May 11, 2011 by Sonia Isard
In the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden’s death, the meme-conducive photo of Obama, et. al., in the Situation Room quickly made the rounds. Some of the digital manipulations were quite satisfying— President Obama holding a video game controller, or Keanu Reeves sitting at the table, calmly participant-observing.
Then, whoops! Just as fast as a squirrel can photobomb your vacation shot, it turns out women can be taken out of the picture.
NPR and the Washington Post reported that Di Tzaytung (a Brooklyn-based Orthodox weekly) had deleted Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from the now-famous photo. This got picked up in the Jewish blogosphere and in the feminist blogosphere and pretty much everywhere else—it’s such a clunky and unsophisticated example of tsnius that it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to mock. I mean, talk about low-hanging fruit! There’s nothing as funny as an obviously botched and misguided photoshop job.
Di Tzaytung responded to the uproar, writing: “Our editorial policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board and because of laws of modesty, does not allow for the publishing of photos of women.” Which, hmmm.
But ok, big surprise, some Orthodox men are trying to efface women from the big picture. What else is new?
I think this event reflects more our ever-changing ideas of evidence and proof—the role of imagery in today’s information-rich architecture of communication. Incidentally, the larger coincident debates—whether or not to release photos of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse, or President Obama’s decision to release his long-form birth certificate—are another side of the same coin. By now, the photoshopped slimming down of models and actresses is taken for granted. But the realization that “facts” can be manipulated as easily as women’s bodies? That’s just starting to sink in.
Why is this a feminist issue? For me, it brings to mind some of Judith Butler’s writings on censorship. “Censorship is a productive form of power: it is not merely privative, but formative as well. I propose that censorship seeks to produce subjects according to explicit and implicit norms…” That’s the formation of discourse that she’s talking about—and we’re talking about a stark reminder of how powerful the patriarchal system is in Orthodoxy.
This censorial act was a reminder that politicized censorship has a role, and that it has broad implications for the dispersal of power within and across communities, both Jewish and non. This case just happens to have been ridiculously obvious.
Photography is far more manipulable than we tend to remember, especially in this day and age, when everyone has a point and shoot and their very own mouse to then point and click with. Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida, “The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed…” Oh dear… Those were the days…