Frame Game

The Elián Pictures 

We saw the pictures on television and in the papers all weekend. The first shows a federal agent, machine gun at the ready, seizing Elián González from the home of his Miami relatives before dawn Saturday. The second shows Elián smiling with an arm around his father, Juan Miguel, hours later in Maryland. The Miami family and its supporters have used the first picture to foment outrage against the government’s raid. Juan Miguel and his supporters have used the second picture to reassure the public that Elián is safe and happy. Don’t believe it. Pictures, like words, can project illusions and take events out of context. Look again at each picture. Notice what it disguises and what it omits.

Start with the image that dominated the weekend, the picture of the Miami raid.

1. Whose house is it? “The chilling picture of a little boy being removed from his home at gunpoint defies the values of America,” says George W. Bush. But that’s not what the picture shows. Elián isn’t being removed from his home. He’s being removed from the house in which his great-uncle and cousins, against his father’s wishes and without legal custody, have kept him. The picture doesn’t convey whose house it is. Instead, by capturing Elián’s moment of terror, it suggests to the eye that the house is Elián’s.

2. Who’s holding Elián? The man holding Elián isn’t his father, his cousin, or even a longtime family friend. He’s Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who plucked Elián out of the ocean last November. “They took this kid like a hostage in the nighttime,” Dalrymple protested to reporters after the raid. But if Elián is the hostage in this scene, who’s the kidnapper?

3. What is Elián doing? Sunday’s New York Times said the picture showed Elián “hiding in a closet in the arms of” Dalrymple. But the only person who’s demonstrably hiding is Dalrymple. Since Elián is in Dalrymple’s arms, he has to go wherever Dalrymple takes him. If Dalrymple had carried Elián to the front door and presented him to the agents, Elián would have gone along. But that wouldn’t have proved that Elián wanted to leave the house, any more than this picture proves Elián wanted to stay. It turns out, according to Monday’s Times, that Dalrymple “grabbed [Elián] and hid in a closet, trying to protect the boy.”

4. How did we get here? A picture captures a moment, omitting the events that led to it. In this case, the missing context includes months of effort by the U.S. Justice Department to get the Miami relatives to relinquish Elián to his father, a government order stripping the relatives of custody, the relatives’ failure to turn over the boy, and a final, all-night negotiating session in which the relatives again dragged their feet and tried to set conditions for a father-son visit. According to the Times, Attorney General Janet Reno warned the relatives during the night that the time for noncompliance had run out and that if they didn’t agree right away to hand over Elián, “We’re going to take a law-enforcement action.” The raid was the last act of the play. But it’s the only act shown in the picture.

Even that act has been reduced to its final scene. The agents had arrived with a warrant to search the house for Elián and retrieve him. They had knocked on the door, announcing who they were and why they were there. Only after the relatives failed to respond had the agents broken into the house and entered the room where Dalrymple held Elián. None of these precautions shows up in the picture.

5. What does the agent see? It seems clear from the picture that Dalrymple is unarmed. But this seems clear only because the raid is now over and no weapons were found in the house. The agent in the picture doesn’t know that. He’s sizing up the situation in real time. He and his colleagues are heavily armed because Justice Department officials had heard there might be weapons in the house. They were wrong. But they weren’t reckless.

6. What’s going on outside? The picture shows only what is going on inside the house. Outside, a crowd of anti-Castro demonstrators that has dwindled from hundreds earlier in the evening is erupting in outrage. Federal officials say they wanted the agents well-armed in case extremists in the crowd made good on threats of lethal violence. That didn’t happen, though some of the demonstrators scuffled with the agents and tried to block the door.

7. At whom is the gun aimed? Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., says the agent in the picture is “pointing a gun at the head of a 6-year-old boy.” House Majority Whip Tom DeLay says the agent is “waving a machine gun at” Elián. But the reason you can see the agent’s trigger finger clearly is that it’s extended alongside the gun, not curled around the trigger. And the impression that the gun is pointed at Elián is an optical illusion caused by compressing a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional photograph. In the vertical dimension, Reno says the gun is pointed down, which agents call the “search position.” That’s not clear, but the more salient point is that in the horizontal dimension, the gun is pointed in the direction of Dalrymple rather than Elián—which is logical, because Dalrymple is holding Elián, and the agents had been warned of violence at the house and were under orders to protect Elián. If you saw the picture on CNN Saturday morning, you had no idea the gun was pointed at anyone other than Elián, because Dalrymple had been squeezed out of the picture.

8. Why does the agent look scary? Many critics have cited the agent’s combat gear, helmet, goggles, and heavy weapon as evidence that the government used overkill. The agent’s outfit and weapon certainly are intimidating—and that’s the point. “A great show of force can often avoid violence,” explained former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger on ABC’s This Week. “It allowed [the agents] to get in and out in three minutes before a crowd could build up through which they might have had to fight their way out. Look again at that iconographic picture and you will see that Mr. Dalrymple … is stunned by the officer in his display of a weapon. … His jaw goes slack, his arm loses its grip, and that avoided a physical tug-of-war which could have severely injured” Elián. The momentary image is designed to look bad so that the real outcome will be good. But the picture doesn’t capture the real outcome. It only captures the momentary image.

9. Has the gun been fired? At a press conference Sunday, an attorney for the Miami relatives accused the agents of “going in with guns blazing.” The picture lends credence to that charge. In fact, however, no shots were fired. The picture leaves out the key piece of information that would have dispelled this illusion: a soundtrack.

10. Who took the picture? Every photograph taken during a complex sequence of events entails two interwoven biases. First, it conveys only the moment and image that the photographer chooses to convey. You’re looking at this particular scene from this particular perspective because this is the moment at which the photographer chose to snap a picture, and this is the perspective from which he chose to snap it. Second, having immortalized these two choices, the camera, by its nature, conceals the person who made them. In this case, that person is Alan Diaz, a free-lance photographer. The WashingtonPost says Diaz “had developed a relationship with the González family and was standing nearby when the boy was discovered in the closet.” The Times says Diaz “was guided into the bedroom where the boy was being held” before the agent got there. The caption on the photograph, however, tells you none of this. All it says is “Associated Press.” (Joshua King of has written a brilliant, thorough analysis of how Diaz got the picture and how it was composed and cropped. To read his report, click here.)

11. What happened afterward? According to news accounts, once the agents got Elián out of Dalrymple’s arms, they wrapped the boy in a blanket, whisked him outside to a van, assured him that everything would be all right, fed him, gave him toys, and took him by helicopter and plane to his father in Maryland. None of this shows up in the picture. Instead, the still photograph, carried by protesters in the streets of Miami and replayed endlessly on television, immortalizes the episode’s worst moment and obscures its actual conclusion.

Recognizing the political damage done by this picture of the raid, Juan Miguel’s attorney, Greg Craig, released a different picture of Elián, showing the boy smiling after being reunited with his father. But this picture, too, should be scrutinized. 

1. What does Elián know? Craig and his congressional allies say Elián’s smile proves that the boy is in good hands. But a smile doesn’t prove that the person who’s smiling is in good hands. It only proves that he thinks he’s in good hands. Does Elián understand his situation? The agents who took him from Miami say that he told them he didn’t want to go back to Cuba. They assured him he was only going to see his father. Does Elián understand that the U.S. government expects the courts to reject the Miami relatives’ appeals to keep Elián in the United States—and that once this happens, Juan Miguel intends to take Elián back to Cuba?

2. Where is Elián’s mother? The impression created by the picture is that this is Elián’s nuclear family, and the woman on the left is his mother. On Meet the Press, Craig reinforced this impression by discussing decisions about Elián which “Juan Miguel, in consultation with his wife and family, will make.” But Juan Miguel’s wife, the woman in the picture, is not Elián’s mother. Elián’s mother, who was divorced from Juan Miguel, is missing from the picture because she drowned while bringing Elián to the United States. Had she been alive, she would hardly have cooperated with Craig’s reassuring message. Dead men tell no tales, and dead women appear in no pictures.

3. Whose house is it? The family picture, like the raid picture, generates the impression that Elián is at home. He isn’t. In this picture, he’s at a house at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. According to the Post, “A crib and children’s bed had been set up in the living room, with a double bed in the bedroom. U.S. marshals had moved in next door. Several Cuban officials were present, along with a few beefy INS officers.” The Post says, “Cuban government officials are believed to have access to” the family. The AP says Elián has been “holed up” with the family. The Orlando Sentinel reports that Saturday, “Only Craig, [the Rev. Joan Brown] Campbell and a small group of confidants and government officials had access to Elián and his family”; and Sunday, Juan Miguel “refused through a base spokesman to meet with” the Miami relatives. Who controls the premises? Who has access to Elián and Juan Miguel? Who has influence over them? Who gets to interpret their words and deeds? The picture glosses over these questions.

4. Who took the picture? In a caption, the Post attributes the picture to “González family via AP.” But the AP neither took the picture nor received it directly from Juan Miguel—much less from the “González family,” a title of authenticity to which Elián’s Miami relatives arguably have a better claim than Elián’s stepmother does. The picture was provided to the AP by Craig. There’s no evidence that Craig is allied with Fidel Castro, as some critics charge. But Craig’s role is certainly open to question, since Juan Miguel obviously can’t afford to pay Craig’s bills. The danger is not, as the Miami relatives foolishly suggest, that the picture has been “doctored.” The danger is that just as the photographer in Miami chose to capture Elián at his most terrified, the photographer in Maryland chose to capture Elián at his most relaxed. 

The media and the players in the Elián saga are busy congratulating themselves on their use of the pictures to convey what happened this weekend. “One of the beauties of television is that it shows exactly what the facts are,” says Reno. “The two pictures … captured the story from start to finish,” agrees a New York Times editor. Nonsense. Reality is one thing. Pictures are another. To confuse the two, you’d have to be blind.