September 22, 2011

Eyes on Mrs. MacPhail

MacPhail mother c

MacPhail reaction a

MacPhail mother b

MacPhail mother c

At the risk of stirring up raw feelings over the state execution of Troy Davis, I aim to confine my comments (and hopefully, yours) to the ethics and media dynamics of these three photos. They appeared last night in this order leading off an Atlantic Journal Constitution (AJC) photo gallery titled: “Officer MacPhail’s mom waits for execution.”

All three photos are captioned:

Anneliese MacPhail, the mother of Mark Allen MacPhail, reacts after hearing that Troy Davis would be executed for killing her son.

What’s troubling me is the symbiotic and increasingly parasitical relationship that now exists between citizens and the media, evidenced by the way Anneliese MacPhail, the mother of the slain police officer, and the photographer for the AJC are using each other. If Mrs. MacPhail, in her anger and unimaginable exasperation, seems quite willing to play the role of media actor as the execution is delayed, then ultimately carried out and the notification finally takes place via phone call, so, too, does AJC score by turning Mrs. MacPhail’s ordeal into a voyeuristic tabloid drama for readers — trained to anticipate a continuing breakdown of privacy boundaries — to behold.

I have all kinds of problems with these pictures, starting with the Grandmother figure in the background transmitting, in what seems like way-too-mundane a fashion, a look of satisfaction. (Again, given the extraordinarily inflammatory atmosphere surrounding what occurred last night, whether Grandma is simply startled or she’s ready to party, I/we don’t need to see this.)

Second point. I’m just wondering how much time elapsed between photos 1 and 3. Did the photographer step back, for example, and document the same gesture from slightly further away? Or, did Mrs. MacPhail revert to a “thank God” gesture at different times while the photographer was there documenting her? The reason I ask is because, in spite of the access, it’s hard to know what happened when and for who’s benefit, and because of the access, there is no way to know if Mrs. MacPhail would have reacted this way once, multiple time, or this way at all if “we didn’t have eyes on her.”

The moral questions regarding the death penalty, the actions of the state of Georgia, and the emotional torture for the families involved is difficult enough without the media turning reality, and all the principals involved (far beyond fifteen minutes of fame) into recruits for The Truman Show. But then, this conversion of citizens into actors in their own misery, this far down the road in our “reality addiction,” likely represents just the tip of the iceberg.

(photos: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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