Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 10, 2015

Ben Carson on the Bubble: Scott Olson’s “Red Light” Photo from Iowa

Anticipating the Republican debate in Milwaukee tonight, I was interested in this photo by Getty’s Scott Olson. It was taken about three weeks ago outside a fraternity house at Iowa State University.

As you can see, the demographics of the audience seem to differ somewhat between the left side of Carson and the right. On the left and interspersed throughout we see either older citizens, or people’s younger kids, people we can assume are ardent backers, likely Christian fundamentalists, with a “check the box” faith in “one of their own.” That’s in contrast to the college students, most faces more familiar with curiosity, even some dubiousness.

With Carson on the defensive now over embellishing, even fabricating parts of his biography, the unlikely GOP frontrunner drawing a whole new level of scrutiny, obviously the key face here is the red-headed kid. Amplified by the shirt color and the odd fact he’s underdressed for the weather on top of his proximity to the candidate, the complexity of his expression and his body language is also an outlier. He’s wearing the Ben sticker but we can’t tell from the way he holds himself and cocks his head if he’s intimately connected to Carson; this is just a characteristic gesture and he’s just listening intensely; or else, the way his head is angled off like that and he’s holding on, he’s feeling some discordant combination of connection and aversion.

There is no way that the hubristic Carson is going to lose his hard core base. The way he’s blaming the media for supposedly harassing him is something the faithful will not just embrace, but cheer. If Carson continues to insist, however, that he’s beyond reproach, you can already sense which/how many faces in the audience he’s going to alienate. To that extent, the presence and the complex approach/avoidance of the kid in red serves more like a warning light.

One more thing, by the way, and this — both literally and conceptually — is a more distant impression. Do you see the last figure in the background, beyond Carson’s forehead? It looks like he’s wearing a hoodie and, based on that as much as the lighting, it suggests someone black.

As someone who has made his color, his pride in the Civil Rights movement and his philanthropy in the black community a centerpiece of his campaign, what was perhaps most wounding in Carson’s press conference in which he lashed out at the media was when he insisted he was being scrutinized far more intensely than Obama was in 2008. To somehow say that Obama got off-the-hook over Jeremiah Wright, or his religion or his nationality is Carson playing the race card. Of course, assuming that stance, combined with how prominently his biography highlights how he rose from the ghetto and “overcome his early violent tendencies” just brings that racial coding, just hanging in the background, more out in the open.

(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images. caption: Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks outside the Alpha Gamma Rho house during a campaign stop at Iowa State University on October 24, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. A recent poll indicates that Carson has surged past Donald Trump to lead the race for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa.)

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