Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 20, 2017

Franken, Harassment, and the Power of a Picture

Photo: Jim Gehrz/Minneapolis Star Tribune Caption: August 9, 2008 Franken campaigns at Polly’s Coffee Cove in St. Paul, where a rerun of a “Saturday Night Live” episode featuring one of his characters, Stuart Smalley, was playing.

This photo is from a slideshow about Al Franken published by the Washington Post last week after the Senator and ex-comedian was publicly shamed for unwanted sexual advances toward a fellow USO tour member in 2006. The photo is a strong reminder how much the mentality of our culture is set in time, and how much (especially in the moment we’re in) your past is never really behind you.

I can’t remember a time when there was so much strain on the news photo to simultaneously bridge, convict, and reconcile the past. I’ve also hardly seen photos asked to work so hard to bridge other forms of commentary, such as comedy. I spend most of my time talking about what photos do, not what they can’t. Unfortunately, photos can only provide so much context, especially when people are understandably hurt and angry over outrageous, antiquate norms. (I should add, if you’re familiar with the show, it doesn’t help that Stuart Smalley sends his regrets.)

A few week ago, Marta Zarzycka wrote a thoughtful piece here at Reading the Pictures about the profound accounting we’re going through now. She discussed how these allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are events we don’t have visuals for. She then gave some examples of the largely ineffective ways that the media has visually illustrated charges against Weinstein, and others.

I’m not here to qualify Franken’s behavior as compared to a predator like Weinstein, for example. What he did was dead wrong, so let him be the poster boy. But then, that’s where Franken’s situation departs from every other case recent case. It’s such a glaring distinction that even a pussy grabber like Trump picked up on it immediately.

After months of women coming forward, and the public and the media repeating the familiar ritual of finely weighing the number and the details of the testimonials, the Franken situation, even as a pantomime, offered something that we haven’t seen in any case yet. It presented us a picture.

This post, however, is not about the smoking gun. It’s about the power and the impact of the image in today’s society. Marta’s post talked about how much these sexual acts, and their public debate, must resort to mental pictures. In Franken’s case, his indiscretion may fundamentally differ from the acts of Weinstein or Roy Moore, but he’s damned by the photo.

-Michael Shaw⠀

Photo: Jim Gehrz/Minneapolis Star Tribune Caption: August 9, 2008 Franken campaigns at Polly’s Coffee Cove in St. Paul, where a rerun of a “Saturday Night Live” episode featuring one of his characters, Stuart Smalley, was playing. NOTE: If you can’t make it out, the closed caption reads: “Terrible about the whole thing. It was not your fault. I was having a horrible week.”

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