When Dorothea Lange’s now-iconic portrait, “Migrant Mother” was published in the San Francisco News in 1936, as part of a story demanding relief for starving migrant workers, the picture mobilized public opinion and led to collective action. Nearly 80 years later, the image is primarily lauded for its artistry– conveying the kind of quiet nobility, dignity and perseverance for which The Greatest Generation is known. But in its day, the photograph literally saved the lives of pea pickers who’d been starving until Lange stumbled upon their camp and snapped five exposures of a mother with three of her seven children.
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
At its best, photography has the power to inform, enlighten and change minds. But the art form also has the power to shape perceptions, which may or not be rooted in reality, in which case the manipulation of shadow & light can be a very dangerous tool.
For better or worse, mass media has mastered the art of saying nothing while speaking a thousand words through the use of photography. And based on a recent image out of South Africa, I am reminded that a picture can also tell us as much about the observer, as it does the observed.
When the image below was recently used to illustrate a New York Times cover story about Oscar Pistorius, it looked familiar. And yet, I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen it before– never mind why I had a nagging sense that something was wrong with this picture.
There was something about the snapshot of Pistorius– who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in cold blood– that reminded me of something or someone from my past? Something… pious… is the only way to describe it. Odd, I know, given the circumstances under which his image was captured.
Eventually, the clues added up and the answer dawned on me.
The reason I was feeling so sorry for the protagonist in the tragic tale of a young woman gunned down as she stood behind a locked bathroom door in her boyfriend’s home, is because the lighting and composition of the Times’s picture came as close to making Pistorius look like a religious icon as anything I can remember in recent history.
For starters, there was his bowed head and stooped posture…
His contrite expression…
And the suggestion of an unwarranted persecution.
The juxtaposition of Pistorius standing before a bank on onlookers, had a positively apostolic ring to it.
And as for the halo of light that appeared to emanate from the Blade Runner himself: well, it would be putting it lightly to say I felt manipulated when considering that halos are typically reserved for those with unimpeachable character.
I don’t know who bears ultimate responsibility for the picture that ran in the Times, but I’d give anything to have been in on the editorial meeting just to hear what, if any, observations were shared. Did anyone else see what I saw in the Pistorius-as-martyred saint image? Or, am I being hyper-sensitive?
Given the coterie of photographers dispatched to Pretoria to cover this story, I imagine the Times had access to a multitude of pictures from which to choose.
This picture of Pistorious, looking teary-eyed and sorry, was taken at the same bail hearing where the more angelic likeness was snapped.
As was this exposure– which preserved a more sinister expression for posterity.
And yet, the picture the Times decided to run looked better suited to a 21-century retelling of “The Passion of the Christ” than what I’ve come to expect of murder trials involving once-beloved, testosterone-addled athletes accused of crimes of passion against their blonde, better halves.
Then again, maybe this is cause for celebration, because the choice to run a picture of an alleged killer looking like a choir boy is surely a harbinger of the media’s evolution.
Maybe the Dark Ages– when crime suspects were photoshopped to make them appear more menacing– are finally behind us.
Maybe the depiction of fallen idols as unpolished, nefarious, degenerates– on the cover of glossy magazines which are, ironically, typically devoted to photo-retouching and idol worship– has lost its caché.
And maybe all men can expect the Lance Armstrong treatment going forward: being given the benefit of the doubt against all odds, heroic portraits gracing the cover of national magazines, and headlines confiding “I Still Believe in Lance Armstrong” (even after the cyclist had just announced that he would no longer contest charges that he’d doped to win each of his seven Tour de France titles– which were later revoked when Armstrong admitted that he had, in fact, cheated in each of the contested races).
But I have my doubts.
I am fed up with the press’s willingness to abandon the fundamentals of objective storytelling the second once-beloved public figures fall from grace. The media’s propensity for aiding and abetting the public’s rush to judgement, before the accused have had their day in court is a stark example of the deterioration of a public trust, and an affront to the legacy of storytellers like Dorothea Lange. But what I find even more egregious is the uneven treatment of subjects based upon their race.
Which brings to mind another hero of 20th century photography: Gordon Parks.
Parks bought his first camera– a Voightländer Brilliant, for $12.50– at a pawn shop in 1937, and honed his craft alongside Lange at the Farm Security Administration: a New Deal effort created to combat rural poverty in America during the Depression. Parks eventually went on to become the first African-American hired as a photojournalist for Life magazine, but his experience there, and at countless other newsrooms, sensitized him to the insidious nature of racism.
Working in a pre-civil rights America, Parks identified a pattern among white editors in which they would habitually select the most unflattering images of black people to accompany their copy. Later in life, Parks was candid about the practice, and often talked about how if he submitted 100 images of black subjects, 99% of which were positive, time and again the sole negative image would be selected for publication.
The experience taught Parks how one picture could be used to either advance ignorance or inspire understanding; encourage indifference or foster compassion; elevate or indict his subjects– and informed his decision to be more judicious about what he submitted, and to whom, for any given assignments throughout his career.
I’d like to believe that Parks’s successors, whether people of color or not, working in newsrooms today don’t have to work under such constraints. But if the picture of Oscar Pistorius that inspired this blog are any indication, I can only imagine what real icons like Parks and Lange would have to say about the ugly abuse of such a beautiful art form.