Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 29, 2015

On the Planned Parenthood Shooter Mugshot and Today’s News Portrait

Robert Dear Colo

Having studied the daily news wire very closely now for the past 11 years, there have been a lot of changes. I don’t know how much you’ve noticed it but one thing that’s striking is how much more prominent portraiture has become as editorial content.

Reflecting the diminishing difference between news and documentary or art photography, it’s like the portrait — with its synthesis of facial expression, quality of gaze, clothing, and the more sociological attributes of age, race and ethnicity — has become a greater conveyor of information. The image is no longer just a reference (the requisite “who” in the who, what, where and when), as much as the face and the presentation of self as much more of a narrative or roadmap.

(That increased glow, by the way, is not just coming from news photography. I just saw the movie, “Brooklyn,” featuring the actress Saoirse Ronan and, when it was over, the way the camera kept settling on her face like, well, a photograph, I felt I had just spent two hours trained on her face and those riveting eyes. I’m wondering, because the movie got such strong reviews but was also so historically slight, if the backgrounds of Ireland and Brooklyn served to bind with the actress, as if she assumed the landscape.)

In any case, this is just context for the booking photos of the scraggly, ogreish and intently-peering Robert L. Dear, the man who went on a gun rampage at a Planned Parenthood office this weekend where he also killed a policeman and part-time pastor.

If we’re also still warned against reading into faces – like that admonition about judging book covers — the greater emphasis on portraits in the news stream today explicitly tempts us toward inferences. That being the case, the wild and unkept quality of the man, not to mention the strange and very directed side glance, is like a prompt to speculate. But, about what? Culture? Motive? Simple derangement?

If nothing else, we’re prompted to assume Dear’s an outlier just because his engagement with the camera doesn’t conform very much to the expressions — like contempt, aloofness or disorientation — were used to encountering in a mug shot.

The straight-on shot is especially peculiar with the intense, wide-eyed gaze, raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead an imposing figure will use to say: can I help you with something?  The look is purposely cagey and unforthcoming, putting our interest back on us. And the side view seems even more defiant of the purpose. Here, it’s like his gaze prioritizes something off camera and, of course, beyond the subjugation at hand.

Given the background in this first-pass NYT profile, is Dear’s increasing social isolation over the past fifteen years evident in that wayward hair? Are the accounts of random aggressiveness in his more recent past reflected in the passive-aggressive engagement with the booking camera? And let’s not forget that the man, at least earlier in life, having traded in paintings, might know a thing or two about pictures and how they sell.

Still, there is no way to tell if Dear’s possum act is random, psychotic, impressively sociopathic or indicative of anything. We also can’t tell if this loner and hater, reaping his fifteen minutes of infamy, is even aware of the premium of today’s news portrait. If only the tendency to treat a face like a story prompt led to real evidence. Like who among the strange is prone to gun violence and homicidal pro-life zealotry.

(photoEl Paso County Sheriff’s Office. NYT caption: Robert L. Dear Jr. wanted “to be left alone,” a neighbor said.)

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