Essays

The Political Image as Embodiment of Cyclical Failure

By Brad Feuerhelm on July 12, 2016

“The image itself is being hailed as an icon of the current struggle between the American police state and the tremors of their abhorrent measure to kill young black Americans, which is no doubt racially and economically motivated”

This image is a complete failure. Not in the sense that the Black Lives Matter movement or protest politics are to be avoided. The image itself is being hailed as an icon of the current struggle between the American police state and the tremors produced by their abhorrent measure to kill young black Americans, which is no doubt racially and economically motivated. The struggle must continue.

One reason that this image is a complete failure that it is a cyclical repetition of French photojournalist Marc Riboud’s Iconic “Flower girl” photograph from 1967. The image features American 17 year old Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower up to a line of bayonets strapped to the guns of the National Guard who were dispensed to secure the anti-Vietnam war protest in Washington DC. Step forward to 2016 and Jonathan Bachman’s image, almost identical in socio-economic value, but tethered to the tumult of continued racial difference perpetuated by the military industrial complex in America is being hailed as something that it is not, original and inspirational. Compositionally, the photograph is nearly identical with the flower girl being replaced by a smart phone and a stoic, strong and beautiful young African American woman dressed impeccably holding her ground against fully robust anti-riot police. The dress code of the police has grown impenetrable. The riot gear a cross between a T-1000 and Robocop, Hollywood has re-played our aesthetic memory again. This is not to go unexamined. What has changed besides the progression towards ultimate violence and control?

riboud-sml

@ Marc Riboud

“The dress code of the police has grown impenetrable. The riot gear a cross between a T-1000 and Robocop, Hollywood has played our aesthetic memory again”

The Bachman photograph bears all the problems of 2016 and photographic culture in particular. We have given away our sincerest needs for the validation that protest imagery enables to the Hollywood icon machine. Riboud’s original work was not intended for the cinema, but in identifying images that hold “iconic status”, we are doomed to repeat the problems they illustrate. We must take some amount of sober recollection to what this means. It is to play a grave social problem on a loop. We are pilfering images of iconography-images that transcend a singular experience into mass understanding, but we are doing so with a zombie prescription that doles out its numbing elixir in repetition. With this repetition comes the sincere weight of repeating the past by welcoming ourselves the fold of the ineffective. This image is a sequel. It is a sequel to the challenges of protest and genuine political struggle. That the girl in the photograph is impeccably dressed, and that the image is cinematic is to play folly to the realities that it represents. We are caught in the vain insistence that we cannot share in a struggle unless there is an image to front it with. The Bachman photograph is not a plagiarism per se, but it is certainly more emblematic of the complete dissolve of society under the aforementioned repetition of images. We seem to be unable to understand a struggle unless it looks like a cinematic frame. We seem to understand it best when it feels familiar and this familiarity is the greatest part of the problem. Ieshia Evans, pictured in the Bachman photograph- the brave girl who held her ground in the advance of the machine is not to blame. Her dress code is not to blame. That we have to endear ourselves to such a perfect photograph is to blame. This is not new, Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”, Eugene Smith’s “Tomoko in her Bath”-all of these images play to cinematic perfection. The sin of all of this is that we have a collective and incessant need to even the struggle against oppression by playing out our empathy in images that we can relate to. Can you relate? White western educated affluent media reader, can you? We relate to the pieta of Smith’s child, we relate to countenance of the Migrant Mother. Why do we not agree to look at images that defy our belief system or our own positions? What has gone before and the miserable acknowledgement that this is indeed exactly as before, but the only difference recognized is that we are simply being shown the progression of industrialized control in its advancing state and that we are swallowing it because it looks well directed and well-lit.

“We are pilfering images of iconography-images that transcend a singular experience into mass understanding, but we are doing so with a zombie prescription that doles out its numbing elixir in repetition”

I am not opposed to the struggle being portrayed-far from it. I am opposed to the struggle being constantly regurgitated in the same image. It is conditioning society to the understanding of the sequel. That is to say…we are sadly familiar with it and we are waiting for it and the familiarity of it is cyclical and dismissive of its true intention. The worm in the apple is now the image in our eyes eating our collective corpus from the inside out by the conditioning towards understood and recycled iconography. We must destroy the image of ourselves. We must stop relying on its message to fabricate our understanding of the problems. This repetition is a very dangerous proxy for the mentality of true struggle. Proxy images and proxy sequels are destroying our way of interpreting and understanding real first-hand struggle. They are beating us into submission and worse, we are hailing them as prize-worthy.

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@ Jonathan Bachman

(All rights reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Jonathan Bachman/Marc Riboud.)

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