reading the ‘situation room photograph’

Just looked at Marco Bohr’s visual culture blog and his commentary on the photograph of Obama watching the attack on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.

Marco has also a collected a great set of spoofs of this photo on that post.  Here’s one I found:

Private Eye is a satirical magazine in the UK. Here it’s commenting rather cruelly on the fate of the Lib Dems, the junior partner in the current national government coalition, in the local elections held earlier in May this year.  Marco describes these sorts of spoofs as constituting “a wave of creativity (and mockery)”, and he’s right.  But what does that do to how we interpret the photograph itself?

The classic cultural studies approach to a photograph like this would be to isolate specific elements of it and discuss how they relate to wider structures of meaning: a mix of semiology and discourse analysis.  (Although of course one of the very interesting things about contemporary visual culture is that an awful lot of people can do this sort of analysis now, not just tenured profs in cultural studies departments: just listen to a radio phone-in about ‘the media’.)  Marco does something like this when he discusses the implications of how the photo pictures the figures of Barack Obama, Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb (the guy in the uniform) and Hilary Clinton. Looking at Clinton, for example, he suggests that her face is showing “tension, shock, and maybe even fear”, and since she’s the only person in the room showing any emotion, he suggests that the photograph is drawing on and reproducing the idea that women are more emotional and less rational than men.

Well, yes, I get that.  Except… is she looking very emotional?  The more I look at the photo, the less sure I am that she is.  Somewhere in his fantastic book on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says that the photograph is “matte and somehow stupid”, and that the more you look at one the less you see in it.  This photo reminds me of that comment; I’m just not sure how to read Hilary’s face and hand.  So, is there a risk that, as good cultural studies scholars, when we read gender stereotypes into images, we are ourselves reproducing dominant discourses of gender?  Moreover, how are we supposed to interpret the sheer silliness of some of the spoofs of that photo?  What are we to make of the hunk pasted into the back of the room, or the one where everyone is wearing the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William recently?

While it’s tempting sometimes to think that the main reason so many cultural studies scholars have now abandoned the interpretation of representation is because that skill is now very widespread — hence to preserve their mystique they now deal with philosophers and theorists far more abstruse than Stuart Hall ever was — thinking about what’s happened to the ‘situation room photograph’ also suggests some other reasons why critiquing the politics of representation can sometimes seem rather tired now.  First, there’s that concern that, in identifying oppressive representations, we are reproducing the power relations they picture, rather than dislodging them; secondly, there’s a sense that ‘dislodging power’ is rather beside the point of the joyful daftness of the spoofs that so many media images generate; and finally, there’s the perhaps rather more interesting issue of all that spoofing going on.  Perhaps the spoofing is the thing to explore, rather than — or maybe as well as — the meaning of the texts it produces.

I mean, just how did whoever made the hat spoof get all those hats at all those different angles?  How to approach the time, skill and energy that’s put into such spoofing?  And what are the effects when such spoofs travel into all sorts of different contexts, including, heaven help them, visual culture blogs like mine and Marco’s?

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