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.