Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education

A man holding up a sign reading "Public Education is a Human Right!" in both English and Spanish.
A photo taken by me at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017.

February 7, 2017.

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education. Many media outlets both online and in print have been quick to undermine DeVos by reintroducing her lack of experience in education and issues about what her financial privilege has done for her thus far. Yet, other news outlets such as Fox News brush aside such issues and focus on why Betsy DeVos would be an exceptional figure in this position.

According to Fox News in this article, DeVos is an excellent choice to lead the Department of Education because she was nominated by President Trump to take on this role. A role that the article suggests she is best suited for due to her extensive history in politics However, it’s important to understand that, while the author, Michael J. Petrilli, is initially consistent with the general reputation of Fox News as leaning conservative, he begins to shift his tone into a more moderate one.

While Petrilli addresses the delight of Trump supporters and people who want to see DeVos succeed, he addresses their victory. He addresses that people have the right to support her because, like this incoming administration, it won’t be consistent with Obama’s administration. Petrilli also addresses the opposition to DeVos’s confirmation, and not in the way that most Fox reporters would. Instead, he writes:

“The grassroots energy around the DeVos confirmation fight demonstrates that Americans care deeply about their schools. That’s good news. The even better news is that parents and teachers can now focus that energy on changing policies closer to home, where the action is, rather than in Washington, D.C. And the U.S. Department of Education can go back to being the sleepy agency it was always meant to be.”

And that is the note he ends on. That the opposition to DeVos is inherently a good thing. It means our democracy works.  It means that our democracy is engaging. That particular section isn’t defending or criticizing DeVos, but rather making a commentary about what her confirmation means to the American people. Petrilli doesn’t just report what happened in whatever angle or agenda he chooses to write to uphold, but he goes the extra mile to write about the very real people the confirmation affects and the very real actions that they set in motion. Although I find myself at odds with her confirmation, maybe DeVos and people like her are what Americans need to start affecting real change in their societies once more.

Defining Humanitarianism and American Values by (not) Accepting Syrian Refugees

“The entire argument for accepting Syrian refugees relies on the fact that it is the ‘humanitarian’ thing to do and that it seems ‘un-American’ to not accept refugees, but this is actually quite the opposite.

It is, in fact, more humanitarian and more American to not accept Syrian refugees.”—Austin Cirillo

This quote has been taken from an op-ed written by Austin Cirillo on The Eagle, a news outlet for American University. In this article, as seen by the quote above, Cirillo argues that the rejection of Syrian refugees isn’t a negative concept that speaks to the failure of the United States and the blatant apathy on the part of the new administration, but the opposite.

Aside from his claim, Cirillo’s awfully interesting argument is crafted in a way that allows him to appeal to common American values while undercutting his critics. He begins by introducing the beliefs of his critics, as one does if their work is to be taken seriously. Cirillo mentions what it means to be “humanitarian” and what it means to be “un-American.” “Humanitarian” is a trait that is associated with people who argue in favor of housing Syrian refugees on American soil. If the term is to be translated onto a romanticized version of American society, it can also mean “American.” It is “American” to want to open our borders to refugees.

To introduce his own argument, Cirillo essentially turns to his audience and relays the equivalent of, “Hey, you know what’s more humanitarian and American than letting in Syrian refugees? That’s right, not doing exactly that.” In doing this, however, he stuns his readers and they will react in one of two ways: they will be outraged, or they will agree a thousand times over. Therefore, nature of the introduction to his argument is intensely provocative and practically invites controversy. Since the article he published was an opinion article, maybe he wanted to do just that. It is entirely possible that the publication of this piece is meant to spark dialogue in American society so that we, Americans, can once again confront our values and what they really stand for.

Do I agree with Cirillo? No. However, I also pulled a drastically small quote from his article, and to judge the validity of his claims I urge you to read the text in full here.

Photography, Communication, and the Women’s March

A woman and man interacting during the Women's March with the capitol building in the background.
A photo taken at the Women’s March On January 21, 2016. Taken by me.

I attended the Women’s March last Saturday, January 21st, 2017. This is one of the many powerful pictures I had the opportunity to capture that day.

Because this medium captures human expression in a photograph rather than in writing, it produces meaning differently. It produces meaning by directly linking an event to an audience that may not be there in that exact moment. How effectively the photograph is able to teleport its audience to that one moment in time is part of what makes the image powerful. However, that’s exactly what almost all photographs do one way or another. Photographs therefore must distinguish themselves from others by quite literally moving their audience. They must make them feel something, anything, and to do this, photographers manipulate elements like color, contrast, focus, and framing. That’s what I was taught in my photography class, at least.

The sky is grey, cold, and muddy. That just happened to be the weather that day. The people are not. The colors they wear, primarily pink, are relatively bright. Even their skin looks warm as if they had light emanating from inside of them. There are words I guess because of the signs, but they’re out of focus. On either side of the photograph, there is a person directly communicating with the other. The only thing that separates these slightly raised figures above the crowd is the United States Capitol building. But so far, I’ve stated the obvious.

The focus, however, is really only on those two people communicating. The crowd, despite being at the foreground of the picture, isn’t in focus. The signs, although you can probably still make out what they say, are out of focus. The Capitol is not only out of focus, but also all the way in the background. But how do the subjects seem to be communicating? One is pointing at the other and the other is confused. One is a white woman and the other, a white man. She’s wearing a pink vest that mirrors the intensely saturated pink being worn by the crowd. This indirectly communicates that she is of the crowd, she shares their cause, and she represents them in the interaction she’s engaging in with another being. The man, on the other hand, looks like he doesn’t have a clue. His body language indicates that he probably didn’t expect her to respond to him so fiercely and whatever they’re talking about, he probably doesn’t even have a clue. Although he is also elevated from the crowd in the forefront, he’s not wearing pink or any unique color. He’s not wearing anything to signify he is with them other than the simple fact that he is there. Interestingly, he looks more like the grey skies and the looming building behind him.

By these markers, this moment from the Women’s March on Washington displays a woman, with all the energy of the crowd is directing a powerful message at him, a man that visually represents the establishment behind him. It’s almost as if she’s convicting him.

But I’ve got some explaining to do. While visuals are the most effective and direct form of communication, they can be equally deceiving. As the photographer, I’ve manipulated elements of the photograph to display exactly that message. The photograph is not only an expression of the subjects within it, it’s not only the expression of that one moment in time, but is also an expression of the photographer. Nothing in a photograph that’s not either thrown away or deleted isn’t deliberate. I’ve intentionally captured, framed, and manipulated the cast of colors to deliver a message of energy, conflict, and vulnerability. Furthermore, the man could have very well just been lost and the woman could have just been giving him directions for all I know, but that perspective is lost due to the way the photo was crafted. Instead, I’ve interjected my own narrative about what I felt at that time. I felt I was full of life and energy and frustration at the incoming administration. The Women’s March allowed me to protest and express my views both legally and safely. Photography, like writing, is just another outlet.