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September 22, 2011

Eyes on Mrs. MacPhail

MacPhail mother c

MacPhail reaction a

MacPhail mother b

MacPhail mother c

At the risk of stirring up raw feelings over the state execution of Troy Davis, I aim to confine my comments (and hopefully, yours) to the ethics and media dynamics of these three photos. They appeared last night in this order leading off an Atlantic Journal Constitution (AJC) photo gallery titled: “Officer MacPhail’s mom waits for execution.”

All three photos are captioned:

Anneliese MacPhail, the mother of Mark Allen MacPhail, reacts after hearing that Troy Davis would be executed for killing her son.

What’s troubling me is the symbiotic and increasingly parasitical relationship that now exists between citizens and the media, evidenced by the way Anneliese MacPhail, the mother of the slain police officer, and the photographer for the AJC are using each other. If Mrs. MacPhail, in her anger and unimaginable exasperation, seems quite willing to play the role of media actor as the execution is delayed, then ultimately carried out and the notification finally takes place via phone call, so, too, does AJC score by turning Mrs. MacPhail’s ordeal into a voyeuristic tabloid drama for readers — trained to anticipate a continuing breakdown of privacy boundaries — to behold.

I have all kinds of problems with these pictures, starting with the Grandmother figure in the background transmitting, in what seems like way-too-mundane a fashion, a look of satisfaction. (Again, given the extraordinarily inflammatory atmosphere surrounding what occurred last night, whether Grandma is simply startled or she’s ready to party, I/we don’t need to see this.)

Second point. I’m just wondering how much time elapsed between photos 1 and 3. Did the photographer step back, for example, and document the same gesture from slightly further away? Or, did Mrs. MacPhail revert to a “thank God” gesture at different times while the photographer was there documenting her? The reason I ask is because, in spite of the access, it’s hard to know what happened when and for who’s benefit, and because of the access, there is no way to know if Mrs. MacPhail would have reacted this way once, multiple time, or this way at all if “we didn’t have eyes on her.”

The moral questions regarding the death penalty, the actions of the state of Georgia, and the emotional torture for the families involved is difficult enough without the media turning reality, and all the principals involved (far beyond fifteen minutes of fame) into recruits for The Truman Show. But then, this conversion of citizens into actors in their own misery, this far down the road in our “reality addiction,” likely represents just the tip of the iceberg.

(photos: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

  • Hariet Oleson

    Go fuck yourself bitch. 

    • jonstl

      the milk of human understanding oozes out of you Harriet…like venom being drained from a snake. 

  • Paco

    I wouldn’t be so hard on her as Hariet, since probably she’s been convincing herself for 20 years that this man really was the murderer of his son.

    What this shows, once again, is that the capital punishment in the US is not justice, but revenge. And in many cases, against the wrong person. Are you black?. Congrats on your 600% higher chances to be executed for your supposed crime.

    It amazes me how that many Americans can defend capital punishment. It goes against justice, it goes against their oh-so-important-religions and it goes against common sense. Americans haven’t shown much common sense in the last years, though. And the rest of us are paying the price.

  • Lori Lee

    Michael Shaw…you are a twit

    • Linda

      Lori Lee you are a human being. Act like one.

  • Stella

    Everybody wants to be on TV. It’s reality ain’t it?  As long as you give a good show for the editors and producers, you can make it last. 

    Maybe that 15 minutes of fame makes an otherwise dreary existence bearable.  So much for dignity.

  • Anonymous

    The presence of a camera has an observable effect on people’s behavior for good and ill, whether in a court of law or at a kid’s birthday party. Effective photographers have an ability to disappear into the woodwork, to dampen this “camera effect”. 

    To my eye Mrs MacPhail’s reactions are not staged. Natural behavior doesn’t come naturally to us when we’re pretending. Most of us never learn how to convincingly fake sincerity. The water heater in the background of the second shot argues that these folks are not putting on the dog.

    • Michael Shaw

      bdb: I appreciate your comment and I agree: I don’t feel she is overtly playing to the camera. At the same time, I don’t believe these images count as candid, innocent or documentary either in the way we would understand, in the most personal documentary photo stories, that the photographer has become a fly on the wall. The problem here, as I see it, is not MacPhail “playing to the camera” specifically, so much as her colluding with the media’s interest. It’s the fundamental blurring of the lines between innocent and actress, so much so that we can’t tell where one ends and the other leaves off, that troubles me. Keep in mind, by the way, that Mrs. MacPhail has probably had quite a lot of experience “being herself” in front of the media over all the years this case has dragged out. Not to put it on this scale, by any means, but look at the Obama Flickr stream and it’s “admirable” how much the first family, and even their friends in a cameo here or there, have elevated the art of cinéma vérité.

  • bks

    To the GOP one death is a triumph.  One million deaths are a way to get re-elected.


    • Linda

      It isn’t limited to the GOP. My heart breaks to say that is an American pastime. Democrats, Independents, Libertarians and Tea-Pissers alike all love a death show. They just don’t want Death Panels. Although how this is NOT a death panel decision is far beyond my comprehension.

  • Linda

    why not have an actual Reality TV show called “Who Wants to Date an INNOCENT Death Row Prisoner.” The prize? Front row seats to the execution. Make it a nightly show so that voyeuristic America can get their daily bloodlust fed from the comfort of their own living rooms while hundreds of innocent men are strapped to tables where they are “humanely” executed via Lethal injection.

    I know Hollywood would make that show if they could. But since it would be in “bad taste” we are left with the grueling images of Davis’s family falling to the ground in utter anguish and the pictures you’ve given us of the semi-human above thanking her beneficent god of love for graciously lavishing her with the death of an innocent man.

    America is sick. Too bad we don’t have universal health care to cure us. We don’t even have “socialized love.”

    • Dave McLane

      Hey Linda, that’s a great idea! It would go a long way towards convincing the rest of the world that American Freedoms should rule the world!

      Just think of the money that could be made, the volunteers who would step up to date the prisoner, the volunteers who would step up to be stage the crime so their name would become history. Besyt of all the economy and stock market would go up as America moves proudly forward!!!

  • Kathybva

    I may have missed it, but I haven’t seen much questioning of the death penalty – an undoubtedly troubling, perhaps indefensible practice – directly in the wake of this story about Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist, executed for the brutal murder of James Byrd, Jr.

    Setting aside debate over Troy Davis’s guilt or innocence, what do we do with people who commit murder, provable in a court of law, based on pure hatred and sociopathy? Is prison the answer? I don’t know the answer to this; it’s a difficult question.

    Meanwhile, Mrs. MacPhail’s religious ecstasy is troubling, too, however performative or “authentic” (realizing, of course, that this sets up a false dichotomy). In Christendom, death has always symbolized the ultimate sacrifice, and the way that the death of Troy Davis strikes both pro/antagonists in this story as sacrificial, we have yet another opportunity to observe, and hopefully understand, the essential paradox of human nature. 

  • Michael Shaw

    Quick housekeeping note: Trolls are playing havoc lately. Hateful and spamming comments will be removed. Thanks.

  • Disgusted

    I, for one, am disappointed but not surprised at the immorality of the media concentrating on a bloodthirsty woman out for revenge against a probably innocent man, while ignoring the anguish of the family and friends who tried to stop the killing. Ghouls.

  • Cegoez

    Your reflexion is very pertinent but I think it does not go far enough. Is it not showing a blood-thirsty, vindictive and neurotic person crying for the lynching of an innocent man also a sensationalist spectacle? Why the media choose to present the poor suffering god-loving mother, happy to get at last the justice she deserved? AJC, the photographer and the people who buy this view are co-participants in the legal lynching of Troy Davis.

  • Troy Blackford

    This monster is horrible. 

  • Troy Blackford

    This monster is horrible. 

  • Troy Blackford

    This monster is horrible. 

  • Boxcar

    “Lord: Please kill. Lord, Please Kill”
    “The Lord answered MY prayers and killed”.

    Somebody phone Chris Hitchens. This blatant vile application of hate via religion writes itself.

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  • Thomas

    I always wonder at the class aspect of domestic photojournalism as well, since it is a genre that seems to concern itself almost exclusively with the destitute and the working poor. I mean, you can’t occupy a high social position without shrewdly protecting and cultivating your public image, so these sort of guileless intimate moments are pretty impossible without the subject having a real basic trust in the motives of the journalist.

    The top two photos seem to intentionally pull back enough to take in enough tangential detail to quote the genre: the water heater, the cigarettes and ashtray, the tidy but gaudy wall decorations, the cheap furniture and a telephone from last century (a cord!).  Mrs. MacPhail waits for word from the authorities or from God because she is not a decision-maker in society. Perhaps one needs to trust in the justness of a system even more when one has to live in a disadvantaged position relative to its power.

  • Anonymous

    Anneliese MacPhail used to get my sympathy. Losing a child is hard. Losing a child to murder is harder. I also believe in the death penalty. That said, however, I do not believe you execute someone if there is any doubt and recent development indicates some doubt. Mrs. MacPhail only wanted someone to be executed and she refused to understand that there was doubt that needed to be reviewed, questioned, investigated and perhaps a short delay was required. I have a feeling she will not find the closure she expects now that she has been assured Troy Davis has been executed even though there was doubt. What a lesson she is giving to her grandchildren. How will she feel if they find Troy Davis did not kill her son? One day she and those pushing the execution through will stand before the God of Abraham. God will call each one forward and to his side will be Troy Davis. God will ask Mr. Davis to decide their fate. They all need to pray that Troy Davis is a forgiving man. After all this time what was six more months to review the information? Peace to the soul of Troy Davis. Justice was set aside in Georgia on September 21, 2011.

  • Janis Edwards

    The Today Show is expert at the vouyeristic. Tun in any day between 7:20 and 7:40 and you will likely see this kind of display—of whoever they could get to emote or discuss (with much prompting, often) for the camera in relation to some “news” story that happened to them or someone they knew.

    • Michael Shaw


      Do you think it’s a different story, though, when it’s a still camera (and, we’re “outside the frame of morning TV pseudo-news)?

  • Chris Fox

    In the second photo, the waxen, blurred female spectator at the table (the Greek Chorus) provides a lurid, smiling/leering counterpoint to Mrs. McPhail’s exultation. Even as the news breaks, she goes on with her knitting (idle hands *are* the devil’s workplace).

    • JadedOptimist

      Madame DeFarge?

  • Property

    I know too many people in modern day Georgia who are racists to the core.  So I’m not sure how to comment on the photos other than to say none of them surprise me.  I’m also not surprised that Troy Davis was executed.  I told my wife before bedtime he’ll be dead before we wake tomorrow.  It’s sad but true, America is dying and it’s a slow process because of the Judiciary as well as corporate America running the government.

  • glenn

    I initially felt sympathy for Mrs. McPhail, seeing the first picture. It communicated to me the pain of the loss of her son, and the belief that Davis was the murderer, and the complicated moral and philosophical dilemma over the death penalty, and – possibly – her prayers for understanding, that it was the right thing to do.

    But then I saw the whole slide show, and my heart hardened. She certainly seems a canny manager of the media. I am curious why she did not go to the prison, a privilege that is offered to victims’ families, yet chose to keep up on the matter by watching TV. While avoiding the actual solemnity of the execution, which would have been private, she instead chose to publicize how much of a distance she is keeping from the occasion.

    It’s paradoxical to me. The avoidance of direct knowledge of/participation in the act, combined with putting herself on public view.

  • Earl Mardle

    To respond to your question. Photos 1 and 3 were taken within moments of each other.

    The two plates on the wall behind her right shoulder in 1 are in almost exactly the same position in 3. The chances are that she and the photographer would align quite so sonsistently on separate occasions would speak to a level of connivance that not even this cynic would accept.

  • Ralfast

    Any “body” will do.

  • Bugboy

    Jersey Shore is fucking our country


    let Davis Fry……….

    • Michael Shaw


  • expatjourno

    On the bright side, by heading up the lynch mob, Mrs Macphail has helped to ensure that the man who actually did kill her son will never stand trial and eventually she will realize that. Who says there is no justice in this world?

  • Doran

    Thanking God for death. Again. It seems to be the standard way our media countenances state sponsored homicide.

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