, most important, because her identity was completely irrelevant to both the original story and my comment.
Second, I’m glad you recognize that attending Reed is a privilege. Regardless of one’s background or how hard one has worked, it is indeed a privilege to be at Reed. If nothing else, many other equally qualified students probably were denied the admission granted to those who are there; that is true of every top school today, and I’m confident the numbers and other information in the Reed admissions office would bear that out. Keep in mind also that I was celebrating Reed College and the liberal arts education it provides. Privilege was not a dirty word in my post, but rather a basis for contrasting two very different approaches to the world: that of the Bush administration, which abuses the privilege of wealth to trash the world, betray our fellow citizens, sacrifice working class youth, and squander our national resources on war rather than education; and that represented by the photograph from Reed College, where students work hard to use the privileges of intelligence and a superb liberal arts education to better themselves and the world. That this point was lost on some readers may be due to my not writing well encough. Even so, I hope that everyone now can take a deep breath, reread the post, and ask, first, whether they read it well, and, second, whether the most important question on the table is how well I can identify someone’s gender based on seeing only their feet and a blurred image of the top of their head. I’ve admitted and tried to account for my mistake. Now I’d like to see others do the same.
One of your stranger assumptions is that it is common for Reedies to go barefoot; more common than elsewhere. It isn’t. One sees an occasional barefoot student—no big deal—but shoes, boots, and sneakers are the norm. It rains a lot here. And students aren’t above dressing fashionably.
Jamison: It’s not our assumption, but the point of the article from the New York Times from which the picture comes. The link to the article is in the post above. Thanks for reading.
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