July 20, 2007
There To Be Seen
“This is not a wartime President.”
by John Lucaites
This picture was taken at Ft. Benning, Georgia on January 11th, the day after President Bush announced his plan for the “surge” and while meeting with military personnel and their families. So far as I know, it did not show up anywhere until last week, leading Time’s “The July Surprise” by Joe Klein.
This striking visual argument stands in stark contrast to the president’s mantra that “I didn’t want to be a wartime President,” a claim we have heard increasingly over the past year, and which was repeated again the previous Tuesday in Cleveland. With the quality of a Magritte, one could imagine “This is not a wartime President” written across the bottom of the image. But it also has the mark of a bad snapshot, one ordinarily thrown away. It certainly would not show up in the typical family photo album. So why does it show up in Time – arguably an American family photo album?
Over the past few weeks I’ve called attention to the photojournalistic presence and absence of “hands” and “feet.” Here we get both together, magnified by the cropping just below the shoulders, removing the faces and the affective attributes that go with them. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the first thing to notice is that this image is soulless. And since it is the man in the middle who is featured, distinguished by red tie and business suit against a uniform field of camouflage, we have to assume it is his soul that matters most.
But what really distinguishes the photograph is the tension between hands and feet. The shoes differentiate those who fight (and die) from those who call the tune. They are there in almost any other picture of the president reviewing his troops, of course, but they are almost never featured as such. Here, the focus on them requires us to account for the difference, and the hierarchy. And then the hands. Notice the hands of the soldiers are neither “at attention” nor “at ease.” Rather, they seem to be in some liminal state, neither here nor there. LIke the military is in Iraq, perhaps? But look at the president’s left hand. It is checking that his jacket is buttoned, and thus properly draped and presentable. His concern, in other words, is how he looks for the camera.
Contrast this image with any of the White House photographs from the original event and you will see a very different portrait, as the president shakes hands and mingles. They are obviously all part of a grand photo-op – and of course, we know that – but they still coach our suspension of disbelief. Only in the Time image above does the camera call attention to itself, and by extension to the spectacle being performed and recorded: The president is not there to support, let alone lead and protect. He is there to be seen.
John Louis Lucaites is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and the blog No Caption Needed.
(image: Brooks Kraft/Corbis for Time. Fort Benning, Georgia, January 11, 2007. time.com)