The visual culture of politics. As I mentioned in the last blog post it seems to cover a lot of things really and I’m discovering that this can really go in a lot of different directions. I’ve looked at using a service like Instagram to communicate a political message (Lance Bass and his recent engagement), the use of comics to reflect issues of sexuality in contemporary culture (Batwoman), and now I’m thinking of looking at the issues of how photography and image making is being used in political speech in a seemingly innocuous way. Yep, in a nice segue from the last piece, I’m going to carry on talking about marriage but specifically about taking picture of the gays getting hitched.
There has been a case going on in New Mexico recently about some wedding photographers who refused service to a gay couple having a commitment ceremony. They cited that this was against their religious beliefs as they believe marriage to be between one man and one woman. Now you may say that they are within their rights to have that belief, and, much as I disagree with their point of view, I agree that they are entitled to have whatever beliefs they want. But there are two other important things at play here.
First, they are saying that as photographers, their work is creative expression and that is protected free speech under the first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America. Secondly, New Mexico has a Human Rights Act that states that couples cannot be discriminated against based on whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex. Enter the wedding/commitment ceremony image into the realm of politics (you knew I was going to be able to tie it all together didn’t you….). The case was first of all heard by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, who found that the photographers were guilty of discrimination. Then it was heard by the New Mexico court of appeals who also found the photographers guilty of discrimination. Then it was heard by the New Mexico Supreme Court. They too upheld the decision that the photographers discriminated against the couple. Now the photographers have decided to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court.
I won’t bore you with all the legal details. For that you can find plenty on the web here, here, and here. I’d also like to clear up one other thing as well about the way the couple in the original case felt about things. They probably were not suing to make the photographers do the job. That would be crazy. Who would want these people at their ceremony after they have refused to do the work? They would have found someone who actually WANTED to be there. They likely reported the discrimination to get the issue raised and fixed, that’s all. But what it surfaces is the fact that images and their creation are now seen as personal and political expression and also political speech. The photographers, in their brief to the State Supreme Court, were very clear that they see the images that they make as representative of their beliefs because the images are their “creative expression”. If they are to be believed then one of their concerns is that people will perhaps consider that they are not being true to their own beliefs on marriage, which, whether they like it or not, are also political as well as religious beliefs due to the current debates on marriage equality across the globe. Logically it follows that their images can then also be seen as political images. By refusing to make images of a same-sex commitment ceremony they are making a religious and a political statement, again, whether they like it or not.
Do they really have a choice then as to whether they use their images to make a political statement? Absolutely they do. They operate a business that compels them under the law to offer services to everyone and under the current terms of the law they can choose to not offer wedding/commitment photographs to anyone at all. Whether that is fair or not is up to the courts to decide. But their seemingly innocuous images are political speech for now, that much is clear. At least until the US Supreme Court settles the case by either refusing to hear it or ruling on it.