Photoshopping the Occupation

Published on Thursday December 15th, 2011

By now, everyone with an interest in OWS has seen the Pepper Spraying Cop meme. On seeing these images, I wondered if they were mocking the protestors, and looking at the reaction on the internet to the meme, I wasn’t the only one who had that reaction. But something more interesting may be going on.

The forums on SomethingAwful.com have long been a source of internet memes, and they predate better known sites like 4chan and Reddit. Wikipedia credits it with helping to spread the All Your Base Are Belong To Us meme, and 9/11 Tourist Guy, and also claims that moot was a contributor before founding 4chan. One longstanding tradition on the site is Photoshop Phriday: a forum moderator chooses a topic for the week and forum members compete to create the funniest image, often incorporating mainstream pop culture references, movie posters, internet memes, video games and so on.

One common class of images are those that mash up photographs of major events, the kind of photographs that become iconic and win Pultizer Prizes – the Saigon Execution, marines raising the US flag at Iwojima, the Hindenburg disaster, soldiers landing at Normandy, etc. These types of images belong to an era before the internet and before 24 hour breaking news, when it was still possible for an image to have a major impact. This is no longer the case – even with an event like 9/11, there is no single defining photograph that come to symbolize the event itself. Even if one in particular stands out in the mind of an individual, the sheer volume of media coverage means that it was shot at hundreds or thousands of different angles by photographers, so no one shot becomes the shared cultural image of the event.

The same is true of the pepper-spraying event at UC Davis. Hours after it happened, I was able to find at least four different video recordings – all slightly different variations of the same scene, but no single iconic shot. What’s interesting is that even the symbolic doesn’t exist, but the activity of meme creation brings it into being. Previously, we had a photograph that became iconic and then was subverted – not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s famous L.H.O.O.Q. – but now we have subversion that creates what it subverts.

What’s also interesting is the way this creation via subversion militates against the way the mainstream media demands constant change – the story is always evolving, the news is always breaking, the media avoids settling on any one meaning for fear of boring the viewers. We’re kept on the edge of our seats with the possibility of unpredictable new developments so that we don’t change the channel. The meme creators oppose this demand for fluidity by fixing on a single meaning and repeating it tirelessly: police brutality.


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