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It’s an unusual looking photograph that got Anthony Weiner into trouble. It apparently depicts the congressman’s underwear bulging from an erection. On May 27 Weiner sent a link to the photo via twitter to a 21 year old woman. And so the ‘Weinergate’ scandal unfolds. It is difficult to determine Weiner’s motivation for sending the photograph to one of his ‘followers’ but, for the sake of argument, here the photograph clearly fulfills the function to communicate a message. On a primordial basis, Weiner communicates to his follower that he is a man and that his body functions as nature intends to. Yet this message is also slightly coded as the photograph is taken from an odd angle and upside down. The photograph thus becomes a type of visual game, alluding to a bodily function while not disclosing it entirely.
While Weiner initially denied sending the link to the photograph, claiming that his twitter account was hacked, the photo scandal was still unfolding. On June 6 a photograph emerges which depicts Weiner’s shirtless torso. This image too appears to have been sent to a follower on twitter. Yet it is the background of the image that I find most intriguing. While Weiner was careful not to depict his face, in the background there are several photographs that reveal his identity. In one image Weiner can be seen meeting Hilary Clinton. Other images in the background show Weiner with his wife, with his family and friends. Here, the collection of family photographs fulfills the function of communicating that Weiner wishes to be perceived as a family man, embedded in a community, with friends in high places. It is the type of image a politician nurtures for decades and then loses in seconds. ‘Exposed’ the newspaper headlines read. It is not a coincidence that ‘exposure’ is also a photographic terminology. In other words, the photograph is a crucial aspect, if not the determining factor, in the scandal itself.
The Chris Lee photo scandal unfolding only three months earlier, in February 2011, evokes some startling similarities with Weiner’s case. Both Lee and Weiner are congressmen from New York, Lee is 47, and Weiner 46 years of age, they are both married, Lee has one child, while Weiner’s wife is expecting a child at the moment. The most intriguing similarity is not however some biographical detail but in what the photographs depicts: both Lee and Weiner appear to be proud of their bodies, tensing their muscles as they photograph their shirtless torso. They are men who perhaps go to the gym on a regular basis and work out. Lee and Weiner use the photographic self-representation and performance to the camera as an opportunity to present their otherwise fully dressed bodies. In a sense, the ideological turf for the photo scandal is not necessarily in what it depicts, but the contrast it creates in comparison to the public image of the person depicted. In the construction of a photo scandal and the parallel destruction of a politician’s public image, the question as to whom the images were sent to and for what reason is crucial. Lee sent the photograph of his shirtless torso to a transsexual he met on Craigslist. Embarrassed and humiliated he resigned shortly after the scandal hit the headlines. Weiner meanwhile sent his photographs to female followers on twitter. He is, at the time of writing, still clinging on to his job.
The photographic self-representation of Lee and Weiner underlines that at all times the focus is on their own bodies. Perhaps they wish their bodies to be seen in certain ways by others (a virtual stranger, a ‘follower’, a random bystander). But I am willing to speculate that above all, the photographs are predominantly representative of how they wish to see their bodies themselves. Like Narcissus falling in love with his reflection, the photographs allude to a deeply embedded love with one’s self-image. In one of his most quoted passages, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes:
“The mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image.”
While it is assumed that Lee’s and Weiner’s photographs are taken and distributed for sexual satisfaction supplied by others, Lacan’s formula suggests that this satisfaction can also be produced self-referentially. In other words, Lee and Weiner might photograph themselves for their own satisfaction. Similar to the mirror, the (digital) photograph is used to supply an almost immediate representation of the self. And this is perhaps the most scandalous aspect in the case of Lee and Weiner: that the photographs allude to a type of autoeroticism usually hidden away from the public. The photo scandal thus becomes representative for the immediacy of digital technologies, the instantaneity of social media but also the unrelenting allure of individuality explored via the internet.
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