A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Complaints

Exhibit of photographs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Stanford U. elicited gripes over its location in the student union as well as its controversial captions.
May 23, 2008

An exhibit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, created by a student group with a vested interest in one side of the issue, is bound to court controversy one way or another. At Stanford University, it came down to a question of labels and locations.

It started when the group, Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel, sponsored an exhibit of photographs to be displayed at Old Union, a common area on campus. Typical procedure requires the director of student unions to approve a project beforehand. “She reviews all details in person and clarifies the student's proposal as well as expectations from her perspective,” said Greg Boardman, Stanford’s vice provost for student affairs, in an e-mail.

The exhibit went up as planned, but with the addition of captions and a new title, “Life Under Israeli Apartheid,” that were not part of the project as approved. Due to a series of misunderstandings and a name change, the students apparently didn’t realize that even the accompanying text needed to be vetted. When Old Union staff started receiving numerous complaints last month, over statistics describing the conflict, the exhibit was removed until students and administrators could strike a deal.

They reached a compromise this week that allows half of the exhibit -- 10 photos -- to be displayed again in Old Union’s lobby, without the captions in question, while the other half will be shown with captions in a meeting room removed from common areas. The display now has its original title as proposed to the administration: “Hope Under Siege.”

After the exhibit was removed, the group was given the choice of displaying the photos -- with the captions -- in an outdoor location, White Plaza, Boardman said. “They were not interested in having the photo exhibit viewed” there, he said.

While the photographs are back up and tensions seem to have eased, the flare-up revealed sensitivities over which parts of campus are fair game for provocative displays, sometimes with overt or covert political messages. At the same time -- beyond the procedural questions of what kind of approval is required before such exhibits can be shown -- students have debated whether the meanings of the photographs can change based solely on the attached text.

Photographers and filmmakers, from Errol Morris on down, have argued that photographs can exist only in context and that text is a vital tool for grounding images in a great social or political reality. According to students quoted in The Stanford Daily, the captions consisted of statistics gleaned from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations. Inside Higher Ed could not reach the co-president of Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel in time for this article.

There’s also the question of location. At Stanford, a private university that tends to encourage student expression and protest activity on certain areas of campus, common areas and student unions aren’t necessarily typical venues for images and words that might make some students feel uncomfortable. “We wanted to maintain the comfortable and welcoming environment in the first floor common lounge area while providing an interim solution to the students’ request for exhibit space,” said Chris Griffith, associate vice provost for student affairs, in the Stanford Daily article. “I think we’ve achieved that.”

Old Union reopened last fall after a year of renovations. Stanford is in the process of assembling a new committee, made up of students and staff, to “help establish consistent policies and procedures to govern the use of communal space in Old Union,” Boardman said. “We also intend to seek broader student input to ensure that the common space is welcoming and comfortable for all students and that it provides opportunities for a variety of student events and activities.”


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