PRINT December 1987


the News and Its Pictures

A PICTURE COMES OVER THE Associated Press wire, a picture that stands out as an oddity among the hundreds that pour in every day from AP and Reuters and Agence France Presse to newspapers and other news and picture agencies around the world. These pictures are a sample of what photographers around the globe—nearly 200 work for Reuters alone—are photographing as representative of newsworthy events. Like Tony Bennett donating a watercolor that he’s painted to the United Nations. Or the pope talking to Clint Eastwood. Or an Iraqi wading through the rubble of his home after an Iranian bombing, George Shultz meeting with Eduard Shevardnadze, an Israeli soldier shaking his truncheon at an Arab woman, a new line of talking Cabbage Patch dolls, and a new picture of Brooke Shields which TV Guide uses that week when it asks, Why not Brooke for Miss America? The absurd, the lovable, and the unspeakable are all in the jumble, pictures of celebrities and pictures of dead peasants, human-interest photography and images of foreign despair, hard news and soft.

But the picture that stands out is both hard and soft, silly and unbearable. Datelined San Salvador, it shows a man standing on his head, his legs spread, his crotch bulging and situated just inches below the front hooves of a horse about to jump over him. That’s the soft news part of it. The hard news part is that this man, and the others in this parade-ground hijinx, are Salvadoran soldiers, members of a military that has a record of brutal human-rights abuses, and that the Reagan administration has chosen to fund generously.

But what news story could this picture illustrate, what point could it make? A man with his legs spread is not part of a bona fide news category or of any other category of polite representation. It is women who are used, even in representation that thinks itself polite, with their legs spread, in images both metaphoric and literal. Although constructions of male sexuality constitute the bulk of the news, they are almost always rendered as symbols of male power—as sexual appetite, war, and money—and not by the overtly sexualized male crotch. There is, indeed, no literal representation of the phallus that is viewed as being acceptable. Hidden, it makes itself felt; clothed, it transmits orders about who and what are going to be revealed.

Although the chances of this picture making it into a major news organ are practically nil, the fact that the picture was transmitted at all is noteworthy. This is the kind of picture that could usually be used only as a joke. A metaphoric jab to the viewing audience’s ribs, its caption, especially in tabloids, would typically read, “Today El Salvador celebrated its Independence Day with a ‘unique display.’” It would be used as a portrait of the ridiculous Other, a cartoon of a banana republic.

But the subliminal, unwritten caption is a warning as well as a joke. In his unlikely posture the soldier inadvertently unmasks the preening phallus, subjecting it to a greater danger than the pounding horse’s hooves. This man gives up his right to the privacy demanded by the male member. He opens it to the field of vision and to the potential exploitation that is so engrained in female experience. The Salvadoran soldier is a reminder to the international news-picture industry, which is overwhelmingly staffed by men, to protect its flank.

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