The riot kiss: framing memes as visual argument.

Author:Hahner, Leslie A.

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). For scholars, memes can spread entrenched cultural patterns such as those associated with religion or more fleeting fads including catch-phrases, songs, and fashion (Knobel & Lankshear, 2006). The internet version of this phenomenon manipulates and propagates images for alternate, often humorous, purposes. This essay employs the term meme in a more general sense to refer to any trend that is replicated across the social as well as those online images that re-create other visuals. For the riot kiss photograph, the meme was both the reproduction of this image across mediated sites as well as its modifications in visual forms. In my view, both of these types of circulation enabled viewers to recognize competing frames of interpretation for this photograph and goaded the invention of arguments in relationship to these rubrics. Some theorizations suggest the meme's "slipperiness or ambiguity" ensures its replication (Johnson, 2007, p. 42). With the riot kiss photograph, the ambiguity generated by audiences' recognition of numerous interpretive schemes propelled its propagation and appropriation.

In this essay, I offer an opening foray into understanding the invention of online memes as forms of visual argument by extending the concept of argument frames. While there is considerable variation in theorizations of the frame, this essay draws on Goffman's (1974) discussion of frames as normative schemes of interpretation that organize human perception. In keeping with this perspective, I am specifically informed by those scholars who use the concept of the frame to study visual argument wherein, as Gibbons (2007) notes, frames allow viewers to use larger cultural norms and the immediate context for the "formation, interpretation, and/or evaluation of an argument" (p. 180). Frame analysis suggests that audience members can engage multiple interpretive frameworks to fashion arguments about a given text and provides a fruitful starting place to understand the abundant and conflicting contentions about the riot kiss. Yet, in order to extend frame analysis to internet images that spread as memes, scholars must account for their incredible speed of circulation, a mobility that can undermine the certainty of normative views. I argue that the riot kiss photographs' rapid movement across numerous participatory sites exposed the diverse argument frames employed to create arguments about this image and simultaneously marked the ambiguity of commonplace readings. Public recognition of such instability motivated the continued invention of arguments about this image through reproduction and creative manipulation.

I proceed by briefly illustrating how the insights of frame analysis and accounts of controversy provide a productive avenue to pursue the multiplicity of arguments created about the riot kiss photograph. I continue by explaining how the unique circulation of memes requires scholars to broaden the scope of frame analysis as it relates to this contemporary mode of visual argumentation. I then explore the riot kiss photograph and its clever appropriations employing this new understanding of memes and frames. As I do so, I attend to three frames: naturalism, eros/thanatos, and the transient trends of popular culture. I conclude by considering how this investigation opens up the study of memes as replicating interpretive frames that can propel the creation of argument.


For scholars of argument, the visual text presents an appealing object of study insofar as its ambiguity allows us to consider non-propositional claims. To explain how images can be used to create arguments, many scholars rely on the audience's understanding of contextual and cultural norms of seeing to suggest how claims can be enthymematically derived from images (Finnegan, 2001; Gronbeck, 2005; McNaughton, 2007; Pineda & Sowards, 2007; Ross, 2008; Smith, 2007). Some of these authors employ the concept of the frame to indicate how audience members apply widespread interpretive schemes to a given visual (Birdsell & Groarke, 2007; Edwards, 2004; Gibbons, 2007; Helmets, 2004; Lake & Pickering, 1998). In this line of thinking, the frame enables those interested in the study of argumentation to understand how audiences engage manifold perspectives. For example, Lake and Pickering (1998) suggest that multiple frames are available to an image and allow those using images as arguments to "transform" its meaning by "altering the visual frame" (p. 87). Similarly, Gibbons (2007) notes how "multiple frames generally structure any given argument and can be either verbal or visual" (p. 180). Thus, frame analysis provides a way to understand how a single text may prompt a number of different arguments.

Indeed, the various interpretations of the riot kiss image could be productively explained by highlighting how the image elicited a variety of cultural conventions. Commentary on the riot kiss photograph on news sites, blogs, and social networking venues indicates that participants could identify numerous frames of evaluation available to read this image. For example, when the photograph appeared on Huffpost Sports on June 16, 2011, the over 1,400 comments posted over a two-week span provided a number of different interpretations of the image and claims about it (Controneo, 2011). To some, this image was clearly Photoshopped. For others, it depicted sexual assault. A few posters suggested the image displayed how sexual desire overwhelms reason. Several individuals proclaimed the photograph as an image akin to Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square.2 As is clear in these multiple perspectives, commentators on the photograph were able to recognize a number of available frames of reading. Moreover, on this site, observers did not simply post their own views, but assessed the merits of others' claims. For those who declared that the image was manipulated or that the couple staged the kiss, other...

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