Friday, June 11, 2021

An Article

The usual suspects are passing around this article, How the George Floyd Uprising Was Framed for White Eyes with the usual approving nods. It's the sort of thing I think is always worth reading, and it's not terrible. Nor is it particularly good, though.

The reason the usual suspects like it is because it is a succinct and fairly cogent summary their preferred theory of media. Every generation is certain they have the objectively true theory, and that all previous generations were basically just kidding themselves, and sort of dim. The author is a remarkably well-spoken recent graduate, so it's not really surprising that it contains no original thinking. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with applying contemporary ideas to things you see around you, but that is the character of this piece.

The conceit of the article is, essentially, that photojournalistic photos of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are drawn from a limited palette of possible tropes, which tropes specifically lend themselves to a specific interpretation by a specific audience. You can go read the details if you like, but I confess I don't find them particularly interesting and those details are not something I want to devote much time to here.

A brief note on protests: for the most part, at least here in the West, protests are a ritual, a system of gestures and set-pieces that we collectively perform to exhibit our political opinions as a collective. The purpose is ostensibly to generate change, but this never occurs in modern times. The underlying purpose is to build community, to shore up our beliefs with the knowledge that others share them. It is essentially a rain dance, a highly ritualized social/community action which does not in fact produce rain, but which serves a number of useful social functions.

My kids attend a lot of protests with their dad, because I believe strongly in those social functions.

The gestures and set pieces tend to be camera-ready, because we have learned them from the camera. The signs, the chants, the inevitable march to somewhere from wherever. Occasionally the sheer emotion of the moment overwhelms the crowd and it becomes a riot, and that too is largely ritualized.

I am not a specialist in the area, but my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement protests in the USA is that they were consciously ritualized. The difference today is we pretend very hard that the gestures and set pieces of protest are organic, emergent, a natural outflow of the emotion of the crowd in response to the injustice they see. Which, to be fair, is perfectly true, but the crowd draws upon a small set of visual pedagogy in developing their own strategies.

There is a reason all protests look the same.

Back to the topic at hand. The general argument of the article I introduced above is to offer up the tropes with examples, and to say "well, there you are, see?"

It is a bit like arguing that the children are limiting themselves by building only with LEGO and Lincoln Logs, and then offering up documentation of a lot of LEGO and Lincoln Log structures built by the children. There is an essential missing step here, which is to list something else the children might be building with. You have to actually say "And look, here are Tinkertoys, which the children are not using." The Mother Jones piece notably lacks any examples of these other notional pictures that might be made, to illustrate the alternatives to the tropes. There are by my count two sentences which suggest ideas which ought to be portrayed but are not, and there are no hints offered as to how one might photograph those abstractions.

The tropes, as offered, in fact cover a lot of territory. Here is option A, which is read in such-and-such a way by our notional audience of liberal white people. Here is option B, which has precisely the opposite meaning to that same notional audience, but somehow leads to the same place. Here is option C, again quite different, but again mysteriously leading the same conclusion. Without meaning to the article offers a fairly cogent argument that, whatever the photograph, it is positioned and sold against the same backdrop of meaning and results in the same received messages. About this, more in a moment.

What the article gets right is that meanings are, by and large, imposed on photographs by the audience on the basis of, well, a lot of things including the surrounding material (text, other visuals, in this case.) Multiple readings are, the article admits, perfectly possible, and indeed occur. It is the specific tranche of White Liberals who see these pictures in these particular ways, we are told. One could argue about whether that specific tranche of White Liberals even exists, but let us stipulate that they do. Someone is reading "Mother Jones" after all.

What the article gets wrong, I think, is the idea that there are specific tropes which uniquely lend themselves to this reading by these people.

It suggests as a corollary that there are other photographs, those Tinkertoys if you will, which would uniquely lend themselves to other readings. It fails, as noted, to provide any such photos, or ideas for what they might look like, and I think the entire enterprise is bankrupt, thus:  

An alternative possibility is that virtually any photographs at all could be read that way by those people, given a suitable presentation. This is my position.

The piece leads off with the more or less sui generis photo from 1963 of Walter Gadsden being attacked by a police dog. I say it is sui generis, the only one of its type, because of the remarkable ambiguity in the action-packed, information-dense, scene. Unlike the standard protest and riot tropes, you can see a lot of faces, a lot of expressions, there's a ton of body language in play. The cop and Gadsden are interacting in a profoundly ambiguous way. Anyone who's taken a lot of pictures is likely to guess that this is one of those photos of frozen motion which in no way resembles the actual scene, like a blink.

News photos almost never have that "blink" character. They invariably at least appear to be accurately giving a sense of an unfolding situation. The Gadsden photo, while obviously a "blink," is also obviously so powerful a visual that it passed muster and got printed.

The standard tropes of riots and protests certainly avoid this kind of thing. Faces are frequently abstracted away. We want either an undifferentiated mass of people, or a single figure in a dynamic posture ideally with their face hidden. In addition to being generic in this sense they also hew to the standard photojournalism model, and present the appearance of accurately summarizing some unfolding moment, rather than being a "blink."

There absolutely are standard tropes here. Nobody lies down to photograph the crowd's feet, nobody focuses in on single faces in the crowd, nobody takes blurred photos, nobody singles out signs, etc etc. My position is not that tropes don't exist, but rather that the tropes that do exist don't support any particular political position. The standard photos are not specially open to specific political readings. The standard tropes exist and are taken specifically to standardize, to make generic, the visual representation of these events.

The Gadsden photo differs from the standard protest fare in another way: it is a moment that is outside the gestures and set-pieces of protest. It was an accident. Gadsden was just walking by, the dog went for him for some reason, and the cop is in fact trying to pull the dog off him while simultaneously manhandling Gadsden. What exactly the hell is going on in the cop's mind is unclear, but he's not setting his dog on a protestor. Similar imagery exists from within the set-pieces of the time, certainly. The dogs were set on protestors, as a part of the performance of power by the police, and the corresponding performance of protest by the protestors. This particular event, however, took place as it were outside the theater. It is as a consequence more humanistic than the typical photos, even from that time.

The photos we see today are invariably taken inside the theater, and of generic situations, generic actors, generic gestures. They are not particularly humanistic, and they specifically document the predetermined ritual gestures, in predetermined ways, specifically to made the event generic. This is the function of photojournalism, broadly, so make every event generic, to thus connect it to other similar events, to create a thread of history as a sequence of similar events.

This is not to say that stories are not shaped to appeal to whatever the audience is, whether it be White Liberals or Trumpists, or whatever else. The point is that the photos are generic, and will serve any outlet's purpose. The NYT shapes the story one way, Fox News shapes it another. There is no reason on earth they can't use the same photographs, because each photograph's job is only to reify the protest as a protest.

"There was a protest this afternoon in Someplace, and here are the photos to prove it. Look, it looks exactly like a protest. Now let us tell you about the protest, and why it means whatever it is you, our audience, expect us, your media, to say it means."

This point is, I think, cogently argued by the Mother Jones piece, although it clearly doesn't intend to argue that way. The piece offers up 5 of the standard issue tropes, 5 thoroughly contradictory tropes, for reifying a protest; it shows how each one is shaped by the surrounding material to produce a specific message to a specific audience. You could write the same piece about essentially identical photos found in conservative media, and show how the message is shaped to appeal to those readers.

It's so tempting to media theorists to ascribe these kinds of powers to photos, but it's just wrong. Media shapes culture, to a degree, but this isn't the mechanic by which it does so.


  1. I'm finding interesting parallels with linguistics. Probably most people think Media controls our dialects and slang, but I learned recently that linguists have found that isn't so. Many expressions that appear among west coast teenagers, for example, didn't come from some movie or tv show, but seem to have emerged from the culture independently. The example I saw was the use of "like" in place of "say," as in, "... so she was like 'No way!'", which apparently no Hollywood writer thought of. We get our dialect from the people we actually talk to, and not from pictures and videos.

    1. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, having been more or less rejected in linguistics, has found a new home in media studies.

      Attractive ideas like that one tend to float around, finding new homes as they are chased out of old ones. Freud's terrible ideas keep turning up in new places too.

      It's not clear that the media studies crowd is bright enough to ever get around to rejecting Sapir and Whorf, though.

  2. Another silly and pointless thing for photoland to glom onto and nod together in unison with an eerily blank stare.

    "These photos are from different protests, yet they were placed together on the New York Times’ June 1 front page." -- the article. Gosh ... do ya think maybe they were trying to illustrate multiple protests, not just one?

    Interesting that no alternative examples were furnished.


    1. A little research reveals that the author is about 22 years old, and a recent graduate of some variation of a Bachelor's of Wokeology, so by the standards of the class the piece is practically genius-level writing.

  3. A photo which caught my attention during the British BLM protests last year has just been revisited in an article in today's Guardian:

    You might find it interesting - it's a bit different from merely generic protest photos, though of course capable of more than one interpretation.

    1. I remember well when that photo was in wide circulation! Thanks for the reminder.

      Definitely an off-script moment there, eh? That's definitely not in the "Protest Handbook" anywhere.

      So it seems to have been a genuine moment of human compassion, a feather in the cap for BLM. And, at the same time, it is positioned as a piece of propaganda marketing BLM protesters as The Good Guys.

      Both are true. The best propaganda is true, because it's so much harder to refute true things!

  4. As an irregular protest-attender and avid, if horrible, hack photographer, I've almost always been wildly disappointed when my photographs from protests don't look anything like Gasden's or other newsy ones.
    In part, I'm always at safe, boring, protests: nobody with guns, minimal police presence, some chanting and banner waving for an hour or two, maybe a speech or three that no one can hear, maybe a march to somewhere, more chanting and banner waving and then everyone goes home. No mace or dogs or smoke bombs, no ANTIFA, probably some minimal cointelpro, but not much to report on. And still, if I were a *better* photographer, I might make some protest photographs that look like protest photographs, instead of looking like the usual lazy garbage that I tend to come up with.
    I think perhaps I'm on to something, now, and that maybe my more unique views of protests might be of value somehow... Nah.