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June 8, 2005

Loaded Image


If you’ve been following the BAG, you know that I’m not one to follow the internecine struggles of the blogosphere. 

That said, I sort of got caught up in the initial buzz involving the Huffington Post, and the fact it was positioning itself as the anti-Drudge.  Because I keep track of news images — whether in pixels or on paper — I’ve been keeping an eye on the selection of news photo on both of these sites. 

I haven’t been keeping close enough track to say definitively — but yesterday might have been a first.  Meaning, the first time Arianna and Matt ended up running the same picture on the same story.   As shown above, the image illustrates the Supremely disappointing high court decision on Monday blocking the use of medical marijuana.  (For the lighter side, I just happened to notice that the person who wrote the story for the NYT’s had the last name of Greenhouse.)

Anyway, I can understand Drudge running this shot — considering it is decidedly non-medical, with a hedonistic edge to it.  I have a little more trouble understanding the H-Post using it, though — unless a) they were drawn to the slightly "bad boy" tone, which they felt appealed to the Hollywood-side of their demographic, b) they just grabbed the first half-interesting shot they could find, or c) they stole it from Drudge.  (Of course, it could just as well be that Drudge stole it from Huff.)

But, let’s get to the visual rhetoric. 

As you know, the reason for the existence of this site is to raise the
visual literacy of the otherwise highly politically sophisticated. That
said, I wonder how the readers of HP and DR
actually read this shot, if they happened to give it much attention at
all. I spend a lot of time looking at political images each day, and I
couldn’t tell at first what this picture even depicted. (And yes, I was
straight.) Perhaps you might be quicker. At first, the "whiter" part of
the image to the left looked like a window or a poster (the "dividing
line" between the two shades of white meeting at the thumb tip first
appeared to me like the point at which a wall turns a corner). Finally
though, what emerged was this lamp — most likely made with hemp, with
a marijuana leaf embedded in it.

The part I’m not sure the conservative Drudge saw, however –unless
he’s actually partial to the ganga — was the shape in the smoke. As
always, you can make of these things what you will, but I see a heart.
Does this guy love his weed, or what?)

You might find my argument a little picky (which I can’t help,
because I’m just here to parse the pictures.) My problem with the
image, however, is simply that it reinforces the knee-jerk argument
against the drug. This case was about illness and the administration of
marijuana for strictly medicinal purposes.  (If
you’re not familiar with the court case, Angel Raich — one of the two
plaintiffs — relies on marijuana not just for relief of pain from
scoliosis and a brain tumor, but to ease chronic nausea and to
stimulate her appetite in order to counteract a physical wasting

With a man doing his business in the shadows, and the fact the
photographer captures the languorous blowing of smoke, which like the
similar phrase, adopts an indulgent affectation, the tone here is more
clearly geared to the dreaded "recreational" use of the evil weed (as
opposed to this
more straight forward, out-in-the open "ingestion" picture of the other
plaintiff, Diane Monson, for example). I would argue that this lamp
with it’s impressed leaf reinforcing the "let’s party" impression even
further. With all the cultural baggage and "loaded" associations we
carry about this substance, the lamp suggests this person’s passion for
pot has passed from simple recreation to emblematic lifestyle.

Maybe I’m making a big deal of this, but I don’t think you would find
the media depicting a Supreme Court case concerning the right of
teenagers to obtain condoms with the image of a prostitute making a
solicitation on a street corner. If that sounds extreme, I don’t think
the comparison is out-of-line. At the same time, one should keep in
mind that the tentacles of the far right "culture police" extend so far
these days, seemingly arbitrary visual associations (like this "stoner
poster boy") represent an intrinsic aspect of their campaign.

In cultural territory as "up for grabs" as this, the fact this image
even subtlety reinforces the "reefer madness" hysteria perpetuated by
the right-wing crazies (not to mention the Justice Department, the DEA,
the FDA and all those members of Congress essentially pimping for the
pharmaceutical industry), demands a little "push back."

Of course, I also don’t imagine Ms. Raich — upon the
conclusion of her (failed) day in court — would care to be associated
with the more hedonistic segment of the toking population, either.

(image: Thomas Wirth — AFP/File in YahooNews.)

  • Johanna

    Talking about visual rhetoric… You should have seen the photos running yesterday on CNN.
    How they managed to make the elderly and sick look like “pot smokin hooligans”, well its beyond me. But they did it!
    My heart goes out to the suffering who must now live under the threat of the feds comming to get them for pain.
    Where I ask, is the compassion in this form of conservatism?
    Peace. Johanna

  • Johanna

    pain – relief, that is.

  • Rob

    The photo does appeal to those who are supporting the court decision, and feeds the paranoia about the recreational (gasp) use of pot, vs the use that this was all about i the first place.
    The misinformation and fear promoting that has been going on about this most benign plant is more dangerous than pot itself. In my opinion.
    Where are the activist judges when we need them?
    Interesting idea thet you have in looking at the images that the media uses. I’m looking forward to revisiting your site.

  • George Myers

    As an anthropology grad student at NY’s Stony Brook University, we had a number of people come and report to the club or to the class. One interesting guy spent a number of weeks with the pygmies in Africa, who were living in what is now the underbrush along a large road, where trucks are the main traffic. We saw an interesting film of them making an exquisite rope bridge. They smoked quite a bit of African marijuana he related and provided some photos. Interestingly, we just had an “anniversary” at the Bronx Zoo, 100 years ago they had placed a pygmy man, “volunteer” in a cage there attracting public outcry as a boundary in the public’s mind had been crossed in that institution that saved the American bison from extinction. I wish someone would research it, or is it that it is from Africa, that has people dead-set against the possible scientific benefit of it. One state changed its motto, “Kentucky, the hemp state” where historically Americans farmed it for many materials, some used in WWII (parachute shroud lines, laces, etc.) The photo is on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

  • Diane

    I agree with our host on this one. This would be a first-rate advertising image if pot was legalized. It’s just waiting for a logo and sales-pitch copy in the space already provided.

  • henri

    Distinct line bisects the space. One side has the shadow image in sunglasses, exhaling smoke from a burning cigarette. The left side appears to be a sheet of hemp paper which is used as a scrim.
    Hemp v smoker
    (production.,pp.,rope.,etc v. medicinal or recreational?)
    The image presents a dichotomy.
    The hemp paper manipulation almost appears like the dark side of a wall corner. The photographer nearly seamlessly blends paper with the drywall backdrop.
    Glancing at the image once again, I question if the backdrop is but two sheets masking the smoking figure.
    The image could be a self-portrait or even an act of rebellion as opposed to a documentation of an illegal act. The statement is too clean- too staged for an essential quality of documentation: the unrehearsed recording of an event.
    The photograph is a quick sketch, the use of light wonderful. Look at the casual use of the hand and the way the cigarette is held. There is nothing too illicit in this gesture; a casual pedestrian image, yet bold and certain. On the other end, the head, tilted back and exhaling, is very specific in description. Exhale, expire, relief…. Would the image of a person exhaling illicit a feeling of relief if the cigarette didn’t exist? Then again, the specific image is less about relief. The shape of the lips are deliberate, calculated and in complete control of the smoke. The naturalness of the lip structure, especially the lower lip, lacks repose -especially when placed in context- smoking marijuana. the smoke can go, and deserves to go wherever it travels in space. Too much in suspending the relief.
    …or is controling smoke the context?

  • Annoying Old Guy

    As bizarre as it may sound, for once I’m in almost total agreement with Michael on this issue and image. It certainly does seem a rather loaded choice, as it doesn’t actually illustrate any of the issues in this case. The darkness of the face against the light is strongly reminiscent of images of witnesses against the mafia testifying on a news program.
    P.S. The one thing I’d disagree with Michael on is that this decision isn’t just a loss for medical marijauna but a massive defeat for federalism in general. Someone else wrote that this was a forking attack against the conservative judiciary, who would have to either approve medical marijauna or basically abandon any restrictions on the scope of the Commerce Clause, thereby eviscerating federalism.

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