Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
May 31, 2015

When Those Endearing Photos of Kids and Riot Cops Really Aren't

When I saw this photo the other day, it instantly reminded me of the two below. You remember. The one from Portland was taken during a protest against police violence in sympathy with Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown. The second was taken in Baltimore during protests over the police killing of Freddie Gray.  Whether voted up by conservatives, the conflict-averse or people looking for a silver lining, both went viral.

But, back to the latest photo with the hug behind the Policía shield. The caption reads:

In this May 17, 2015, photo, a riot policeman holds a crying boy as his father is attacked by other policemen with batons, right, outside of a stadium, in Guimaraes, Portugal. Portuguese prosecutors are investigating a policeman who beat a man in front of his young children and punched their grandfather outside a soccer stadium, sparking a national scandal. Police approached Jose Magalhaes, his two sons and his father Sunday outside Guimaraes stadium, where Benfica had just won the Portuguese league title, according to film footage and witness reports.

This picture is instructive on at least two counts. First, it suggests how instinctive it is to protect a child … even if one’s co-workers are wailing on his dad. Even more so, it cautions us not to take pictures at face value or to assume that what’s in a frame is necessarily that consistent with what’s happening just outside of it.

If you had just seen this version without the caption, for example, you’d almost think we were back in Portland.

But then, the “hug” photo (even with the father being beaten in the background), assumes still a different meaning if you managed to come across this slideshow. (Having only found it through caption searching, I otherwise wouldn’t have known that the photo above was also part of the AP package). Only then do we realize, the kid having run from the attack on his father and brother, that the hug and the emotion is more complicated … and illusory.

( photo 1, 4 & 5: Delfim Machado/AP. caption 5: In this May 17 2015 photo, a young boy runs away as a riot policeman restrains his father outside of a stadium, in Guimaraes, Portugal, Sunday, May 17, 2015. At right, the man’s older son and father are led away by other policemen. photo 2: Johnny Nguyen/Special to the Oregonian.caption: Sgt. Bret Barnum (left) and Devonte Hart take pause amid an otherwise hectic Ferguson rally in Portland earlier this week. photo 3: Amanda Moore / MandaWritesThings.)

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