Photo Review

Photo Review

The photo I have chosen to review is an image from Joshua Trujillo taken on November 14th 2011. This image was published in the Guardian newspaper on November 15th 2011.

This is a photograph that was captured in the midst of the Occupy Seattle protests. The Seattle occupation is a part of the ‘Occupy’ movement, which has spread from its initials beginnings on Wall Street, all the way around the globe, culminating in the claim that there will be 951 demonstrations in 82 different countries . As time has progressed, police have acted with greater force in an attempt to disperse the occupations, this photo is evidence of this greater force.
The woman is 84-year-old Dorli Rainey. In an attempt to disperse the protestors she has been pepper sprayed by the Seattle police force. This picture is fertile with themes and nuances which can be studied to give us a greater understanding of the question of the Occupation movement as a whole, the wider theme of police brutality, and what the image that Trujillo has captured represents.

The first thing that strikes me about the photograph is Rainey’s face. The shock and horror on her face guarantees that anyone who sees this photo will experience a strong feeling of empathy. The milk that has been thrown on her in an attempt to neutralize the acidity of the pepper spray is dripping down her cheek. She is flanked by two men who are clearly more physically imposing than her. Thus, highlighting the fact that she is old, frail, and shouldn’t be subjected to this sort of police action. Similarly, a pregnant woman was also pepper sprayed at the same event and Trujillo also captured the image.

The two photos share common ground with the running theme clearly being that unthreatening people are being treated with hostility. At the heart of both images is that they are designed to be shocking. The police should be aiming to protect the people but who will protect the people from the police? There is also movement throughout both images which heightens the sense of chaos. The viewer must take a moment to see what has happened amongst the chaos. Rainey’s image is perhaps the more shocking of the two simply because of her age, as a society we associate the aged with weakness and a need for protection. This links in with the view of the elderly being unthreatening. As the action of pepper spraying is clearly that of a police force under threat, what does that say about the police force? Both photographs also raise the question of martyrdom, how far should one suffer for a cause they believe in, especially when they are physically at risk of attack. Parallels can be drawn here with Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Dead Christ Supported by Angels’.

Both Trujillo’s photograph and Bellini’s painting are similar in the sense that both victims are being shown up towards the viewer. This highlights the suffering of both Rainey and Christ and suggests that this is something that the audience needs to see. The men who flank Rainey almost mirror the supporters of the dead Christ’s tormented body. None of those who are supporting both victims are looking directly into the camera (or at the artist), perhaps seeking to emphasize the suffering. Almost as if the suffering is so great that they cannot focus on anything in front of them. In Jonathon Jones’ article published in the Guardian on November 15th 2011 he draws attention to the constant need for violent acts to be given a symbolic counterpart from the world of religion:
‘America is a religious nation and I can’t help thinking that either the people in the picture, or the photographer, consciously or unconsciously reached for an image from the iconography of Catholic faith ’. This raises the interesting question of how much does religion, whether we are believers or not, play a role in our lives..

In his work Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes about the studium and the punctum. The studium is described as ‘the extension of a field, which I perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of my knowledge….it always refers to a classical body of information’ . The studium is effectively what we see when we look at the photograph in a broad sense. What the photographer wants us to see. In Trujillo’s photograph the studium would likely be the expression on Dorli Rainey’s face. Barthes also coined another phrase, the punctum, he defined this as the ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots it like an arrow, and pierces me’ . The punctum is therefore the part of an image which really strikes the viewer when they see the photograph. It can be unexpected, such as a background or the way someone is standing, but it always pricks the viewer’s emotions. It is also an entirely personal entity, what strikes an individual about a photograph may differ from person to person. In Trujillo’s photograph my punctum is the man supporting her to her left. What strikes me particularly about this figure is his facial expression as he solemnly looks down towards the ground. It’s almost as if he’s focusing on something else entirely whilst still trying to draw attention to what has happened to Rainey.

What we must consider however is the role of Joshua Trujillo in the taking of this photograph, and more widely, the role of the photographer in general. In Susan Sontag’s book ‘On Photography’ it is stated: ‘thought is regarded as clouding the transparency of the photographer’s consciousness, and as infringing on the autonomy of what is being photographed ’. I would argue that there is little thought needed in order to capture this image. This is not belittling the role of Trujillo, however it is clear that this image came about via events which were not to do with the photographer. Certain leftist media outlets such as Political Scrapbook have jumped upon the image as a propaganda tool against the police. However I would argue strongly that the image is not about propaganda, it merely states fact. Dorli Rainey was pepper sprayed by the Seattle Police Department and this is what Trujillo depicts. However critic Minor White would argue that we can still see Trujillo’s ideology through his photograph: ‘the photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and feel it better ’. It is an interesting assertion and it certainly keeps the viewer aware of the possibility of being manipulated by an image, whether this is done willingly by a photographer or not.

To conclude this review I would assert that Joshua Trujillo’s photograph is without doubt a thought provoking and controversial image. Edward Weston described the camera as a means of providing ‘the photographer with a means of looking deeply into the nature of things, and presenting his subjects in terms of their basic reality ’. I feel that this is what we see in Trujillo’s image. It plays to our basic emotion that vulnerable people should be looked after by society. If the police, a representation of society’s values, acts aggressively towards the vulnerable then what can we infer about the world in which we live. Can we really trust the police to protect our values? I think not. The power of the image increases with the fact that it has not been staged or set up. Dorli Rainey’s advanced age is what has drawn added attention to this photo, it would be unlikely that many people would see this image if the subject had been younger. This photo has not become popular because of police aggression, it has become popular because we feel sorry for Rainey because of her age. This intrigues me in itself because I feel it reflects a wider trend in society. That there must be an extreme shocking aspect to an event for it to attract widespread attention. This is why Barthes’ idea of a punctum is so interesting, an idea that in my opinion transcends photography and applies to the modern world. Trujillo has captured a fantastic image, one that is both thought provoking and controversial.

Above – A photo of the recovered Dorli Rainey.


Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, Vintage, London, 2000.

Jonathan Jones

Sontag, Susan, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Books, London, 2009.

Sontag, Susan, On Photography, Penguin Books, London 1978.

Weston, Edward, Seeing Photographically, 2003, in The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells.


2 Responses to “Photo Review”

  1. stevenkendall90 Says:

    I don’t know where my footnotes have disappeared to will try and sort it all out tomorrow.

  2. The camera angle and bright lighting in the last image of Dorli Rainey looks really angelic, almost saintly which I guess adds to her innocence and the belief in her cause.

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