June 8, 2005

Loaded Image


If you’ve been following the BAG, you know that I’m not one to follow the internecine struggles of the blogosphere. 

That said, I sort of got caught up in the initial buzz involving the Huffington Post, and the fact it was positioning itself as the anti-Drudge.  Because I keep track of news images — whether in pixels or on paper — I’ve been keeping an eye on the selection of news photo on both of these sites. 

I haven’t been keeping close enough track to say definitively — but yesterday might have been a first.  Meaning, the first time Arianna and Matt ended up running the same picture on the same story.   As shown above, the image illustrates the Supremely disappointing high court decision on Monday blocking the use of medical marijuana.  (For the lighter side, I just happened to notice that the person who wrote the story for the NYT‘s had the last name of Greenhouse.)

Anyway, I can understand Drudge running this shot — considering it is decidedly non-medical, with a hedonistic edge to it.  I have a little more trouble understanding the H-Post using it, though — unless a) they were drawn to the slightly "bad boy" tone, which they felt appealed to the Hollywood-side of their demographic, b) they just grabbed the first half-interesting shot they could find, or c) they stole it from Drudge.  (Of course, it could just as well be that Drudge stole it from Huff.)

But, let’s get to the visual rhetoric. 

As you know, the reason for the existence of this site is to raise the
visual literacy of the otherwise highly politically sophisticated. That
said, I wonder how the readers of HP and DR
actually read this shot, if they happened to give it much attention at
all. I spend a lot of time looking at political images each day, and I
couldn’t tell at first what this picture even depicted. (And yes, I was
straight.) Perhaps you might be quicker. At first, the "whiter" part of
the image to the left looked like a window or a poster (the "dividing
line" between the two shades of white meeting at the thumb tip first
appeared to me like the point at which a wall turns a corner). Finally
though, what emerged was this lamp — most likely made with hemp, with
a marijuana leaf embedded in it.

The part I’m not sure the conservative Drudge saw, however –unless
he’s actually partial to the ganga — was the shape in the smoke. As
always, you can make of these things what you will, but I see a heart.
Does this guy love his weed, or what?)

You might find my argument a little picky (which I can’t help,
because I’m just here to parse the pictures.) My problem with the
image, however, is simply that it reinforces the knee-jerk argument
against the drug. This case was about illness and the administration of
marijuana for strictly medicinal purposes.  (If
you’re not familiar with the court case, Angel Raich — one of the two
plaintiffs — relies on marijuana not just for relief of pain from
scoliosis and a brain tumor, but to ease chronic nausea and to
stimulate her appetite in order to counteract a physical wasting

With a man doing his business in the shadows, and the fact the
photographer captures the languorous blowing of smoke, which like the
similar phrase, adopts an indulgent affectation, the tone here is more
clearly geared to the dreaded "recreational" use of the evil weed (as
opposed to this
more straight forward, out-in-the open "ingestion" picture of the other
plaintiff, Diane Monson, for example). I would argue that this lamp
with it’s impressed leaf reinforcing the "let’s party" impression even
further. With all the cultural baggage and "loaded" associations we
carry about this substance, the lamp suggests this person’s passion for
pot has passed from simple recreation to emblematic lifestyle.

Maybe I’m making a big deal of this, but I don’t think you would find
the media depicting a Supreme Court case concerning the right of
teenagers to obtain condoms with the image of a prostitute making a
solicitation on a street corner. If that sounds extreme, I don’t think
the comparison is out-of-line. At the same time, one should keep in
mind that the tentacles of the far right "culture police" extend so far
these days, seemingly arbitrary visual associations (like this "stoner
poster boy") represent an intrinsic aspect of their campaign.

In cultural territory as "up for grabs" as this, the fact this image
even subtlety reinforces the "reefer madness" hysteria perpetuated by
the right-wing crazies (not to mention the Justice Department, the DEA,
the FDA and all those members of Congress essentially pimping for the
pharmaceutical industry), demands a little "push back."

Of course, I also don’t imagine Ms. Raich — upon the
conclusion of her (failed) day in court — would care to be associated
with the more hedonistic segment of the toking population, either.

(image: Thomas Wirth — AFP/File in YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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