My first preview of at photographer Jona Frank's book of portraits about Patrick Henry College occurred through Mother Jones, where it appeared alongside image galleries on phone sex operators, Aryan outfitters, and women in Afghanistan. (Mother Jones' photo galleries reflect a wide variety of topics, but I'm mentioning the ones it promoted alongside the photos from Frank's second book, Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League.) The students of Patrick Henry College, the nation's first residential college designed for young people who grew up as homeschoolers, looked awfully stiff and serious. I asked Ed Veith, a professor of literature and provost of the college, for his thoughts. Veith sent along a memo that he wrote to Patrick Henry students when he saw the book:
I was greatly angered when I saw the book Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League by the photographer Jona Frank. The book features pictures of many of you -- portrayed in the [worst] way possible -- with an accompanying text that plays to all the leftwing stereotypes about Christians and conservatives. The dishonesty of the artist is staggering: she posed you in stiff and awkward positions and told you not to smile; then she caricatured you as stiff, awkward, and without a sense of humor. In reality, I know that you PHC students are lively and interesting, with vibrant and highly-individualistic personalities. I think that Ms. Frank, who hung around campus for months and who even visited some of your families, betrayed your trust, violated your privacy, and distorted your identity.
Since writing to Veith, I've found another collection of Frank's PHC images at Newsweek. That collection includes a narration by Frank, in which she speaks with clear affection for these students. Newsweek's gallery is well worth a visit, as Frank's narration is so warm and engaging.
The closest thing to bias in Frank's work emerges in a brief audio interview that appears on a webpage at Chronicle Books. There, Frank says that she is neither a Republican nor a Christian, and that the young women at Patrick Henry College left her thinking that "all the efforts of feminism were going by the wayside."
"I never set out to denigrate them," Frank says in that interview. "I never set out to make fun of them."
Frank's work is portraiture rather than photojournalism. Photographer William Meyers offers helpful context in a respectful review he wrote for The Weekly Standard:
Frank works in the tradition of the great German portrait photographer August Sander: Most of her subjects are shown against representative backgrounds and acknowledge the photographer by facing the camera. There are some characteristics they have in common: They stand well, not slouching, twisting, or hunched over. With one possible minor exception, they are not fat. Their complexions are subject to the same eruptions as nonbelievers' their age. There are no facial piercings besides earrings on some of the women. No tattoos. Little makeup. The men habitually wear suits. None are grotesque. But as with many revelations, they can be hard to interpret.
I thought of Frank's work again this week when Washington Post reporter Michael Leahy wrote a heavily critical review of Alexandra Pelosi's latest documentary, Right America: Feeling Wronged -- Some Voices From the Campaign Trail. Leahy covered the same territory as Pelosi: The campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin, and the impassioned rallies those candidates attracted.
Leahy believes Pelosi's film does a great injustice to supporters of the McCain-Palin ticket:
It's drive-by journalism, to put it charitably, a string of stupefyingly brief hit-and-run interviews with a bunch of unidentified people who we know are going to say nothing that will surprise us. By then, we've already figured out they're going to be fried by Pelosi's camera. We know they're going to sound like yahoos, often goaded, always reduced to sound bites and caricatures.
... The daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra Pelosi carved a niche in the political documentary business with the first of her five films, "Journeys With George," an HBO venture in which she spent 18 months on the campaign trail in 1999 and 2000 with candidate George W. Bush. Politicians don't like crossing the children of Washington powerhouses: Pelosi and her camera often had face time with Bush on his campaign plane. Four years later, she employed the same cinematic methods in a documentary that followed the pack of Democratic presidential wannabes: Turn on the camera, prod a little and watch the candidates say and do awkward, funny, pompous things. Both times it basically worked.
I have not seen Pelosi's latest film, or Diary of a Political Tourist (2004), but I found Journeys with George a refreshingly sympathetic film. Friends of God (2007) did not work as well, but it too reflected an effort to listen carefully and not simply to mock. Pelosi recently attracted still more attention with The Trials of Ted Haggard (January 2009).
Compare Pelosi to Michael Moore or Keith Olbermann and she seems like Dag Hammarskjöld with a video camera.
Like Frank, Pelosi repeatedly expresses sympathy for the people she shows in her film. In an interview with Mark Schone of Salon, she steers away from paranoia:
It's easy to go out and make enemies. I think all the cable news programs go with the intention of stirring the pot. I was really genuinely trying to get to know some of the Republican base.
Thousands and thousands, hundreds of thousands of people showed up to see the McCain-Palin ticket. Maybe a dozen people humiliated me -- you know, embarrassed me and made me feel really unwanted. I don't want to paint the whole lot of the Republican base as mean-spirited and cruel and unfriendly. To me it's more interesting to focus on the real Christian conservatives who didn't agree with anything I had to say but invited me over for dinner so that we could talk about it.
It's certainly noteworthy when a Washington Post reporter protests that a film has mistreated conservatives. It's also a commentary on our times, however, when two liberal artists try to understand conservatives, and believe they've done a good job of it, but they attract significant protests anyway.