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Why Images Matter

Kamala Harris’ victory speech as vice-president-elect in the 2020 American presidential election

How would things change if we were to treat images not merely as illustrations or representations but as political forces themselves?1 – Whether we treat them as such or not, images might still be political protagonists without us even realising. In this essay Rosa Miriam Reinhardt explores the magnitude of images and their potency to political change.

When Kamala Harris stood on that stage in Delaware on Saturday, 7th of November 2020 and gave her victory speech as vice-president-elect, she captured the magnitude of this moment in images; Not the classic photographic images – at least not right in that moment – but the mental ones.

In his influential essay “What Is an Image?“ the art historian William John Thomas Mitchell pointed out the multitude of what an image can be. In his family tree of images he differentiates between the graphic, the optical, the perceptual, the mental and the verbal image, defining these different types or even levels of images, emphasizing their central characteristics.2  The graphic image can for example be understood as something fixed, like a photograph, while the optical image describes what we can see, but what does not have to be bound like a picture. The optical image rather might change over time, like something we see in a mirror. The perceptual image can be described as an image that marks the transfer between the outside and the inside as it is what our eyes can detect. The mental images are mainly located on the inside and might be the most fleeting, even subliminal ones as they appear in dreams or ideas. The verbal image can be understood as a bridge back from the inside to the outside when they get shared in metaphors or descriptions of something.

While she stood on that stage, she reflected upon that very moment and hereby produced perceptual and mental images through her verbal descriptions and metaphors.

Whereas Harris produced the graphic and the optical images as well, it is the mixture of the verbal, the mental and the perceptual image that stood out in this speech. While she stood on that stage, she reflected upon that very moment and hereby produced perceptual and mental images through her verbal descriptions and metaphors. While acknowledging the importance of women for progress in society through modern history and emphasizing the important role of Black women in that effort towards equal rights, she said: “Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders.”3 With that sentiment she implicitly acknowledges the importance of images in politics. Through the mental images, the dreams and ideas – as Mitchell describes them, we start to pave the way toward change. In Harris’ logic the mental image enables us to “see what can be”. Therefore holding on to that mental image, verbalising it, forms the groundwork to one day turn the mental image into a perceptual, graphic and verbal one, one we can detect with our own eyes and ears. In Harris’ instance – and that seems to be the case in many situations – the subsequent reality seems to be prepared by a fictional reality that made perceptual what had only been mental before. The actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played a female vice-president in the popular TV series Veep, pointed that out in a viral tweet writing “’Madam Vice President’ is no longer a fictional character.”4 with an accompanying picture of Harris.

The importance of fictional images as an inspiration for certain events and perceptions gained more prominence in the aftermath of 9/11 when it was more widely acknowledged how disaster movies inspired the scripts for the images the terror attack was meant to and did in fact produce. Klaus Dodds argues for the importance of pop-cultural phenomena such as TV series to enable a widespread idea of what is possible in geopolitics. “In other words”, Dodds states, “geopolitics was not just the preserve of the academic expert but something that manifested itself in numerous other realms, ranging from, say, ‘State of the Union’ presidential speeches to Hollywood films about the role of the United States in the world.”5 Later in his text he concludes: “The representational logics of film and television matter, especially if there is a recurrent pattern of depicting some places, ideas and communities as deviant and dangerous, and some others as righteous and legitimate.”6

Representations of fictional realities therefore seem to prime us in a way for evaluating something fictional as legitimate and aspiring.

Representations of fictional realities therefore seem to prime us in a way for evaluating something fictional as legitimate and aspiring. In that way there seems to be a link between the mental image that Harris depicts in her speech and the pop-cultural perceptual and optical image Louis-Dreyfus put forward. In her speech Harris continued with: “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message; dream with ambition. Lead with conviction. See yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they have never seen it before. But know that we will applaud you every step of the way.”7 With that statement Harris describes the next step in why images matter. Because while mental images are fleeting and hard to depict, pop-cultural images can clear the way for the mental ones to stabilize. And it might be the graphic, photographic and filmed image of Kamala Harris on the stage in Delaware that night that documents a shift in what has been prepared through images in their multiple forms before.


Written by Rosa Miriam Reinhardt

Header Picture: https://twitter.com/KamalaHarris/status/1325285369609416706

1.  Bleiker, Roland, “Mapping visual global politics“, in Visual Global Politics, ed. Bleiker, Roland (London, New York: Routledge 2018), 1.

2.  Mitchell, William John Thomas, “What Is an Image?” in New Literary History, Vol. 15, No. 3, Image/Imago/Imagination (Spring, 1984): 505.

3.  Stevens, Matt, “Read Kamala Harris’ Vice President-Elect Acceptance Speech”, New York Times, November 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/watch-kamala-harris-speech-video-transcript.html.

4.  https://twitter.com/OfficialJLD/status/1325123962041364481?s=20.

5.  Dodds, Klaus, “Geopolitics”, in Visual Global Politics, ed. Bleiker, Roland (London, New York: Routledge, 2018), 157.

6.  Dodds, “Geopolitics,” 2018, 158.

7.  Stevens, “Kamala Harris’ Speech,” 2020.

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