PRINT October 1987


What Miami Heralds about the Times.

IT’S OLD NEWS that there’s no such thing as an objective picture. There’s no story there. So why should we care if this past summer the New York Times Magazine ran a double-page “news” picture of a supposed drug bust in Miami that turned out to be a four-year-old staged ad for Westinghouse radar? Miami cares, that’s why. But who cares what Miami thinks? And do cities actually think? Or do they just struggle for tourist dollars, investment capital, and real estate booms, and try to keep minority unrest down, federal assistance up, and public transport moving? It’s hell being a city. And what’s even worse is being portrayed as hellish by the major news organ in New York, a city that anyone who’s spent 10 minutes in the Times Square subway in July could tell you does literally resemble hell. “Can Miami Save Itself? A City Beset by Drugs and Violence” was splashed across the cover of the Times Sunday magazine, and that wretched image was repeated ad nauseam throughout the story.

The laughable injustice of this poisoned epistle from the Rotten Apple did not escape Miami. The day before it appeared, the Miami Herald ran a piece criticizing it. Community leaders in Miami attacked the tone set by the pictures and the story’s title. Acknowledging its factual error and its out-of-date cover, the Times printed a full correction in the front section the same Sunday that the magazine story ran.

Yet the real problem was not simply that a photograph was old or was mislabeled by the photographer or by a picture agency. The problem was the picture selection and the politics of the article, an article that ironically began, “All its life, Miami has depended on image for survival.” The magazine reportedly solicited hundreds of pictures of Miami for the story from a variety of agencies. Presumably the photos didn’t all show drug busts or the other equally negative images the Times ended up using, including a boatload of illegal Haitian refugees and an inmate at an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center. Yet these photographs were as good as called for by the voice of the story, which, even if unintentionally, generated an intense anti-Hispanic fog, one frightful paragraph piled on another. The little nods to Miami didn’t balance the bad news.

In this context the photographs made life in Miami look claustrophobic and one-dimensional, as if its people were trapped on a one-way shuttle to the end of the line. Their subjects were squished flat against the picture plane; in some tormented travesty of Modernist photojournalism, each image was tightly cropped. The only thing resembling an open horizon was the burning orange sky over the “drug bust,” in which a helicopter hovered, its searchlight burnishing the scene with a crime-movie glow. Nowhere was there a hint of the “dazzling” Miami skyline (the author’s word); the one Cuban business portrayed was seen in a small and visually dull black and white photograph with a sour caption about Hispanic racism.

If thirty years ago Miami’s crime was that it was too Jewish and too old for an already image-conscious world, then today its offense has blossomed. Miami’s crime is not drug rings or riots. Its crime is that it is populated by a large majority of people of color—Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, Nicaraguan. It seems that Ollie North was right: they’ve infiltrated our southern borders. Arm yourselves—call out the guard. The big-time scamming and small-time entrepreneurship that the article was enthralled by is no longer an Anglo preserve.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator and an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.