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THE AMBIGUOUS PHOTOGRAPH OF JERRY SANDUSKY IN 1999

BagNewsNotes have recently commented on a particular photograph, one seemingly of celebration and delight, of Jerry Sandusky from 1999.  The comment is that until now, the photograph has mostly been used as illustration but now however, it is suggested it carries a weight that tells a more full story.  As though the truth behind the scandal had been perceptible had we looked closer at such photographs?  I would like to make the argument that until now it has simply been less impactful for an audience obsessed as we are for scandal and that we have not given it much thought in any context because celebratory photographs don’t make for as much news as do scandalous photographs.  That particular photograph of Sandusky says just as much as it did in 1999 as it does now in 2012.  Anything we interpret is because our perspective has now changed, and given the verdict of the Sandusky trial rightfully so, our opinions of Sandusky and Penn State have changed as well.  But we cannot use photography in this manner.  It is a burden unfair to the medium, a medium limited by scope and time.  The burden of photographs is not to tell us the truth.  Rather it is to suggest to us what might be true.  We might set out to seek answers, but in photography we will not find them.  We create our own truths and thus we see what we believe in each photograph.  What we believe is already determined.  To use photography in this way is only to propagate and weakly affirm what we already have decided.  Some of us want to believe that “Victim 4” is in that photograph, holding up his tormentor and that the smile on Sandusky’s face is something more sinister. We want justice and we want vindication that good and bad cannot be found one in the same. 

It is easier to believe that Jerry Sandusky is purely good or purely bad.  But along with the truth, good and bad is ambiguous.  To site a more recent event in the news: The Dark Knight Massacre, those close to James Holmes have been quoted, as individuals always are in such instances, that it was a shock to know that Holmes could do such a thing and that the man who murdered those moviegoers is not the man that they know as James Holmes. 

This confusion is symptomatic of a culture that does not know what to do with contradictions and believe that contradictions are an antithesis of truth.  After myself seeing The Dark Knight Rises I could not resolve that the antagonist, Bane, and the protagonist, Batman/Bruce Wayne, were one for good and one for evil and that their intents were not similar.  Although both have very different means, both have an idealized view of the world.  This is a theme within The Dark Knight Trilogy that I like; that good and bad and truth are somewhat ambiguous.

Jerry Sandusky most likely does not have an idealized view of the world where child molestation is the conduit of a better world.  I am not debating his intent nor am I debating the morality of his actions.  But let me be clear in my opinion, child molestation is wrong.  The 1999 photograph is not evidence of what sort of man Jerry Sandusky is and cannot explain anything regarding his character.  The same effort was made (and in fact used as evidence) in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  The limited truth of the photograph however, was that Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton were at one point in time in close proximity to one another and might have shaken hands and or engaged in conversation.

Photographs cannot serve to clarify what we believe.  They do not shed light onto a world full of contradictory instances for which we do not have an answer.  Perhaps to argue my point more succinctly, let me cite the ever insightful Garry Winogrand who said, “The fact that photographs – they’re mute, they don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is being put on her head or taken off her head.  From the photograph, you don’t know that.  A piece of time and space is well described.  But not what is happening.”

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