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The Political Season

Robert and I have not written very much about the current political season. Part of the reason is that our good friend over at the BAGnewsNotes, Michael Shaw, has been tireless in covering the campaign and we encourage our readers to check in there. But there is another reason as well, for while there was a time when the political campaign for president truly constituted a quadrennial season, something that political junkies like ourselves would look forward to, the current campaign seems to have transcended any sense of being seasonal; indeed, it has become altogether ordinary and everyday –- if not downright monotonous. I find myself checking in on the various candidates and their doings as a matter of mindless habit, much like the way I check in on the baseball box scores in mid-June (or the way in which some friends of mine watch the afternoon soap operas). And if I miss them for a day or two, or even a week, I can usually be confident that little of real or longstanding consequence will have changed.

The length and mundanity of the campaign seems to have taken its toll on photojournalists as well. If I see one more picture of the various candidates shaking hands with citizens, or speaking from the stump in a town square or in a quaint little café, or against flag draped backgrounds, or surrounded by spouses or celebrities with cheesy smiles … I think I might die from excessive exposure to visual cliché.* I realize that this seems like it is all that there is to capture visually in these contexts, that photojournalists are working on deadlines and the tried and true genres and conventions are easy to supply, and further that it is the media’s job to “report” what is actually happening (even if that turns out to be … well, nothing), but all of that may well be part of the problem. The campaigns have become so quotidian that it seems like there is nothing “new,” nothing really to see. Of course, one of the things that Robert and I have been suggesting all along is that it is precisely at such moments that we need to look all the more closely.

Consider this photograph from this week’s Sunday NYT:


At first blush, it could be a photograph of a singing group, say, Hillary and the Three Pips (sorry, I couldn’t resist). But in fact it anchors a story about how Senators Obama and Edwards joined forces to “go after” Senator Clinton in a televised debate in Manchester, NH. The attack turned out to be pretty mild stuff, with Obama and Edwards accusing Senator Clinton of being an advocate of the status quo after she had suggested that Obama had unfairly characterized Edwards’s positions on several issues. And one can only imagine what Governor Richardson (the third “Pip”) might have been thinking when he noted that he had been in “hostage negotiations” that were “more civil.” In any case, apart from the separation of Clinton and the three men, it seems to be a rather generic and ordinary campaign picture. In fact, we have seen it before. Look at this photograph that Robert posted on in August:


The first thing to notice, of course, is how little has really changed. The staging and background are effectively identical to one another, with each enveloping the candidates in a red, white, and blue color scheme. Clinton is clearly separated from her three rivals in each image, and more, she stands in almost the exact same spot and strikes the exact same pose, presumably making contact with someone in the audience. She may even be wearing the same suit. The male actors have changed, but more in name than anything else as they all represent the Democratic party and the Washington establishment.

But of course the differences are pronounced. In August the separation of the four people seemed to be a function of random movement, and the sense in which Senator Clinton was disconnected from her rivals was minimal at most. In the more recent picture the separation seems forced, or rather calculated – the relationship between Clinton and the others is one of disconnection and not just separation. Note in this regard that while Clinton still looks out to the audience, seeking (or at least seeking to appear) to make contact with one or another of the spectators, the other three are talking to one another, a closed group seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are on stage or in front of an audience, while nevertheless appearing to conspire about what to do with this woman. One can almost hear them figuring out who will play what roll in the drama that is about to unfold (or if this is an after moment, assessing what actually took place). While in the earlier image Clinton seems to be channeling the energy of the audience, in the later image she seems “defiant,” rather as the title of the article suggests, standing strong and independent in opposition to the men bonding together to attack her.

And so, perhaps the photojournalist here has captured not just another in the continuing and everyday moments of the campaign, but what the editors have recognized as an image that goes beyond what words can say easily or prove (or what it might be injudicious for a journalist to report), i.e., a male conspiracy against the candidacy of the New York senator. The story does not seem to have achieved very much traction, however, and one has to wonder why.

One reason might be that the whole issue of opposition between the candidates seems so much like political melodrama put on simply to accommodate the daily news cycle. So, for example, take note of this photograph that also appeared in the NYT on Sunday.


Here we have something close to the full slate of candidates for president kibitzing with one another in between the Democrat and Republican debates. No less staged than other pictures from the event – a picture of the performance of civility really – nevertheless it makes one wonder how the participants could be engaged in the incivility of hostage-like negotiations at one moment, and hand shaking and back slapping at another. Sure, Hillary is separated from the three Pips here, but it is hard to imagine that she has any more regard for those with whom she is socializing. The point, of course, is not to make light of public displays of civility, but to wonder what to make of them when they lack narrative fidelity with the stories being reported or seem to be altogether feigned, merely staged for the camera.

Then again, maybe it’s just another day in the never ending political season …

*UPDATE: Since writing this post I came across Alan Chin’s black and white photographs of the New Hampshire campaign. His work stands out as a stark exception to many of the claims made here. I will try to post on it in the near future, but in the meantime check it out at BAGnewsNotes.

Photo Credits: Doug Mills/NYT, Peter Wynn Thompson/NYT



The Aesthetics of Freedom

Back in September I commented on the allegorical design of the new U.S. passports and focused attention in particular on the opening page, a cornucopia of signs and references to American hegemony. The visual tableau there begins with an image of Baltimore Harbor being “bombarded.” Subtly but noticeably blended into the background so as to encompass both the inside cover and the first page is the American flag. The “alien” force then was the British Army, but the reference to more recent alien bombardments and expressions of the indestructibility of the American banner are hardly veiled. I promised to continue to examine the visual design of the passport and was reminded of this while traveling recently in the U.K.

The last two pages of the new U.S. passport offer an interesting allegorical complement to the opening two pages, and complete a framework for engaging the intervening twenty-seven pages of image and text that activate a history of the American sublime rooted in the nation’s divinely ordained, adventuresome and inventional spirit.


Reading from left-to-right and from top-to-bottom, we first encounter an inscription from Ellison S. Onizuka, “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds … to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.” This is quickly followed by a notice, centered and in bold face–and at least twice as large as anything else on the page–indicating that “This document contains sensitive electronics.” The remainder of the page contains addresses “for information” on importation restrictions, customs and border protection, agriculture, U.S. taxes, and social security. All of this information is obscured, more or less like the legalese we ignore and yet are required to sign-off on when we install new software on our computers. Instead, our attention is directed to the connection between “new worlds,” “higher plateau[s],” and “sensitive electronics.” This connection is animated by the photographic illustration that occupies the right hand page and to which our attention is drawn by the formal articulation of the bold faced font of the notice, the reddish hue cast by the sun on the left hand page, and the dark sky of outer space. Here we encounter the earth, centered in the image and, on close inspection, featuring the North and South American land masses. In the foreground is what appears to be the moon. Situated above the two and in-between them, as if the tip of an triangle connecting all three objects, is a satellite. At the bottom of the page is a bar code that corresponds to the passport number.

There is much to comment on here, but what I want to focus on is how the inside back cover is something of a formal “mirror” of the inside front cover, albeit with a difference that coaches the viewer to treat the ideological implications of American exceptionalism as the result of a natural, technological determinism.

The passport begins with a painting and ends with a photograph, the two genres of visual representation framing the historical shift from early to later modernity. The implications of that shift are formalized by the contrast between the quill-and-ink script that sits atop the painting on the inside cover and the computer generated bar code indicating the passport holder’s identification number that rides across the bottom of the photograph on the inside back cover. The shift from “then” to “now”–from painting to photograph, from quill-and-ink to computer generated bar code–is thus marked as a sign of technological progress. Each operates within its own aesthetic register, but the almost perfect symmetry–from left to right, from top to bottom – encourages the viewer to acknowledge a transcendent beauty predicated on the concept of “orderliness.” Notice, for example, how the quill-and-ink script is perfectly measured (at least for its antique medium), and thus anticipates the even more perfectly measured, technologically enabled bar coding on the back page. The shift from “then” to “now” is thus coded aesthetically as a sign of ordered, technological progress.

This aesthetic coding underwrites a politics concerning the relationship between American-style democracy and technology. The key marker here is the reference to “sensitive electronics.” The specific referent is the “electronic chip” embedded in the passport and designed to record the movement of citizens (and others) across borders, but its visual juxtaposition with the satellite looming over the galaxy implies something more. One might expect that technological progress would enable greater latitudes of individual freedom, as is the promise of the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” but here it offers not freedom of movement but panoptic oversight. Such control might be necessary in a world fraught with danger, but the point to notice here is how it is aesthetically domesticated and naturalized.

This post has gone on too long already, but two points are worth noting in this last regard. The first has to do with the way in which the passport is color coded from start to finish. As I indicated above, the inside front cover is encompassed by a washed out American flag that serves as the background to the painting and text, and it bleeds across the margins of the page on the right side, inviting us to turn the page. The color scheme carries its way throughout the passport to the back cover, where we see a tree looming over a land mass in the distance. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch to see that the color coding here might be analogous to the flag unfurled. The tree leans like a flag pole, the leaves recall the dark shield of starts, the red and white hues of the setting sun reminiscent of the alternating stripes. And so the banner originally sewn by a woman is here replicated by nature’s pallet, an almost perfect representation of America’s manifest destiny. But note too that the very last page is severe and abrupt in its difference. Virtually all color is lost as the world is now rendered in black and white; virtually, that is, but not entirely, for on close inspection we can see that the colors of nature/the flag bleed here too, though the threat that they will be washed away remains stark and foreboding. And so, of course, the need to mobilize technology, whatever risks it might invoke to freedom and liberty, seem warranted in the name of security.

But there is more, for we have yet to comment on the somewhat odd quotation from Ellison S. Onizuka that leads off the left hand page. The quotation is odd, less for what is said than for who is doing the talking. Few readers will easily identify Ellison Onizuka, nor could I until I researched it (even though I have previously written extensively about the key event for which Onizuka is known!). Ellison Onizuka was a mission specialist on NASA flight STS 5-L. You know it as the “Challenger” spacecraft. He died along with six other astronauts on January 28, 1986 when, in the famous words of President Reagan, the crew “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” Onizuka’s words, locating the “obligation” of “free men” to “look out from a higher plateau” is thus not just an analogy for the spirit of progress—and the calculated risk that it always entails and yet we work so hard to repress—but operates in an anagogical regiser that puts man (and by implication the technologically advanced American, with his “sensitive electronics”) in proximity to the face of God. In this context the starkness of the black and white world on the facing page takes on an even more sinister, Manichean resonance.

Surely the dangers that the world poses have to be more complicated than this, and yet, here, it seems so natural … almost as if it is destined.

Welcome to 2008.



Second Look: Economic Girlie Men – Rediva


Last week I posted about this photograph of Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke preparing to speak before a congressional committee on economics, contrasting the ritualistic, faux-piety of the scene with the photographic representation of the gluttonous impiety of Marshall Whittey, a sales manager for a floor and tile company in Reno, Nevada who was feeling the “pinch” of the equity credit crisis that left him “eating in” more often.


I suggested that the juxtaposition of images, published as part of separate articles in the NYT on the same day, invited a civic attitude that located the problem of the economy in the psychology of private life—individuals making bad economic decisions—rather than in any inherent systemic problems with the so-called “free market.” One reader wondered if the affect of the Bernanke picture would change if we were to juxtapose it with a more tragic and typical representation of a foreclosure or eviction; another reader pondered whether it was even possible to represent systemic social problems visually without reducing them to individuals in a manner that might tend to discourage collective action. These are both excellent questions that deserve a second look.

Several days following the Bernanke’s report to Congress the NYT published this photograph as the lead-off to an article in its Week in Review:


The caption reads “EX HOMEOWNER Esta Alchino of Orlando, Fla., was late paying her mortgage and lost her house.” Both this photograph and the one of Whittey point to individuals caught in the equity crisis, of course, but in this case the photograph is framed by the title of the article, “What’s Behind the Race Gap?” The difference is pointed, for the earlier article focuses on how an acquistive individual, is being “pinched” by the economy and his risky economic decisions; here our attention is directed to Esta Alchino as a representative of racial difference, and thus, presumably, a systemic state or condition, i.e., racial discrimination.

The tension between the two photographs is particularly conspicuous. He sits in his home amongst his prized possessions, she stands in front of (or is it behind?) what used to be her home with nothing but the clothes on her back. Both look out of the frame to the viewer’s left, what we conventionally understand to be the past, but what they purport to see behind them is somewhat different as he exudes a devil may care attitude, a gambler who made poor choices but will be back to play again as soon as he has recovers his stake, as is the promise of the American dream; she wipes tears away in contemplation of a profound loss as she looks back on a national history of racism in which the “dream” seems always out of reach for our dark skinned citizens. The key to the two photographs might well be how the citizens/actors are located within their respective scenes. His home is large, lavishly adorned, and full of light with the promise of more by simply opening the shades behind him—a simple personal choice; her former home is small and dilapidated, lacking any adornment whatsoever, and drab by almost any standard, even as it sits in the full light of day. He is the lord of his manor, accompanied by his dogs; she is completely isolated and disconnected, visually homeless and without any sort of shelter, either physical or symbolic. She is literally alone in the world.

The question is, how might we understand this later photograph as an indication of a systemic problem? What makes Alchino more an illustration of racial discrimination than simply an ineffective liberal economic actor? This is no easy question, but part of an answer can be found in considering how Alchino is framed as something like an “individuated aggregate,” an individual posed to stand in for an entire class or race of people. Here that is marked in part by the fact that she is never once mentioned in the accompanying article that features two neighborhoods in Detroit, a city that is a fair distance from Orlando. We know nothing about her beyond the fact of her race and that she could not make her mortgage payment. We are never even told why she could not make the payment, though we are told that on par high-cost subprime mortgages tend to be concentrated in “largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods.” As such, she stands in as a victim of circumstance, and as the article underscores, the circumstance is a potent and often ignored systemic racism.

The additional question is how we might understand the portrait of Bernanke differently in comparison to the image of Alchino, who is arguably more representative of those harmed by the equity crisis than Whittey. Here, of course, Bernanke’s countenance now changes some, as his prayerful pose seems sorrowful and contrite—worried less about the difficulties of his own job, than about the conditions of people like Alchino. But of course, this comparison is problematic as well, for if we go back to the words he spoke that day, there is nothing that indicates a concern for systemic problems of any kind, either rooted in economic policy or more deeply in the kind of implicit de facto racial profiling that seems to be pronounced within the mortgage industry. What the different comparison of the images does speak to is the need for more sustained consideration of how any particular photograph operates within the visual economies in which it appears.

Photo Credits: Doug Mills/New York Times; Joe Raedle/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images



A Second Look: Courting the American Dream in Ramadi

Today we introduce a new feature at No Caption Needed that we call “A Second Look.” One of the lessons we have learned (and continue to learn again and again) is that the “meaning” of photographic images is dynamic and multidimensional. No matter how hard we try to situate the affect or idea-content of a photograph, the image rarely fully accommodates us. Part of the problem is that human perception can be annoyingly monocular and myopic. We fixate our attention on one aspect or dimension of an image and then stubbornly (if not intentionally) ignore other aspects and dimensions. Only days or weeks later do we realize our short sightedness. Another part of the problem is that one of our primary interpretive tools for discerning the meaning of images is “convention,” and the conventions of realist representation in particular have a powerful hold on both what we choose to see and what we choose not to see, even when we are sensitive to the need for reflexivity. And yet again, our interpretations of images are relentlessly culture- and time-bound, their meaning and usage subject to difference and change based on one’s social and political experiences, as well as location in time and space. Accordingly, from time to time we will dedicate our daily post to taking “a second look” at an image we have previously considered, sometimes to correct the errors of our ways, sometimes because “shit happens” (as the bumper sticker says) making it possible for more to be seen and said.

To inaugurate this feature we want to take a second look at two images that we recently compared and contrasted with one another:



The first is of two angelic young beauties in Anywhere, USA, encountering the joys of the marketplace, perhaps for the first time; the second is of a “young boy selling lemonade” in Ramadi. The point in juxtaposing these two photographs was to underscore the irony of locating the mythical American “lemonade stand” – a trope that marks the space of a safe and secure free marketplace – inside of a war zone being guarded by thousands of occupation forces and deputized insurgents. I’ll not repeat the analysis except to reprise the concluding line: “To accent the point one need only visualize the scene of the two girls at the top—innocent, pure, and white—with the soldier and his weapon framing and overshadowing the scene. It is virtually unimaginable.”

But on reflection, it may not be quite so unimaginable after all. Or at least for it to be unimaginable we have to concede a host of assumptions about the idyllic world represented in the first picture. One assumption, pointed out by a commentator to our first post, is that the state maintains an invisible presence in the image, ever at the ready to intercede if and when the safety and security of the marketplace is breached. And we do have photographs of where the state has interceded in such situations, such as images of six year old Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals into a New Orleans elementary school, or the slightly older Little Rock Nine being escorted into Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard. But, of course, these were moments of national crisis and no one would mistake the photographs as representations of a normative or safe and secure public sphere.

This calls to attention a second assumption that seems necessary to make the transposition of images unimaginable: the viewer must be able to identify with the white, Anglo-Saxon world depicted in the photograph of the lemonade stand. While one obviously doesn’t have to be white to run a lemonade stand, the vast majority of images one finds in a google image search for the phrase “lemonade stand” are of white Caucasian children. There thus seems to be something like a cultural norm being marked by the trope, and one that clearly excludes those at the margins of racial difference. The question then has to be, what does someone who cannot identify with the “lemonade stand” mythos of the American dream see when they look at the photograph from Ramadi?

There is probably no one answer to this question, but one strong possibility has to be the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent pointing his MP5 submachine gun at six year old Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee, hiding in a bedroom closet with a local fisherman trying to protect him.


The”arrest” and eventual deportation of Elian back to Cuba was highly controversial and it polarized the nation, leading to mass protests in Miami, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. And by many accounts the force of the reaction was affected by this photograph. Whether the image really fueled or otherwise animated the controversy is hard to say, but what is clear is that it has achieved iconic status and is widely recognized, especially amongst subaltern populations. And its connection to the photograph from Ramadi is pronounced. The two boys look similar enough at a distance to be blood relatives; and the weapons, while not identical, are similar enough and, more importantly, functionally dominate the scene. But what makes the picture in Ramadi especially powerful in this regard is not its similarity but its difference from the earlier photograph. There, the horror of the scene is a manifest function of the rifle being pointed at a clearly terrified child; in the later photograph the horror is more latent, a function of the child’s (dis)ease as he cautiously considers the soldier and his weapon and what he might do with it. Of course, the child in Ramadi selling lemonade probably doesn’t know the story of Elian Gonzalez, and thus while he might have his own reasons to distrust the soldiers it is unlikely that he is thinking of this picture; on the other hand, Americans, and especially non-white Americans are very familiar with the picture of Elian, and there is a strong possibility that when they see the picture of the child in Ramadi, what they see is not the safety and security of the marketplace but the threat that the state poses to subaltern populations. And that is not unimaginable at all.

It’s all a matter of how you look at it.

Photo Credits: Central Ohio Center For Education, Richard Mills/The Times, Alan Diaz/AP