Point of View

Two photos: Different times, same outrage

"A picture is worth a thousand words." If that's true, what does this single image tell us?

'These pictures are reflections in a mirror,' says Taiorenhote Dan David, looking back to 1990's Oka standoff

Student Nick Sandmann is seen here with Nathan Phillips during a protest at the Lincoln Memorial on Friday. Both Sandmann and Phillips say they were trying to defuse tensions. (KC Noland/YouTube)

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

If that's true, what does this single image tell us?

You see a student. He's wearing a MAGA Donald Trump campaign cap. He isn't exactly smiling. It's more of a smirk. Behind him are his schoolmates from, we're told, a Catholic high school in Kentucky.

Then there's the other person at the centre of this image.

An Indigenous elder is hitting a drum. We know he's singing from the shape of his mouth. He's drumming mere inches from the student's face. Because we only see the elder's face in profile, we can't read much into his expression.

Now forget the song and everything else except these two people captured in a single image, frozen in time.

For the moment, ignore the explanations and excuses you may have read and heard.

There are other pictures of this moment from other angles, but this is the one that's burned into people's minds, thanks to news coverage and social media.

One picture generated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words.

Now consider what brought these two people from different universes so close together?

Before you do that, however, go back now to another time, another place.

It's 1990 during the Oka Crisis, and the picture is of Private Patrick Cloutier and a Cree student from Saskatchewan, Brad Larocque.

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and protester Brad Larocque come face-to-face during a standoff at the Kanehsatake reserve in Oka, Que., on Sept. 1, 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/CP)

There's no expression on the face of either person. One is blank. The other hidden.

Yet the same social and political dynamics are at play in both of these pictures. On one side is power and privilege. On the other side is defiance and pent-up frustration.

In 1990, the reaction of Mohawks trapped in their community, surrounded by armed military and police, to the picture of Cloutier and Larocque created much the same reaction we see with today's picture: outrage followed by anger, then a sense that as parents we must do better to teach our children respect — not just for military veterans but people who are different, ideas and political thought that aren't our own.

Both pictures demand that you — the viewer — decide what each picture means. These pictures are reflections in a mirror that reveal who you are and where you stand.

Let's go back to the first picture.

The student is there to overturn Roe vs. Wade, a 46-year-old decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that affirmed a woman's right to a safe, legal abortion: in other words, the right to control her own body and by implication, other aspects of her life.

The elder is there to protest against the Trump administration's shutdown of federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, because the Democrats refuse to fund his $5.6-billion wall along the Mexican border.

Federal civil servants who process welfare and food stamps aren't working. That's on top of cuts already made to on-reservation education, health, and housing.

Remember Standing Rock? The elder remembers and brought his outrage about Trump's approval of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, which plows right through hard-won tribal rights and Indigenous sovereignty.

Take a look at that picture again. Pictures like these should make you think. They should provoke.

For some, they confirm biases. For others, they challenge preconceptions.

I never get weary looking at pictures like this. Let's hope I never do.

About the Author

Taiorenhote Dan David

Mohawk writer, veteran journalist

Taoirenhote Dan David is Mohawk, an award-winning writer and veteran journalist who stayed behind the barricades at Kanehsatà:ke during the “Oka Crisis.” He lives on Kanehsatake Mohawk Territory.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.