July 8, 2007

The (Visual) Politics Of Prayer


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Before we start today’s post, I would like to offer a prayer.  Readers, would you please stop for a moment, and bow your heads?

"Dear Lord, please bless American politics, including all those who help picture it, so that we might have a clearer window into the people and the process of government. "


Yesterday, the NYT had an extensive article  detailing Hillary Clinton’s religious identity.  I found the lead photo an act of inspiration.  What is compelling about this shot is, well, how religious it is, and how effectively it conveys an inner moment.

Really though, what we’re faced with here is a stunning lack of context.  As presented in the article, the photo’s caption (both in print and on-line) fails to situate us at all.  It simply reads: Hillary Rodham Clinton says she was raised "in a praying family."

Also, the physical setting is so ambiguous as to grant the possibility (given those two-plus, large, blurry architectural elements in the background) that the pic was taken in a church of perhaps a more modern design.

Because the two next-most identifiable people in the picture are out of focus, and dressed so differently — one man immediately flanking Hillary in a suit,  the other in a brown jacket with what seems like a furry collar — it amplifies the lack of context, conferring that much more attention on Hillary — and her private moment.  As well, the specificity of the floral pattern in Hillary’s jacket and the way it evokes nature also helps keep the focus on her, and the theme of spirit.

Last but certainly not least is the depiction of prayer itself.  The act of praying is typically so sacrosanct, it tends to counteract the instinct to think more analytically about the image, making one’s gaze feel, instead, rather intrusive, disrespectful — potentially sacrilegious.


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If you believe there is anything overly private, personal, intimate or enduring about this scene, however, consider this shot by Chip Somodevilla.  It was taken April 13th at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, two months after the February 1st National Prayer Breakfast at that shrine known as the Washington Hilton where Hillary is depicted above.

Chip’s caption indicates his intention to capture Justice Alito.  For our purposes, however, the presence and scale of the photographers is the issue.  And it’s not just that they happen to be present at these  so-called religious events, but that circumstances actually allow for them to clickclickclickclickclickclick (-click) away during the act of prayer.

(image 1: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images.  February 1, 2007. Washington.  image 2: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. April 13,  2007.  Washington.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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