Occupy Wall Street & Tame Iti: The power of the image
Don’t panic! Tame Iti isn’t occupying Wall Street (unless Wall St have their sights on te Urewera for some sort of mining project, wouldn’t surprise me) – there’s a method to my madness that I’ll get to soon. An ‘oft repeated adage goes “seeing is believing” – an idea indicating that images, particularly mass-media images, are important representational sites. What does that mean? In essence this: images, contrary to popular belief, do not simply deliver reality to us in still-life form. That is photographs, paintings, sculpture, video and so on are not merely a re-production of what is/was to be seen; some straightforward facsimile. Generally we think they are and may pay scant attention to what we are actually seeing. And believing. Rather than simply reflect what is real, images can create or construct fantasy that has little correspondence with reality.
Take representations of black/brown males for example. And I intend to – in an upcoming post I’ve been promising for some time now. Too often images like this one depict black/brown masculinity, even in its young form, as hyper-masculine, violent, scary. They come to dominate the space of how a group of people can be thought of, or received. Sure, there are occasionally competing images, but for any particular image what must be weighed is how it sits in relation to its history and its context. To a thousand other images seen prior, alongside other scurrilous representational work (books and so forth) – all of which combine to create or construct a sense of knowing what one is seeing. Often the only way of disturbing that sense of knowing is by questioning- what images are missing? What other possible images are there? And what might they re-present?
Tuhoe arist/social worker/activist/cook – Tame Iti
Which brings me to Tame Iti – well known Māori activist or ‘trouble-maker’. How much of how he is seen by the mainstream is constructed, fantasised by the constant repetition of the image above on the left? Taken in 2005 at a powerful re-enactment Tuhoe put on of their history- the theft of their whenua and the destruction of their means of survival (scorched earth) in the 1860s and 70s, Tame outraged the mainstream and was duly arrested for putting a bullet in the NZ flag. The history of Tuhoe gives his actions context. It is an image that has dominated mainstream representations of the man, even when the stories have nothing to do with that incident. The two images to the right of it offer a very different picture of Tame Iti, that could just have easily been used – I found them all on the internet. How might Tame-in-the-kitchen participating in the mundane, the ordinariness of cooking a meal, disturb the fantasy of the angry ingrate? Given the possibilities, can most of the NZ public really profess to know who this man is? The underlying point here bears repeating – images do not deliver reality, they create (construct) it, as do other forms of representation.
Further problematics of the image include consideration of whose perspective is being shown. No, I’m not talking about the photographer. Often in visual images – both still and moving, what we think of as simply our mindless, objective consumption of the image/story on screen is in fact an invitation to take up a particular position. To identify with an element of the story being told. Take the Lone Ranger and Tonto stories that populated my childhood years. I used to love them, only it was devastating as an adult looking back to realise that this colonial narrative was feeding me a particular view of the Wild West: marauding ‘Indians’ complete with blood-curdling yell, and pioneering, plucky settlers. And damn it, I was an indigenous person siding with the settlers! Not because they were ‘right’, but because that was who the audience was invited to identify with. Now I always consider who’s perspective I’m seeing when taking in the visual.
Its a common refrain on this blog, that what is invisible, what is unsaid, what goes unnoticed holds the key to bringing about change. How can you fight what you cannot see? As I said in an earlier post: payattentiontothegaps – the important message is lost if you don’t. With that in mind, a recent article titled The Occupy Wall Street image that marks the end of the global consensus, makes particular effort to see beyond just the photo presented. To its symbolism and its promise:
Noting the jarring effect of the throng of dissatisfied citizens within a backdrop that promises affluence; the corporate filled skyscrapers, the glitz of consumer enticement – hell even that symbol of global spread (pardon the pun) McDonalds, writer Jonathan Jones describes in detail the foreground action:
A New York police officer leans forward and yells as if attempting, with the sheer force of his anger, to hold back time. His rage is understandable for, in this photograph, you can actually see the world turn upside down and all that was solid melt into air. This truly is a picture of a turning point in the history of the world.
This examination is taken further in the comments beneath the story, with a commenter noting:
I think the horses are important too because when I see images of horses in conflict situations they always first and foremost evoke a kind of Charge of the Light Brigade futility. The horses are strong compared to the people around them, but redolent of something obsolete and out of place – like the global financial institutions propped up by the money of the 99%.
What are they seeing? A critical moment, history-in-the-making, change. Too optimistic? Maybe. The writer is quick to establish that it may not be the Occupy Wall Street movement itself that achieves fundamental systemic change. But the growing disquiet it re-presents could signal a seachange in attitudes or decreasing buy-in to capitalism’s promise of peace and prosperity, so at odds with its actual delivery of widespread economic misery. For all but a few. A growing sense of hopelessness perhaps that might be just what is needed if we are to get away from ‘business as usual’. As Jones puts it: “The emperor of economics has no clothes”. I believe there are turning points. And images can usher them in. Take the image of young, black American Emmett Till, brutally murdered in 1955 for the crime of whistling at a white woman.
I’m re-producing it here, even with the awareness that to see it causes (or should) pain. That’s what hatred and intolerance looks like. Carved into the face of a 14 year old boy. Emmett’s mama agreed to this photo of her son in his casket being shown across the US and around the world. It was a move that may have played more of a role in the mobilisation of the Civil Rights Movement than the well known Rosa Parks-on-the-bus incident. More comfortable perhaps? It is good to be uncomfortable. Necessary. And images can signal turning points.
Back to Wall Street (wipe your eyes), alongside Jones’ assessment of the meaning in the image, I took a look at what other images are around, and was surprised. Many are not re-produced in the mainstream media, and while reportedly coverage of the movement is increasing, not in a way that captures its global spread. Take a look at a slideshow of protests around the globe:
The images depict a disquiet that is more far-reaching than how it appears when your exposure is limited to mainstream television or newspapers (which in Aotearoa have more important things to cover, like World Cup Rugby). Nationwide newspaper The Sunday Star Times mirrors that appearance with an article proclaiming the revolution a local fizzer. At least according to their chosen economist who opines:
The fight against the `system’ is not statistically justified in New Zealand … I haven’t seen anything in the data that suggests massive increases in inequality or inequity.
Funny that view you get, from high up on Wall, I mean Queen Street. The associated image is interesting too. “Moving right along, nothing to see here”! What if the widespread belief that, whatever the cause, dissent/activism is rare and objectors are but a tiny minority, is as manufactured a reality as say, the world’s population being 85% white (ok this will make more sense after an upcoming post on whiteness in the media). Is it possible that the observed absence of OWS (although growing larger), in all but a token or dismissive sense is meant to foster a belief in dissent-as-marginal? What if the contention that the only things people care about are designer clothing, the time-slot of Coronation Street, or World Cup Rugby, turns out to be a myth? Is dissent/despair closer to the surface than what is portrayed? Dangerous stuff, hence as Gil Scott Heron raps in the video: the revolution will not be televised. Clever those artists. Insightful.
Finally to artists of a different type – comic representation of Occupy Wall Street is easy to find. A different type of image, the political cartoon seems reminiscent of jesters in times past who were often the ‘truthsayers’ in the King’s court – cloaking those truths in humour. That’s the idea, thus the power of humorous representation is that it is often picked up by consumers as humourously accurate – daring to tell the truth. A snapshot of cartoons that have featured in prominent print outlets suggests that the supposed truth-saying also supports the minority-status of dissent, by characterising (or is that caricature-ising) those dissenting in specific ways:
As confused, or incoherent –
Youthful or lacking maturity –
Just plain spoilt, and whiny –
Or the trump card – secretly admiring of already-maligned foes like Communism –
And this in as ‘side-lined‘ a publication as Time Magazine. The terrorist frame has yet to emerge (to my knowledge) but I have no doubt it will come, should the movement continue to build. Which brings us back to the beginning. Tame Iti – Terrorist extraordinaire! Make a Tui billboard (another image) out of that.