Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Riot Kiss: Framing Memes as Visual Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Riot Kiss: Framing Memes as Visual Argument

Article excerpt

In the midst of the Vancouver riots of June 2011, Getty photographer Rich Lam captured a compelling photograph: an image of a young couple lying in the street embraced in a kiss. The riots began as the Boston Bruins triumphed over the Vancouver Canucks in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. Over 100,000 fans, who had been watching the game from the streets on large-screen televisions, erupted into violence. Officials reported that at least 140 people sustained injuries, four persons were stabbed, and the events of the night incurred $3.7 million dollars (CAD) in damages ("A Tale of Two Riots," 2011 ; Howell, 2012). During the riots, as looters attempted to break into a department store and two cars burned nearby, Lam, on assignment for the game, spotted a couple comforting one another after the young woman, Alexandra Thomas, was knocked to the ground by riot police (Horaczek, 2011). Lam quickly snapped a number of shots and delivered them to Getty (Horaczek, 2011). In the intriguing composition published the next day, the pair lies in the lower left corner of the photograph while police officers in riot gear bracket the foreground and background (see Figure 1). Lam's photograph proved to be the definitive image of the night.

Within a few days of the riots, Lam's photograph would become one of the most searched items on Google, be discussed in thousands of news sites, and be reproduced in a wide variety of forms. As the photograph spread across various media locales, writers and respondents offered myriad interpretations of the image. Some commentators touted the photograph as "iconic" (Duggan, 201 i, para. 9) and christened it the "riot kiss" (Doyle, 2011; Duggan, 2011). For others, the juxtaposition depicted within the image was said to inspire love against the chaos of destruction-"Mad Max meets From Here to Eternity" (Lazamk, 2011, para. 7). Many argued that the photograph was fake, either created by a playful digital manipulator or randy performance artists (Controneo, 2011; Qualman, 2011; Quinn, 2011). Still others contended that the image showed the effects of overindulgence in alcohol (Controneo, 2011; Lazamk, 2011; "Vancouver Kissing Riot," 2011). As the popularity of the image increased, other articles and videos of the lip locked pair appeared in which the young man in the picture, Scott Jones, explained that his girlfriend had become a "bit hysterical" and he was "just trying to calm her down" ("Vancouver Riot Kiss," 2011, para. 10). Despite Jones's attempt to corral the meaning and impact of the photograph, this information failed to resolve the multiplicity of viewpoints on it. Commentators persisted in their debate about the image's meaning and continued to reproduce the photograph across online sites.

Indeed, playing off the variety of claims deployed about this photograph, internet meme enthusiasts mashed the kissing couple with other visuals. Lam's passionate pair were edited into a number of popular images such as the lone protestor in front of a tank near Tiananmen Square and the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. (1) Interestingly, the images created from the Vancouver couple seemed to be motivated by the numerous contentions made about the photograph proper. For example, both the Tiananmen Square and Abbey Road images are predicated on seeing the couple's embrace as an iconic photograph that resonates with the public. More generally, the claims fashioned about Lam's photograph (e.g., its iconicity, statement on violence, artificiality) became the basis for joining the couple to other popular visuals. Indeed, the circulation of this photograph proves important for the study of argumentation insofar as its proliferation generated the continued invention of argument.

Given the photograph's movement across the internet and its uptake as a creative work, this image operated as a meme-a virus-like cultural artifact that proliferates by replication and mutation (Blackmore, 1999; Dawkins, 1989/2006). …

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