December 11, 2020

Reading the Symbols of Political Movements: A Joint Reading the Pictures/Columbia University Tow Center and Data Science Institute Salon

In this Salon, we discuss the symbolic strategies of activist political groups and the ways in which identity signatures, social telegraphing, and malicious branding pose a challenge to the media.

By Staff
About the Video

Many political activists see visual news coverage as an opportunity. Beyond its reporting function, visual media also serves as a performative space and a signaling platform for a wide range of political movements. The goal of this Salon is to better understand the key investigative and editorial challenges surrounding the visual identity of social and activist groups, and the use of their symbols for branding, outreach, and manipulation. We will discuss how this applies to a broad spectrum of political movements, including right-wing paramilitary and antifascist groups, as well as other types of organizations.

Moderator: Michael Shaw, Publisher  Reading the Pictures. Panelists: Leslie A. Hahner, Professor of Communication, Baylor University. Co-Author, “Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right.” Ishaan Jhaveri, Research Fellow, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University. Brian Palmer, Peabody Award–winning journalist and documentary photographer based in Richmond, Virginia. Judy Walgren, Michigan State University School of Journalism Associate Director & Professor of Practice, Photojournalism and New Media. Former Director of Photography, San Francisco Chronicle, Pulitzer-Prize in International Reporting.

Highlight Clips

The Optics of the Proud Boys

In this highlight clip, panelist Leslie Hahner breaks down the visual strategies and media aims of the far-right group, the Proud Boys.

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Photo: Ron Haviv/VII Agency

Caption: Members of the Proud Boys attend a rally in Delta Park, Portland, Oregon on September 27, 2020.

Police Unidentified

In this highlight clip, moderator Michael Shaw, and panelists Judy Walgren and Brian Palmer discuss the media handling and the political implications of an unidentifiable member of the Philadelphia Police department also wearing a provocative Blue Lives Matter bandanna.

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Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Caption: Police officer in tactical gear stands near a U.S. Post Office mailbox and looks on as Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris stops to speak to shoppers outside a grocery store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 2, 2020.

The Confederate Entitlement

In this highlight clip, Brian Palmer provides a powerful analysis of this photo by Mark Peterson. Based in Richmond, Brian has an intimate understanding of racist entitlement and the deployment of “the Southern cross.”

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Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

Caption: Attendees at the dedication of the National Confederate Museum in Elm Springs, Tenn., on July 20, 2018.

The Full Edit

Take a closer look at some of the images from our larger photo edit.

Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images. Caption: A member of the far-right militia Boogaloo Bois in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 29, 2020.

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux for TIME. Caption: Attendees at the dedication of the National Confederate Museum in Elm Springs, Tenn., on July 20, 2018.

Photo: Ron Haviv/VII. Caption: Portland walkabout: Members of the Proud Boys attend a rally in Delta Park, Portland, Oregon on September 27, 2020.

Photo: Ana Fernandez/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty Images. Caption: Protesters gathered in the Netherlands in 2019 with eyes painted on their hands symbolizing ‘We are watching you’.

Photo: Brian Palmer Caption: Demonstrators occupy the Lee (aka the Marcus David Peters) Circle, site of the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA.,, a day after Governor Ralph Northam declared it would be closed at sunset as a matter of public safety. Pickup truck circling the monument flying Trump 2020 and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags draws the ire of demonstrators, June 23, 2020.

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters Pictures. Caption: Police officer in tactical gear stands near a U.S. Post Office mailbox and looks on as Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris stops to speak to shoppers outside a grocery store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures. Caption: Billy Roper, leader of the Shield Wall Network (wearing a white shirt), says their protests are intended to polarize: to “force normal white Americans to choose between us and them.” Members of the Shield Wall Network celebrated Hitler’s birthday on April 20, 2019 on Lake Dardanelle and protested a Holocaust Remembrance Day march on May 5 in Russellville, Arkansas.

Photo: Benjamin Paul/SWNS/White House. Caption: In December 2017, the British tabloid, the Daily Mail reported that former White House intern Jack Breuer had flashed a “white power” sign while taking an official photograph with President Trump and his fellow interns. All were smiling and offering a “thumbs-up,” as instructed by the president, while a straight-faced Breuer held his forefinger and thumb together with his other fingers splayed out. The Emory University alum later denied the report and said he was just using a gesture Trump commonly makes when he speaks.

From Instagram: What you don’t know CAN hurt you. That’s the takeaway from so many demonstrations by far right paramilitary and white nationalist groups. And that’s part of the premise of our online discussion. What we’re seeing in Mark Peterson’s photo from Charlottesville last August is a lot.

The sideways orange “Z” with a slash through it, the Wolfsangel, was an ancient runic symbol also used by the Nazi SS. And what’s with the jones for Marvel Comics? Having dealt out punishment when law enforcement wasn’t up to the task, the Punisher’s skull logo is a favorite of the military, police and anti-government militia groups. Captain America is also reflected, his outfit channeled by the guy front left. He debuted Amin 1941 and fought the Nazis though some far-right groups recently claim he was a double-agent.

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux Caption: White nationalists, Charlottesville, VA. August 12, 2017.

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Michael Shaw, Moderator

Michael is an analyst of news photography and visual journalism, a frequent lecturer and writer on visual politics, photojournalism and media literacy, and the founder and publisher of Reading the Pictures. He is also a Clinical Psychologist and organizational consultant in private practice. His clinical training involves the analysis of character styles, and his research has dealt with the creative process, visual thinking, and how metaphors can create psychological insight. He was a consulting psychotherapist at Otis College of Art and Design, The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), and he  is currently the consulting psychologist at “The House,” UC Berkeley’s business incubator and investment fund. Michael has been published widely and he is a regular contributor to Columbia Journalism Review.

Leslie Hahner

Leslie A. Hahner is a professor of communication at Baylor University. Her work explores how visuals shape public culture and she’s particularly well-versed on contemporary propaganda, the visual internet, and civil discourse. Her most recent book, which she co-authored, is titled: “Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-right”. Hahner has been published many scholarly publications including “Quarterly Journal of Speech,” “Critical Studies in Media Communication,” and “Rhetoric & Public Affairs.”

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Ishaan Jhaveri

Ishaan Jhaveri is a Computational Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. He’s one of the creators of VizPol, an app designed to provide journalists with contextual information about graphic symbols, especially those displayed during live events, protests, and rallies. Before working at Tow, he interned as a Data Journalist at the Gizmodo Media Group.

Brian Palmer

Brian Palmer is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and documentary photographer based in Richmond, Virginia. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, Smithsonian magazine, The Root, and on PBS. He is also the recipient of the Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award, and an Online Journalism Award for “Monumental Lies,” a 2018 Reveal radio story about public funding for Confederate sites.

Judy Walgren

Judy Walgren is Associate Director & Professor of Practice at the Michigan State University School of Journalism, Photojournalism and New Media. She has worked on staff at the Dallas Morning News, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Denver Post in such roles as photographer, photo editor, writer, and executive producer, and she is the former Director of Photography at the San Francisco Chronicle where she earned a Pulitzer-Prize in International Reporting. Judy received an MFA in Visual Art from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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