Colin Kaepernick and why political analysis needs to pay more attention to visual images

While many strands of social science have taken a “visual turn” in recent years, the study of politics lags behind in terms of acknowledging the importance of images as a language of communication. Specifically, political analysis has not yet fully recognised how images shape power relations by rendering some forms of action possible and legitimate while constraining others.

As Roland Bleiker, one of the key advocates for a visual turn in political analysis, summarises the power of images:

Images often work more indirectly, by performing the political, by setting the “conditions of possibility” through which politics takes place. They have the potential to shape what can and cannot be seen, and thus also what can and cannot be thought, said and done in politics.

One reason for why images differ from verbal forms of communication is because of their ambiguous nature. In the words of visual theorist W.J.T. Mitchell,

images are not words. It is not clear that they actually “say” anything. They may show something, but the verbal message or speech act has to be brought to them by the spectator, who projects a voice into the image, reads a story into it, or deciphers a verbal message. Images are dense, iconic (usually) visual symbols that convey nondiscursive, nonverbal information that is often quite ambiguous with regard to any statement.

This ambiguity is one of the factors that lend images their power. Because of their ambiguity, images can be interpreted in many ways and can thus be used to open or close spheres for political action.

Let me illustrate this with a recent example. Last week, Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren posted a photoshopped image of Colin Kaepernick that depicts him taking a knee in the midst of the D-Day landings.

Taking a knee, as an act of visual rhetoric, can be read in different ways. For example, people can take a knee to ask for forgiveness, to humble themselves before a person with authority or a divine power, or to express their loyalty and respect. How the viewers of an image read the act of taking a knee depends on other carriers of meaning in the image (such as other people and the setting) and viewers' own ideological standpoint.

Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during a pre-game national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality towards black people. As he explains,“[I’m] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” Other players who joined Kaepernick in the protest recall: “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Colin Kaepernick, middle, knees with his teammates before a game on September 25, 2016. (USA Today Sports / Joe Nicholson)

However, not all audiences shared this reading of Kaepernick’s gesture. Soon after first taking a knee, Kaepernick became the “most disliked” player in the NFL, and Donald Trump and other right-wing politicians called Kaepernick’s kneeling unpatriotic and disrespectful to the flag.

The photoshopped image that Tomi Lahren shared on Twitter anchors this latter interpretation: while other men storm the beach to defend American values of freedom and democracy, Kaepernick seeks cover on the landing boat, kneeling behind the side armour. The act of kneeling thus takes on a completely different meaning from what Kaepernick intended. The act is branded as un-American and cowardly, thereby deligitimising it and closing down the space for protest.

Kim Jong-un isn't the madman Trump tries to paint him to be - a visual analysis

As Donald Trump has embarked on an 11-day trip through East Asia, the nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea will likely dominate the news agenda over the next couple of weeks. Trump himself has threatened to respond to North Korean sabre rattling with “fire and fury,” and – in a speech to the United Nations in September – described the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as “rocket man […] on a suicide mission.”

However, this characterisation of Kim Jong-un as an irrational madman could not be further from the truth. One way of showing this is to highlight just how much strategic thinking and planning the regime invests in the production of photographic images as a means to generate political legitimacy.

Certainly, from a Western perspective, the imagery produced by the North Korean propaganda machine may seem archaic and even comical (for example, people like to poke fun at the fact that a lot of photographs show Kim Jong-un “looking at things”). Yet, in the North Korean context, the regime’s imagery carries universally understood meaning and has the ability to foster support for non-democratic rule.

To fully grasp the rationality behind the photographs circulated by the regime in Pyongyang, one needs to understand that North Korea’s brand of communism combines Marxist-Leninist thinking with Korean mythology (as illustrated, for example, by the Chollima horse) and local cultural values – in particular, the Confucian emphasis on the family as the foundation of society.

On the latter point, Avrav Agov writes:

The veneration and worship of the Kim family is perhaps the North Korean system’s strongest link to the Confucian familial legacy. Kwon and Chung point out that “the Great Leader became the beating heart of revolutionary polity as a historical entity, the genesis of which, in turn, became equivalent to the leader’s biographical history.” Every citizen becomes part of Kim’s “personified sovereign body,” while one’s economic existence became part of a “superorganic household economy headed by the leader.” The slogan “We are the general’s family” (changgunnim siksol) epitomized North Korean households. The song “We Celebrate our Supreme Leader’s Longevity and Health” for Kim’s 60th birthday in 1972 expressed the ethos of the North Korean state as a “superorganic family” and Kim Il Sung as a parental figure of the nation.

To develop and maintain this key ideological pillar, the North Korean regime has actively cultivated a father-like persona for its leaders – be it Kim Il-sung (1948-94), Kim Jong-il (1994-2011) or Kim Jong-un (2012-). The latest power transfer within the Kim family posed a particular challenge, however, as Kim Jong-un was only 30 years old – in other words, not quite old enough to fulfil the parental role handed to him by the ideological script.

Aiming to bridge the age gap, the regime resorted to visual tricks and made Kim Jong-un look like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung – in particular, through the choice of haircut and clothing. (There are also rumours that Kim Jong-un had plastic surgery to enhance the resemblance even further.)

Moreover, just like his grandfather and father, Kim Jong-un is frequently depicted as a caring and knowledgable parental figure who guides the "family" (i.e. the nation) in all areas of political, economic, social, and military activity. The constant flow of images of Kim Jong-un "looking at things" - such as factories, farms, army units or schools - is thus a carefully calculated strategy, which shows that assumptions about the total irrationality of the North Korean regime are completely unfounded. 

Giving the finger to Trump - and why it went viral

Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

This photograph of a cyclist giving the middle finger to Donald Trump's motorcade was widely shared online over the weekend. As The Guardian writes:

The woman on her bike was photographed raising her middle finger when Trump’s vehicles passed her on their way out from the Trump National Golf Club on the banks of the Potomac river, on the outskirts of Washington DC. She repeated the gesture when she caught up with the motorcade.

Why was this photograph heavily circulated on the internet? I would argue it's because it makes a visual connection to an iconic protest image - namely, the famous "tank man" photograph taken during the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989 (although, as a matter of fact, there are at least four different versions of this iconic photograph).

Photograph: Stuart Franklin

Photograph: Stuart Franklin

In recent months, a number of other photographs arguably went viral because they made reference to the "lone protestor" theme iconised in the "tank man" image(s) - most notably, the photograph of Ieshia Evans at the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Baton Rouge and the photograph of Saffiyah Khan at an English Defence League rally in Birmingham.

However, in the case of the lone cyclist giving the finger to Trump, the visual connection to the iconic "tank man" photograph is even more pronounced. First, the vehicles in the motorcade - boasting thick armour and bullet proof windows - bear a strong resemblance to tanks. Second, the bicycle was the principal mode of transportation for common people in late-1980s China and, in fact, bicycles feature strongly in the imagery of the Tiananmen massacre (see below).

New work: Paraíso

My latest project, Paraíso, challenges the binary stereotype of the "corrupt" South and the "clean" North. The global anti-corruption industry, dominated by governments and organisations from industrialised countries, wants to make us believe that corruption is mainly a problem in the developing world - as illustrated, for example, by one of the most widely used measures of corruption, Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, which paints the developing world in a dark red.


However, this picture hides the fact that corruption also happens in industrialised counties. Specifically, Paraíso shifts the focus onto London, which has been described as "the heart of global financial corruption" [link].

$tow High in Transit ($HIT)

I've added new work to the website. The $tow High in Transit ($HIT) project explores the tensions of globalisation through the Peruvian guano boom of the 19th century. More info here.

The title comes from the fact that - when transported by ship - guano, like other natural fertilisers, had to be stowed high enough off the lower decks so that it wouldn't be wetted by seawater. Not only would this have increased the weight of the guano, but contamination by seawater could have led to a build-up of methane, which, in turn, could have triggered an explosion.

Volume VI of The Chemist journal (1845) includes an account of this happening to a vessel off the east coast of England. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

By the way, the word "shit" does not come from the acronym for "stow high in transit" - this is a common false etymology. It still makes a fitting acronym for my project, though.

Loupe Magazine

Chincha Islands

For my project on the Peruvian guano boom of the 19th century, I recently visited the Chincha Islands. This group of three islands off the coast near the town of Pisco was the main source of guano during that time period. I posted a couple of videos on Instagram, featuring the key guano birds: the Peruvian booby, the Guanay cormorant, and the Peruvian pelican.

Video 1
Video 2

The house that bird shit built

I visited Tyntesfield today for my new project on the Peruvian guano boom of the 19th century. Tyntesfield used to be the countryside home of the Gibbs family who made an absolute fortune from guano. Imagine the house as a 19th-century version of MTV Cribs - billiard room with hunting trophies, private church with 24-hour chaplain, the lot!


Lewes FC

I spent the weekend at Lewes FC - a Sussex club that became member-owned in 2010. The men's team beat Whyteleafe 2-1, the ladies' team drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace.


One of the most exciting British bands at the moment. They've got a great song on their latest EP that goes: "Free Steven Avery, Free Steven Avery, he epitomizes everything wrong with America” and “Death to Donald Trump … There is something about politics in America".