Political Struggle in a Time of Polarization
All photographers know photographs don’t lie. An image taken by a camera through a lens and shutter system is a mechanical fact influenced by the limits of the frame, composition and timing. The “lying” begins when someone looks at the image and projects meaning into it. Captions are generally where the dishonesty of photographs begin; a caption may be partly or entirely false. Photoshop, of course, has called everything into question. Beyond a photographer’s competence, the power of an image like the one of Ryan comes down to the juxtaposition of symbols that add layers of meaning for those sensitive to the symbols. The great French documentary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase “the decisive moment.” It's the quality of being a photographer in the right place at the right time to, theoretically, capture an image that sums up an entire event or larger reality. It can become a zen-like, mystical challenge for photographers. What is the true reality of any moment in time? And can it be captured by an un-constructed, un-posed image?
The more you dig into Stephen Crowley’s January 4th image, the more interesting it becomes. I read a sense of pain and/or boredom in the faces of the four House functionaries whose faces we can see. There’s the guy top left who seems to be lining up paperwork ducks for Ryan. Below him at left, a man is writing intently in some very fat legal tome. To his left, a man sits looking a bit sour, as if he’s in some kind of funk. Maybe it's late and he wants to go home. Or maybe he's sour because he doesn't trust journalists and he's looking at Crowley working his large Canon with its long lens, his motor drive rapidly collects dozens of images in a matter of seconds. The young African American man may be caught in a blink; but, then, his lips are a bit slack, suggesting he may be dozing off. We just don’t know. The camera and lens have not lied; but like drops of color dye in water, when observed, fiction begins to seep into the meaning of the image.
When politics gets as polarized as it is now in the United States, the classic struggle between fascism and socialism insinuates itself into the political uncertainties of the moment. If someone doesn’t see or understand any of this symbolic baggage, does that mean it's not there? Is it only in the heads of un-American citizens?
1900: Fascism vs. Socialism