Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Photographs and Memories

Political photographs are deceptive things. They are caught in the middle of the action, the spin of a campaign or backstory, and offer subtle nods to larger currents in our country’s history. Often, if you listen carefully to these images, you’ll hear hints of an American tension: the call for more rights and freedom, and the simultaneous, equally loud cry for exclusion based on differences—and for a compromised version of our participatory democracy. - - Ken Burns, The Atlantic, 11/06/2022

Political photographs are deceptive things. 

Photo credit Brian Krista, Baltimore Sun

They can present to us an image that reinforces what we already want to believe. Or they can frame a moment in time in such a way that the picture appears to defy reality. You know that what the picture is suggesting is not so, and yet - - 

“Ken Burns Tells America’s History Through Six Photographs: These images reveal our nation’s most persistent tensions”

“These images reveal our nation’s most persistent tensions.” When you look at this photo, what tensions do you see?

White vs Black? Generations in Howard County vs choosing Columbia to raise a family? Old school vs. new aspirational ideals? Republican vs. Democrat?  Power consolidation vs. power sharing? Tradition vs. Innovation?

Of course none of those tensions is actually in the photo. They are in us. They are in our community. We can project them onto an image but the tensions - -  and the challenges they signify - - are all around us. The campaign may be over. The results may be known. The election may already feel as though it is behind us but we will still have to face every challenge that the election brought to the fore. 

And many that lurk in the darkness unnamed.

All of us who care about the future of Columbia and Howard County have to be willing to face that and to do something about it. One photo isn’t the whole story. One election doesn’t complete the work: it marks the beginning. Four years ago I wrote of that fateful photo and the election that preceded it:

As much as we in Howard County love to see a moment like this, we need to look beyond it to the real policy differences that were at play in this election. This was not a referendum on niceness. Nor was it meant to be. It was an opportunity to evaluate the goals and experiences of two candidates and choose the best direction for Howard County. Who do we want to be? Where do we want to go?

We have work to do in Howard County, and all the niceness in the world won’t get it done. We have uncomfortable truths to address and some soul searching ahead. And work, plenty of it. Work to be more inclusive, more transparent, more imaginative in our efforts to make Howard County a fairer and more just place for everyone.   - - “Nice”, November 7, 2018

I suspect that local Republicans will not go the January 6th route of denying the results of the County Executive race but I already see the suggestion that the people who re-elected Calvin Ball aren’t truly representative of “the real Howard County.” I can’t even begin to dissect that this morning but I can tell you that those who brought County Executive Ball to his second term are representative of people who vote.

Will that encourage thoughtful discussion and self-reflection? Hard to say.

The last sentence in the Atlantic article by Ken Burns is a simple one.

American democracy is a personal challenge that each of us must meet. We meet that challenge not simply by casting a ballot but by engaging in our communities long after the votes are counted. 

Political photographs are deceptive things. Let’s put this one to bed now. It has far outlasted its moment of fame. 

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