Melissa Smyth

This Valentine’s Day we have endured the usual corporate commodification of romantic love, including love that falls outside of the heteronormative ideal. Such love has been triumphantly photographed in Alabama courthouses, where some judges recently began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last week according to a federal ruling against the state’s ban. This process, amidst continual denials of marriage to many other couples, subjugates romantic love to the legal struggles between federal and state jurisdictions, measuring it according to political concessions.

The New York Times’ photography blog, Lens, offered a view into another set of romantic relationships circumscribed by a political reading of identity: Oksana Yushko’s portraits of Ukrainian-Russian lovers. Her photographs show domestic scenes of couples—intimate, quotidian, touching images that suggest nothing extraordinary about the relationships they depict. And so the story is a nonstory—that shifting borders, political conflict, national quarrels have little to no import to the personal affairs incorporated into them. Love over politics.

Fittingly, World Press Photo announced its 2014 Photo of the Year two days ago: Mads Nissen’s image of “Jon and Alex, a gay couple, during an intimate moment in St. Petersburg, Russia.” The photograph—aesthetically quite striking, with soft neutral tones dramatized by deep shadows, the tall vertical lines of a curtain that fall into the form of two bodies, the intense gaze of one man toward the other, reclined with closed eyes, the shadow that seems a specter behind them—deserves recognition. Yet its otherwise editorial content, suggesting a story of two lovers, seems a curious selection for an award for excellence in photojournalism.

The caption clarifies its newsworthy nature. “Life for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people is becoming increasingly difficult in Russia.” Despite the absence of any external social content in the image, the private intimacy of this couple is promptly transcribed into the broader context in which “sexual minorities face legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate-crime attacks from conservative religious and nationalistic groups.” WPP instructs that this captivating image is made significant because the lovers are gay, and that their significant gay identity speaks to a prescribed social judgment directed at Russia as a whole.

WPP has declared Nissen’s photograph the cream of the crop of photojournalistic images in 2014, a crop notably plagued by disqualifying digital manipulation. The jury deemed up to 20% of last year’s entries inappropriately post-processed, sparking another iteration of the conversation regarding the limits of acceptable image enhancement and standards of journalistic integrity.

As photojournalist Asim Rafiqui has pointed out, the notion of journalistic integrity begs further probing. He argues the hypocrisy of a system that, in its devotion to the aesthetic sincerity of the finished product, “remains silent, and in fact in collusion with, the image manipulations of state-sanctioned, military enforced, ‘embedded’ photojournalism.” While checkpoints are in place to eliminate often inconsequential aesthetic manipulations, the ways in which images are produced, often under the auspices of corporate corruption and military exploits, remain unexamined.

Rafiqui continues, “There is absolutely no room or space, no venue of debate or discussion, that evaluates works for their independence or journalistic veracity. This isn't to argue that all the works featured and celebrated are not journalistic, or that they should all be dismissed. But it is to point out that what remains hidden, if not erased, are the politics of the image.”

In addition to the conditions of affiliation to which Rafiqui alludes that problematize the very activity and purport of image making, the assumption of objective purity, understood to be polluted by digital post-processing, is a fallacy in multiple senses. Acts of selection occur not only through the photographer’s choices in framing, often directed in the first place by editorial assignments, but also through the publication process and positioning within broader media narratives. The "thousand words" ascribed to any picture comes not from its content but from the rhetorical context into which it is invested.

In The Disciplinary Frame, John Tagg describes the power of the image to buttress ideological consolidations of reality, executed through the production of discursive meaning from the ambiguity of images: “rules of exclusion, limitation, and employment operate, therefore, as forms of instigative violence—a violence that produces the event of meaning and impinges on the body, making it subject, constituting the subject that is subject to discourse.”1

The photograph of Jon and Alex should tell us nothing, other than the beautiful poetic that rings in the image depicting tender affection and intimate repose. It can suggest a lot but confirm little. Captioned, however, it is manipulated as proof of a verbal assertion; Jon and Alex now stand as testaments to the persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Russia. Implicitly, they also attest to the moral superiority of the Western champions of sexual rights, and to the threat that Russia’s geopolitical influence and expansion pose to the marginalized of the world.

It is likely true that Jon and Alex face a great deal of adversity due to their sexual orientation; this likelihood alludes to a grave problem in Russia, as in the United States and most nearly everywhere else, that threatens the freedom and safety of LGBTQ individuals on a daily basis. But as the image of Jon and Alex’s bodies has become subject to the political discourse of Russia’s particular repressiveness, WPP's characterization of their apparent expression of love speaks to a larger political agenda.

Condemnation of Russian society stemming from anti-LGBTQ violence, much like US calls to liberate Afghan women and Israel’s practice of pinkwashing, elides the struggles and resistance of LGBTQ individuals, groups, and activists to ends often unrelated and detrimental to their cause. The faltering steps taken in Alabama, and elsewhere across the globe, towards fully realized civil rights and social equality for LGBTQ individuals are vital, yet limited, and such aggressive posturing of moral superiority detracts from the ongoing work and sacrifice of outside political organizers.

Decrying the visual manipulation of some images, while significant in the assessment of reportage, seems to attribute an unadulterated veracity to the non-doctored photograph. Truth is all too often demanded from a photograph, laying the grounds for a battle waged on all the wrong premises. It is not the photograph’s loyalty to reality that should be called into question, but the framing of the photograph by which it, and its subjects, are twisted into ideological campaigns. To love the image is to liberate it from this babble, to give credence not only to the politics out of which the image was made, but also to those out of which it is framed.

1 John Tagg. The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning. University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 19.

Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, with a concentration in visual culture and photographic representation. She holds degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her photography work can be seen here: