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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

That One Picture

Updated. See the ETA below, inserted in the topically proper location.

There's a photo making the rounds, you've probably seen it (hi Sis!):

It's a hell of a picture, no way around it.

But it's not Tank Man, it's not any of the various pictures from the civil rights movement. Although, I admire everyone in the picture, in a way, except for one. The photographer should be smacked. Still, Tank Man was taking a real risk (and for all we know, died as a result of his actions). Civil rights activists were actually mauled by actual dogs, and so on. This was, like Tank Man, a scene deliberately constructed by the protester, which places it in a category. It was constructed, unlike Tank Man, at very little risk to the protester, which places it in a smaller and less interesting sub-category.

Let's clear away some underbrush. As far as I have learned, the woman was engaged in a basic act of civil disobedience. Good for her. As far as I can tell, the cops did their jobs professionally and calmly, without drama or rancor. Everyone moved through their appointed roles in the approved fashion. Do those cops know they looked like assholes? Of course they did. It's part of the job. The point of civil disobedience is to force the authorities into situations in which they or their appointed servants look like assholes, until they get sick of looking like assholes all the time and enact some changes. Props all around, more or less.

Is the picture a good piece of social commentary? Yes, in a way. It juxtaposes certain things and displays a sort of allegory of the current narrative pretty well. It speaks to excessive militarization of the police, which is a pretty legit political position to be taking these days. It's not like only crazy communists are saying maybe the cops are little too SWAT and not enough Friendly Officer Bill these days, lots of sensible people are saying that. You may or may not agree, but it's not some weird fringe position.

The trouble with the picture is that the immediate narrative it suggests most strongly is outright false. The police were caught mid-motion, in perhaps some kind of weird stutter-step. Those unreadable postures (possibly perfectly natural, like Muybridge's galloping horse, a moment we normally do not perceive has been frozen for our delectation) together with the riot gear are highly suggestive of imminent violence, of an explosive situation. The photographer, we may justifiably assume, shot a bunch of frames before and after the one he chose to show us. Those frames, we might reasonably guess, depict bored cops calmly moving up on a civil disobedient and arresting her, without a drop of drama. This, however, is the frame we are shown.

ETA: There is indeed a sequence of frames which has indeed been published. They show, clearly, some cops hustling up to a woman who does not resist, and hustling her off. They are not obviously bored, the vibe is to my eye much more "gotta get this woman outta the street gotta get this woman outta the street gotta gotta get" and off they hustle, no fuss, no muss, no bother. The weird posture is "hustling cops" frozen in time. Interestingly, once you've seen the sequence, the weird posture is a lot less weird looking and the original picture seems a lot less charged. I remember distinctly the sensation of violence on the verge of explosion, but I no longer see it in the picture. The veil has been removed and the picture is much weaker, but much more true, to my eye. Neat, huh?

This frame, presumably, meets the laughable standards of The Press. No Photoshop! And yet it is a lie, it strongly suggests something that never happened. That suggestion of violence, of something unreadable but probably bad, is a real part of the picture's power. But that suggestion is, by the photographer's own account, completely false. There was never a sniff of such a thing. This was a peaceful protest, the police presence was professional, calm, and reasonable, the selected civil disobedients were scooped up in the approved fashion, and everyone was released the next day.

This immediate falseness damages the picture as a piece of larger social commentary. While it does indeed depict a relevant political idea, it is damaged by the facts of the case. That the woman in the picture chose, at low risk, to be arrested damages that sense of danger. The fact that there in fact was no danger certainly damages that sense of danger. Without the sense of danger, it tends to fall apart into a line of bored dudes sweating in heavy costumes, and a pretty woman in a really great dress. Pictures of this sort only really work when they both support one side's position, and stun the other side into silence, or at best incoherent blather. Sontag was right, the story that is ultimately wrapped around the picture is the important part, the picture is just the tip of the spear.

This is exactly equivalent to Diane Arbus' roll of boring pictures of some kid playing with a toy hand grenade, with one frame where he happens to be making a weird face. That's the frame she prints, because it's awesome. But it too is false.

Compare also with Gene Smith's "Tomoko in her Bath" which is "photoshopped" all to hell. Today's NYT would probably refuse to publish it. But it is far more true than the picture we're looking at here. Everything important in the frame is true. The mother's love, the child's deformity, the tragedy. The narratives that picture suggests most strongly are all precisely true, even if the rendering of the shadows is not.

That the press is, apparently, propagating this thing all over and promoting it as "iconic" and so on speaks, loudly, to the bankruptcy of that enterprise.

But you know, it's still a hell of a picture.


  1. You mean those cops are not dancing like puppets, spellbound by her beautiful song? Damn...


  2. My first thought was "what a strong picture", too. But in an afterthought I find it too pretty, too clean and too obvious for the matter it tries to depict (police brutality). Given the large number of black citizens killed by the police, I'd even say that it borders on being distasteful.

    Want to see some authentic pictures of police brutality here in Germany (beware, they may be considered "graphic"):




    Those may also be considered as "iconic", since they ignited a broad discussion and eventually caused the conservative government of the state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg to lose the subsequent elections.

    Background: The German railroad company planned a new station in Stuttgart, which was resented by a huge percentage of citizens. This resulted in a series of demonstrations; the pictures where taken on Sep. 30, 2010, later known as "black thursday". On this day, a demonstration by mostly highschool students and pensionists was forcefully dissolved by the police, causing lots of attendants being wounded. The gentleman on the first picture was hit into the face by the spout of a water gun as he tried to rescue a group of students. He has lost his eyesight almost completely in the event.

    Ask google if you want to know more. Thinking about this fills my heart with anger, which I don't want.

    Best, Thomas

    1. This might be a language issue, but I don't think this photo is attempting to portray "police brutality".

  3. The photographer describes the moment here: http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/07/a-single-photo-that-captures-race-and-policing-in-america/490664/

  4. The comparisons between this photo and Tank Man make me laugh. I don't see any threat from the police to the lady. I see a lady that looks like she's an X-Man and is pushing back the police with her mind; Magneto style.

  5. I'm pretty troubled by the comments here. Do any of you have any idea of the courage it takes to do something like that in the context of what is happening to black people today? I'm willing to bet that all of you are white boys (like me) that will never experience the racism this woman faces everyday. So what if it isn't Tank Man. There's a disturbing undertone of comparison and underlying racism in that comparison.

    1. I'm going to let this one through, but no more. I do not stand with people who want to sling accusations of racism around willy nilly.

      Please assume that other commenters are reasonable, decent, adult people and that any such problems are more likely to lie in your reading than their intent.

    2. Amolitor,

      Your blog, your right to moderate. No problem there, but I think you misunderstand my intent, however poorly phrased on my part. I'm sure that the other commentators, as I like to think of myself, are "reasonable, decent, adult people." But that's exactly the problem. "Reasonable, decent, adult people" can and do have unconscious, unexamined, and unaware racial attitudes the go the spectrum all the way to racist. What I was trying to say was from my viewpoint, there's an undertone in the remarks that says (to me) unexamined racist attitudes/beliefs. I'm *NOT* trying to say I haven't (and still do) done the same thing myself. I've just been fortunate to have people in my life who call me on it and help me examine my own attitudes and beliefs.

    3. Yes, I do understand, and I think your intentions are essentially honorable and decent.

      I do think it's worth pointing out that the object under discussion, the thing at which remarks are being directed, is a photograph. It happens to be a photograph which the media (controlled almost exclusively by affluent, non-black, men) is furiously trying to connect to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is itself not precisely the same as actual black people.

      Pointing out problems with this picture, problems with the media frenzy surrounding it, problems with connections being bandied about, ridiculing the posture of the policemen in the picture, and so on, is many many many steps removed from any commentary on Actual People of any race whatever. We might as well be talking about the moon.

  6. The kind of photographer I am is the one that points a camera at a subject and takes 20 or 30 shots while twitching randomly about - cuz only one at most will randomly turn out (i.e I'm not a photographer, I can't compose, I only recognize after the fact that this one image kinda maybe captures what I was looking at and/or thinking about when I was thwacking away at the shutter button like a monkey at a typewriter; sometimes, a completely new thing will show up in the image-collection - not often, but sometimes…)

    So I really get the approach of taking a bunch of photos as this guy did and then there is this ONE. That really looks cool, and expresses maybe what he was thinking and/or looking at, or maybe it's something totally new. For me, that's a totally valid way of doing business cuz it's the only way I do business, kind of a post hoc photographer maybe…heh.

    Two things charm me here, or really, enchant me. The first is…photographic, or artistic, I guess - All the Incredible Movement. In those black SWAT-armoured bodies, and the responsive airy gusting-out of her light garment; and then the contrast - all that (yes, yes, apparent, momentary) stillness and serenity expressed in her body - it's one micro-moment that has a particularly awesome look and truth inside itself (I'm also charmed in a bit of humorous way by her tall regality and their crouching-swirling demonic-ness, hooohooo, a very operatic feel!)- and then of course all the surrounding moments that he photographed but has not yet released are about other "topics" as mentioned in the post above, handcuffing and such - which would be a neat complementary/contextual photo-essay maybe, huh.

    The second thing is the incredibly dense social context in terms of I guess it would be social media? the image shows up, and within minutes we know ALL about the photographer, and the timeline and location and series of events, and the woman, and probably if I dug around, by now someone will have posted links to the two cops' Facebook pages… so we view the photo and perceive its artistic weight and references and so on, and then we know... all this other stuff as well because we're all so linked in… I think that aspect is new as compared to… well, especially the Tianamen photo for example where the man and his fate are actually quite mysterious...

  7. This photo by Marc Riboud during a protest of the Vietnam War is an iconic photo --- https://iconicphotos.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/1967_par37859_comp.jpg?w=700 ---- the one pictured here "might" win a clip contest :)