As much as prejudice and ignorance still rears its ugly head, there have also been some dramatic perceptual changes in public culture the past few years toward communities of difference (gays and lesbians, for example), as well as people afflicted in certain ways(particularly, the physically-challenged). It’s in that context that this photo of two well-known political figures, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is deeply significant. Here’s the caption:
In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 photo provided by the office of former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Kennedy, left, meets with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Jackson is in a “deep” depression and has “a lot of work” ahead of him on the road to recovery, Kennedy said Thursday after visiting the hospitalized Chicago Democrat.
(Though it’s not referenced in the caption, what makes the photo that much more poignant is the fact that Kennedy has also suffered from mental and substance abuse problems, having also championed mental health reform and awareness in legislation and social advocacy.)
What makes this photo so groundbreaking is that Jackson would allow himself to be photographed in a treatment setting in a context so obviously evocative of his breakdown and ongoing disability. (Notice the bracelets, particularly.) Completely upending the ubiquitous practice of the public figure being secluded away at a facility like Mayo or Betty Ford, Jackson is not only creating a powerful new precedent for visibility but is also, in the true the spirit of activism, striking here at the social stigmatization that continues to enshroud mental illness.
Of course, sophisticated public relations and career management being what it is, especially given the shifting sands of public attitudes and mores, I imagine the photo is not as completely pure as I’ve made it out so far. Even if the calculus in allowing this photo to be made, however, encompassed a greater goodwill from his public and wary constituents, however, I still consider it a groundbreaking photo, and Jackson, a pioneer.
(photo: AP Photo/Office of Patrick J. Kennedy.)