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Colin Powell, the Presidential Campaign and the Power of a Photograph

Elsheba Khan at the grave of her son, Specialist Karemm Rashad Sultan Khan.
Photograph by Platon, from the portfolio, Service, as run in the New Yorker, 09/29/08.

This morning former Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a moving endorsement of Barack Obama.  Within the endorsement he cited the photo above and finally said what many US politicians should be saying to counter the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the McCain Campaign and the Republican Party.

Colin Powell:

…I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian.  He’s always been a Christian.  But the really right answer is, what if he is?  Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.  Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?  Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine.  It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave.  And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone.  And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.  He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.  And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey.  He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.  Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way.  And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know.  But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions…

If you read or watch all of Powell’s endorsement the Platon photograph was clearly not the deciding factor in his viewpoint.  Powell developed his position after watching events for some time and interacting directly with both candidates.  The photograph, though, for him provides a touchstone and a way to point out the hypocrisy within his party.  That the photo is not a traditional news photo, is obviously staged and lit theatrically, is very interesting.  The situation itself, a photo and how it crosses paths with a presidential campaign is also of note, especially in light of the Greenberg/McCain dust up.

I don’t know that Platon’s Service portfolio got a lot of buzz in the photo world when it was published.  I sensed more reaction in the photo community to Platon’s now being a staffer at The New Yorker than to the photo series.  I don’t think that many beyond regular readers of the magazine were aware of the photos.  The series is quite moving and for someone like myself who knew of Platon for his Clinton portrait and thought of him as the portraitist who shoots from low angles – the series did make me see him in a new light. [2015 note: I think if anyone has taken up the mantle of Richard Avedon’s personal and politically themed work it’s Platon.]

You can’t predict when something like this happens – a photo is cited by a significant person, at an important moment, on a national scale.  It begs the question though – if you did a series of photos and it had to affect or convince just one person who would it be?

Platon’s Service Portfolio

Colin Powell

Full Transcript of Powell’s Endorsement

Barack Obama


  1. Steve Burns

    Jon, nothing more to say than a simple thank you for what on your part is a wonderful and thoughtful post.

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