Friday, March 22, 2013
The Politics of an Image: Bob Dylan and Rubin Carter
The other day in class we mentioned Bob Dylan's relationship with the wrongfully imprisoned Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Dylan, who campaigned to get Rubin released from jail through the platform of his protest hit "Hurricane," even introduced this song on his Live 1975 recording with the Rolling Thunder Revue by saying, "If you've got any political pull at all, maybe you can help get this man out of jail and back on the street."*
The story behind "Hurricane" goes: eight years into his incarceration, Carter sent Dylan a copy of his autobiography. Moved by what he read, Dylan visited Rubin in prison and met with a group of his supporters. Spurred by his complete conviction that Rubin was innocent, Dylan began writing "Hurricane" with an aim toward drawing more media and popular attention to Rubin's case.
I was talking with my sister about this song the other day, and she mentioned that she'd recently read something online about this image of Dylan meeting Carter in 1975 that struck her as disturbing: she read that this image is completely staged. Dylan, upon meeting Carter, expressed some disappointment that there were not bars between them; he had hoped for an emotional picture to be taken. Quick improvisation led to a security gate being pulled from the ceiling and the image of Rubin clinging to the bars, leaning in to talk to his 'champion,' Bob.
Yet even without this story, the politics of the image are intriguing. The lines of the bars serve to draw our eyes to Ruben almost immediately, as he is pressing his hands against them, while Dylan, the larger object, remains removed, almost lost in a white space. Carter is leaning toward Dylan, but Dylan stands some distance away. Though he is more in focus, Dylan is inscrutable — his eyes are shaded, his arms are at his sides.
Through some light research, I found that the relationship between Carter and Dylan was not what I thought it would be. Though Dylan's song magnified popular awareness of Carter's case, it was not as though Carter had not also spoken for himself. In other words, Carter wasn't completely helpless. This scripted photograph leaves such a bad taste in my mouth, because it seems that Dylan was really just capitalizing on the sentimentality of a white man — a superstar — helping a 'voiceless' black man.
*Of note: Dylan apparently dropped this song from his set lists after his tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue, though Carter was not released until 1985.