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December 1, 2004

California Dreaming (Or: Mary Meets Jane)

A major story this week is the Supreme Court medical marijuana case. The court is set to decide whether two plaintiffs, Angel Raich and Diana Monson, can continue to use marijuana for medical purposes. If you read news accounts (link), a main point that is continually stressed is the fact both women are from California (even though the case also involves patients from 10 other states). Of course, it’s also evident that the main figures in the case are women.

Angel Raich

Diana Monson

As you know, I’m not shy about venturing into subjective territory. At the same time, I am the first to admit that the analysis of news images is a completely hypothetical and interpretative exercise. That being said, I have some strong questions as to whether we would seeing the same kinds of photos if these plaintiffs:

a) were men
b) were from a state other than California

On the gender issue, photos of women typically show them in more intimate settings, such as at home or in a bedroom, and tend to capture them in more intimate situations. Because the taking of a drug is both a personal, vulnerable and illegal act, I wonder if a man would have been shown sitting around his bedroom with his stash and his paraphernalia, or in the actual act of getting high.

It’s strange, but it wasn’t until I really studied these pictures that I considered they might represent an invasion of privacy (even if the lawyers encouraged it to help the case). Just to highlight the point, I should add that the photo of Ms. Monson (above) published in the L.A. Times was 3 columns wide, while the NYTimes ran both of these pictures, dedicating a 3 column width to Ms. Raich.

Regarding the geographic angle, California has always been characterized as a haven for dope smokers, religious fanatics, proponents of esoteric eastern philosophies, and general “weirdos.” By including the statue figure in the photo of Ms. Raich, it suggests that her use of marijuana has some unexplained religious overtones. Consistent with the off-beat religious stereotype, Ms. Monson is shown achieving an altered state against a background of natural rock. Again, it’s my interpretation, but the image seems to pull for some kind of zen association.

I have to say that the whole tenor of Ms. Raich’s photo is pretty strange. She is seated in a rather childlike position, facing her drug set-up as if it were a shrine. At the same time, her hands are extended in an expressive manner — but she seems otherwise mute. Also, the fact she is looking up and away only increases the strange quality. From reading about Ms. Raich, I believe these mannerisms are actually related to her extreme and debilitating illness. Which raises perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these photos: In neither picture is their any hint of medical or health-related problems.)

(photo/Ms. Raich: Ben Margot/Associated Press in NYTimes)
(photo/Ms. Monson: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press in NYTimes and LATimes)

  • Alex Stapleton

    I have no idea of the facts involved in this case, *but* i do know that some people people with arthritis take cannabis to reduce the pain of it. Hands being an area which is quite succeptible to it and when severe enough it would become quite painful to move them. I imagine the positioning of her hands, straight fingers particularly, is actually suggestive of a medical disorder.
    So if she does have something like arthritis, then I imagine your wrong to say that there is *no* suggestion of medical problems in either photo.

  • Victor Fitzsimons

    –As a photojournalist-in-training, I find your analysis of the images news media use interesting. Of course, like everybody else I sort through which criticisms to keep in mind and which to throw out. It has been my experience that when we photographers learn how to make photos in the context of news we often look at what other people have done for the same kind of image as a starting point. To learn how to be a photographer I have to look at hundreds of photos that were successful and compare my work to the works of others. Imitation and practice are the essential elements of becoming a successful photographer. When a photographer has learned how to master the techniques other people use he or she often figures out how to use the techniques to create a unique style or angle.
    –The above images were probably used because of their readability. They showed the people involved in the story and a context or scene in which the people fit so readers can understand. If a newspaper were to run an article about a person who uses marijuana to relieve pain caused by a medical condition, but ran a photo depicting the person riding a bicycle or talking on a telephone, readers would be confused as to the point of having a photo that does not match up with the story. The cutline would have to do all the explaining, and everybody knows the last thing most people want to do with a newspaper is read it.
    –Put another way: if news media were to ignore visual stereotypes newspapers and TV broadcasts would be much more difficult to understand.
    –In my opinion, photographers in news media are slowly rebelling against popular stereotypes. But because visual stereotypes help people understand the world better, change is not happening quickly.
    –But, as newspapers begin to invest more money on better printing presses and higher visual quality, the demand for more interesting and artistic photos will increase. Perhaps the lost art of the photo story or photo essay will become popular again in the near future? Then, maybe news photos will have less to do with news and more to do with art and interpretation, or a personal perspective on the news?
    –If blogs can do it, I don’t see why newspapers can’t. But, as always, the future is as unpredictable as Michigan weather.
    –(PS: since I can’t format paragraph breaks I’m inserting dashes when new paragraphs start)

  • Terrible

    I have to agree with Alex Stapleton. When I first looked at the pictures before reading your post I thought the woman in the first picture exibited signs of arthritic suffering. I saw my mother suffer from arthritis for years and wish she had been able to have the benifits of marijuana.

  • Terrible

    Oh I forgot! I do think the rest of your analysis of the photos was pretty interesting and I’d probably agree that you’re on to something!!!

  • k.

    This is my first time at your site, stumbled upon it (like most of what I find online) through another site. I am enjoying it, and am impressed at how prolific you are. Anyway, I agree with your commentary regarding these photos. The only thing suggesting actual illness is how extraordinarily thin & bony the first woman looks, but this is not something emphasized by the photo – just something you can’t help but notice if you are paying any attention at all.

  • michael jones

    I completely understand you! Rheumatoid arthritis is not something simple! It is very serious but i think that we have to be really strong if we want to live normal life!

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