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My Fellow Citizens,

On any given day of our digital lives, photos wash over us. We scroll; we text; we snap; we pin. 

Few of us have any idea of how many photos we carry around on our phones. In 2015, The New York Times reported on the exponential growth in the number of photos we take. They predicted there would be 1.5 trillion photos taken in the year 2017. Smartphones would take nearly 80% of those photos. 

Is it still possible for a photo to achieve “icon” status? When we refer to the power of a photo, we discuss it as though it belongs alongside the most familiar photos of our history. This status implies that we will one day be able to refer to the photo by one name and know that we all see the same image in our mind. Iconic photos of the past have helped us see:

  • Our potential. Think of Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” or Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square.
  • Breakthroughs, when our future seems to shift. Imagine the first x-ray in 1895 or the Hubble Telescope’s “eXtreme Deep Field.” (Bonus: Have you seen “Brainbow?”)
Too often they have to disrupt our complacency. The photos make a tragedy too real for us to look away. These images find their permanence because they are impossible to forget. 

The photo of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramírez and his daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande is one of these tragic images. Every activist, journalist, and political observer shared the image this week. Sadly, this picture is not the first image of the trauma happening at our southern border. In 2017, photographer John Moore captured a much-shared picture of a toddler crying while Border Patrol searched her mother. A 2018 headline from The New York Times explains, “She became the face of family separation. But She’s Still with Her Mother.” 

As we contemplated the picture of Ramírez with his daughter, we also had to recall another photo that had an impact. Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, drowned when a boat capsized and his small body washed up on the Turkish coast. In 2015, that photo brought attention to the refugee crisis, galvanized donations to the Red Cross, and even opened up European borders to refugees.

The images from the southern border of the U.S. get attention. The question is this: Can these images still change our politics?

In a thoughtful essay for The Washington Post, Phillip Kennicott explains how these images work to engage us in political questions we had been content to overlook. When we see an image, we work with the photographer and the photo to complete a process he calls “ekphrasis.” We each take on the work of elaborating “both what we are seeing and what we imagine must have taken place, filling in details, adding meaning, making connections.” 

We fill in the missing details with “emotional touchstones” from our own lives. Today, there is a disruption in this process—the rise of nationalism. Kennicott explains two different approaches to interpreting these gut-wrenching photos:

“One requires time and effort, an act of engaged empathy, while the other is a quick judgment that reaffirms an existing sense of the world... For the few hours or days that this photograph elicits chatter and argument, there will be efforts to make it an allegory of law and judgment rather than an opportunity for moral imagination and compassion.”

It may not sound like it but there is hope in this formulation. By understanding how these photos might work differently in our polarized lives, we can change our exceptions of these photos and our fellow citizens. We know that these images no longer communicate a single message. We can now pick up the work of interpreting what we see and why it matters. 

When we encounter these photos, we receive a reminder to do more than contemplate our own sense of a shared responsibility for humanity. We need to express what we believe is at stake in what we decide to do next as a political community. This development is a invitation to step out beyond all the assumptions, our own and others. 

To connect with the power to change the world, these images need more than an extra share. To make an impact, they need us to actively engage our best ideas of who we want to be.  

Let's keep taking about who we want to be,


P.S. What will you be doing over the 4th of July holiday? 

Activists across the country are looking for ways to make the border crisis part of the conversation over the upcoming holiday weekend. Whether you have big plans draped in red, white, and blue or something a little different, use our hashtag #politicolor and share them with us.

We're never going to give up on our ability to connect to one another with a good photo. 
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Questions of Civic Proportions

"A good snapshot stops a moment from running away."

—Eudora Welty
American novelist

Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our Learning Studio)

Do the images that fuel our politics make it easier or more difficult to talk about what matters? 

Images have proven to be influential forces in politics since the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The memes from this week’s democratic primary debates fit this narrative with the look on Cory Booker’s face when Beto O’Rourke started speaking Spanish and Kamala Harris’s questions for Vice President Biden. The photos don’t do justice to bigger questions like whether speaking Spanish was an act of pandering or of being inclusive.

While the former Vice President continues to wrestle with his decision to frame his call for civility through his past work with segregationists, social media dragged out some tired tropes about race to suggest Harris wasn’t “really African American.” Those attacks unified the field of Democratic candidates as they responded by calling out racism and hate. 

Mayor Pete Buttegieg responded:
“The presidential competitive field is stronger because Kamala Harris has been powerfully voicing her Black American experience. Her first-generation story embodies the American dream. It’s long past time to end these racist, birther-style attacks.”


Can the images we use put unintended limits on fundamental questions? 

When it comes to gerrymandering, we have been speaking to one another through a repeated series of red-and-blue squares in an attempt to explain what’s at stake. Comparisons of imaginary “districts” and skewed outcomes can provoke a long list of questions about representation and what it requires. It’s also possible to discuss the images as little more than winners and losers. This week the Supreme Court announced these districts and outcomes represent political questions that exist beyond their reach. The Brennan Center’s Michael Waldman and Eliza Sweren-Becker took the question back to 1787 via their op-ed in The Washington Post, writing “The Supreme Court has Failed the Constitution.” 

SCOTUSblog puts the decision in the context of other decisions by the court and all court watchers have recommended reading Justice Kagan’s dissent. Ari Berman has been one of the leading advocates for voting rights since the Shelby County v. Holder decision that compromised the Voting Rights Act. He calls this week’s decision a “doomsday scenario for voting rights." 

Ryan Enos, a political scientist from Harvard University, turned to Twitter to get directly to the question that should most concern us all:
"This is a hot take, but the courts gerrymandering decision seems to lock-in an essentially non-democratic feature of American politics. Elected representatives can rig the system to remain in power indefinitely and this cannot be challenged...

Combine this with the other increasingly consequential non-democratic features of the American system, i.e., the Electoral College and the Senate, and the longterm stability of the system seems worryingly compromised."
*The "join the conversation" link at the top of Questions of Civic Proportions will take you to Politicolor's online learning studio. You will need to be a member to access the content, but it's free. Use this button to check it out and request an invite.
Join the Learning Studio

July's News: We're going presidential

We'll first re-visit 1787 through four episodes of John Dickerson's Whistlestop podcast. These thirty-minute episodes make for perfect travel companions for those hitting the road. For the readers amongst us, we're picking up The Oath and The Office by Corey Brettschneider

Join us in the Learning Studio this month to share your favorite insights into the Office of the Presidency.

We'll share details there about the Crowdcast events we have planned, but save the dates: July 25th and August 8th.

Good Work: Define American fights stereotypes and anti-immigrant hate

The pitch on their home page: Help us humanize the conversation around immigrants, citizenship, and identity. The non-profit Define American seeks to use the power of storytelling to transcend politics, and their work started with a single journalist.

In 2011, Jose Antonio Vargas decided he had to "come out" as an undocumented American. The New York Times published his essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant." He founded Define American that same year and made it his mission to put the faces and stories of real people into our policy debates.

Vargas's story includes the impossible circumstances of being brought here at the age of 12 and having no clear path to “get legal.” He negotiated one deceit after another so he could do perfectly ordinary things like drive, go to college and pursue a career as a journalist. He eventually went public with his status. This decision came with risks that few people like him could afford. 

His decision also made it possible to pull all the details of his story out in the light of public debate. While Jose Antonio Vargas has been detained, he remains in the states today and makes frequent media appearances, even on the outlets that joke about turning him over to ICE.

Vargas believes there is still power in seeing the people and lives that get caught up in our politics:
"Here in the U.S., the language we use to discuss immigration does not recognize the realities of our lives based on conditions that we did not create and cannot control. For the most part, why are white people called “expats” while people of color are called “immigrants”?... What’s the difference between a “settler” and a “refugee”? Language itself is a barrier to information, a fortress against understanding the inalienable instinct of human beings to move."

—from the pages of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen
by Jose Antonio Vargas

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