Mar 21, 2008
May 14, 2010
Feb 19, 2012
Jun 10, 2012
Sep 29, 2013
May 15, 2009

Domesticating Dissent

When I ask my students to make a list of iconic photographs they almost invariably recall the image of the two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics with their hands raised in a “black power” salute.


They rarely know the names of the athletes, nor can they typically recall the particular track event that was being celebrated or who won what medal, but the image itself seems to be seared in their collective consciousness. And why not? Reproductions of the photograph of this moment of political dissent during a time of social and civic turmoil are ubiquitous. Indeed, one can barely read about the 1968 Olympics without the picture showing up, and indeed it has been the subject of several movies including an HBO documentary film titled “Fists of Freedom: The Story of the ’68 Summer Games.” It was prominently displayed in the movie Remember the Titans and it is available for purchase as a mural-sized poster and as a fine art print, as well as stenciled on t-shirts; a rendition of it was cast as a larger than life size statue and is on display at San Jose State University were the two athletes went to school. Both of the men—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—have recently published autobiographies about their experiences featuring their moment on the victory stand.

Given the notoriety of the photograph it is of little surprise that Smith and Carlos have embarked on a year long lecture tour in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the “black power” salute and the significance of the moment of political dissent that it depicts. What is surprising—if not altogether disappointing—is how the NYT chose to cover the lecture tour as it made its way to the Black National Theater in Harlem last Wednesday. The Times article is titled “Enduring Image Leads to Enduring Dispute” and the story it reports focuses on the petty and personal jealousies that have vexed the lives of Smith and Carlos, once good friends who now “harbor deep-seated and previously unexpressed resentment toward each other.”

As with so many iconic photographs – think of the migrant mother, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, the Kent State massacre, accidental napalm, and the list goes on – popular interest seems quickly to shift from the key public issues represented and negotiated by such images to the subsequent private lives of the individuals being depicted, i.e., who are they? what became of them? And so on. And in the process, the complexities of significant political events central to the history of liberal-democratic public culture fade deeper and deeper into the background, as a neo-liberal interest in the life of the individual trumps the public interests of a democratic polity. Or at least that is how such images are typically treated by the national media.

This cultural and ideological revisionism is marked by the photograph that accompanies the NYT report on Smith and Carlos:


The first thing to note is that the image signifies the tension between “then” and “now” while putting the accent on the present moment. The point is emphasized spatially as the contemporary Carlos (on the left) and Smith (on the right) dominate the image. But note too that the two men are cast in the light and seen in living color, while the past that spawned their relationship is represented by black and white photographs and cast in dark shadows. The author of the article bemoans the “inevitable” moment when “idealism” (then, black and white) gives way to “reality” (now, in color), but the focus in the article on the contemporary travails of these two men (now more private individuals than citizens) seems reinforced by the photograph which treats the past as a antique and fading memory. One might wish for more attention to the idealism of that earlier time, perhaps emphasizing a truly “Olympian” moment when at least some athletes were guided more by issues of social justice—and its attendant risks—than by private self-interest. But I think that there is a different and more important point to be made here, for the photograph above also functions to domesticate the original image of the “black power salute.”

Notice how the contemporary photograph puts the black and white image of King closer to the foreground than the iconic image of Smith and Carlos, even though chronologically the later image is more recent. Our present day remembrances of King thus become the frame through which we are encouraged to view and interpret the original image of the two athletes, and accordingly it is the standard of King’s Christianized, “beloved community” that becomes the marker of idealism against which the current day dispute between Carlos and Smith is to be measured (and found lacking). What this ignores is that the 1968 summer Olympics took place nine months after the publication of the Kerner Commission Report, six months after the assassination of Dr. King, and in the midst of increasing concerns that the then so-called “civil rights movement” had lost its political edge and effectivity. And most of all, what it ignores is that the “black power salute” – a phrase which is never once mentioned in the NYT article – constituted a very different and more threatening political idealism than the one we retrospectively affiliate with King’s “dream.”

In short, what we seem to be witnessing is the domestication of a valued photograph that marks and models an important and radical moment of dissent in the life of the polity. The tragedy here is that the “enduring dispute” announced in the title of the NYT article refers to a normalizing, private quarrel between two individuals, and not the more important tension animating our understanding of the relationship between the “civil rights movement” and the “black power movement.”

Photo Credits: Staff Photo/AP, Gabriele Stabile/NYT


Who is that Man in the Picture?

Last week I commented on the latest effort to discover the “true” identity of the kissers in the famous “Times Square Kiss” photograph. Reporting on such efforts is a fairly common narrative that follows along with the circulation of many iconic photographs. After all, most such photographs rely upon a certain degree of anonymity and when we encounter the anonymous our curiosity is piqued. Who is the migrant mother? Or that young girl at Kent State? Or the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square? And so on. Earlier this week Erroll Morris, an important documentary film maker, reprised the question raised last year (3/11/2006) in the NYT concerning the alleged identity of the man known as”Gilligan” in the iconic Abu Ghraib torture photograph:


Morris argues that the controversy demonstrates “how we make false inferences from pictures.” We think that he gets it wrong, or perhaps more to the point, he asks the wrong question and thus diverts attention from the very important range of ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital and robust democratic public culture. Robert posted our response as a comment at the Times. We’ve reposted that comment below, but we also encourage our readers to attend to the continuing and very spirited and engaged debate on this topic at the NYT.

Posted at the New York Times, August 16, 2007:

Errol Morris’s essay is one example of his claim that “We do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is determined by our beliefs.” His critique of the Abu Ghraib story depends on several axioms of Susan Sontag’s critique of photography. Unfortunately, each one of them is at best half true.

1. Photographs corrupt moral response by substituting the image of the victim for reality: “The no longer anonymous Hooded Man became a national news story – not because he was a victim of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib but because he was in a famous photograph.”

2. Photographs corrupt our knowledge of reality: “Namely, the central role that photography itself played in the mistaken identification, and the way that photography lends itself to those errors and may even engender them. . . . photographs attract false beliefs – as fly-paper attracts flies.”

The basic problem with both of these ideas is that the critic is attributing to photography what is true of all representation, verbal as well as visual. Think about it: can you depend any more on written accounts of reality? If so, I have a bridge to sell. You don’t have to spend more than ten minutes in a court of law to see that writing is highly suspect. Newspaper reportage is partial at best while details often are mistaken; government reports have an additional set of problems, scholarship is subject to paradigmatic restrictions, and so forth and so on. The most false, dangerous, immoral, and harmful publication in the world is not a photograph, but a book: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And for all that, writing, like photography, is a remarkable tool for learning about, knowing, and navigating through the world. If left only to what we see directly, we would know and care about very few people (and no more accurately, by the way: eyewitness testimony is notoriously bad evidence). That we care about victims because we see images of them—or read about them, say, by reading the Diary of Anne Frank—demonstrates that we can expand our capacity to care through our use of the public media. Nor are we trapped in our representations. In fact, belief and experience work both ways: prior belief shapes perception, yet human beings, like other animals, continually adjust their conception of the world based on what they observe.

That said, I’ve gotta like the attention Morris pays to iconic images such as the photo from Abu Ghraib. (Full disclosure: I’m co-author with John Lucaites of No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and John and I maintain the blog No Caption Needed.) The debate about identifying the specific individual in the Abu Ghraib icon is one measure of the photo’s status: similar efforts are made with every iconic photo. At least two issues need to be noted here: one is that, although indifference to the specific individual in the photo could be a moral mistake, the moral testimony of the photograph requires only that someone is there, not any one person. Morris makes the right distinction but gets things backwards when he claims, “Now we are talking about reality – not about photographs.” No, we are talking about photographs, specifically, about a photograph’s documentation of torture. As with other iconic photographs, the image’s moral power depends on the anonymity of those in the picture. We empathize because the person could be anyone, not because it is this or that individual. The photograph of the napalmed girl running down the road in Vietnam was moving not because it was a picture of Kim Phuc, but because it was a picture of a girl much like children you have known.

This is why I can’t get excited about the stories of who was in the photographs from Iwo Jima, Vietnam, Kent State, or Abu Ghraib. These narratives usually serve to domesticate the image, to transform its powerful call for public action into a feel-good story about private life. Barthes said the photograph could be mad or tame. Locating the individual in the iconic image, however accurately, only tames the photograph and perhaps the public as well.

Photo credit: Shawn Baldwin/New York Times



Home Again, Again

Guest post by Lisa Carlton

Literary and visual tropes of homecoming are essential to narrating war.  Take, for instance, the timeless Greek war mythology of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Both of these poems invoke the theme of “nostos” or homecoming.  Or we might think of the iconic WWII image of the Times Square Kiss. Typically, homecoming tropes signify an end to a time of national conflict and strife—a relative return to normalcy.  But the wars of the new millennium are perpetual.  They resist narrative’s conventional markers of a beginning, middle, and end.

The image above was taken at a homecoming ceremony for the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade on May 3, 2011.  It appeared in the Memorial Day collection of “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s news photography blog.  According to the caption, the little boy in the photograph is four-years-old and the little girl is two.  This means the boy was born around 2007 and the girl was born in 2009.  By then, the war in Afghanistan had been underway for over five years and almost ten.  These children were born into a culture where war is the norm.

The uniformed father figure is identified by the caption as Major Jason Kettwig of Milbank, South Dakota.  An officer-level rank suggests that Kettwig has been in the Army National Guard for quite some time; Probably before his young children were born.  The photograph’s caption explains that this particular “group of approximately 200 soldiers has been serving in Afghanistan for the past year.”

One year ago the little boy in the photograph was three; and the little girl was just one-year-old.  In the image her hands lovingly and gracefully cup her father’s neck.  She is not clinging to him, as we might expect a young child to do to her father.  Instead, her head is pulled back from his.  She gazes at his face with a mature, furrowed brow, a look of relief, concern, and wonderment, commonly identified on the faces of adults.  She has not seen this face in one year and she appears to be studying it, searching for traces of change since the last time she saw it.  It reminds me of the way parents look at their teenaged children after their first long stint away from home.  But her father does not return her gaze.  He appears to be looking at his son.

The son, who is four-years old, stares off into the distance over his father’s shoulder.  His facial expression is less engaged than his sister’s.  His lips part and turn upward, but the smile looks almost hesitant.  Perhaps he has experienced this homecoming scenario before.  Maybe, by his ripe old age of four, he has experienced his father’s deployment and return once already.  The boy wears a green tee shirt, almost identical to the color of his father’s desert camouflage.  And his short, clean haircut adds to the father-son likeness.  As the father looks at his “mini-me,” the reader is invited to wonder if military service is in this little boy’s future.  So as the father looks at his son, and the son looks off into the distance, and we, the viewers look at these children, all of the gazing that animates this image is oriented toward the future.

While the children are the most salient figures in this photograph, with their adorable, round faces and the light bouncing off their shiny, sandy blonde hair, the father figure is positioned as central.  However, it is the back of his shoulders, neck, and head.  We cannot see his face, and as such, we have a harder time identifying emotionally with him.  We can only imagine what his face looks like.  Does it express happiness?  Relief?  Melancholy?  The back of his head does not provide cues for how we should feel.   Perhaps the absence of his visage marks a loss of his humanity while at war, or perhaps it symbolizes an anticipation of his death, or maybe it’s a social commentary on what has been described as a faceless war effort.

The photograph’s composition is an uncanny inverse of Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  Instead of identifying with the mother — or the absent father figure — as we might have with Lange’s image, this photograph turns our attention to the children’s faces for a model of how to feel and how to interpret the action in the scene.  This important shift in subjectivity positions the viewer as childlike—an infantile citizen who, like the four-year-old and two-year-old in the photograph, has become a little too acclimated to a culture of perpetual war.  When we take on the gaze of the confused and bewildered child, we as citizens are invited to remain complacent and uncritical.  Again.

Photo Credit: Eisha Page/Argus

Lisa Carlton is a Ph.d student in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.  She can be contacted via e-mail at

 1 Comment

Picturing America, Past and Present

Recently Laura Bush was in New Orleans in tandem with the Picturing America project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project involves reproductions of 40 works of art that are available for use in the classroom. Freedom, equality, and similar civic virtues are featured as themes for the collection, which includes works from a range of periods and media. Many will be familiar to adults and none of them are likely to offend the protectors of public morality. Indeed, the lack of a critical edge is all too predictable, which is why this photograph has added value.

Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother is one of the 40 art works, but here it has become a part of work number 41. This photo of the two students raises many of the questions that could but perhaps would not arise during discussion of the iconic image. The fact that they are placed in equivalent positions to the two children in the Lange photo makes the point sharply: These are now the children at risk, and they are here, in real time and living color, waiting to see if their government will respond as it did during the crisis of the 1930s.

There has been no New Deal for New Orleans, of course, of for anyone else below the million dollar line during the seven years of the Bush administration. Another difference between the two photos provides some consolation, as the two students look attentive and capable rather than wholly dependent. Progress has been made in spite of everything, but that should be no excuse for not having good schools, levees, health care, banks, and all the other little things that once were understood to be the obligations of a good society.

Photograph by Bill Haber/Associated Press.


From Tragedy to Farce

There would seem to be very little in Scott McLellan’s recent exposé of the Bush White House that very many of us would consider to be “news.”  Much of it is, however, a poignant reminder of how consistently and extensively incompetent and irresponsible the current administration has been on issues large and small.  Its response to Hurricane Katrina is a prime example, as  McLellan notes that following Katrina, “the White House spent most of the first week in a state of denial.”  The first week, it turns out, was simply the tragic rehearsal for what would become (and continues to be) a farcical government policy of profound neglect and indifference.

The point was driven home for me by the image of a couple who live in a tent in a “homeless encampment under a highway overpass” that was used to anchor a story in the NYT on the persistence of homelessness in New Orleans.

Every city faces the problem of homelessness, but according to HUD, since Katrina the numbers in New Orleans are off the charts, with 4% of the population currently living on the streets (by comparison, the homeless rate in NYC = .59%; Washington, D.C. = .95%; and Atlanta = 1.4%). And the numbers continue to grow!  With FEMA planning on closing down its final six trailer parks this coming week and the city’s plan to eliminate four major public housing developments that consist of 4,500 units, the situation only promises to get worse.  But such numbers, as astronomical as they are, are hard to process.  And in the end they reduce policy considerations to questions of an accountant’s bottom line that is all too easy for governments (or individual citizens) to overlook (especially when it doesn’t effect you directly, like, say, body counts in the War in Iraq).

The above photograph, on the other hand, captures the utter despair of individuals trapped by a system and circumstances that seem to be completely out of their control.  Indeed, the image resonates in many ways with Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.”  Notice, for example, the blank stare in the man’s eyes and how they avoid making contact with either the camera or the viewer, as well as to how he embraces the woman who clings to him as if a child in need of the protection that he knows he cannot provide; and notice too how she turns her face from the camera in shy resignation of her situation.  Differences between the two photographs  of race, gender, and age abound, to be sure, but they don’t (or at least should not) mitigate the simple fact that these are people in need and that we should be helping them.  There is one other difference, more pronounced and perhaps more significant:  Lange’s “Migrant Mother” helped to animate the social welfare state that assumed the responsibility to care for those in need; the photograph above marks the effects of a neo-conservative political imaginary that began with the father’s appeal to a “thousand points of light” and has achieved its nadir (or is it its zenith) with the son’s utter evisceration of a political culture of care and social accountability. 

Marx had it right, it would seem,  “all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were twice … the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Photo Credit: Lee Celano/NYT

 1 Comment

The Familiy of Man in a Digital World


Writing in Newsweek recently (12/1/07), Peter Plangens reprises an argument that seems to emerge every now and then about the death of this or that medium or art form as it is confronted by newer and different technologies that somehow undermine its “aura.” Walter Benjamin probably made the most famous, recent version of the argument in “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but let’s not forget that it has a lineage that goes back at least to Plato’s critique of the technology of “writing” and its impact on the importance of the spoken word.

Plangen’s concern is photography, and his claim is that the “explosion” of digital technologies has created a medium that has “lost its soul.” Photography’s “soul,” apparently, is its connection to the “real,” for, as he puts it, “no matter how much darkroom fiddling someone added to a photograph, the picture was, at its core, a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera.” That was the original allure of photography, of course, but it was more a hope (or a faith) than an objective reality. And it didn’t take take avant garde photographers like Cindy Sherman to show us otherwise. Indeed, from the beginning the history of photography is replete with a wide range of examples that make the point, not least the work of prominent and important documentary photographers like Alexander Gardner during the Civil War (with his sharpshooter photograph) or Arthur Rothstein during the Great Depression (with his skull photograph). And these are not lone instances.

That said, while the advance of digital technologies has altered the way in which we think about and use photographs—and very clearly has reinforced a postmodern cynicism about realist representation that seems to worry Plantgen—it has also arguably invigorated photography as a cultural practice, enabling something of a rebirth out of the ashes of modernism. That rebirth includes not only a much wider democratization of the use of photography—witness the millions of digital cameras in everyday usage, many contained in cell phones that are carried about as a matter of course like one’s wallet or purse—but also in its capacity (in the words of Patrick Maynard) to “enhance and filter human power” in a broader spectrum of visual possibilities.As an example, consider the photograph above that was recently published in the on-line version of the Washington Post. It is a stand alone photograph of 55 year old Angel Lopez, the patriarch in a family of five who were unable to find refuge in a Bronx city shelter and were forced to spend the night on the streets.

It is a compelling and affective photograph, all the more so given that there is no story that accompanies it other than the caption which identifies Angel and his family members as “A Family in the Streets.” Shot in a middle space between the camera and a long street that invokes the conventions of classical perspective, distance is privileged as an aesthetic, bringing us closer to the homeless than we might imagine that we need – and perhaps would prefer – to be. Angel is in the very center of the image, his eyes making contact with the camera in a manner that demands recognition and a response. But what could his demand be? Clean and neatly dressed, he doesn’t seem to be the stereotypical homeless person or skid-row bum, and in any case the crutches make it clear that he has a hard time helping himself and thus stands in need of our care. In its own way the photograph is vaguely reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” with its projection of social responsibility for others. But, of course, it is hard to know.

Now click on the picture. A quick time movie should open in a new screen. Give it a moment to load. What we have here is a 360º panorama of the scene. Now we see not just Angel, but all of the members of his family. We are now pulled into the scene more directly as we see (and hear) Angel and his family briefly reflect upon their plight. While they all appear to be looking at the camera in their turn, they also seem to be interacting with one another as well, thus suturing the viewer into the scene in a manner that dictates a more complex social register. This last is underscored by the interactivity of the medium itself as the viewer can zoom in and out of the scene by manipulating the “+” and “-“ buttons on the screen.And with each click, of course, the social and political dynamic changes, pulling us in or pushing us out. But even as we zoom out and distance ourselves from the scene we are forced to take account of the full panorama.

No more “real“ than the earlier photograph, the panorama nonetheless invites and invokes a different affect, a different social and political interaction with the image; and I would argue it is at least potentially a more progressive kind of interaction because it doesn’t allow for a simple passive turning of the page. The image is still controlled in some measure by the camera and the photographer – the frame remains as a constraint on what we can see and know – but as a technology the photograph now filters the relationships between Angel and his family, the street, and the absent state in a somewhat fuller and more engaging fashion. Whether this increases or decreases our sense of compassion or willingness to work to make sure that such situations don’t persist is hard to say, but it would be interesting to consider how such usage would have altered the affect of 1930s FSA photography or Edward Steichen’s 1950s Family of Man exhibit (not to mention, say, the scene of a bombing). But however we evaluate the particular affect of this panorama, the larger point here is that the “soul” of the photograph is not contained by the particular technology of mediation per se, but is rather a function of how such images are received and used (or abused).

As long as we actively make and use photographs – engaging them and talking about them, drawing from them as markers of our sociality, as well as questioning and challenging their politics and affect – they are not likely to lose their soul as a simple function of the particular technologies through which they are enacted, be it framed in terms of the the “magic“ of the nineteenth-century daguerreotype or what Plangens blithely refers to as the “fairy tale” fantasy of Photoshop.

Photo Credit: Travis Fox, Washington Post; and with credit to Patrick Maynard, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography (Cornell UP, 1997).

Update: For another critique of Plangens at American Photo go here.



Main Street, USA … or is it the New American Imaginary?

I am unable to identify a single iconic photograph that represents the naturalization process for those immigrating to the United States, but it is of course not uncommon to find pictures of immigrants being sworn in as citizens at places like Ellis Island, Independence Hall, Monticello, and at court houses across the country in cities large, medium, and small.

And it all makes a great deal of sense, for while no single photo of this process of becoming a citizen may be iconic in itself (i.e., in the way, say, in which Lange’s “Migrant Mother” singularly marks the Great Depression or Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss” singularly marks the end of World War II and the so-call “return to normalcy”), each such image nonetheless locates the ceremony in physical places that are in their own rights icons of the American imaginary. The ceremony of becoming a citizen is thus linked in such photographs directly to a foundational part of the nation’s coming to be — whether historically or at the present moment.

The on-line version of the July 5, 2007 New York Times offered a new twist on all of this, as it reported on a recent surge in applications for citizenship, accompanied by a picture of some 1,000 new citizens celebrating their naturalized status on Disneyland’s “Main Street” after having been sworn in beneath Cinderella’s Castle:

Disneyland Citizens

Being sworn in at Independence Hall or Ellis Island or at some other physical place marker of national legitmacy clearly operates in a somewhat romanticized narrative of American citizenship, and so we should be careful about being too critical here. But surely such places are more real, or at least have more of a connection to who and what we are (or want to be) as a people than the pure fantasy of Cinderella’s castle? Or Disney’s version of “Main Street”? Or maybe not.

In any case, the absurdity of the situation must have quickly registered at the Times, because the picture was shortly removed and replaced by a different photograph. The new image, a cropped version of which was actually part of the original on-line story and the full version which was featured above the fold on the front page of the newspaper (see below), shows a close-up of a group of immigrants in the process of being sworn in as citizens:

NYT.Disney 2

What is notable about this newer photograph is not only that the physical place has been visually obscured (even the caption relocates the event, emphasizing that the ceremony took place “near” Cinderella’s Castle, not “at it” as in the original), but nearly all sense of individual difference has been muted or removed, as the new citizens appear more or less “uniform,” wearing identical rain ponchos (the one clear exception, of course, is the poncho bearing an image of Mickey Mouse). And I don’t choose the word “uniform” here randomly, for on the front page of the Times this image is paired with and placed beneath an image (that was also part of the original and now no longer available on-line story) of U.S. Marines being sworn in as citizens … and where else, but in Baghdad!

New York Times, Front Page

It is hard to know what is going on here. I would be inclined to say that the original on-line story was a parody, something like what we might find at The Onion: “Citizenship Available for an ‘E Ticket Ride’ at Disneyland!” But the NYT is, after all, “the paper of record,” and we would not expect to find satire of this sort here. And of course the front page story seems to play it straight, even though the visual identification between Disneyland and Baghdad could be read in a subtle but cynical register. But then why does the original image of Main Street, Disneyland disappear from the on-line version? The American imaginary is always something of a fiction, to be sure, but here it seems to have transformed into pure fantasy. And one, it would seem, we are all too willing to buy! Perhaps that’s the point. Or maybe not.