Man on the Beat: Robert Hariman

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that as a professor of the critical study of public culture, Robert Hariman has hit the blogs to practice what he preaches. For the past two years, Hariman has maintained the blog No Caption Needed, in which he analyzes images from the media in order to help consumers attain a more critical eye.

“It’s not just about what’s in front of the camera,” Hariman says.

Hariman manages the blog with his colleague John Louis Lucaites, who is a professor of rhetoric and public culture at Indiana University. They take images from newspapers, slideshows and other media and decipher easily missed social, political and cultural codes embedded in the photographs.

In 2007, Hariman co-authored a book, “No Caption Needed,” with Lucaites. The book is a study of iconic photographs as a dynamic form of public life.

“We’re trying to advance a certain kind of civic literacy, which is the ability to think with images in the news and use them as a way of understanding politics and culture,” Hariman says.

At first the blog was an attempt to boost the book’s title up Google search listings.

“I noticed I had the machinery to run a blog right there,” says Hariman, pointing to his desktop computer. “So I said, ‘We’ll do this for a few weeks.'”

After those few weeks, Hariman and Lucaites were hooked. They leaf through newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe-all for that perfect image to analyze.

The image Hariman wrote about for April 19, was a tightly cropped image of a troupe of masked and heavily armed Thai riot police. In the blog, there is no caption. Instead of writing about the riots in Thailand, or the use of armed force against citizens Hariman uses the image to discuss the implications of post-colonial imperialism and state legitimacy found in a minute detail in the picture: the phrase “riot police” on the badge of the officer.

“There’s a lot going on there that isn’t identified by the caption,” Hariman says.

For Hariman, the most difficult part of blogging is looking for the images. After scrounging media outlets in print and online for almost three years, Hariman found their blog had commented on about every type of image, from fashion shows to politics.

“It turns out the news is highly repetitive,” Hariman says. “We’d rather not be.”

Hariman is proud of the discussions his posts have spurred. They have gotten comments from the people who were photographed in the picture, from the photographers and even from relatives and neighbors of the people involved. As for spurring discussions in his classes, the blog is a running joke with his graduate students. He encourages students to read his blog, but he says they don’t.

“It breaks my heart,” he says good-naturedly.

In an age of ubiquitous images, Hariman’s greatest concern is providing an analytical perspective.

“We start with the artifact, the context and interpretation,” Hariman says. “What we’re about is how people think with and about these things.”