I love taking the tour of the U.S. Capitol whenever I visit Washington, D.C. and have a free afternoon. The building is alive with its own history at every turn, the grand architecture belying the gravitas that attends the heart of the American legislative process and the stories relayed by the tour guides—usually congressional staff members or interns—underscoring its commitment to democratic governance. And of course there is always the chance opportunity that you will recognize one or another of the nation’s legislators as they scurry about from one meeting to the next. On one occasion I was separated from my tour group and had to run to catch up; I turned a corner at full trot and literally ran into Senator Ted Kennedy. I was amazed both at how short he was in comparison to how I imagined the “Lion of the Senate,” and how gracious he was–all the more surprising given that it was I who ran into him. In short, the Capitol tour is designed to imbue ordinary citizens with a sense of the importance of the American legislative process. And it rarely fails to deliver. But the photograph above tells a different story.
The gentleman leading the tour in the photograph above is not a staffer or intern, but rather Senator John Boozman (R) from Arkansas. Leading such tours is not a regular part of the daily activities of a U.S. Senator, who typically has more important things to be doing, like deliberating domestic and foreign policy. Nevertheless, a number of the members of Congress have taken to leading constituent tours this past week while the federal government is shut down in the wake of House Speaker John Boehner’s refusal to bring a clean bill to fund the government before the House of Representatives for an up or down vote—a vote that all agree would surely succeed and reopen the government. The reaction of the people in the tour group is interesting as it ranges from nonchalant interest (the couple on the left) to impatient boredom (the women in the print dress on the right). The woman in the green sweater appears to be amused, but that is more likely because she realizes that she is part of a scene being photographed than anything the Senator is actually saying. You might disagree with my characterizations here, but however you read the photograph, the image depicts an audience who seem altogether unconcerned with (or ignorant of) the gravity of the government shutdown. After all, they got their tour of the Capitol while all of the major tourist sites in the capitol city are shut down.
If I didn’t know that this was an AP photograph I might have assumed that it was a parody staged by The Onion, for it surely has the feel of absurdity about it. But it is real, which of course makes it all the more absurd. There is however a different and perhaps more important point to be made, for virtually all of the photographs reporting on the government shutdown feature images of federal government buildings and national monuments and parks with signs in front of them that indicate that they are closed for business (e.g., here). Some of these are buildings that process various (so-called “non-essential) social and public services, but on the whole the implication of such images is that the primary effect of the shutdown is to inconvenience people on vacation (except in Arizona, where the state government, which otherwise has trouble funding public education, chose to pick up the tab to keep the Grand Canyon open).
What we don’t see photographs of are the invisible effects of the shutdown that go well beyond private and individual inconveniences and point instead to the underlying failure of our modern society to recognize and attend to its larger social responsibilities. We don’t see the 800,000 federal employees who have been furloughed and will go without pay even though their own bills will continue to come due; we don’t see the sick individuals who risk pain and suffering because the NIH cannot accept new patients for the duration of the shutdown; we don’t see the consequences of shutting down the CDC’s seasonal flu program; we don’t see the impact of closing the EPA for business (except around superfund sites) or ceasing the food safety operations of the FDA; we don’t see the potential long term effects on the nearly nine million recipients of support from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program which provides nutritional supplements and health care to low income, pregnant and post-partum women and their babies, and which is closed for the duration of the government shutdown; we don’t see the consequences for nearly one million children of shutting down 1,600 Head Start Programs; and the list goes on.
The problem, of course, is not per se with photography or photojournalism, which would be hard pressed to show anyone of these things. And yet, by emphasizing the closing of buildings and monuments and national parks as the primary, visible, and palpable effect of the government shutdown there is a sense in which the national media has played into the hands of those who would use their ability to legislate an artificial budgetary crisis for their own political ends. Then again, perhaps the photograph above really is a parody that invites us to see and question the very absurdity of the machinations of the House of Boehner. After all, members of Congress really do have more important things to be doing.
Credit: Evan Vucchi/AP