Against neutrality

The New York Times recently posted an article on Hope Hicks, who was one of the best-known but least visible former members of Trump’s White House staff, facing what is called “an existential crisis — whether to comply with a congressional subpoena”. The article frames its narrative as Hicks having to face her crime before Congress as a choice, instead of a well-deserved punishment — in this case, congressional subpoenas are legally binding, and those who do not honour them would face penalties. Not only that, accompanying the article is a shot of herself looking down longingly, face caked with makeup, contemplating her ‘consideration’ — basically, a glamour shot.

The article — for both the framing and narrative — invited torrents of comments from the folks in social media.

Democratic Trump opponent Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York even responded by comparing Hicks to the media’s coverage of shootings.

She also pointed out the unfairness that, “in the immediate aftermath of shootings, media routinely post menacing photos of people-of-colour victims and dredge up any questionable thing they’d ever done. But when Hope Hicks considers not complying with a subpoena, it’s glamour shot time.”

None of the article — the framing, narrative, and the choice of the image — is based on a neutral ground. It was even written by Maggie Haberman, the NYTimes journalist with a controversial background of writing articles normalising the Trump regime (citation needed). What’s especially striking of course, is the choice of her image. We were made aware that it was one of the old shots. But why specifically the one that made her look like she was about to drop her next album, a la Natalie Imbruglia?

(Credit: @FoundNames’ Twitter)

Writer, photographer, and art historian Teju Cole wrote a brilliant essay against the neutrality of photography. He started with, “Images, unlike words, are often presumed to be unbiased. The facticity of a photograph can conceal the craftiness of its content and selection.”

He pointed to a tweet by photographer John Edwin Mason, who mentioned: “Another reminder that manipulation in photography isn’t really about Photoshop or darkroom tricks.”

Embedded below this line was another tweet, which contained the photograph of a young woman. She was blond and wore a scoop-neck black sweater over a white blouse. Her eyes looked off to the side. The photograph was black and white, reminiscent of old Hollywood headshots. There was a link to an article at Foreign Policy’s website, and the subject of both the article and the photograph was Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a 26-year-old French politician and rising star of the far-right Front National.

Maréchal-Le Pen is the granddaughter of the enthusiastically racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, co-founder of the Front National. She has been careful not to sound too much like her grandfather, but she remains closely associated with his nativist priorities and xenophobic vision. She holds, for instance, the charming view that Muslims in France should not be allowed to have the same ‘‘rank’’ as Catholics. In a France gripped by anti-immigrant fears in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks, Maréchal-Le Pen and the Front National have had obvious appeal and increased political success.

Mason, asked by Cole to clarify what he meant by ‘manipulation’, responded:

‘‘The style of photography is instantly recognisable as that of a celebrity profile,’’ he replied. ‘‘It’s inviting us to identify with the subject and see the subject as attractive and desirable. If you wanted to glamourise young [Maréchal-]Le Pen, you’d pick precisely this photo.’’

Cole then provided more examples from David Shields’ book, War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict where “The New York Times, in particular, ‘‘glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images.’’” — which goes to show that NYTimes has a pattern/history of using photography on no unbiased ground, at all. Susan Sontag observed, “The frankest representations of war, and of disaster-injured bodies, are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known. With subjects closer to home, the photographer is expected to be more discreet.”

The book includes a number of crepuscular or otherwise moodily coloured scenes of choppers and trucks that could be outtakes from ‘‘Apocalypse Now.’’ But we also see a Navy doctor cradling an Iraqi orphan, President George W. Bush meeting U.S. troops in Qatar, the blasted landscape of an Iraqi city, an imam blessing a newborn in Brooklyn, a grief-stricken Palestinian man carrying a boy killed during a protest and a dead Iraqi soldier lying in the dust. Are these 64 photos, some of which are not war pictures at all, representative of The New York Times’s coverage over the decade in question? Even on the evidence Shields presents, The Times has published some great images, some less great ones, some that could be read as antiwar and some that could be read as pro-war propaganda.

There are several more examples in Cole’s article — including more war photography examples of “Disco Night Sept. 11” and “War Primer 2” — but the message is clear.

The camera is an instrument of transformation. It can make what it sees more beautiful, more gruesome, milder, darker, all the while insisting on the plain reality of its depiction. This is what Brecht meant in 1931 when he wrote, ‘‘The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter.’’

“Photojournalism relating to war, prejudice, hatred, and violence pursues a blinkered neutrality at the expense of real fairness.” This is why we need to always remember that images, like technology, are not innocent (remember the racist bridge?) — and why we must be able to examine every single information critically as they are presented to us.

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