ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, Peter Jennings, Larry King, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giuliani, George, George W. and Laura Bush, and at least one delegate dressed up as Abraham Lincoln.
These are just some of the characters in photojournalist Steve Simon's latest book, The Republicans âe" fifty-five black-and-white photographs taken over the five days of the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City.
Simon's work has a narrative, historical quality: each image composed of layers of meaning. The book itself carries the weight of a historical document that may well change the way the world looks back on the America of 2004.
Fifteen thousand members of the media showed up to cover five thousand delegates, there to make a decision that was a forgone conclusion. Not for the first time, Montreal-born Simon pointed his camera at the people holding the cameras (in his last book, the lovely and touching homage, Empty Sky, Simon photographed pilgrims who had come to pay tribute to the victims of 9/11 as they photographed Ground Zero). The pageantry and exhibitionism of American politics has oft been noted, but Simon lays it bare with a humour and irony that is particularly his own (in a tradition critic Linda Hutcheon might call distinctly Canadian), with subversive results.
One of the first photos in the book is a long shot of the roof over the marquis of Madison Square Gardens. We see a poster for the Republican National Convention glued to the side of the marquis. Partially cropped, the marquis reads THANK NE [Thank You New York]. Three NYPD officers are looking out with binoculars toward the unseen city in the foreground.
Remembering that New York is a city that would go on to vote three to one against George W. Bush in the 2004 election, we wonder what dangers they are looking out for âe" terrorists? Democrats? We don't get the sense that the officers could do much if they did see anything. Arrest a youth carrying an I LOVE PROCHOICE placard?
The stark, binary division of American citizens along political lines frightens Simon: It's hard to be optimistic when Americans are fighting among themselves as if they were mortal enemies.
What Simon does best is expose through juxtaposition. In one photograph, a police officer runs from a burning effigy lit by demonstrators outside the Gardens. The look of panic on her face is reminiscent of the expressions of those running from the twin towers as they burned, and of course the context of the book makes this reference even stronger. A crowd of demonstrators on the far side of the street remains obediently behind barricades, and we wonder why the officer is running away. On the facing page is the Republican slogan (insanely built on the premise that the war in Iraq has made the world a safer place): A Safer World; A More Hopeful America.
The convention itself is an advertisement for the war in Iraq. There is a blindness inside the convention hall to the world outside where demonstrators march carrying caskets in protest of the war âe" that other media extravaganza of the Bush Administration going on simultaneously to the convention.
These are not ironies we are unfamiliar with, but Simon's photos, his intelligent editing and the structure of his book bring home their power to poignant and upsetting effect. His pictures make me want to act, to show his book around, to point at its pages: See how fucked up this is! This is a leadership convention with only one person running; a coronation, many called it.
There was no debate, no discussion, no booing except when Michael Moore showed up, comments Simon. And so, the delegates were not performing for each other; they were performing for people watching TV. One woman in a wheelchair holds a sign INTEGRITY COURAGE TRUST IN GOD.
It's as if the media is God, says Simon. They think the media can help them. Except for a few renegade journalists, the media was expected to and did keep to the script, delivering a version of history pre-written and directed by the Republicans.
There's a final climax moment during the convention. It's when George W. Bush and his family, standing atop a circular pedestal, are showered with streamers, and thousands of balloons are released in Madison Square Gardens. There is an uproar of adulation. The leader has been crowned. Fifteen thousand members of the media capture the same moment, the same images.
Writing about German troops in 1930, Ernst JÃ¼nger suggests that there can be no modern warfare without photography âe" not only photography as integral to the propagandizing of war, but photography as an act, an image for an instant made of light, as when the sky over a city under attack is lit up. Modern politics, like war (the line between the two is a very pale grey), would not exist without photography. Simon's work makes compelling evidence that this is so.âe"Rita Leistner
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.