Street artist Lionel Stanhope painting a mural depicting Patrick Hutchinson in Lewisham, South London, in August 2020.
The week after I had attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Battersea I saw an image pop up in my WhatsApp feed. It was being rhapsodised over by friends as ‘incredible’. Then I started to check the press. It was all over, the image had made it all the way over to CNN.
“The photograph of the heroic figure emerging from the baying mob central London last weekend with an injured man slung over his shoulder was certainly an unforgettable image.”
Photograph: Dylan Martinez / Reuters
What I initially thought as I perused the reports was: what a fantastically positive scene and a promising index of how we might move beyond the fractious state of race relations in the UK. But on closer reflection, I started to check myself and my motives. I realised that my initial reading - that of a mixed race British-Caribbean man aware of the discrimination at large in society and eager to see Black British people positively affirmed in the public eye - was naïve. As a semiotician I realised I had to interrogate my motives for many - particularly those of us of so called ‘liberal’ persuasions - liked it so much.
Whilst it remains in my mind a positive image, the self-congratulation is partly based on racist premises. Let me say that again. Whilst it is NOT racist to LIKE the image, our liking of the image is shot through with racist thinking, based on edifices of thought decades, even centuries in the making. In this piece I will dissect this image from an inter-disciplinary perspective, all informed by a semiotics and critical race theory. We will consider what premises lead the image to be termed ‘iconic’, we will look at its framing and composition, then we will disentangle the tropes and stereotypes of race built into the representation - finally turning to consider the image’s newsworthiness.
2. WHAT MAKES AN IMAGE ICONIC?
The man himself was unaware of the waves his image was making in the news cycle until alerted by his sister. He then posted the image on his Instagram, identifying his involvement in the incident, simply captioning it, “It’s not black vs white. It’s everybody vs the racists”
Patrick Hutchinson has been catapulted to the status of public adulation since the incident. He was awarded GQ magazine’s coveted Humanitarian Man of the Year award for 2020. Patrick has set up a charity organization United to Change and Inspire, has co-written a book with a young poet called Sophia Thakur Everyone Versus Racism: A Letter to my Children and has been interviewed on numerous media channels for his opinion on race relations in the UK and has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the prospects for positive change. However, it was not just his heroic actions on that day, but an image encapsulating that action that went viral – and now is THE image with which he is associated that propelled him to his notoriety.
Patrick Hutchison’s image has been reproduced on London Underground and even onto a T-shirt – it now appears as the key image on my UCL friends’ WhatsApp group too. It has become ICONIC. Firstly, we need to think about what we mean when we say that an image is ‘iconic’.
An icon is usually a visual image representing something, usually a person’s face. However, the word icon has been broadened. Douglas Holt defines a cultural icon as “a person or thing regarded as a symbol, especially of a culture or movement; a person, institution, and so forth, considered worthy of admiration or respect” Holt talk about brands like Nike and Coke or Apple. “Iconic brands function like cultural activists, encouraging people to think differently about themselves. The most powerful iconic brands are prescient, addressing the leading edges of cultural change, their myths prod people to reconsider accepted ideas about themselves. The value of a particular myth resides not in the myth itself, but in its alignment with society’s incipient identity desires” (p. 9) So, the principle of iconic brands is that they resolve societal tensions through being cultural innovators. The heavily popularised Shepherd Fairey print of former US President Barack Obama uses solarisation, vectorisation and other techniques to emphasize his moral stature. An aesthetic emphasising only the basic shadows and contours tends to eulogize the individual depicted and takes us from the realistic into the realm of ideology - suggestive of propositions, implied beliefs or values attributed to the icon.
It is possible to see the Patrick Hutchinson image as qualifying as iconic in this way. The fact so many people have seized upon this image referred to the image as ‘unforgettable’ and have name checked his gesture as a shorthand for heroism and gallantry – as in the London Underground whiteboard message above - shows it has iconic force and value. Another way of thinking about iconic images is that they carry high a ‘propositional density’ within them.
Propositional density is the amount of information conveyed in an object or environment per unit element. High propositional density is a key factor in making design successful. In semiotic terms this means they are packed full of cultural connotations of various kinds.
This makes visuals more distinctive and memorable. What propositions would be contained within the Patrick Hutchinson image? Well, we can surmise that some of these might be:
• Black and white people can work together
• Adversity reveals strength of character
• Gallantry chivalry live even in urban areas
• Kindness and moral goodness wins through
• Appearances can be deceptive (controversial)
Photos like this are rarely captioned, and such is their power that they are said to ‘speak for themselves’. The old cliché: a picture is worth more than a thousand words comes to mind. The argument made here is that meaning we ascribe to this image is as much in our heads as it is in the image, or at least the way we interpret it bears a weight of cultural sediment.
The Pious Christian and Social Realist Gaze
Of course, there is a more ancient derivation for the word ‘icon’ as shown in this image above.
When you hear the word ikon (eikon), you might think about Russian orthodox Christianity, religious paintings with gold and tempera on wood hanging in a domed Church. Marcel Danesi writes: “religious icons represent sacred figures… in a rather generic way, without the details that give each figure a distinctive human personality. faces are stylized to convey somberness and piety”. This is one way in which the image can be said to be iconic, in that the facial expression is extraordinary: earnest, pious, resolute, humble, transcendent at the same time.
When looking at the image it is impossible not to consider Scriptural references, in particular the figure of St. Christopher, the Christ bearer, a gentle giant, volunteering to take Christ across the river supposedly carrying the burdens of the world on his shoulders. Also the Good Samaritan – a parable of basic human charity; how mercy towards a fellow human being can overcome bi-partisan prejudice. Both of the popular Christian myths are built into the Patrick Hutchinson image so it is unsurprising the image is strongly redolent of Renaissance art tropes.
The upturned face in the image shown is a Caravaggio, in his painting of martyred Saint Sebastian (above) – a haunted look of resignation tempered with faith that has echoes in that of Hutchinson’s radiant face against that black T-shirt. Renaissance art expert and semiotician Catherine McCormack has written that there are parallels between the images giving “a sense of transcendence, or sacredness / sacrality in the sense of being beyond the present moment of suffering in St. Sebastian beyond the moment of racial hatred and acrimony”. This confers upon the gaze of Patrick Hutchinson a mythic quality, a visual allegory for exceptional morality.
It is not just the composition that has an effect here, but the gaze. The gaze off screen in this image evokes more than just Patrick’s vigilance and determination to get his ward to safety. Let us look at this North Korean propaganda poster – another example of a rhetorical gaze.
In Patrick’s look to the horizon we can detect a definite form of what Stephanie Donald has defined as the “socialist realist gaze.” This visual trope is a staple of propaganda imagery, for example, Soviet social realist artwork. Tracing the history of this gaze to the countless images in Soviet cinema of “faces staring exultantly off screen,” Donald argues that “in these shots the romanticism of socialist realism is very clear. The gaze off screen is a fixed stare out to a horizon, beyond the diegetic world, and apparently also beyond the world of the audience.”
This confers moral authority on the character: “indicating to the audience her ability to see sublime ideological truths to which they have only secondary access through imaginary identification with her character. With this moment that relays our gaze through her own, attaching our desire to her visual possession of an apparently ideologically resplendent offscreen space, the narrative pauses to allow for maximum emotional and rhetorical impact.”
Though there is much more of an earnest determination rather than exultant patriotism in Patrick’s gaze, the effect is uncannily similar. His acuity of vision contrasts sharply with the discombobulated befuddlement of his human cargo. We could read the burden he carries as not just physical but totemic. He has vision, not only to save a concussed man on the brink of death, but it goes beyond that, to something mythological; his gaze seems to herald a utopiaWhilst the construction of these meanings is well established in visual culture it may also have its roots in cognitive science or evolutionary biology. Psychological tests show that the three quarter gaze of the protagonist in a photograph tends to be rated as more attractive and is preferred to the straight ahead or the 180 degree look. These findings emphasize the aesthetic advantage of three-quarter views of faces when people judge facial attractiveness.
It is important to factor in the effect of Dylan Martinez’s UK Reuters picture editor shot, that it was his instinctive decision to shutter capture and share the face in a pose that bears passing resemblance to Renaissance devotional art and is redolent of Social Realism. It is worth quoting Susan Sontag here who wrote: “Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness.” In this case aggressive in promoting a certain aspect of the man and suppressing other aspects
3. FORMAL QUALITIES OF THE PHOTO
But it’s time to take a step back and just to consider what aspects of the composition are contributing to the overall meaning effects. As social commentator, Susan Sontag made plain “a photograph is mute. It has no voice except that given by its context.” We shall come to the context, including the news context later, but before that what about the form of the photograph itself. Social semiotics holds that each sign should be seen as a semiotic resource, that its meaning is lying latent until brought out in context or in combination with other signs.
Salience in the Composition
Social semiotics has various techniques for deconstructing imagery…In looking at this image we cannot ignore the framing. “Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006) write: “Composition of a picture or a page also involves different degrees of salience… salience can create a hierarchy of importance among the elements, selecting some as more important, some more worthy of attention than others.” Clearly the central figure and his charge are the most salient here.
Often when an image is iconic there is a powerful contrast set up in the image. We can cite this classic, very different, but also ‘iconic’ image taken by Robert Doisneau in Paris in 1950 Le Baiser de Hotel De Ville - young love flourishing within the bustle of the 1st Arrondissement. What is palpable about this shot too is the sense of the indifference of passersby to this kiss.
Stuart Hall in his book Representation analyses this image to show how it constructs everyday Frenchness in empathy, universality and a working-class spontaneity, as a way of nation building after the war – all in the service of telling the nation a comforting tale about a unified France after a brutal occupation in which many French had collaborated with the Nazi enemy.
The construction of both images can be read in terms of centre vs periphery, foreground vs background, [OUTSIDE trouble makers, vs INSIDE pacifier], [OUTSIDE unruly elements, INSIDE ordered elements] and a binary dynamic set up here. In the Doisneau image we have an enclave of intimacy amidst the bustle of post War Paris. We have a contrast between the violent melée hectoring the injured man and the heroism of what is going on inside a pacific bubble. As we can see from the image above, this reinforced by the sightlines of those that surround them: riveted spectators draw and centre our attention onto the unfolding scene.
The framing of a news image is a big driver of its popularity and propensity to be shared. Journalists and analysts have analysed the ways in which images drive engagement. Caple and Bednarek in their paper ‘Rethinking news values: What a discursive approach can tell us about the construction of news discourse and news photography’ Journalism 1–22 2015 discuss at length the various elements that boost newsworthiness, for instance “Showing unusual happenings that would be considered outside an established societal norm or expectation; Juxtaposition of elements in the frame that create stark contrast. Showing people being shocked/surprised. Positioning individuals in unequal relation to others in the image frame, for example, singling out one individual through foregrounding or backgrounding”. All these elements are present in the Patrick Hutchinson image. What is particularly striking are the techniques of constructing dynamic asymmetric balance in photos of news happenings (such as natural disasters) and eking out something ‘aesthetically pleasing’ or ‘beautiful’ within surrounding chaos and they label this an ‘evaluative clash’ (p. 17). We have this evaluative clash set up not just in visual composition but in ideological terms too. Evaluative clash is reflected between the earnestness of Patrick’s expression and the numbed out, befuddlement of the casualty on his back and they are ensconced in a bubble of calm. This is in contrast with the violent melee around them stupefied by what is happening in the foreground. This accords with what we learn make for especially newsworthy images.
We have accounted semiotically for the gaze, composition, framing salience of the shot. Though these are of course important in forging the meaning, it is impossible to account for the impact of the image without considering race and this is what we shall consider now.
4. FETISHISM OF BLACKNESS
Black vs White Manicheanism
Binary oppositions are a vital thinking technique in semiotics and often secret behind the powerful, arresting visual. Patrick Hutchinson said when posting on Instagram that it is not Black vs White but everybody vs the racists. But the image plays upon the unlikely coming together of two apparent ‘hard men’, both bald headed but on opposites sides of protest. This sets up a Manichean opposition in the way we are invited to read the image as part of its participation play in a circuit of similar images. The power of the composition derives at least in part from this comes at least in part from this. A classic example would be these advertising images (below) from the 1980s from Benetton. A student of mine at the University of Warwick made a cogent analysis of these images in an essay in 2017 to the effect that racial difference is structured in binary opposition between the ‘black’ and ‘white’ races whose physical characteristics are polarized into extreme opposites. The add ends up reinforcing dominant cultural code that ‘black and white colours are used to symbolize distinctions between vice and virtue, hell and heaven, devils and angels, contamination and purity’ (Tajfel, 1965:130).
Her thesis, with which I broadly agree, is that Benetton’s advertising message of transnational harmony and unity is predicated upon crass imagery (below) of racial difference… Shen Leyi wrote: “Through the use of ethnic signifiers and racialized codes, the ‘United Colors’ campaign is ironic in the sense that it espouses the brand value of multi-ethnic harmony while reinforcing racial archetypes; perpetuating race as an essentially unchanging social category.”
The Black Body, Primitivism and Fetishism
The first thing to acknowledge here is the Western (white) eye’s fascination with black bodies.
In the classic tome The Image of the Black in Western Art, fascination with the black body, is one of the visual tropes most focused on: “men with well developed. Muscular physiques were regarded by painters and sculptors as ‘fine specimens’ of virility whose bodily strength and agility compensated for supposed deficiency in intellectual and emotional capacity” (p. 23) To accommodate white sensibilities they were often drawn in a so-called sculptural code.
“the sculptural code, the ideal physique of a classical Greek male statue …superimposed on that most commonplace of stereotypes, the black man as sports hero, mythologically endowed with a ‘naturally’ muscular physique and an essential capacity for strength, grace and machinelike perfection: well hard””…the spectacle of black bodies triumphant in rituals of masculine competition reinforces the idea that black men are ’all brawn and no brains”. (Kobena Mercer 'Reading Racial Fetishism, in Stuart Hall, p.288)
This fetish with black physicality persisted in the sorts of images promoted during slavery and beyond to the primitivism promoted during Modernism in Western art and is infused with the implication that “acts of power and domination are seen as acts of sexuality.” (Dyer, 2002:92) “emphasis on black bodies as inherently aggressive, hypersexual, and violent”, (Ferber, 2007:11). The picture below by George Daw is entitled A Negro Overpowering a Buffalo 1811). notice the sumptuous attention the artist gives to his model’s powerful trapezoid and deltoids.
As John Berger shows in Ways of Seeing, schemas in art have percolated through into visual culture across genre from graphic designer to brands and advertising. Black men have been labelled hyper-masculine and the black body subject to fantasy as an aesthetic object to be enthralled, scandalised by and to commoditise. That is what drives the stereotypical parade of black men peddled within advertising, film and pornography. What is ironic is that this eulogization of black bodies has gone hand in hand with racial discrimination and exploitation. This is exemplified in a brand like Nike which has for a long time used African American speed, litheness, athleticism and resilience to accumulate a powerful set of brand image associations.
Many Nike print ads similarly fetishize the black body. Witness the Lebron James ad above. Notice the sheen of the gleaming shoulder of the basketball star above as a signifier of fetish.
“Whether it is de-valorised in the signifying chain of ‘negrophobia’ or hypervalorised as a desirable attribute in ‘negrophilia’, the fetish of skin colour in the codes of racial discourse” “the shining surface of the black skin; glistening, satin sheen, high cheekbones”. Hall (p. 289)
Holt and Cameron in Cultural Strategy spell out the blatancy and audacity of the exploitation.
Nike used the ‘cultural codes of the ghetto’ and the young African-American men who lived in the ghetto ‘sensationally stigmatized as super predators’ and exalted ’the Social Darwinist dog eat dog world’ as an extreme version of the American economy so as to resonate with a mainstream audience. These codes were signified by using black bodies to model the apparel. In sports, racist assumptions about black physical prowess over intellect persists as shown by a Danish study looking at the ‘unconscious bias’ within commentary of black vs white players across the 6 leagues during the 2019-2020 season which showed that black players were more consistently praised for their instinctive, naturally endowed talent, but not hard work.
These stereotypes and the ingrained binary of black = nature, white = culture as with Benetton above, are built on centuries of representation. Many examples of which are shown in The Image of the Black in Western Art. “Black Models and White Myths examines the tendentious racial assumptions behind representations of Africans that emphasized the contrast between “civilization” and “savagery” and the development of so-called scientific and ethnographic racism. These works often depicted Africans within a context of sexuality and exoticism, representing their allegedly natural behavior as a counterpoint to inhibited European conduct.”
The Demonization of Blackness & Moral Panics around Black Criminality
One of the more contemporary representations of blackness of course has been that of the gangster. Bell hooks in Black Masculinity said Black men have been subjected to labels that deems them “out of control, wild, uncivilised, natural-born predators.” (Hooks, 2004:47). This is built on “the continuing significance of the historical image of the buck and …. a continued emphasis on Black bodies as inherently aggressive, hypersexual, and violent; concern with taming and controlling Black males; inequality depicted as a product of a deficient Black culture.” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0193723506296829
Paul Gilroy wrote in his classic There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack wrote: ”the view of the blacks as innately criminal, or at least more criminal than the white neighbours whose deprivation they share, which became ‘common sense’ during the early 1970s, was crucial to the development of new definitions of the black problem and new types of racial language and reasoning… Crime, in the form of both street disorder and robbery was gradually identified as an expression of black culture... What must be explained is the durability of these images and their remarkable ability to act both as a focus for popular anxiety about crime in general and as a sign for national decline, crisis and chaos. The element of blackness is crucial” He adds that: “Anxiety about black crime has provided hubs for the wheels of popular racism”
(p. 141). Controversial British historian David Starkey - who was recently discredited for his blatantly racist comment to the effect of denying slavery was genocide - bemoaned after the London riots the pernicious influence of blackness and criminality and its impregnation of British youth culture: "A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion. Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together, this language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England.”
This has been perpetuated recently in the press with a moral panic over drill music (see above). But thug like images have been propagated and merchandised by a cynical hip-hop industry too.
Hip-hop degenerated from an ideology of critical consciousness in the 1980s through the 1990s to becoming in the 2000s the promotion of a minstrelry of swaggering gangsterism hyper-masculinity that sells records. As Herman Gray argues: “Black rappers imaginatively rework and rewrite the historic tropes of black heterosexual, masculine (hyper)sexuality, insensitivity, detachment, and cold-bloodedness into new tropes of fascination and fear.” In the book The Misappropriation of HipHop DJ Fingers writes that “Not only has this ‘gangster’ image come to dominate Hip-Hop as a genre, but also arguably conned a youth sub-culture into taking on this persona. As a result, a little questioned stereotype has been created; the average person now believes that Hip-Hop is synonymous with gun slinging, drug trafficking, and narcissistic behaviour. Aggravated by the media’s capitalization and promotion of violent images…”
The hip hop industry has found willing conspirators in the peddlers of the gangster image like 50 Cent (above). As Tricia Rose writes in Hip-Hop Wars the ‘gangsta’ image has been ”exaggerated and distorted by a powerful history of racial images of black men as ‘naturally violent and criminal – the voyeuristic pleasure of believing that hip-hop artists are criminal minded and the exaggerated fear of them are deeply connected. Hip-hop has successfully traded on this…” (p. 38-39). Hooks says many Black boys now believe the labels about themselves, they “no longer challenge dehumanizing stereotypes, instead they claim it as a mark of distinction.” (Hooks, 2004:48), invoking fear in not only the white community but their own community a belief that in order to be respected as a black man you need to be hyper masculine and aggressive. This is the image that has plagued many black men – to be stereotyped as gangsters or to feel the pressure as young boys to conform to this hyper-masculine image or be feminised. The sculpted, tight fitting nature of Patrick Hutchinson’s clothes – made for work outs, the beanie hat and gilet puffa vest carry a hip-hop aesthetic, which places him within the sartorial associative web of the above, and places him in the guise of ‘gangster’, even though his actual position is quite the contrary - community organiser and his public pronouncements his eloquence and dignity belie the sartorial codes in the image.
Commodification of Blackness
Such stereotypical tropes help to commodify blackness and to make it more merchandisable. This is true generally of minority black and brown people who, where they are present on screen have often been turned into consumable signs. This is true of the mixed race couples cast by UK supermarkets to burnish their liberal credentials and align themselves with progressive politics – i.e. miscegenation. It is also shown in the ubiquity of frizzy haired, mixed race girls in adverts from toiletries to public information to connote a sort of acceptable exoticism. Athletic black men are cast for cool swagger whether donning athleisure, sports or purveying other apparel. Advertising discourse is built around them, their identity borrowed as currency (e.g. youth, progressive, diversity, confidence, UK’s liberal self-image as tolerant).
The portrayal of black people in particular in advertising often reduces their humanity – and stereotyping of black men (sullen, swagger, hyper-masculine), black women, (sassy, hyper-sexualised), and it is surprisingly enough still rather present within our media and consumerist cultures. But this is particularly true of black male bodies and in a sense the Patrick Hutchinson image is another case of that – though it comes with a twist, since the apparent aim here is to subvert tropes. Though as we shall see it is unable to escape the weight of semiotic legacy.
5. HISTORICAL TROPES AND STEREOTYPES
Wading through the historical archetypes in section 2, we saw that the Patrick Hutchinson image offers us a Good Samaritan dressed as sleek vigilante. On the surface this might be taken as being a salutary break from the negative stereotypes detailed above. But when we look closer into the history of blackness and of representation we see that in fact that tropes of blackness tend to be Janus-faced and schizoid. In one of the tomes of The Image of the Black in Western Art a chapter sub heading reads ‘Pacified’ and ‘Defiant’. One of the latter is the classic Delacroix image of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian slave revolt. When we seek to understand the eerily familiairity of the composition we must investigate this too.
The Noble Savage
Inextricably linked to this context is the trope of The Noble Savage. This is a term attributed to French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe primitive man in uncorrupted state. Earlier volumes of The Image of the Black in Western Art, are replete with images of the ‘noble savages’. These images vie alongside the fetishisation of black muscular brawn and brutish strength and caricatures of feckless, animalistic abandon. Orientalist imagery shows mute sentinels guarding the white odalisques at the harems dignified but also defiant and black busts prettified. These were all produced for the white imagination and made to conform to White Western and Classical ideals of beauty.
These scripted modes of representation fit with a circumscribing of black bodies required in the practice of chattel slavery and was underpinned by scientific racism needed to justify oppression by reading physiological traits to attribute an inferior intellect to black peoples.
If we look at the Gericault portrait (above) - art historians speculate that this Haitian man was the model for one of the shipwrecked huddled rabble after the abandonment of slaves by salve traders and in which a black man, takes the lead role in pleading for rescue, in his famous painting The Raft of the Medusa. This painting is widely seen as an denunciation of the evils of slavery. The desire to humanise the gaze (again that gaze ‘off frame’) was that at a time in which abolitionist instincts vied with old-fashioned racial prejudice. So, we detect something else in the gaze too, which is that of petitioning for good favour. This is something we can see pronounced in another image the Emancipation Proclamation memorial in Washington D.C. erected in 1876 featuring a freed slave Archer Alexander with his benefactor, Abraham Lincoln.
Within both these images, it is uncanny how the determination in the gaze and the nobility of bearing is somehow similar yet so different from the Patrick Hutchinson image – the innocence, purity of motivation but also exaggerated idealism – pleading to be seen as a man.
Of course, even when apparently positive and encouraging, these fed into racist narratives. This was because they resorted to stock stereotypes that ‘Othered’ these black people as somehow exceptional and of a totally different stock rather their individuality trumped by myth making. These depictions always had a rhetorical aim for white audiences to convince them of black people’s inferiority, fecklessness, savagery or sullen docility OR to the sense of the opposite; petitioning white audiences to accord black people respect by giving them congeniality. Remember this would have been at odds with the host of derogatory vaudevillian, minstrel like images circulating at the time for popular entertainment - whilst still denying the individuals depicted their actual idiosyncracies.
The Magical Negro
This eternal binary opposite to which blackness is reduced and by which any individuality is necessarily pulverised can be seen as transmuting into the later ‘magical negro’ archetype. In a sense the magical negro – stereotype propagated in film - is an evolution of noble savage.
“He’s a “Magical Negro”, a saintly African-American character who acts as a mentor to a questing white hero, who seems to be disconnected from the community that he adores so much, and who often seems to have an uncanny ability to say and exactly what needs to be said or done…” (p. 336) And on the face of it, there are shades of this trope too in the figure of Patrick Hutchinson, the pious face, the contrition, the selfless, even martyred countenance. He is seemingly programmed to help, saves his enemy quite instinctively to mollify mainstream opinion.
As Winterson explains, however, the subordinate caste must ‘play out their role upon the stage… they find that things go easier for them… if they accept their assignment of serving and entertaining, comforting and consoling, forgiving any trespass without expectation…”282.
This Magical Negro is a stereotype assiduously recycled within Hollywood. It was pioneered by Paul Robeson in the 1930s, typified by Sidney Poitier in the 60s and more recently protagonised in cinema blockbusters featuring Danny Glover, Laurence Fishburne (e.g. as Morpheus in The Matrix) offering this figure as a sage, steady foil to a white hero. We can see a classic example of this in The Defiant Ones a 1958 film starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. They are prisoners shackled together who escape from a train and grow to respect one another and it is Sidney Poitier who at the film’s denouement sacrifices himself for his friend.
Stuart Hall, writing about Sidney Poitier in Representation: “For the mass white audience, Sidney Poitier was a black man who met their standards. His characters were tame; never did they act impulsively; nor were they threats to the system. They were amenable and pliant.”
Morgan Freeman cornered the market in the 1990s his role in Shawshank Redemption would be typical. Michael Clarke Duncan in Green Mile was perhaps the epitome of such characters.
Shelby Steele, using the parallel term, Iconic Negro to describe Barack Obama suggests that “he balanced the challenge to stereotypes of blackness with a bargaining that seems to elicit a ‘gratitude’ factor when whites receive the ‘benefit of the doubt’ from blacks – this gift of racial innocence in a society shames by its history of racism – they are flattered.” (p. 84). Steele argues that Barack Obama’s rise to the White House played upon his ability to balance ‘bargaining’ with ‘challenging’; to play adroitly upon the strings of America’s attitude to race.
“Racially divided societies throw up iconic figures who seem to transcend the divide. And in America such figures always imply a very idealistic ideology of white absolution and black redemption – a perfectly ecumenical distribution of much needed innocence…The iconic Negro is someone who dispels the sense of ‘Otherness; between the races and replaces it with a feeling of warmth, human familiarity, and racial goodwill. In him or her we have the sense that good race relations are really very easy” The Bound Man Shelby Steele, Free Press; 2008)(p. 89) This is the rhetorical and ideological work done by this Patrick Hutchinson image.
The magical negro trope infecting our readings of the Hutchinson image distorts perception by positing him as a unique paragon: an exception to the rule in the black community, thereby cementing stereotypes. Whereas the truth is his very embeddedness within community and his embodiment of mainstream Black-British Caribbean values of hard work, strong morals and conscientiousness molded him into the sort of person to act as he did. Yes, it was still an extraordinary act of generosity of spirit – but not in the context, of race but humanity itself. Whatever the complexity of Mr. Hutchinson’s character the image erases all that and turns him into a symbol of positive blackness: ‘respectability politics’ fighting uphill against ingrained prejudice.
This leads us to another iconic image, impossible to neglect mentioning in any semiotic analysis of this type. Roland Barthes in a classic passage in the chapter ‘Myth Today’ at the start of Mythologies, shows how the media propagated images that sought to naturalise the bourgeoisie colonialism. “A copy of Paris Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French Uniform is saluting, which his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture, But, whether naïvely or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.”
There are parallels here. Barthes argues that the boy is an empty cipher, his individuality hollowed out, he stands for French imperiality – like Patrick Hutchinson he was used as a mythological symbol of reassurance on race matters – with a similar idealism in the boy’s gaze.
The 'Good Immigrant' Syndrome
One of the key insights in a semiotics project I conducted for the BBC in 2016 is that a striving for acceptance is one of the few things unifying BAME people in the UK from 3rd generation Indians to freshly arrived East Africans. But this idea of being ‘on trial’, of constantly having to prove oneself to justify one’s place in society - this burden common to all BAME - leads to hidden anxiety, stress and mental health issues that are not publicised and taboo to discuss.
The inside flap of The Good Immigrant, a book of essays by people of colour explains that it ‘aims to explore it means to be ’other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you – however many generations you’ve been here – but that still needs you for its diversity monitoring forms’. Lead author Nikesh Shukla describes a leitmotif of ‘The Good Immigrant’ as the “constant anxiety we feel as people of colour to justify our space, to show that we have earned our place at the table, continues to hound us….Musa Okwonga, the poet, journalist and essayist whose powerful ‘The Ungrateful Country’ closes the book, once said to me that the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit- scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.” Just like Patrick Hutchinson does.
I would like to posit that we can read the Hutchinson picture against an image of Linford Christie after he won the Gold medal in the 100 metres final at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; featured within the work of Stuart Hall who says the image has this set of propositions.
“This is the greatest moment of my life! A triumph for me, Linford Christie”
“This is a moment of triumph for me and a celebration for black people everywhere”
“This is a moment of triumph and celebration for the British Olympic team and the British People”
“This is a moment of triumph and celebration for black people and the British Olympic team. It showed that you can be “Black” and “British”
It is the latter rhetorical statement that seems to be most in play in Patrick Hutchinson’s image.
The vexed issue of Britishness. “Christie is perfectly aware that most definitions of ‘Britishness’ assume that the person who belongs is ‘white’. It is much harder for black people, wherever they were born to be accepted as British…. So, Christie knows that every image is also being ‘read’ in terms of this broader question of cultural belongingness and difference” (p, 230) This is also the Black-British paradox explored by Afua Hirsch in Brit-ish: “Your partner, your children and most of your friends are British. So why do people keep asking where you’re from?” Although almost 20 years has elapsed, this is still true. The image; the nobility and the gallantry of the act and burning forebearance etched in the gaze - confirms the sort of staggering overachievement that is required by black people in order to overturn in built racial discrimination, gain status, and acceptance - what should be rightfully theirs as British born. It is said that whereas excellence trumps racism: the aim should be that mediocrity is enough. Finally, we can look at how the image fitted itself into the news context in order to get traction.
6. NEWS AND THE CULTURE WARS
If we look at literature on newsworthiness the subject of ‘news values’ has been theorised (Tony Harcup & Deirdre O’Neill (2017) ‘What is News?’, Journalism Studies, 18:12, 1470-1488) Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) seminal study on news factors (their term for news values) as one of the factors that drives editorial selection of news items. We see these present in this story
• Conflict: Stories concerning conflict such as controversies, arguments, splits, strikes, fights, insurrections and warfare.
• Surprise: Stories that have an element of surprise, contrast and/or the unusual about them.
• Audio-visuals: Stories that have arresting photographs, video, audio and/or which can be illustrated with infographics.
• Drama: Stories concerning an unfolding drama such as escapes, accidents, searches, sieges, rescues, battles or court cases.
• Shareability: Stories that are thought likely to generate sharing and comments via Face- book, Twitter and other forms of social media.
• Good news: Stories with particularly positive overtones such as recoveries, break- throughs, cures, wins and celebrations.
It is an image centred on CONFLICT, the far right protests #BLM, with real DRAMA at its heart pivoting on a man’s life. It ends in GOOD NEWS too, the injured man being carried to safety the creation of the hero and his elevation to the status media darling. It is SURPRISING also for all the reasons set out above. The composition of the shot too and the way Patrick’s facial expression has been captured is also cunningly framed to maximise the AUDIO-VISUAL impact. The image carries great pathos too which increases its chance of SHAREABILITY which tends to be driven by aspects such as emotional intensity, visual impact and strange and uncanny.
The physiological model of the arousal in news suggests that human beings react to news as boons or threats to our well being:” television news images resemble a non-mediated survival threat to the degree that the biological systems of viewers automatically prepare for premium performance, hence the increase in physiological and emotional arousal, attention, and memory associated with negatively compelling messages.” Arguably, this image is so effective and intoxicating precisely because it foregrounds the dread of blackness but then discharges, and neutralizes the threat with a reassuring and the assuaging feel good story. In a sense, as can be seen in the quadrant map below, this image resolves a contradiction. This is not unusual. Stuart Hall opined on black images: “They seem to be represented through sharply opposed., polarised, binary extremes – good / bad, civilized / primitive, ugly // excessively attractive, repelling- because-different/ compelling because strange and exotic.” p. 229
On the surface, this photo is charged with ‘new news’ which is surprising and that perturbs the general reader’s expectations. We have been interrogating what these premises are based upon. The extent to which this scenario is counter-intuitive and unlikely is predicated on a set of linked contrast pairs – BLACK vs WHITE, GENTLE vs VIOLENT, AGGRESSION vs FORGIVENESS. These contrasts are not explicit but swim in the serum of racist assumptions.
This image is newsworthy, precisely by being trumpeted as an implied exception to the rule.
These assumptions are built into an underlying edifice of racist thinking often unconscious. These elements drive the newsworthiness of the image, but the elements are unavoidably politicised and charged emotionally by the perceptual and ideological lens of the Culture Wars.
Polarization and #TheCultureWars
We know in the UK that we live in polarised news environment. This can be summed up by the mechanism of the Culture Wars a phenomenon by which every issue becomes polarised between political positions, driven by fractious social media that drives so many news stories.
We cannot ignore the fact that this story sits at the epicentre of the #CULTUREWARS. In the US as we know, the Culture Wars has played out around police brutality and the killing of George Floyd and policy positions around getting the economy going versus curfews and shut downs. In the UK, Black Lives Matter has intersected with related issues, institutional racism in schools, workplaces, the whiteness of the national curriculum, the calls to decolonise public spaces like galleries, museums, debates around how Britain should face up to its colonial heritage, removing of statues and the disproportionate affect of Covid-19 on BAME people.
Stories predicated on ideological flashpoints that highlight the deep differences of outlook on values, outlook and policy priorities are likely to engage viewers because they engender both triumphalism and indignation. Often centred on right wing, left wing, Liberal and Conservative splits and opposing arrays of allies and enemies. Race and racism are potent topics within this. This is because traditionally in the UK populist movements have tended to demonise both immigrants and blackness and left wing politics has tended to be allied with anti-racism too.
We can take the overall brand image of the BBC News organisation as an example. Half the population- let us say readers of The Daily Telegraph, believes they are a left-wing organ of welfare statism, the other half – let us say readers of The Guardian, think they are in thrall to the Conservative Party. Neither side can ever be convinced otherwise. They are a lightning rod for the cleavage of the Culture Wars, inevitable therefore that news story which sits astride predominant issues: within the Culture Wars – i.e. race, class, politics, Blackness, our notions of Britishness, Empire, its proper place; the image moves in this febrile atmosphere.
Brexit has inflamed sensitivities on all side, with hate crimes up since 2016 and for people of colour the vote has seemed to signal that a recrudescence of pent up native Englishness based on exclusionary whiteness. Populism of various types has gained a foothold in the UK in the wake of the 2016 EU Referendum, the Brexit vote whipped up by the Conservative government and fuelled by a right leading tabloid press. On the other hand, until recently the Black Lives Matter movement has been demonised as an inherently anti-British cultural Marxist plot - though apologists say it is rather a humanitarian movement. The protection of Winston Churchill’s statue from defacing by a #BLM mob was of course the superficial premise of the gathering that day, which gave extra frisson to this encounter. Paul Gilroy writes in his book After Empire: “exceptionally powerful feelings of comfort and compensation are produced by the prospect of even a practical restoration of the country’s long vanished homogeneity… Repairing that aching loss is usually signified by the recovery or preservation of endangered whiteness… Britain’ nationalism has interfaced with its racism”
When we consider that many of the protesters considered their presence about honouring the past and protecting heritage from destruction, it is easier to see what was at stake here. This informs the analysis since the man being saved was a right-wing agitator ill-disposed to Black Lives Matter. In this case, what is embedded within this image on the face of it is black radicalism vs white nativism – but then the nobility of the act softens our initial impressions. In this context, commentators have cautioned we should be careful that commodification image does not end up sanitising the agenda of Black Lives Matter, As Jason Okundaye remarked in London Review of Books “interpersonal acts of sacrifice, forgiveness or kindness cannot be a panacea for racism…we should resist any narrative that tries to defuse BLM activism as non-threatening and essentially about equality rather than liberation or abolition.”
We have been through a semiotic analysis breaking down various facets of the image’s meaning. We interrogated the term ‘iconic’ attributed to the image, looking at what it means and showing how it is about resonance with cultural codes and ideologies and how iconic images help to resolve social tensions. We looked the composition of the photographic image itself to see how its rhetorical power was constructed. Then we dug into various ideological contexts in art, some around race and representation, that swirl around the image, the inter-textual references it makes to other texts and the meanings gleaned from these. We also looked at the premises which allow the image to lie at the intersection of several discourses.
The basic thesis however is that the image is enmeshed in a matrix of racist axioms. American journalist and writer Touré writes: “Most Blacks would agree. We are bombarded by images of black criminality and degradation as if the nation is trying to belittle and think less of us”.
From the semiotic perspective, racism is first and foremost a semiotic problem, an internal labelling problem, that ascribes value judgements to primarily physical differences that derive originally from simple climactic adaptation. But as racialised subjects who have been deeply conditioned into a racialised system of white supremacy our minds are indelibly infected with a web of associations and a circuit of meanings tainted by racism. This is a disquieting idea.
As Isabelle Winterson writes: “by adulthood, researchers have found, most American have been exposed to a culture with enough negative message about African–Americans and other marginalised groups that as much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it, according to Harvard sociologist David R Williams. The messaging is so pervasive in American society that a third of black Americans hold anti-black bias against themselves” (p. 187)
“We live in a culture that circulate relentless messages of white superiority. These message exist simultaneously with the relentless messages of black inferiority... today we depict blacks as dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this (the USA) country. This characterisation causes aversion and hostility towards black people and feelings of superiority toward ourselves…” And this war of images and semiotic attack on blackness has become really pernicious for attitude formation.
Remember this is not an academic distinction. These are the same beliefs that cause black people to be disproportionately the victim of stop and search, police brutality and subject to disproportionate use of force with often tragic consequences. This poisoned perception has serious consequences. This does not even take into consideration the demonization of black men or ‘pathologization’ of blackness in mental health. And ironically, these are the claims at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. African American poet Claudia Rankine wrote in 2015 that: ”because white men can't police their imagination black men are dying”.
Scott Woods writes: “Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. So, while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.” So we need to start to reconsider why we look at this image as wholly positive, and to check our racist premises.
As Stuart Hall wrote in Representation “adding positive images to the largely negative repertoire of the dominant regime of representation increases the diversity of the ways in which ‘being black’ is represented, but does not necessarily displace the negative. Since the binaries remain in place, meaning continues to be framed by them. The strategy challenges the binaries – but it does not undermine them” (p. 274). Indeed anecdotal evidence suggests the press who benefited from the popularity of the image wanted more mileage; so tabloid hacks were found sniffing around his hometown to dredge up negative stories about Patrick.
So, try to account for the ‘iconic’ status of this photo we must admit that it is double coded. Of course it celebrates black achievement, but its newsworthiness and the elation with which the image was received cannot be justified without reading this image in its ideological and historical context and against the parade of other images within which it is embedded as an associative web. This web is itself suffused within the cloying syrup of racism in which even ‘positive stereotypes’ of blackness are tainted revealing how deep-seated these underlying patterns are. We should not be so quick to congratulate ourselves and must check in our own assumptions. In apparently overturning stereotypes of violent and dangerous black men with a happy exception we fall into the trap of more utterly serving to reinforce the racist premises.
It shows that we all have more work to do in unlearning our own unconscious prejudices. As John Barnes opined on an ITV Stephen Lawrence retrospective: “the whole society has to change perceptions of what it means to be black from an intellectual and moral point of view”.
ASSOCIATIVE WEB OF THE IMAGE
Barthes, Roland ‘Myth Today’ in Mythologies (Editions de Seuil; 1967)
Caple, Helen & Monika Bednarek ‘Rethinking news values: What a discursive approach can tell us about construction of news discourse and news photography’ Journalism, 1-22, 2015
Danesi, Marcel The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Imagery (Bloomsbury: 2017)
Di Angelo, Robin White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism? (Beacon Press; 2018)
DJ Fingers The Misappropriation of Hip-Hop (Tree of Life Books; 2013
Gilroy, Paul There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Routledge, 2003)
Gilroy, Paul After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture (Routledge; 2004)
Gray, Herman ‘Black Masculinity and Visual Culture’ Callaloo Spring 1995, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1995)
Hall, Stuart Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Sage: 1997)
Hirsch, Afua Brit-ish: On Race, Identity and Belonging (Vintage Books; 2017)
Holt, Douglas How Brands Become Icons (Harvard Business Press: 2004)
Holt, Douglas Cultural Strategy (Oxford University Press: 2010)
Honour, Hugh The Image of the Black in Western Art (Volume 4: Part 2)(Harvard University Press: 1989)
Hooks, Bell We Real Cool: Black Masculinities (Routledge: 2003)
Kress, Gunther and Theo Van Leeuwen Reading Images (Routledge, 1997)
Okundaye, Jason ‘The BAME Game’ The London Review of Books, 20 November 2020 https://www.lrb.co.uk/contributors/jason-okundaye
Seitz, Matt Zoller 'The Offensive Movie Cliché That Won’t Die' in Maasik, Sonia and Jack Solomon in Signs of Life in the USA, (Bedford St. Martins; 2018)
Rose, Tricia The Hip-Hop Wars (Basic Books; 2008)
Shukla Nikesh The Good Immigrant (Unbound Books; 2016)
Sontag, Susan ‘On Photography’ (1977)
Steele, Shelby The Bound Man: Why we are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Succeed (Free Press; 2008)
Touré, Post Blackness: What it Means to be Black Today (Simon & Schuster; 2011)
Wilson, Paul ‘Patrick Hutchinson, #BLM's Accidental Hero, Explains Why "We Need to Educate and Re-Educate Everybody” Men’s Health 04/08/2020 https://www.menshealth.com/uk/health/a32966968/patrick-hutchinson-black-lives-matter/
Winterson, Isabelle Caste: The Lies that Divide Us (Allen Lane; 2020)
The following all helped with references and constructive comments during the gestation, creation and evolution of this piece of thinking.
Mark Sealy, MBE, Director Autograph ABP & Principal Research Fellow UAL/LCC
Asif Noorani, Epiphany Productions
Fru Bekefi, Trends Expert
Catherine Macaulay, Art Historian
Eileen Perrier, Photographer, Lecturer
Rodney Hutchinson, (cousin of Patrick!)