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CSI Expert Determines Famous Times Square Kisser

Time/Life reports that it is their most valued commodity, a photograph that is requested and reprinted more than any other from the archive and – we might add – has been celebrated almost as much as Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima.” It is, of course, Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss.” Part of the allure of the photograph is that the kissers are anonymous: They could be everywoman/everyman. Robert and I have written about this photograph in several places, including the namesake for this blog, talking about the power that the image has for civic renewal, but it never ceases to amaze us how entranced the culture is with “who” the “real” kissers are and the incredible lengths to which we go to make the determination. In the 1980s Life magazine sponsored a national search for the sailor and nurse. According to Life the search was “inconclusive,” but that hasn’t stopped everyone from the Dean of the School of Art at Yale to the Naval War College in Rhode Island and a high tech electronics imaging firm in Cambridge, MA from getting into the fray.

Now, Lois Gibson, Houston Police Department forensic artist and Guinness Book of World Records “Most Successful Forensic Artist” reports that the kisser is actually 80 year old Glen McDuffie:

McDuffie the Kisser

Gibson’s method was to have McDuffie don his uniform and pose for new pictures, using “a pillow instead of a nurse.” After measuring his “ears, facial bones, hairline, wrist, knuckles and hand” she compared them with the original photograph. Her conclusion, “I could tell just in general that, yes, it’s him … But I wanted to be able to tell other people, so I replicated the pose.” According to the news report, “Life magazine isn’t convinced.” Neither are we. But we are convinced that the photograph remains a cultural treasure, precisely because people like McDuffie—and no doubt the many who will show up at the August 14, 2007 “kiss-in“—can can see themselves as part of this national imaginary.

Photo Credit: Pat Sullivan/AP

Update: The New York Times has posted a story on the photo at their City Room, and a discussion is developing there.



A Second Look: A Kiss is Just a Kiss … Or is it?

It is perhaps the most famous kiss in the annals of kisses.  But the question has now been raised, is it more than just a kiss?  And more, could it be an instance of sexual assault in full view of the public?  There is much to suggest that, as it has typically been portrayed, the photograph is the representation of a joyous kiss celebrating the end of a war and the return to normalcy.  And perhaps the most important evidence here is the reaction of the members of the public who look upon the heterosexual kissers approvingly, smiling rather in the way we might imagine an older generation’s response to the exuberance of young love.

But there are also reasons for concern.  The sailor is clearly the aggressor and the nurse is clearly passive.  Take note of the fact that she is not returning his embrace.  Indeed, from one perspective, at least, she appears to have gone limp, succumbing but hardly complicit.  And then there is this: The most recent woman to be identified as the nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, reports that “[i]t wasn’t my choice to be kissed.  The guy just came over and grabbed!”  And more, “I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in his vice grip [sic].”  And then this, “That man was very strong.  I wasn’t kissing him.  He was kissing me.”  If this were to be reported today it is pretty clear that we would judge the sailor’s behavior as more than just inappropriate but as a sexual assault.  The question seems to be, should we impose contemporary norms on what we might imagine as a somewhat distant culture?  The answer is not obvious.

Perhaps we should begin with some context.  Everyone remembers the photograph as an icon of VE Day.  What most forget is that it was one of a series of images in a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast,” and more to the point it was the last image in the array and the only one to occupy a full page.  To a number all of the other photographs depict lascivious if not downright transgressive public acts (here,  here and here).  But, and here is the point, in almost every instance, the women appear to be—or are described in the captions—as being complicit.  When we turn to the “Times Square Kiss” in this context we see something that seems to be the model of restraint: two kissers lost in passion even as they enact the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.  We hardly attend to the original caption that notes, “an uninhibited sailor [who] plants his lips squarely on hers.”  It was clearly a different time.  As one soldier from the “Greatest Generation” was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, among the things we fight for is “the priceless privilege of making love to American women.”  And in their own way, this full array of Life photographs makes the point.

And yet there is something altogether dissatisfying with leaving it at that.  And not just because times have changed.  Ariella Azoulay has recently asked, “Has anyone ever seen a photograph of a rape?”  Her point is not that such photographs do not exist – they do, however rare.  Nor is it that they are not available for viewing – they are, although again their circulation is rather limited.  Rather, her point is that even as we have reconstituted our notion of rape since the 1970s in ways that liberalizes the meaning of sexual assault and underscores the responsibility of the state to protect women, it continues to be an invisible object in the public discourse, an image that we proscribe from showing and, more importantly, fail to see even when it is before our eyes.

The real challenge here then is not so much to critique the blind sexism of an earlier moment in our history, however much it might be mischaracterized as a golden past, but to question why we continue to refuse to see what might now be before our eyes. Put differently, the question is not what does this photograph tell us about our past, but rather what does our refusal to see the photograph in the context of Greta Zimmer Friedman’s memory of that day tell us about our present.

Photo Credit: “VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, © Time Inc.

We have previously written about this photograph on this blog (hereherehere, here, here, here, and here) and in print (here and here).

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Kissing War and Tasting Victory

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Times Square Kiss” is among the most famous photographs ever taken.With the exception of Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi,” it is possibly the most reproduced, imitated, and performed photograph of any in the pantheon of U.S. photojournalism or documentary photography. It is, as Time/Life might say, the center piece in the American family photo album, a representation, as one caption of the image has it, of “The Way We Were.” It should come as no surprise then, when critics draw upon it to call attention to the hypocrisies and tragic ironies of U.S. policies and cultural practices. The most recent case in point is this digital illustration by Koren Shadmi that appears in “Artists Against War,” a collaboration between The Nation and The Society of Illustrators to showcase the work of 60 prominent graphic artists whose work “challenges the self-destructive ignorance, indifference, incompetence and corruption that is the result of the U.S. Middle East foreign policy.”


The illustration is easily recognizable as an imitation of Eisenstaedt famous photograph, but of course the differences are both pronounced and resonant. The original is a bright and fairly high contrast image produced in the grey scales of black and white film and according to the strict conventions of realist photography; there are shadows, but they are barely recognizable, and in general the visual tableau invokes the symbolic brightness of a new day, just as the occasion of V-J Day invited the promise of the return to a golden past. Following the visual conventions of the graphic novel, the illustration above is drawn in muted tones and tinctures, only slightly more colorful than the black and white photograph. The kissers here are cast at the edge of a dark shadow (emanating from the space of the viewer, and pointing, no doubt, to the future), the background of the drawing enveloped in either billowing smoke or black clouds, and in any case the overarching tonality of the image is dark and ominous rather than bright and joyful, menacing rather than hopeful.

It is the thorough absence of joy and hope that determines the affect of the illustrated kiss. The photograph represents a joyful moment, its kiss a passionate and public performance of the release of nearly four years of repressed desires. Thanatos gives way to eros, marked not only by the kiss itself, with the promise of greater release yet to come, but by the way in which civilian spectators witness the event with approving smiles. This is the world we want to live in, and there is a sense in which the bodies of the kissers channel the emotional energy—the hopes and desires—of the people that surround them as the vectors of the image vaguely recall the “V” for victory, men on his side, women on hers.

By contrast, the illustrated kiss is neither joyful nor passionate, but rather decidedly foreboding. The awkward and somewhat restrained left hand of the sailor in the photograph now holds a gun poised for use (although the enemy remains unseen and thus anonymous), while his right hand is covered in red blood that blemishes the purity of the nurse’s white uniform and forces us to acknowledge that eros and thanatos are inextricably entwined. The kiss is made to seem all the more impersonal—if not also somewhat transgressive—by the fact that the kisser is wearing night goggles as well as a wide array of weapons and military accoutrements. And note too that the pair are no longer surrounded by ordinary citizens—an indulgent and approving public—but by an anonymous and armed military force. It is not clear that the surrounding soldiers even notice the kissers, and even if they do, they certainly offer no signs of approval. Overshadowed by the events of war, both the presence and voice of the public has been erased—a telling cipher, perhaps, for our current political condition. If victory has been achieved here, it clearly seems to be short lived.

The Eisenstaedt photograph is often captioned as a “return to normalcy,” and on one popular poster for sale, it is titled “Kissing the War Goodbye.” From this perspective the normal world is a rejection of the dark and dreary culture of war, and with it the eternal return to a bright and joyful place where the sexual obsessions of private life can operate in tandem with the decorum necessary to the discipline of public life without the hint of tension or irony. By contrast, Shadmi’s illustration is titled “Tasting Victory,” and thus frames the image as the embrace of war, rather than its rejection. From this perspective, the normal world seems to be a culture where one eroticizes the taste of military success and in which wars are cultivated and eventually normalized in a never ending cycle of violence.

It is easy, of course, to prefer one image over the other at any given moment in history, entranced either by the romance of the photograph or the critical skepticism of the illustration. But what we need to acknowledge is the fundamental sense in which the two images are inextricably connected. Treated apart from one another, each underwrites a more or less simplistic political fantasy of civic life that invariably falls short of the complex social and political needs of the late modern world; treated together the two renditions remind us that each representation is a limited construction of the world and that a healthy polity needs both romance and skepticism—and more—in order to enable and sustain a robust public culture.

Illustration Credit: Koren Shadmi



As Time Goes By

Kiss in war

Two lovers caught in a passionate embrace.  He on the left, she on the right.  Their faces barely recognizable as their bodies meld into one another.  Oblivious to all that surrounds them, it is a tender, private, intimate moment in a public space.

At first blush it could be two individuals (once again) performing the now famous Times Square Kiss in a modern setting.  But look again.  The differences are both subtle and profound.  Neither is wearing a recognizable uniform.  She is actively engaged in the kiss, her arms pulling him towards her as much as (if indeed not more than) he is pulling her towards him. Notice for example how his right arm seems barely to be holding her while her arms reach fully around him, holding him in place. More interesting still is the fact that she is holding a slab of concrete in one hand, her finger nails giving the impression of being freshly manicured.  If the sign of the kiss in the original photograph was animated by an aggressive, masculine representation of state military power, here the kiss is no less a sign of aggression—it is hard to imagine that the concrete slab would be used as anything other than a weapon, particularly given that the caption tells us that this is taken at the site of a protest—but it is now no longer institutionalized by the state and it is gendered feminine.  Last, and perhaps most important, while the kissers are plainly and visibly in a public space, there are no onlookers who can channel a public attitude about what is going on.  Indeed, there is a clear sense of voyeurism here as we, the viewers, seem to be intruding on an altogether private moment.

 So what are we to make of this photograph?  The caption identifies the kissers as protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, the site of prolonged and massive public protests against rampant crime, protracted food shortages, and an altogether ineffective and authoritarian government.  The government crackdown against such protests has resulted in nearly forty deaths and hundreds of injuries, leading to demands for investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS).  That too has produced its own manner of controversy as the OAS leadership challenged the legitimacy of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to address the body.  When she was finally allowed to speak, the sessions were held behind closed doors; one member of the OAS noted that the meetings would be conducted “With total transparency: In privacy.” The photograph above seems to mock this “war is peace, slavery is freedom” logic as it failingly purports to perform intimacy in a public space under the broken veil of privacy.  There may be no viewing public observable to legitimize the union, but then of course there is the camera and our own spectatorial gaze which gives the lie to the whole process.  Transparency in private is at best a comfortable fiction and at worst an intentional deception.

There is an additional dimension to the photograph that bears attention, and it has relatively little to do per se with the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.  Instead, it concerns how we understand  Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square Kiss and all it stands for in our cultural memory.  The original kiss photograph took place on the occasion of VJ Day and the end of World War II.  It is often remarked as illustrating the return to normalcy.  But its contrast with the image above helps to reveal how constructed the conventions of such normalcy can be: men kissing women, women being kissed; the legitimation of violence as a manifestation of masculine, state governed military institutions; the forced separation of Eros and Thanatos; the performance of intimacy in public, and so on.  All such constructions—or should we call them “comfortable fictions”— indicate a particular worldview, to be sure, and perhaps even one that we might want to endorse, but the point is that it is particular, not universal.  Each photograph shows “a” truth, or many such truths, but certainly not “the” truth, however objective the photographic representation of the event on hand might be.

As the song says, a kiss is just a kiss … or is it?

Photo Credit: Christian Veron/Reuters


A Return to Normalcy (?)

Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 9.49.07 PM

A sailor kissing a woman in public is not exactly news. But this photograph of a Russian sailor kissing a woman in St. Petersburg bears enough similarity to what is perhaps one of the most famous pictures in the American family photo album that it warrants just a little bit of consideration on our part.

Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Times Square Kiss”— often dubbed “Return to Normalcy”—marked VJ Day and the effective end of World War II.  Every ending is a beginning, of course, and so one might also imagine it as the beginning of the post war era which soon became known as the “Cold War” and extended until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The “War on Terror” has redefined our understanding of the East-West split in the intervening years and the Russian threat to the West has generally been muted by  its relatively weak economic condition and its willingness to cooperate on a number of small scale international initiatives. Muted, that is, until the Putin administration, which has demonstrated its willingness to resist entreaties from  the G8, NATO, and the United States on a range of issues beginning, not least, with the civil war in Syria.  And now with the Russian “occupation” of the Crimean peninsula and President Obama’s warning that this this will be seen as a serious threat to the US and the West, it is fair to say that we may be moving in a new and different direction in our mutual co-exsitence—and it is not entirely clear that we have an effective or useful vocabulary to describe the mentality that will govern this new relationship.  But back to the picture of the sailor and the woman kissing.

The photograph appeared in an on-line slide show on the Russian military that was posted two days before the Russian Parliament authorized a military takeover of the Crimea.  Most of the photographs in the slide show focus on members of the Russian military in training and, truth-to-tell, in many instances it would be difficult to distinguish what we see from training sequences in almost any modern military organization across the globe, including the US military. But there are also a number of photographs that mark the scene as distinctively Russian, and more, link Russia with the image of its authoritarian, anti-Western, Soviet past, including near iconic images of soldiers and tanks making their way through Moscow’s Red Square in a show of strength.  And then, near the middle of the slide show we find the picture of the kiss.  And one can only wonder what it is doing in a photo essay otherwise dedicated to posing the question: does the Russian military pose a threat to the West?  It could be an ironic gesture that serves to damper what else appears to be the projection of a hostile and belligerent nation state.  See, they are just like us, humans caught up in the worldly tensions between Eros and Thanatos, and we need to identify with them as such with all of their foibles intact.  Or, it could be a more cynical gesture to a “Return to Normalcy” where the war was “cold” and we could identify who our enemies were–after all, that’s not exactly Times Square in the background and the kissers are not exactly front and center.  Comedy or tragedy, its really a matter of what we choose to see.

Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted on the Sunday morning talk shows as indicating that the current situation “is not Rocky IV.”  We can only hope so, for it would be all too easy to “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”  We have had too much of that in recent years.  And so, to return to where we began, no, a sailor kissing in a woman in public is not exactly news.  But then again, perhaps that’s exactly the point.

Photo Credit: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BagNewsNotes.


Icon Dismembered!

You might say they loved till their dying breath.  And left everyone else to pick up the pieces.

“No, Nancy, no, we can’t do this any more–I, I’m just a stump of a man!”  “That’s OK, Biff, I’m not the woman I once was, but I’ll love you with everything I’ve got.”

Roy Lichtenstein it’s not, but it is the 25 foot tall statue commemorating the iconic photograph of the “Times Square Kiss” taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt.  The statue is being moved from the San Diego waterfront to somewhere in New Jersey.  Not to worry, however, as the LA Times has reported that $1,000,000 was raised in eight weeks to purchase a replacement.  So one version of the iconic image is being dismembered, but only temporarily, and the result will be two versions instead of none.  Iconic reproduction continues even when it appears that the image is being dismantled.

But can you really dismember an iconic image?  Doesn’t an icon have a unique singularity, such that you always get the whole instead of a part?  Isn’t it an icon because it has resisted the forces of fragmentation and dispersion that are constantly at work in the media environment?  Well, actually, sometimes icons are broken up into their parts, whether as citations of the whole work or for other reasons as well.  It’s only because the statue is gargantuan, urethane, and imitating human bodily form that this dismemberment is unsettling enough to merit a news photograph.

What is interesting, however, is that the piece in the foreground contains all the features that distinguish this particular icon.  Compare it with the two pieces in the background (one is largely obscured) and you’ll see what I mean: the kiss itself, their postures, and their hands tell most of the story.  The rest is all uniform–which, like their actual uniforms, provides the background against with the figural distinction occurs.  Once again, by breaking up the image, the image is reconstituted anew.

Or not.  For there is another sense in which the image is being dismembered or, more precisely, disremembered.  The caption at the Washington Post slide show yesterday included this description: “The statue of two Navy sweethearts kissing.”  Much as I’d like to think otherwise about the major paper in Washington DC–but why am I not surprised?–it seems that the editor knew nothing about the original photograph.  The sailor and nurse in that photo were not sweethearts, but rather completely anonymous to one another, and she was not in the Navy.  Instead of historical veracity, the statue has been recontextualized in terms of its location beside the USS Midway museum in San Diego.

Many spectators along the waterfront may have seen it much the same way, and so the icon had already been dismembered, taken out of context, made a part of another time and place.  A similar transformation applies to the title”Unconditional Surrender,” which had been supplied by the sculptor, Seward Johnson, and also referenced by the Post.  While it could still refer to the surrender of Japan in August 1945, for many today it will refer only to a fantasy of romantic love.  This wholly privatized meaning can get by even though the hands of both the sailor and the nurse, faithfully reproduced to adhere to the iconic template, make it pretty clear that restraint was still somewhat the order of the day.  But that was then.

Today, iconic images are as solid as ever, which is to say: more than most, but less than you might think.

Photograph by Gregory Bull/Associated Press.


The New Normal

Perhaps one of the most famous photographs to come out of World War II—or any war—is the image of a nurse and sailor kissing in New York’s Times Square.  The “Times Square Kiss” is notable for many reasons and not least for the way in which it models the egalitarianism of the war effort (both sailor and nurse are in uniform), as well as for way in which it channels the public celebration of the end of the war (it was VJ day) through the spontaneous, heterosexual kiss of two anonymous individuals as they return to the “normalcy” of public life.  If war marks the enforced separation of the sexes and uniformed repression of the yearnings of private life, the subordination of Eros to Thanatos, the “Times Square Kiss” signifies the release of long suppressed passions.

Photographs of returning sailors, soldiers, and marines kissing their loved ones upon return from overseas duty have become a photojournalistic convention and it is difficult to look at the many such images and not see their tribute to the image of the sailor and nurse in Times Square.  Most such photos are full-bodied shots; the image above, however, taken recently in Washington, D.C. at the return of the 4th Civil Affairs Group, 2nd Marine Division from a 7 month deployment in Afghanistan, focuses only on a pair of feet, and in that fact the photograph seems to tell something of a different story.

There is no way to know for sure that they are kissing, of course, but the fact that her right foot rises above the floor and her weight seems to be firmly on her left foot suggests that she is leaning up and into a taller lover as if in an embrace.  The contrast between heels and combat boots implies that this is a heterosexual kiss, just as with the original “Times Square Kiss,’ but nevertheless ambiguity reigns as even female Marines would surely wear combat boots.  And more, photographs of public homosexual kisses between returning veterans and their loved ones is no longer a taboo (see here and here).  If nothing else, then, the photograph gestures to the possibility of shifting mores within the public culture, or at the least to the uncertainty of otherwise longstanding stereotypes of cultural normalcy.

The primary difference between this photograph and the “Times Square Kiss,” and here there is no ambiguity, is the privacy of the scene being represented.  And that privacy is marked in multiple ways.  To begin, and most obviously, there is nothing in the image that would indicate that this is a public space.  The flooring appears to be some kind of tile designed to look like marble, but it also has an indistinct, institutional quality about it that suggests that this could be just about anywhere—and nowhere in particular.  More to the point, there is no indication of a viewing or witnessing public of any kind.  The caption to the photograph notes that 35 Marines from this unit returned on this day, but of course there is no evidence of them whatsoever in the image.  In all likelihood they too are engaged in kisses and embraces with loved ones, but if this photograph is to be an index of the event they too are in all likelihood involved in personal, individuated celebrations.  The point is accentuated by the contrast between the combat boots and the high heels, both showing the scuff marks of normal, everyday wear that mitigates the distinction between military and civilian life.  While the anonymity of the full-bodied kissers in the original photograph underscored their status as individuals standing in for the public at-large, here the solitary focus on their shoes identifies them as private individuals representing only themselves in a closed and private universe.  Nor perhaps should this surprise us all that much.  After all, the war in Afghanistan is the longest war in the nation’s history, and given that there is neither public consensus as to what our mission there is nor clarity regarding when it will actually end—promised schedules notwithstanding—it should come as no surprise that there is no public witnessing or celebration of such returns.

The original “Times Square Kiss” was often captioned “The Return to Normalcy” and here we might be witnessing something like the “The New Normalcy.”  Whether we want to read that as a salutary world of changing mores concerning gender relations or as an increasingly frail, privatized world in which the public exercises no voice at all in such matters is a matter of what we choose to see.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Brittany E. Jones/USMC


How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis



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 lisa-carlton@uiowa.edu.

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Going Gaga Over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

WP.Lady Gaga. 2010-09-21 at 4.54.10 PM

Notwithstanding the oratorical skills of Lady Gaga, the U.S. Senate voted today to block debate on a bill designed to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  It might be easy to lay the blame on the forty Republican Senators, bolstered by two renegade Democrats (plus the majority leader whose vote was a procedural ploy that allows him to reprise the bill at a later date), who voted against letting the bill come to the floor for debate, but that would be to ignore any number of complicating issues, such as efforts by the Democratic majority to add contentious amendments to the bill concerning immigration policy.  All of which is to say that its not exactly clear what specific interests were being served here on either side of the aisle.

One might imagine this as standard operating procedure for a legislative body that seems intent on letting partisan political self-interest stand in the way of national interest, and hardly worthy of note but for the presence of Lady Gaga.  What is interesting here is how the national media has given significant attention to her ersatz protest rally without fully recognizing the way in which her transparently self-conscious spectacle is not just an appeal for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but is also (and maybe more) a parody of the mass mediated political process itself.  To get the point, notice how many if not most of the reports on her rally are primarily if not exclusively photographic, almost to the exclusion of any consideration of what she actually had to say. The irony, of course, is that a quasi-faux rally cast as political spectacle received far more coverage than the presumably unintentional spectacle of actual Senators deciding the fate of the military.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of the Lady Gaga rally occurred in the pictures of the day slide show at the Washington Post.   Despite the possible significance of the Senate filibuster on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the pictures of the day at WAPO feature a photographer at a photo fair in France trying on a pair of 3-D glasses, a child in Slovenia sitting next to his friends on a curb and with a bucket on his head, and Bristol Palin displaying her legs in a PR shot for the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”  There are no pictures regarding the debate over gays in the military.  Or at least not at first glance.  But as one moves through the thirty seven images in the slide show one eventually comes across the above photo of Lady Gaga, public advocate, characterized as “rail[ing] against what she call[s] the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service, while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.” The alternative she prefers, we are told, is to “target straight soldiers who are ‘uncomfortable’ with gay soldiers in their midst.” That the caption fails to acknowledge either the irony or the parody of Lady Gaga’s performance is underscored by the two photographs that follow.

The first of these photographs shows a “former” member of the Air Force taking a picture of the rally.

Standing Agsint the Flag for Lady Gaga 2010-09-21 at 11.07.37 PM

Perhaps he is one of those “good hearted gay soldiers,” but nothing in the photograph suggests as much.  Indeed the photograph suggests incoherence as much as anything. Shot in long distance we see only his face and hands as they peek up from behind a poster to take a picture for Twitter of the anonymous and faceless audience waving hands.  The background shows a large American flag, but its meaning is made ambiguous by the somewhat incomprehensible legend on the poster that implores the audience to “Leave them Speechless.”  Lacking any reference to context, the overall effect of the photograph is one of clutter and confusion. And as a result, the political and parodic effects of the rally are muted, or worse, made to appear senseless.

It is the second photograph, however, that by contrast politicizes the slideshow, suggesting an antidote to the apparently incoherent spectacle of Lady Gaga’s rally.

Leaving for Iraq2010-09-21 at 7.12.21 PM

Here we have a member of the Army National Guard preparing to leave for a training assignment in Texas and a subsequent deployment to Iraq.  Shot in medium close-up, a soldier (not a “former soldier”) and his wife say goodbye.  It is a tender moment.  The two lovers gaze into each others eyes as he offers solace by placing his left hand on top of her right wrist, while her right hand gently supports her chin in a gesture that suggests a degree of vulnerability.  It is hard to tell if she is smiling or crying, and probably she is doing a little of both given the stresses and strains of the impending separation.  He is apparently “straight,” but it is hard to imagine him harboring “hatred” towards anyone, let alone why he should be “targeted.  Indeed, though this is a scene of separation and not reunion, and while he is not a sailor nor she a nurse, one can nevertheless imagine them embracing in Time Square to the nodding approval of the public that views them.

And therein lies the problem. For what gives this photograph its affective power is the way in which it visually repeats the conventions of the famous Times Square Kiss. It not only foregrounds traditional, heteronormative assumptions, but it does so by valorizing a private moment in a public space.    Of course there is nothing especially new here.  We have long sought to manage our anxieties about war and the military by normalizing our understandings in the context of a sentimentalized heteronormativity.  To get the full effect, imagine two men or two women in the same pose.  And, that, of course, is the point.  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Sentimentality, it seems, trumps parody … or at least in this case.  But in truth, both scenes are media spectacles that demand more careful attention than the tired and nonchalant glance they are too often given by contemporary media.

Photo Credits: Joel Page/Reuters, Pat Wellenbach/AP, Joe Jaszewski/AP

Crossposted at BagNewsNotes