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When Images "Lie": Dancing with Sarah Palin and Barack Obama

In October 2008, at the height of the gear-up for the November presidential elections, Martin Rice, a Tampa Bay, Florida musician and graphic designer, vented his frustrations visually and digitally. He created an image of Barack Obama dancing with Sarah Palin, and captioned the pic with "unfortunately, this is what the country wants."

In September, approximately 52 million people watched the first debate between candidate John McCain and then-candidate Barack Obama. A few weeks later, 18 million people watched a single episode of Dancing with the Stars.

Rice sent the pic to a few friends. Within a week, the photo had been picked up by multiple new sources, including CNN and ABC, had been posted to more than 1000 blogs, and turned into an iPhone wallpaper. Within 2 weeks, a Google image search for "obama palin dancing" returned more than 1.5 million hits.

What are some of the dangers and powers of photo parody in a "viral" world -- that is, in a world where an image can become popular, downloaded, and reproduced on thousands of web sites within minutes? What are some of the dangers and powers of photo parody in making political statements? These are great questions to bring to the classroom.

Discussions About This Resource

alinaadonyi's picture

Fascinating! Such great questions! Especially concerning the dangers and powers of photo parody with political statements. I'm fascinated by how we have responsibility as teachers to consider what positive or provocative ideas and messages we "should" or "could" spend our time spreading around the web. I teach a high school rhetoric class and want to try to have a socratic seminar conversation using your reflection, is that ok with you?

devossda's picture

Oh, absolutely! Please feel free to use any of the discussion, images, etc. I have TONS of other resources on image manipulation -- from the web, from newspapers, etc. -- historic and contemporary. Message me if you want me to send you more examples! -- Danielle

dreed's picture

Ok, I have to say it, what continues to surprise me is how my freshman students often believe images like this example. I incorporate visual literacy studies into my course, but I find that in general images seem easier to believe by my high school students than text. They know to evaluate websites, but when it comes to images, if it isn't obvious, they sometimes find it easier to believe. Somehow that seems backward to me. By the time they are seniors in my expository writing course, I know we'll analyze advertisements and images to a greater level and they'll get it. However, I wonder in an age when advertisements highly target teens if it's difficult for them to continually be critically questioning every text that they face. This is yet another reason why it is important to constantly question the texts and images we come across and to model this critical thinking for our students. The political parody, other parody, and manipulation of images is a major topic for students today. I'm beginning to wonder if students need more exposure in high school to actual manipulation of images. They believe that texts can be fake because they can create text that is untrue. They can also do this with images, but I don't often find the technology resources or space to have them manipulate images. I wonder if this is something to further explore to drive the point home.

tommybuteau's picture

I wonder about this also. I think it would be worth it to spend a little time teaching photoshop to students so they can see how easy it is to create reality through images. If they create one themselves, even if it is a basic level attempt, perhaps they would be more critical when viewing the work of others.

Media studies classes would be a great place to try this out.

dreed's picture

Thanks for your response, Tommy.  I agree that it would be a nice to have students manipulate photos themselves.  I'm looking for some free photo manipulation tools to try.  It seems to me that this fits within a lot of the Common Core standards when we explore evaluation of information and argument.  Sounds like a great idea.