Thursday, November 19, 2009

Should hammer and sickle be used fashion photography?

Is this photo offensive? Feel free to comment. Let me know what you think.
Photo credit: Nick Reiter, a photojournalism student at Flagler College
Photographs can be more powerful than words sometimes. They can trigger strong reactions and emotional debates from people of all political and ideological stripes. Nick Reiter’s recent fashion photos of a woman wearing a hat showing the hammer and sickle symbol provoked just such a response at Flagler College in St. Augustine.

In the interest of academic debate, I thought I’d share that reaction with you along the Nick’s response.
Dan McCook, WFCF station manager in St. Augustine, wrote to me after Nick’s photos went up on a bulletin board at the Communication Building at Flagler College and said he found the hammer and sickle images offensive. I respect his views, of course, and thought that perhaps it would be enlightening and educational for other people to learn about the debate over Nick’s photos. Dan agreed and gave me permission to post his letter, which continues below:
It is always a pleasure to view the photographic works of your students displayed on the wall in the hallway of the COM building. I am always impressed by the imagination and quality of the pictorials and look forward to new postings. However, (here it comes) I was taken aback by the newest display. Actually, a better word is offended. On the lower left hand corner of the case is a photographic montage of a young lady wearing a hat that prominently displays the communist hammer and sickle.

Regardless of what might be “In vogue,” I am befuddled by this addition to what is usually a delightful and enlightening display. You know much better than I that literally tens of millions of people have been brutally murdered and tortured by ruthless dictators utilizing this symbol as a standard. The barbarities of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Castro, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, to name a few, are unconscionable. The list of the human rights abuses conducted under this banner is endless. Artistic or not, I am fairly certain that photos of students wearing garb labeled with swastikas would not be acceptable for display. Knowing that, I cannot understand why this is acceptable.

Please do not misunderstand my meaning. If this involved academic freedom in the classroom I would firmly hold my tongue. However, this is a display representing the Communication Department. As a part of said department I feel I must express my feelings.

Recently, an anonymous individual posted a news photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the bulletin board in the hallway at the radio station. A hand drawn Hitler mustache had been scribbled in over her upper lip. Knowing some people would be offended by the depiction, and that it was not an officially sanctioned display but simply graffiti, the photo was removed.

…I do not ask that the displayed photos in question be removed. That would be censorship. However, I would request that some semblance of introspection as to the history of this abhorrent icon be incorporated by students should they choose to unitize it in artistic works.
Here is Nick's response:
Though I will not apologize for the photo I took, I can understand why someone would see that symbol as offensive. Making a political statement was not my intention for this photography project.
Although some may perceive this emblem to be a symbol of oppression I do believe that everyone conjures different meanings for particular symbols. I believe that it is the same as finding the sight of a crescent moon, cross or even an American flag offensive; everyone has different opinions about each of these symbols. In fact, millions of people have been killed in the name of all of those symbols. Beyond that point, the hammer and sickle historically represents the union between workers and peasants.
Associating this symbol with leaders like Stalin is one’s own personal perception, that was not the original intention for the symbol. What offends you about the photo comes not from its photographer, but from within yourself. I judged nothing when I took the photo.
Your choice to judge its meaning as offensive is as important of a freedom as mine is to shoot the photo. Please don't consider my taking a photo of that badge advocacy of what that symbol may or may not represent to certain person.
If a photojournalist takes a photo of something that offends someone, is that wrong? If that is the case, there would be no photos of any of the tragedies of human existence, and there would be no photographic historical record of very important events.

Here is Dan's reply to Nick's response:
I have read Mr. Reiter’s response to my correspondence with Mr. Eaton and I am left wondering if Nick actually read the email. Mr. Reiter immediately jumps to the conclusion that I am judging his photographs. I am not. Nowhere in the communiqué did I mention anything about the photographer. I could care less about the pictures. The thesis of my complaint is not that he snapped photos of a model sporting a highly offensive political emblem, but rather “Why is this offensive symbol acceptable for display in the COM building while others are not?” That is what my email said! Instead, we receive sophomoric personal accusations regarding my “Personal perception” and “What is within me” or “My choice to judge.” Oh, Please! Save it for a Hallmark Card.

What the class should be asking the Gate Keeper is – Why was this photo montage deemed acceptable for display? what are the criteria for posting a photo? Where is the line? What photos, because of content, would not be acceptable subject matter for display? Can we put up nudes? Perform an experiment: go out and shoot the same model only this time use a swastika and see if is acceptable. I only seek a simple answer to a direct question: Why is this offensive symbol acceptable for display but others are not (or, are they)? All I have heard back is “Because Nick doesn’t think the hammer and sickle is offensive.”

Now, Back to Mr. Reiter’s response: Yesterday I showed a black friend of mine the photos. She didn’t like the hammer and sickle. I asked if she would consider the pictures offensive if the young lady, pre-posed in all of her artistic, wistful, deep-thought, artistic glory, would find them offensive if the emblem was a confederate flag. She responded “Hell yes I would!” And she would be right. Today I pointed out the photos to one of our community volunteers who actually survived the Soviet invasion of Germany (that war machine brandishing the hammer and sickle as a standard). She lived the atrocities first hand. See saw the mutilated bodies; she hid from the Soviet Army. Upon seeing the photos she stepped back and audibly gasped! She could not believe the image of a hammer and sickle was posted in a venue of education (she would like to speak with Mr. Reiter at some point to set him straight). The German populous prayed that the British and Americans would arrive first.

Here is where I can use some of my favorite quotes: Mr. Reiter needs to learn that “Facts are stubborn things” (John Adams). “He is young, that’s not his fault” (Cat Stevens). It is well established that, regardless of what a Flagler student in little old St. Augustine, Florida might think, the hammer and sickle does stand for brutality and mass murder. The consensus is in and debate is over.

The swastika started out as a benevolent symbol of Hitler’s National Socialist Party created to help “The People” recover after WWI. We all know how that worked out. The confederate flag was a simply a battle flag but has been turned into an icon of white supremacy by a bunch of yahoos. The Christian cross stands for peace and love yet we had the crusades. In over sixteen years I’ve never seen one of those images on display in the COM building.

“History does not repeat itself…but it sure does rhyme” (Mark Twain). Those who do not remember history are most definitely going to make the same mistakes over and over and over. I hope this correspondence will provoke thoughtful discussions among faculty and students on the meaning and power of symbols.

Nick, I’d love to meet you. Email me and we’ll set up a time.

Now here is Nick's response to that:

Mr. McCook,

Name calling aside, I can’t help but notice the fact that you are trying to bait me for an argument. If you are looking to “pick a fight” it is not with me sir. I had no knowledge that my photography would be placed on that bulletin board. I will not discuss this any further, I am a senior and I have a lot of work to do, I hardly have time to have an apparently “sophomoric” debate with you.

But you should know, as a political science major and a member of a number of human rights organizations, I am very sensitive to human rights issues and I would never condone such acts as those performed by some of the leaders of the USSR. I am also well aware of the politics behind symbols such as the hammer and sickle and the power that they can wield, but I am also cognizant of the fact that opinions of symbols are subjective. I believe that not being able to perceive multiple meanings for a symbol is sophomoric in itself.

Now I’d like to present you a quote by Cat Stevens…”In the early days I had a very black-and-white view of everything.”

In answer to your question, I do not believe that Professor Eaton should balk at placing a photo on the bulletin board because some may find it offensive. As a matter-of-fact Professor Eaton placed other potentially offensive photos on the bulletin board but I haven’t heard one word about them. The photos of the girl in lingerie could offend some but not others. Just like the hammer and sickle.

Everyone perceives things differently. Anyways, like I stated earlier, should a photo be discredited because it ruffles feathers? I think not.

Though I think this argument has departed from being respectful, I am thankful for the opportunity to have the exchange of opinions with you. I am now more sensitive to the fact that some may perceive different symbols offensively or not. I hope that all who have read this exchange can learn from this.


  1. Loved Nick's post back. I understand it might offend McCook, but if we didn't publish pictures that were offensive, there probably wouldn't be such well-done photography or photography at all. Props to Nick---hit the nail on the head.

  2. First of all, I think Nick took amazing photos that deserve recognition in the Com building.

    I think the concern over the photo is an interesting topic of debate. I wasn’t going to comment at first, but I have a unique perspective on the issue. In 2006 I spent a month in Russia living with a family there. I have kept in contact with many of my friends in Russia and continue to talk to them today.

    The hammer and sickle is a powerful symbol, and one that is still prevalent in Russia today. It is sold on hats, t-shirts, backpacks and many other items within the country. One thing I found interesting while in Russia was that many people (typically the older generation) miss Lenin and Communism. I prefer not to get into the political debate over such a topic, but rather to point out that this is a symbol that is used in many different contexts.

    I believe the use of the hammer and sickle is no more offensive than how some would view the Confederate flag. Yes, some people are offended, but others are proud of these images.

    Since this was a topic of debate I asked a friend who lives in Velikiy Novgorod, Russia, if he found the particular image offensive, either in daily life or in art. I showed my friend, Rubtsvok, the pictures in question and he thought they were beautiful pictures. He found no offense. I think these pictures are hardly images that need to be censored or questioned.

  3. I think the photographs are beautifully done and I do not, by any means, find them offensive. This seems to me to be just another case of an individual, Mr. McCook at present, looking for a reason to be offended. Clearly, unabashed Political Correctness continues to run rampant while REAL causes for offense receive no attention whatsoever. I am positive that Mr. McCook can employ his time much more productively in the future, instead of pestering students who are just trying to be creative. As mentioned previously, what is art that does not evoke an emotional reaction, planned or not? Well done, Nick.