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April 8, 2005

Gilchrist Crossing the Delaware


Have you been following this story about the Minutemen, the border vigilantes who are “voluntarily” helping deter illegal immigration in Southeastern Arizona?

Just one day after the LA Times ran this image on it’s front page (with the article: A Roadblock, Not a Barrier for Migrants), it followed up with another front page article on the group.  In the second story (Border Watchers Capture Their Prey — The Media), they explained how the outfit had attracted more than 200 journalists from around the world.  The article also reported how James Gilchrist, the guy with the gut, had transformed himself into an overnight celebrity.

(Ironically, the NYT had a front page story on illegal immigration that second day, as well.  That article, however — Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions – link — had to do with how much money illegal workers are kicking into Social Security and Medicare, although they have no stake in either system.)

I understand how the LA Times might be feeling pretty good about it’s latest Pulitzers.  What I don’t understand, however, is how they can justify either this photo alone, or the photograph in the context of their follow up piece.

I’m no Revolutionary War expert, but doesn’t this shot reinforce and romanticize the Minutemen connection?  To draw the connection even tighter, doesn’t this shot look suspiciously like the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware?  Unless you’re buying this image at face value, you would have to conclude that either a.) these guys naturally stand around like this, or b.) the picture is posed.  (Of course, with the credit The Times lends this lunatic fringe through the bold black-and-white and the dramatic lighting, I’m inclined to go with “option b.”)

If the photo bestows credibility through visual drama, as well as historical and patriotic allusion, these aren’t the only allusions to be drawn.  I’m not one to call out a person’s weight, but this Gilchrist guy (great name, huh?) offers up his spot lit midsection as if it was an independent player.  Maybe the naive viewer (or the red state one) would see it as representing that much more pride, but that belly reads like arrogance to me.  It says: Throwing weight around is our birthright.  Boundaries are for you, not for us.  One fast food nation, under God.  Consume free, or die.

On the other hand, maybe there’s something grossly typical about this shot.  Isn’t it standard in dramas (particularly Westerns) to find an ultimately weak and slovenly bad guy accompanied by a passive (either short or rail thin) sidekick who is just there to hold his megaphone? 

(image: Rick Loomis/LA Times)

  • gkoutnik

    I had the opposite reaction – I saw the gut, and the slouch (Mr. Rail Thin) and the confusion of body parts (whose leg is whose?) and thought: “What a mess! Who are these pathetic people?” After years of pictures of politically prominent people speaking into microphones on carefully designed podiums, this looks like a bunch of guys who lost their way.

  • B

    Im quite amazed that you would put the rights of illegal aliens above the 1st amendment rights of your own citizens. Oh thats right they shouldnt have rights because they want a closed border and dont want to house a 3rd world nation. Why do you love Bush so much that youd want to call these patriots “vigilantes”? A vigilante is somene who takes the law into thier own hand, these guys are not arresting ILLEGAL immagrants, theyre pointing them out to the proper authorities. Thier actions alone are working. The government beefed up the border security there when they found out the MMP was going there. And you cant stand it. Why? Im always amazed by you white liberals who want to keep AA and have open borders. Just so long as they dont inconvienience you. Naturally. SO how many black urban youths have you moved into your homes? how many of you have gone down to the hospital to pay for the injuries of illegal aliens in the ER? none? oh… i see.

  • amanuensis

    I don’t see this as a complimentary picture either, definitely a “mess.” The guy looks slovenly rather than “every-day Joe.” He is PROPPING himself on the flag, but can’t quite bring himself to hold it. The lackey has to do that as well as hold the megaphone. From growing up in the South, I know from experience anyone from down there would be aghast that someone would get up and speak before an audience in an undershirt. I see neither credibility or historical reference. This is not someone inspirational but rather cringe-inducing.
    There may be many people that are looking to solve the immigration problem — I don’t think this is the picture of a leader to any of them.

  • TheCat

    Even before I read the comments I had the same reaction as the previous posters.
    I don’t see this photo as “romanticizing the Minutemen connection.”  (Besides, most people are not Revolutionary War experts either.)
    By showing only 2 guys, really, when there are clearly some more hiding somewhere, it makes the movement look like an isolated fringe. The foreshortened, extreme upward angle also physically exagerrates the subjects, also making the members of lonely struggle; plus, the contrast of fat and thin is quite comical.
    The guy whose job it is apparently to hold the megaphone has look of a clueles idiot (hey, he may be a genius for all I know, I’m just looking at a picture), a true hanger-on, (think Millhouse to Bart Simpson) while the guy speaking is treating his friend and the flag with equal casual disdain.
    I still don’t know whose leg that is, but I’ll bet a lot of people who saw this photo had this reaction: “This is NOT who we need enforcing America’s laws.”

  • MonsieurGonzo

    Unfit For Duty
    “How is it” asked the interviewer of renown WWII General Zhukov, “that the Russian army came to defeat the great soldiers of the Third Reich?”
    “Great soldiers? nyet! ” he replied.
    “Great executioners, da.”
    Just as the BAGman sees that the King (George) has no clothes…
    …the world here sees the fitness of Americans, stripped of their armor shells :-/
    ” Homeland Security ”
    what a sick joke! these guys couldn’t stop a washerwoman !!

  • andrew

    If this echoes Washington Crossing the Delaware, I’d say it’s parodic rather than heroic. This photo makes its subjects look like twits, a pot-bellied blowhard and his gawky lackey wrapping themselves in the flag.
    Posed? Don’t be silly. It’s disorganized, with a disembodied leg in the background and that clutter on the right. Sometimes the light is good in the real world, believe it or not. Sure, these guys don’t hang around like this, but pay attention to the content: he’s addressing a crowd. He’s striking a pose — without much success.
    I simply don’t see how anyone could find this photo sympathetic to its subjects.

  • aethorian

    Rick Loomis of the LA Times was NPPA Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 2003, and received third place in the same category in the 62nd annual Pictures of the Year International competition. One thing his photography does is strip away any glamour and honestly show how people try to cope with the situations they find themselves in (or put themselves in).
    Unlike carefully managed political photo opportunities—or a carefully composed painting of Washington’s river crossing (painted 75 years after the event)—the great majority of us simply don’t look very heroic, spotless, or attractive when portrayed sans style. We might know enough to Sit Down! in the boat, though.
    Before photography arrived, you had a much better chance of looking good in a painted portrait, especially if the artist hoped to get paid. A little composition, judicious framing, a flattering POV, and you could look OK. Once the camera started clicking, however, a little more reality started coming out. Compare this painting of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman to his posed, but much grimmer photograph. Photons can be Hell
    If the Gilchrist shot was posed, you’d think he would have picked a better stage than the back of a dusty pickup, worn a suit and tie, had more flags, and sucked it in a little bit. Whether you agree or not with the “Minutemen”, their onsite protest is just as legitimate (and as ordinary) as anyone else’s. Funny how much they look like other protesters, too.

  • cs

    It’s interesting how what we bring to an image effects what we see in it. For me, this photo is brilliantly mock-heroic. Typically a low-angle shot conveys a sense of grandeur, but here it’s used to accentuate Gilchrist’s beer belly and his companion’s gawkiness. To me it’s less “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and more Leni-Riefenstahl-meets-Robert-Frank.
    Could you email me and let me know if it was actually published in b/w, and also the name of the photographer? I’d like to tell him/her how much I appreciate this work. Thanks for posting it . . .

  • Agitprop

    The Minutemen = Big-Bellied Bubbas with Guns
    Gil-CHRIST is keeping America safe from poor brown people. If that ain’t doin’ the Lord’s work, then I don’t know what is…

  • MonsieurGonzo

    hey, aethorian ~ thanks for the information on the photographer, musing on his (and his editor’s) frame. people are talking about, of all the reporting about the War ~ Pulitzers and other prizes are going to photo-journalists. there is a debate arising that these images do not jibe with mainstream media in the U.S., and are biased, thus.
    somewhere in my brain there is rattling around something that some photographer said: “get close, then get closer.”
    for example there is a photo of the Dalai Lama paying his respects to the Pope; his hands are clapsed in the way that they do ~ in front of his smiling face. but it is so tightly cropped as portrait that there is no other context ~ nothing to associate his expression = praise with the Pope, or anything else in particular: we are reminded that this Dalai Lama has this wonderful smile in general, his praise expression feels more universal, thus.
    but move away from, say ~ a politician at a podium, or a talking head on TeeVee ~ and the photo journalist / editor re-frames the debate. by showing the set stage and its jumble of wires and boxes and bright lights, and people standing around, the artist strips away pretense; the viewer can more clearly see: this is a show, not news.
    there exists nowadays this thing called “Talking Points”, used by both political parties in an attempt to frame or re-frame literary debate.
    in the visual dialogue of the national conversation, too, there are evolving distinctly different frames; eg., the Reality-Based shatter their illusions and see performer “show”, the Faith-Based focus on the demagogue, and see news anchor “tell”…
    …or “great leader.”
    the best thing about the BAG, in my humble opinion, is that the BAGman reveals the frames and other technics of transmission that our visual dialogue employs to manufacture consent.

  • aethorian

    MonsieurGonzo said:

    but move away from, say ~ a politician at a podium, or a talking head on TeeVee ~ and the photo journalist / editor re-frames the debate.

    Absolutely. Consider how much re-framing we have to do to get closer to the reality that an image allegedly represents. Taking any BnN image as an example, there’s more than one looking glass we have to step through:

    1. The subject of the image, and how their awareness of the camera affects their actions.
    2. The physical environment, the weather, location, stage, costumes, and props around the subjects.
    3. The editor’s choice of photographers for the story.
    4. The photographer’s training, experience, choice of film, lens, aperture setting, shutter speed, POV, composition, focus, and timing.
    5. The photographer’s sheer luck in being in the right place at the right time.
    6. The photographer’s culling of captured images that are not “good enough” for publication.
    7. The editor’s selection of the “best” picture for publication—exclusive of all others available to them—including cropping, size, placement, and caption on the printed or digital page.
    8. The method of reproduction: lithographic, scan, file format, black & white, or color, all of which reduce the detail, color, and tonal range visible to the natural eye.
    9. The frame created by the context of other stories on the paper’s page, which are framed in turn by the publication’s assumed credibility.
    10. BAG’s selection, digital conversion, and blog layout of the image, not to mention the influence of his written image title and description.
    11. The frame of our computer screen around the BnN page, and the limitations of the technology that delivers the digital image to us.
    12. Our existing mental picture about the subject and their message.

    We’re at least a dozen steps removed from the reality of the event (which may have evaporated the moment the photographer showed up). We may expect “truth” from an image, but we’re simply not going to get it, and the judgment we finally form about the subject is unavoidably incomplete.
    The flood of images we see, all competing for our mind’s eye, can cause us to drift even further from reality. As Lewis Carroll, a noted photographer in his day, put it:

    Children yet, the tale to hear,
    Eager eye and willing ear,
    Lovingly shall nestle near.

    In a Wonderland they lie,
    Dreaming as the days go by,
    Dreaming as the summers die:

    Ever drifting down the stream –
    Lingering in the golden gleam –
    Life, what is it but a dream?

  • boboboc

    And how about the flag he’s holding? Long-gone years of US history fail me, but it looks either like the original flag of the 13 colonies or one from a slightly later date. What message are these men trying to send by using that flag instead of the modern one? Are they planning on taking America back to the “good ol days” or asserting the independence of the US?
    Interestingly enough, Arizona was Mexican land taken in the 1800’s without any payment or compensation. I doubt that thought has ever corssed their minds.

  • jamieQ

    Looks like the fat guy is getting humped from behind as well.

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