A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words…except when it isn’t

There’s a photograph, from 9/11. I’m sure you all saw it: a man in a business suit, arms flat at his sides, plunging headfirst, skydiving with grim determination toward his death. I remember reading a commentary on that picture. The gist of it was that, like all exceptional photos, the story it tells is, in some part, a lie.

It’s a gruesome subject, and I only bring it up because of a photograph of Julianna that I saw last night. Now, I have countless pictures of Julianna, and almost all of them show her as she is in reality: cute, engaged, vivacious, smiling and utterly charming. Her eyes are more than half reflected light. The glint of life that resides in all our eyes seems to take up twice as much of hers. This is probably what made me shake in my shoes whenshake in my shoes when she was first born, and I recognized God’s eyes in her eyes.

When you look at these pictures, you might or might not realize that she has Down syndrome. Those pictures are possible because it’s us behind the camera—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Grandpa—and she’s reacting to us, whom she knows and loves.  When she doesn’t smile—when she doesn’t engage, flirt and charm—she looks retarded. Ugh, how I hate that word.

Last night, we went to visit my parents. Mom, 5 days past her final election, told us about one person’s reaction to a direct mail piece she’d sent out. It was a pro-life piece featuring a still shot of Julianna and her cousin sitting on Mom’s lap. The shot was taken from the video that RHCC shot this summer for TV ads. “Cheap shot,” the person had written, drawing an arrow to Julianna.

It was a pretty nasty thing to imply—that Mom went looking for a retarded child to hold in a pro-life ad. Of course, that person couldn’t have known that Julianna was her granddaughter, let alone how much love she lavished on Julianna even before her parents were able to. But looking at my daughter in bright, glossy color, I could see the guy’s point. It was, without a doubt, the worst shot of Julianna that has ever been taken. She looked…well, mentally retarded. Tongue hanging way out, feet and arms dangling uselessly, eyes staring vacantly toward the ground.

In the video footage, it doesn’t look like that. Julianna is sitting in the bright sun—it was brutally hot and humid the day we shot that footage. She’s uncomfortable and can’t shade her eyes, so she looks at the ground, and for a moment, she sticks her tongue out. Why, oh why, of all the frames they could have chosen, did they pick that one?

Which brings me back to the 9/11 businessman. When you look at the whole series of shots from which that one was taken, you see that he was not, after all, plunging with grim determination toward the earth. He was flailing, tumbling, arms and legs flying around in panic. That famous photo shows one unrepresentative moment, chosen for maximum impact.

A photo can’t lie. Except sometimes, it does.