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Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Why One Pepper-Spraying Cop Image Dominates

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When U.C. Davis police officer Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed a line of student protesters last Friday, his actions were recorded in replicate. Dozens of cameras captured video and still images, and soon swarms of photographs seeped across the internet. If there was ever a more-recorded single event in history, I am not aware of it.

Yet, from the cloud of pepper-spray photographs, one has come to dominate. It is this image, taken by Davis psychology student Louise Macabitas, from the west side of the blocked path:

Image by Louise Macabitas

This is the photo that birthed the Pepperspray Cop meme. After spending time looking at this and dozens of similar captures, I think I know why.

  • A low perspective elevates Pike's head above the crowd, leaving an indelible impression of dominance & authority.
  • Pike is in mid-stride, adding motion to a still image, and the outward-pointed foot puts the Casual in the "casually pepper-spray everything" meme.
  • Pike's face is visible, more so than in images taken from a higher angle.
  • The spray itself is unmistakable in silhouette.
  • Every person is identifiable as either Police, Onlooker, or Protester. The story tells itself.
  • See that police officer back-right? His stance, and his high head, reinforce a detached arrogance on the part of the police.
  • The expressions of the onlookers- at least not those in the standing paparazzi- convey a mix of surprise and disbelief.

Leaving politics and sociology aside, the image compels on its own merits. It is at once both complex and simple. There is a lot to look at, but each element adds into the same narrative. As Megan Garber notes:

...the photo’s narrative is built into its imagery. It depicts not just a scene, but a story. It requires of viewers very little background knowledge; even more significantly, it requires of them very few political convictions.

A remarkable image. I hope that eventually Ms. Macabitas receives due recognition for it.


***This image is reproduced here under the Fair Use provision of U.S. copyright law, as this post is editorial commentary on the photograph itself.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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