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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

OJ: Made in America - where photography is a matter of life and death

     image from Reuters

One of the many interesting things about OJ: Made in America is the way in which photography is present throughout the documentary. It is absolutely everywhere in the documentary and it is vital to everything about the case; from the history of race in the USA, to Simpson's construction of a non-raced identity, to the defence team's use of photography to stage a re-racing of Simpson's racial identity, from Nicole Brown Simpson's use of polaroids to record how Simpson beat her, to the film-makers' use of crime scene photography to create a moral grounding to the case. Or the way in which Simpson performed for the camera to show the murderer's gloves 'didn't fit'.

And that's without even mentioning the video of the beating of Rodney King where photography is used as evidence and was a trigger for both the Los Angeles riots of 1993 and, it is argued,  the eventual acquittal of OJ Simpson - it was a revenge acquittal in other words (though it is visually hinted that there are other things stretching further back that it was also revenge for)

Photography is vital in other words. It is central to our lives. It is a matter of life and death and it determines who goes free and who doesn't. And it's emotional. It's not rational or considered or logical. It doesn't work that way. But despite all that, we believe it none the less. Because we're not rational or logical. We don't work that way.

Simpson's defence team understood the emotional power of photography, of the image, and the way that it worked and they used it to get Simpson off. The defence team, one feels, didn't and were completely blindsided. That, at least, is what the documentary seems to show.

Simpson used photography to show that race didn't matter to him, that his stardom and his personality rendered him outside the racial system of America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The wall of his home was decorated with pictures showing this - pictures of Simpson with his white friends, friends who shared his economic, social or fame status. He didn't care for civil rights or social concerns. Not when he was an aspiring American football star, not when he made the move into movies, not in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the acquittal of the police who had beaten him in full view of all the world (thanks to photography).

One of the most cynical things about the documentary was the venality of the defence team and nowhere was this venality demonstrated better than in their restructuring of Simpson's racial identity; they took down the gallery of pictures in Simpson's house showing Simpson with his parade of white people - and replaced it with a gallery of pictures showing Simpson with a parade of black people. He needed to become a black man so that his trial could become the trial of a black man - and so linked to the history of race in America, from Rodney King all the way back through a litany of injustice to the lynching of Shipp and Smith which was shown in the programme.

In other words, the defence team effectively curated an 'exhibition'  the walls of Simpson's Brentwood house (one of the most important 'exhibitions' in the history of America if you take the view that it influenced the outcome of the trial). They made him blacker than he wanted to be.

Which strangely enough is exactly what Time did to him in their infamous Time Cover.

So photographically OJ Simpson he was made black in defence (through visual association) and made black in attack (through retouching). Such are the functions of photography in real life. Amazing!

Amidst all the anger, injustice and brutality of the case, and the way it links to class, to wealth, to power, to status and to the brutality of American racism it is easy to forget who the real victim in the story is.

But there are the pictures of the body of Nicole Smith and Ron Goldman to remind us; we are shown her body repeatedly. It's battered, it's bloodied. We see streaks of blood, we see where the throat has been cut.

These pictures ground the story (in the same way that the images of the beaten body of Emmett Till ground the story). They tell us who was killed and we know who did it. And because we know who did it, it reveals the dysfunctionality, the hypocrisy and the hierarchies of all sections of American society.

It also tells us how imporant photography is. And how functional photography is. But it's not necessarily the photography that we write about or we study. It's not photography that has been distanced and stripped of its emotional power. It's not conceptual work where layers of performance, reflexivity and staging create a barrier between the images and the audience. Here basic evidential news reporting,  personal photography, trophy photography, family photography, crime scene photography and photography used for personal evidence are what matters. And not just to photography or art nerds, but to everybody.

In OJ: Made in America, photography is literally a matter of life and death.

Watch OJ: Made in America on iplayer (if you're in the UK)

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