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Sight Gag: Golden Arches

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Photo Credit: Al Lowe

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

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Conference Paper Call: Visual and Textual Worlds of Children

Call for Papers

Home, School, Play, Work: The Visual and Textual Worlds of Children
October 31 and November 1, 2008
Worcester, Massachusetts

The Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) and the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC) at the American Antiquarian Society seek papers that explore the visual and textual worlds of children in America from 1700 to 1900. We welcome proposals that address the creation, circulation, and reception of print, manuscript, and other materials produced for, by, or about children.

Submissions may address any aspect of eighteenth and nineteenth-century textual, visual, or material culture that relate to the experience or representation of childhood. Suggested topics include popular prints for or of children, board and card games, children’s book illustration, visual aspects of children’s books and magazines, early photography and children, performing children (theater, dance, the circus), dolls and puppets, child workers in art and printing industries, images of children and race, representations of childhood sexuality, the architecture of childhood spaces (schoolrooms, nurseries), children’s clothing, children’s appropriation of commodities, children’s handiwork (samplers, dolls, toys), and theories of visuality or textuality and childhood.

Please send a one-page proposal for a 20-minute paper and a brief CV by January 10, 2008, to:

Georgia Barnhill, Director of CHAViC
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, Massachusetts 01609-1634
gbarnhill@mwa.org

About the Conference Committee

The conference committee is chaired by Patricia Crain, professor of English at New York University. Other members include Joshua Brown, executive director of the American Social History Project at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; Martin Bruckner, professor of English, University of Delaware; Andrea Immel, curator of the Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University Library; Paula Petrik, professor of history and art history at George Mason University; Laura Wasowicz, curator of children’s literature at AAS; Caroline Sloat, AAS director of scholarly publications; and Georgia Barnhill, curator of graphic arts and director of CHAViC.

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The Daily Victory: Ordinary Life in Iraq

This photograph from a hospital in Iraq has all the elements of comedy except the laughter.

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A man and a boy–probably father and son–are awaiting treatment following a suicide truck bomb attack. They are the lucky ones.

I’ve posted before on the normalization of war, and recently on the importance of seeing and valuing the little things in life to resist war’s empire. This photo is both engaging and troubling precisely because it rests on the cusp between those two attitudes. On the one hand, it is a hard news photograph that documents the arbitrary, unjust violence of war. On the other hand, it is a soft news photograph that draws on the techniques of Life Magazine human interest portraiture.

The hard news photo shows civilians drenched in their own blood, having to make do with improvised bandages while waiting for care in an overburdened and decaying hospital. The soft news photo shows two social types in all too typical poses: the boy in t-shirt and blue jeans peeking out from the mess he’s made, as if sitting in the principal’s office at school. The adult holding a compress to his aching head as he wearily, dutifully accepts yet another of the responsibilities of parenting. The one furtively studies the adults around him while wondering if he’s going to catch it. The other makes the call cementing his complicity in the mess, and, oy, what a headache.

If this were the only photograph of the civil war, there would be much to fault. Why make light of violence; aren’t we denying their suffering and our own culpability? Surely we could be shown more of the horror of war and the arrogance, viciousness, allegiances, and betrayals that are its cause. This photo is part of a very large archive, however, and so it has a different role to play.

I don’t want to come down decisively on one side or the other regarding the photo’s ambiguity. I do want to feature something else, something that may be the reason the photo is ambiguous and why that itself can be a resource for photojournalism and public understanding. I think the humor in the photo–the comedy without laughter–is a testament to the humanity and dignity of the ordinary Iraqi citizen. Look again at the jeans, t-shirt, slouching posture, and expression of the boy, and the man’s sweater, watch, cellphone, and richly complicated look of responsibility: these are the habits of people not yet remade by war. That a man carefully buttoned his cuffs and put a sweater on, perhaps because nagged to do so, is a commitment to normalcy. That he can make the call as if after a car accident, exasperated but relieved–and not terrorized–that is an achievement.

Once again, the war against war can be seen in the details, and photography has to risk banalty and sentimentality to tell that story. What remains is for the rest of us to see it for what it is, and not simply conclude that war is a part of life and really not so bad after all. To do that would be another betrayal.

Photograph by Emad Matti/Associated Press and the Washington Post.


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The Problem with Veterans Day

For many of us, Veterans Day has come and gone. That was, let’s see, Monday, right? Working parents knew if their kids were out of school, and others missed getting the mail, but whatever the inconvenience, the day was just that–a day. Even among those few who attended the commemoration ceremonies, the time spent there will have been brief. And so it is that a well-intentioned civic ritual perpetuates a lie. For those who grieve, there is no Veterans Day. To understand this painful truth, we need look no farther than this photograph:

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The caption read, “Terry Giannoni (right) found names of friends of the wall of dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in Chicago on Sunday.” (The official day of commemoration was Sunday, November 11, with Monday the 12th becoming the federal holiday.) I’m not sure which is more revealing, the simple statement that he found “the names of friends” or the heavy sadness in his grim expression and hunched, protective posture. Those soldiers have been dead for over thirty years, and yet they are still remembered as friends. Their deaths still weigh down the heart. Those who once were laughter and good times and the simple pleasure of being together, have lingered long after as loss, regret, and who knows what other difficult emotions. And if friends still grieve, imagine how parents and lovers have suffered. War never lasts a day; it lasts forever.

The photograph is eloquent because of how it draws together simple things to reveal the truth of war’s continuing harmfulness. This is a local memorial with ordinary people–no national site, color guard, or officials–and so the emotional tone is honest and direct. Those feelings are the more deeply sensed for not being highly expressive, and that mute recognition is reflected in the simple decor and design of the memorial. The numbing isolation of grief is communicated by the distances between the two men in the picture and between Giannoni and the panel of names, while the black/white divide on the wall reminds us of the terrible finality of death.

There is one more thing: the way that time saturates the image. Giannoni’s grey/white hair and craggy features mark the years since the Vietnam War. The man in the left rear reinforces this passage: long hair now comes with a bald spot, and the blue jeans and jacket now are worn on a middle-aged body. On the panel behind them we can see two dates: 1969 and 1970. These were the first two years of the Nixon administration, the first two years of the “secret plan” to bring us “peace with honor,” a plan that brought an additional 20,000+ American deaths and somewhere around a million Vietnamese deaths to secure disengagement on terms very similar to those available in 1968. Time was not on anyone’s side in Vietnam. Since then, it has carried grief and anger relentlessly through the years.

Photograph by Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune.


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Homeboy at the Hilton

This image is at once unusual and deeply familiar, no matter where you imagine it taking place.

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The incongruity comes, of course, from seeing a dude in gangsta attire going down a buffet line within what looks like the perfect example of the Generic Hotel banquet room. More to the point, this guy is out of place, whether the place is Libya, where he actually was, or Atlanta or Chicago or any other city center.

For all that, the scene will be all too familiar to many viewers. This is the generic modernity inhabited by the middle class whether they are at work or at a wedding or some other weekend event. If you’ve seen one room like this, you’ve seen them all. And for all the effort that goes into pretending that today’s buffet is better than the rest, it rarely is. This one doesn’t even make the effort. The tackiness of the scene becomes obvious because of how he looks–that cheap jacket makes the aluminum warmers and stacked plates all the more obvious–while the long view exposing the table legs and chair backs makes all the decor seem all too typical.

And this is where things get interesting. The New York Times story captioned by the picture was titled “Rebel Unity is Scarce at the Darfur Talks in Libya.” It seems that the big fish boycotted the peace conference, leaving only small fry like our man at the buffet line. No one was interested in talking with the lesser lords of the desert, who were left to kill time in the hotel. In fact, the story reported that those present usually descended on the buffets together, but the photographer obviously wanted to show something other than eating.

So, what is being shown? It could be that small tribal leaders are out of place in modern diplomatic settings. Since he doesn’t really belong there–as you can see just by looking at him–then he ought to go back to the Darfur “street” from whence he came. In short, he shouldn’t have presumed to be there at all. (Never mind that he will have come at personal inconvenience, expense, and risk, and that he probably is able to wreak havoc somewhere if so inclined.)

That interpretation might do, but I think the photograph deconstructs on precisely that point. For one, he is behaving exactly as he should; from the measured manner in which he is holding the serving tongs, it looks as though he’s been through a buffet line many times. More important, the tackiness of the rest of the scene speaks volumes. The problem isn’t that he’s there, but that the room is otherwise empty (save for the single waiter at the end of the table). The room itself looks like a mere shell, an artificial trompe l’oeil of modern life superimposed on the backdrop of the desert, clan politics, and constant cycles of violence. Perhaps the conference would have worked had the room been full of all the leaders and their entourages, but this photograph hints otherwise.

Maybe the problem isn’t the homeboy but the hotel. More precisely, perhaps the problem is that peace is no more to be brokered in the neutral space of Generic Modernity than it could be found in the dangerous places of the Darfur borderlands. Nor are the scenes themselves the problem. The hotel, like the desert, brings with it a particular conception of politics, negotiation, and peace. Each activates different modes of organization, modes of speech, and images of the future. My guess is that if peace is to come to Darfur, and to many other places around the world, those involved will have to find another place to meet that is neither the war zone nor the modern hotel. That is, they will have to find another way to talk and think together that is neither entirely outside of modernity nor within its most typical structures and assumptions.

Photograph by Jihad Nga for the New York Times.

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Waiting for Liberal Democracy in Pakistan

You will have seen the recent photographs of Pakistani lawyers demonstrating in the streets of Islamabad and then being punched, kicked, clubbed, and hauled off to jail. You won’t see what will happen to them in the Pakistani prisons, but that surely will include more brutality and probably torture. And what is incredible is that the demonstrators will have known that when they went into the streets. Their heroism is a rare and beautiful thing that has not been captured fully by any photo that I’ve seen.

But they are more than heroes–they are lawyers who have been working for years on behalf of the rule of law and liberal-democratic constitutional government. And they are less than heroes–ordinary people struggling to achieve something action heroes never see: the normal life of a modern civil society. That’s why I like this photo:

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The New York Times caption said, ” Lawyers meeting on Monday at the bar association offices in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.” This image captures both the pervasive weight of oppression and the incredible ordinariness of life as it is when people are allowed to live and work together without fear.

The steep odds and dark prospect before them are evident in the expression of the man in the foreground as that is reinforced by the serious faces all around the room. His expression shows that there are no good options, and that all that they have could be slipping away, and that he knows this. He has not caved, however: his forward posture, cocked head, and intense look suggest a man still capable of action, and the crowded presence of his colleagues all around the room is mute testimony to that resolve.

Heroism is seen in broad strokes, and what I love about this photograph are the many small details. The two thumbs touching in the right foreground, a practiced gesture of waiting. The sliver of leg showing between sock and pants cuff; the coffee cup and water glasses abandoned on the table; the dark furniture and wood paneling seen in almost every lawyer’s office in the world. The clothes and decor are nice–Pakistan does have a middle class—but they are above all conventional, the ordinary background of modernity.

What unites these opposing attitudes of normalcy and oppression is the fact that those in the room are waiting. Images, like texts but often even more so, are condensed interactions. If nothing else, they structure a relationship between the subject of the picture and the viewer; often they depict patterns of interaction that can resonate outside the frame. The people in this photograph are waiting, and that can evoke many contexts: they could be in a doctor’s waiting room or a funeral parlor or a green room or a bomb shelter. They could be waiting because someone is late or because someone is missing. They could be hoping that late results would reverse the tide of electoral defeat, or for the verdict in a court case, or for the results of an exam or an interview. They could be at a consulate anywhere in the world. If there were no exit, they could be in Hell.

Thus, the photograph is above all else an image of waiting, and with that it evokes both terror and a promise. The terror is that they are already doing what they will be doing in prison: waiting for something much worse to come. The promise is like that sliver of bare leg: the hope that some day, if others would join their fight for a liberal democratic society, they would be able to enjoy a world where one is secure enough to suffer only boredom and the occasional fashion mistake.

We need to continue to see the familiar images of street demonstrations, but we need photographs like this one of the silent spaces of political life. Then perhaps the professional class in this country can see themselves in the picture. Over here, lawyers know they are not “hired guns” or “ambulance chasers.” I hope they can look at this picture and understand that their colleagues in Islamabad are not “extremists and radicals.” They are heroes, but we should stand by them because they are ordinary people who should not have to be heroic.

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images.

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Sight Gags: Speak No Evil …

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Credit: Daoud, Seeds of Doubt

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting some of that silliness on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

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"… Economic Girlie Men"

Stop the presses! The NYT reported yesterday that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke, speaking before the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, announced that the economy is “likely to slow” in the 4th quarter and well into next year! But, there is no r——— here, just a normal economic correction produced by “significant drag.”

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The story leads off with a photograph* that is in many respects altogether unremarkable, a stock image of an official “suit” about to testify before a congressional committee, his notes and microphone arrayed in front of him, a gallery of bureaucrats behind him. It is business as usual. Your government at work. At the same time, it is hard not to see Bernanke as poised in prayer, his fingers reverently entwined, his eyes closed in contemplation, his head tilted down in supplication. Indeed, the camera seems to record a palpable, public display of ritualistic piety.

One can only imagine his subvocal prayer: “Dear Lord, please don’t let there be a recession! If you grant me this one request I promise …” Those aren’t exactly the words he uttered in his testimony, of course, but they are emblematic of his message and they come close to capturing his incantatory logic. It reminds me of when I was eight years old and I swore to be nice to my sister if my Lord and Maker would help the Yankees win the World Series (they lost to Pittsburg 4-3 and to this day I think it was punishment for sneaking a transistor radio into school and listening to the game in the boys room—but to be fair, I wasn’t exactly nice to my sister either). My guess is that Bernanke will have no more luck than I did. But I digress.

What makes the photograph especially interesting is how the display of piety appears to contrast with a photograph published by the NYT earlier in the day as part of a separate story concerning the “pinch” being felt by homeowners as a result of the mortgage and equity crisis and its implications for the impending economic (uhm!) “slowdown.”

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Here we have Marshall Whittey, a sales manager for a floor and tile company in Reno, Nevada. There is no piety here! We see Marshall sitting in his home surrounded by a few of his prized consumer possessions, most notably the media center behind him, including one of two large flat-screen televisions he recently purchased, as well as two lap dogs. We can only assume that the watch on his wrist is not some knock-off he found for twenty bucks at his local Wal Mart. Not shown, but described in the article are his 21-foot boat and his new truck, purchased simply because he “didn’t like the color” of the older one. It is the somewhat uneasy, caught-with-his-hand-in-the-cookie-jar smirk on his face that tells the story, for all of these goods – as well as his recent wedding on a “sumptuous private estate in Napa Valley” and his honeymoon in Tahiti – were paid for on a line of home-equity credit. As he put it, “It used to be that if I wanted it, I’d just go out and buy it and finance it … [but now] I’m feeling the crunch, and my spending is down significantly.” Down, but apparently not entirely out. The problem is that his house, which was once assessed at $500,000 is now worth much less than the $580,000 he owes the bank. But through it all Whittey remains “unflappable”: “We used to go out and eat three or four nights a week. Now we don’t go out at all.”

It is hard to know which is worse. The faux-piety displayed by Bernanke and his fervent wish that the economy is simply going through a normal and natural correction, or the total absence of either piety or contrition in Whittey’s smirk as it inflects his assumption that the penance for years of consumer gluttony is “eating in” more often. That might work for upper-middle class homeowners who are feeling “pinched” because they can no longer think of the equity in their houses as “piggy banks” to be raided with impunity, but it is surely little solace to those not quite so fortunate as to own their own homes (let alone half million dollar houses) during the economic “slowdown”–or ever.

What is important here are the ways in which the photographs work in concert with one another to frame a civic attitude towards the current mortage and equity crisis. It seems to me that there are two different ways we can read the conjunction of these photographs. From a realist perspective, the relationship is as as evidence to claim. As such, Whittey’s performance of impiety stands as a prime example of the problem that warrants the normal economic correction that Bernanke’s pious reverence for the laws of economics relies upon. The problem, you see, is those darned homeowners who simply can’t control their urges. From a different and more cynical perspective, the photographs function in an allegorical register, inviting us to see the somewhat malignant connection between a government bureaucracy reduced to empty ritualistic incantations and unrepentant, self-indulgent, consumer-citizens who lack any sense of responsibility to a common good that extends beyond their own private, acquisitive interests.

But here’s the rub: Whichever way you read the relationship between the two photographs, the civic attitudes they invoke reinforce the sense that the problem is not systemic but individual; indeed, it is rooted in the domestic psychology of private life, not in an economic system that relies more on consumers than citizens. Let the system run its course and all will be well. At base then, the photographs suggest, neither Bernanke nor Whittey are the “economic girlie men” that Arnold Schwarzenegger once admonished for their undue economic pessimism. Much to the contrary, each remains blindly hopeful. And more’s the pity. You can rest assured that we will all eventually pay the price.

*Between the original posting around 10:00 a.m. and when I returned to link to the story the picture disappeared from the website. Here is a screen grab of the picture in its original context.

Photo Credits: Doug Mills and Marilyn Newton/New York Times

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And Where Have You Seen This Before?

This t-shirt is available for sale at Turntable Lab 04, a website that tailors to hip-hop DJs and producers. Take a close look at the silhouetted pattern? Does it look familiar? Have you seen it somewhere else before? Maybe an abstract painting in a modern art museum? Or in a Rorschach Test? Somewhere else? Click on the shirt to see where.

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Credit: In4mation; and with special thanks to Erik Johnson, Northwestern University for bringing it to our attention.

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Making Nice on a Day of Shame

Yesterday was a terrible day in the history of the United States. I am referring to the decision of the Senate Judiciary Committee to endorse the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general despite his refusal to state that waterboarding was torture. We should not declare that this is a point of no return–quite the opposite is required–but there is no doubt that American government has been stained.Not that you would know it from this photograph of the two Democratic Senators who voted for the nomination.

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The photograph was taken after the vote. I can’t stand it. Feinstein (on the left) and Schumer (on the right) are so into the political schmooze, so full of themselves–having a great time, really. They’re allies on this one, political friends in the full glow of their complicity. Eye to eye, hand to hand, each turned to the other, enjoying the pleasure of their company. But for the difference in gender, they are almost identically arrayed: hair swept back, dark suitcoat, red tie/blouse, lighter pearls/shirt collar. . . it goes even further: they have the same wrinkles and smile lines, the same smile. They are each perfectly at home in the same mask, the same role.

And that’s the hell of it. This is just another vote, another moment of political frisson among those at the top, another day in the life of the successful pol. They have no idea of what they have done. How could they? They have no shame.

I am not bemoaning a loss of innocence, for much more than that was destroyed yesterday. The question is not whether US personnel have used, condoned, or supported torture; they have. Nor is it a question of whether this has happened only in Iraq or in other conflicts; it has happened before. In every case, however, those awful, ugly acts were done as part of the savagery of combat or the vicious calculations of Cold War terrorism, and they were hidden from view.

The Bush administration has gone much further: They have done nothing less than try to make torture an explicitly condoned, legitimate state practice. They have done so through several means: by expanding the practice of torture, including extraordinary rendition and prison interrogations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay; by crafting the legal and administrative measures to institutionalize this immoral and dangerous extension of executive power; and by using their propaganda machine to make their practices appear to be the normal exercise of power during a time of peril.

And until yesterday, one could say that this was happening only because they controlled the White House and didn’t have to secure the approval of the Congress. But when two leading Democrats voted with all nine Republicans on the panel to approve the nomination, the devil’s bargain could no longer be disguised. The Republicans should not be excused for one instant, for their votes counted just as much and they could no more claim ignorance of what was on the line, but surely the blame has to placed above all on Senators Feinstein and Schumer.

They will have arguments justifying their decisions, of course. We will hear about the exceptional integrity of the nominee and the need to have a figure of accountability at the head of the Justice Department. That is nonsense. The confirmation hearing had already exposed Mukasey’s lack of integrity on the most important matter he would face as attorney general, and the institutional concern should not be the administration of a department already made useless. This is more than a matter on which reasonable people can disagree. No, the deeper problem is that the two Democratic Senators have endorsed the habits of public distortion that hide torture and in doing so destroy a society’s capacity for collective moral action. This is why the nominee’s evasions had to be stopped rather than condoned: they are as important to the practice of torture as the thugs recruited to inflict pain.

The committee vote is another demonstration of the effect torture has on a society. It destroys not only those being tortured but also those who do it, condone it, or otherwise allow it to continue. The loss is not of innocence, but rather of our capacity for moral life. Michael Mukasey represents not personal integrity but rather the habitual distortion of public speech–distortion that is essential for immoral government.

This is not the first time a society has begun to lose its fundamental sense of right and wrong, and more than that, its capacity to understand suffering and act on behalf of justice and compassion. The Biblical prophets saw the same thing, and they appealed to what sense of shame might yet remain among the leaders and the people. To see what they meant, you need look no farther than the figure between Feinstein and Schumer: Russell Feingold clearly knows better. He not only voted against the nomination, you can see that he is feeling the unseen darkness spreading around him.

Photograph by Doug Mills for the New York Times.


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