June 22, 2015

On Pointing a Handgun Directly at Ted Cruz's Head

Brietbart News is up in arms about a run of AP photographs showing the barrel of a handgun pointed directly at Ted Cruz’s head. Even if you don’t align yourself with the pro-gun position of Ted Cruz, in this case it’s morally obligatory to say that these photographs are not okay. But to leave it at that would be to miss an opportunity for the public to think more closely about the way narrative framing works in news photography.

In terms of their frankness, these photographs of Ted Cruz are outliers only by matter of degree. Typically, symbolic content in news photographs is not so straightforward:

Against Brietbart’s partisan spin—according to whom these photos need to be circulated as hard evidence of ‘liberal bias’ at the Associated Press—the public value of these images derives from their capacity to help citizens better understand how news photographs comment on issues of the day. Nor is it the case that these images somehow break a code of photographic objectivity. Of course, AP photographer Charlie Neibergall could have cropped the gun out of the image by standing in a different location. But then all we get is a bland stock photograph that erases the political context of Cruz’s speech.

For a citizenry bombarded with images, these photos are invaluable because of the way they can help people understand that all news images, not just the obvious or incendiary ones, can be read in terms of the way they frame and compose their subject matter and how they position their viewers to see the world from a particular point of view. And when a photograph’s visual symbolism triggers a public response, that’s often because the image jarringly re-organizes elements and actors that already are playing out in an ongoing public drama.

In this case, these photographs make a point by turning the gun lobby’s central argument back onto itself. They reveal for public evaluation the logical consequences of a gun-crazy society advocated by the NRA and its political backers. If “more guns” is your only response to rampant gun violence, then at some point a law of averages dictates that innocent people are going to end up in the line of fire. This way photographs of Ted Cruz at gunpoint tell a story of accidental rather than intentional violence. However, in a culture where NRA gun peddlers push for a society armed to the hilt, it’s getting harder and harder to believe—as Breitbart’s complaint makes clear—that accidental shootings are not traceable back to someone’s intention.

— Philip Perdue

(Update: Following complaints, AP withdrew the photos. As you’ll notice though, those taking issue were mostly coming from the pro-gun crowd.)

(photos: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo. caption: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a “Celebrate the 2nd Amendment Event,” Saturday, June 20, 2015, at the CrossRoads Shooting Sports in Johnston, Iowa).

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Philip Perdue
See other posts by Philip here.

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