June 12, 2011

On The First Post-Shooting Gabby Giffords Pix

Gabrielle Giffords. May 17, 2011. TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital

Gabrielle Giffords Official U.S. Congress portrait, March 24, 2010

“We want to give people a clear picture (about Giffords). It’s not in anyone’s interest to have anyone feel misled… — Pia Carusone, Gabrielle Giffords Chief of Staff. Arizona Republic interview, June 9, 2011.

I’m interested in how you read these two pictures, Gifford’s official Congressional photo in contrast to the photo released today on her Facebook page to intense media fanfare. (Photographer’s statement here.)

I ask because of the very different ways that pictures and words work, and because of the intense and contradictory expectations Gifford’s family and staff are negotiating in the media, in the political sphere and, certainly, in themselves over how to look at and think about Gabby — between someone who remains very much alive, vital and strong, as opposed to someone terribly diminished who might not recover beyond the point she’s at now.

What I’m also curious about is how we project hopes and expectations into the current photo, and what kind of perceptual forces are in play studying today’s Gabby — shorn, “out of uniform” but also as vital as she appears. Also I’m wondering how or how much we, as “lay viewers,” glean or assume to glean, functionally or emotionally, about her current neurological state.

And then, given the buzz surrounding the photo and the MSM’s addiction to sensationalism and celebrity (paired with human susceptibility to fantasy and fairy tale), I don’t think anybody should consume today’s photo without also absorbing the interview with Ms. Carusone. I can’t commend her enough for supplying as much reality about Giffords’ condition as words can convey. I’m sure the tendency to to only put out an encouraging image like this — along with the second photo, of Giffords with her mother — or to short shrift the sobering details is incredibly tempting. Certainly, I can imagine any number of different cases simply leaving the public to imagine miracles.

Actually, I had a sense the Giffords team was leaning that other way back in April when there was buzz, some of it from the White House, anticipating a blockbuster image with Giffords and the President against a backdrop of that Shuttle launch with Gabby’s husband, Mark, aboard. Of course, what a fantasy photo that would have been! Instead, what we were left with was a distant screen shot of Giffords taking a few labored steps in boarding a NASA plane to Florida, the launch (though, not a private Obama -Gifford meeting) scrubbed for weather.

As much as it challenges us, I think we’re better off with today’s photo. Just like real life, it pulls us simultaneously in opposite directions, hope moving one way, and reality the other.

(photo 1: P.K. Weis: SouthwestPhotoBank.com. May 17, 2011. TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital via Gabrielle Giffords Facebook page. photo 2: US Congress)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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