Essays

A Rainbow of Visual Responses to the Orlando Shooting

Pray for Orlando
The author’s image to express solidarity for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting

As I watched the unbelievable events in Orlando transpire on television news networks and social media, I was so numb that all the information jumbled together. I was in such shock that I blocked out the things people were saying and I focused on the imagery — the artistic language that was filled with colors and graphics and fonts and music.

What an unfortunate reality that I can watch the news and compare this coverage’s bumper — the graphic element that acts as a transition to and from commercial breaks — to the bumpers that accompanied reports of bloody attacks in Paris or Brussels or Boston. Accompanied with voiceover narration, it would go something like: “Hope you enjoyed that car commercial, ‘cause here comes more devastating breaking news. We’ll ease you into the coverage by playing a quick animated sequence of still images from the site: red and blue emergency vehicle lights, close-up of yellow crime scene tape, two anonymous figures embracing in the middle of an empty street. Cue the high-pitch musical note that quickly crescendos as TERROR IN ORLANDO in a white sans-serif font fades in over a blurred palm tree.”

Bumper graphic from WSVN-TVSunbeam Television Corp website
Bumper graphic (via WSVN-TVSunbeam Television Corp)

The Orlando bumpers are very similar to the Brussels bumpers, with a red-and-black color scheme and haunting brass music, but the Paris bumpers were more site-specific and used France’s tricolor blue-white-and-red scheme, the symbol of the iconic Eiffel Tower, and a more somber string orchestration.

Front page of 'Orlando Sentinel,' image via the Huffington Post
Front page of the ‘Orlando Sentinel’ on June 13 (via the Huffington Post) (click to enlarge)

I can’t imagine how emotional it must be for the production teams during these all-too-common events. The folks curating this production must deliver immediately, collecting and organizing disturbing elements to visually and aurally narrate a story that no one wants to believe. What’s the proper font for tomorrow’s all-caps newspaper headline? Should we include a photo? Should the photo be the location or a person? Which person? Will the advertisers pull out if there’s a rainbow flag? Can we say “gay”?

Delivering the horrific news as objectively as possible is one of the many obstacles facing these professional journalists and production teams, especially in a world saturated by critical citizen journalism. A sense of urgency and sensitivity is palpable when anyone with a Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat following of more than a couple thousand people has the ability to inject new “facts” into the developing story.

During all of this consumption, I’m glued to social media, finding comfort in the outpouring of sympathetic graphics, a variety of solidarity memes. What the hell can I do while sitting on my couch other than express the range of emotions that I have not yet managed to cope with since 9/11? In a November Wired interview, Jean Jullien, the artist who created the iconic “Peace for Paris” symbol, described creating his image as an “instinctive, human reaction”.

Peace for Paris

A photo posted by @jean_jullien on

In my opinion, the strongest images are the ones that don’t require any deep background in culture or art history to decipher. It needs to be instinctive. It needs to be something that people from different backgrounds can recognize automatically, and it’s this notion of identification more than reading. You understand before you decipher the image, and I think with words, sometimes, the barrier is higher. Images existed before words, and they do convey a sense of universality.

Unlike Paris, an iconic graphic image has yet to emerge for Orlando’s tragedy. People all over the world are so divided on LGBT issues that associating a rainbow color scheme with solidarity doesn’t sit well with those virulently opposed to anything queer. While the beautiful silver ribbons designed by Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long were popular among the attendees of the Tony Awards telecast Sunday evening, the viral potential of that solidarity symbol in the digital space is blocked by the challenge of rendering a metallic color with novice design skills (it just ends up looking grey).

And what about the city of Orlando? What markers lie on the surface of the city’s identity that “don’t require any deep background in culture or art history to decipher”? Asking my friends and following social media graphics, it was clear that Disney World is the popular notion of the city. But an image of Mickey Mouse crying seemed a bit of an odd representation of Orlando, as if the shooting had occurred at the theme park.

Obviously, there is no incorrect artistic response to, and representation of, tragedy. With 9/11, the attack is associated with the date of the event and the imagery of the buildings in front of a backdrop of the American flag. But since then, when representing solidarity after an attack, the focus has shifted to the borders of the city, onto signifiers of the physical space and boundaries. In Boston, the hashtag #BostonStrong emerged, coupled with a yellow color inspired by LiveStrong. In Charleston, the city was represented by images of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Both Paris and Brussels were represented by the color scheme of each country’s flag. What makes the Orlando images different is the primary use of the rainbow — a color scheme not representative of a geographic boundary, but rather an identity that is so controversial, so often unseen, that some US politicians are unable to share their condolences for, and stand in solidarity with, the invisible community.

While some people may produce original content, most will share already existing images. A variety of solidarity memes quickly spread on June 12: an iconic heart shape filled with rainbow colors and the hashtag #PRAYFORORLANDO; an architectural rendering of Orlando’s skyline layered on top of a rainbow gradient and also including the common hashtag; a closeup of a rainbow flag waving in the wind with PRAY FOR ORLANDO written in a lightweight font; a crossed ribbon depicting a rainbow flag morphing into a US flag; another crossed ribbon in all black with one end culminating in a rainbow; different photographs of the Orlando cityscape with text layered over that image; a single-line sine wave of a heart pulse; a simple heavyweight font, center-justified, stating “FUCK TERRORISM”; and so many more.

#prayfororlando

A photo posted by @mxkahel Fanpage ? (@mikahelx) on

Last night – in celebration of pride- a group of people – people like you or me or your neighbors or family were dancing & listening to music & celebrating life, just like you or me or your neighbors would. And then, one man and his guns took that life away from them. That’s cruel. And it’s exactly against what America stands for. I try to make music that hopefully brings joy to people and makes people dance and makes people feel and makes people LOVE… Because there’s nothing more pure and beautiful than that act- and the fact that that resulted in the largest mass shooting in American history leaves me heartbroken. I used to LIVE there. I hope we can wake up and realize we are ALL THE SAME. Just humans. One species. Just wanting to be LOVED. #PrayForOrlando #MoreLoveLessHate

A photo posted by Justin Timberlake (@justintimberlake) on

??#prayfororlando #nohate #love #equality #szck #stopomofobia

A photo posted by AKA ZACK (@aka_zack) on

Love is Love ??? Our thoughts and prayers are with you Orlando. ❤️????#lovewillneverdie #prayfororlando #prayfortheworld If you or someone you know is having a hard time understanding the tragic events that happened in Orlando over the weekend…..?? and you think that it might be affecting your life directly way more than you are able to handle… Or maybe in the unfortunate circumstances it does affect your life directly yet you feel stuck not knowing what to do, how to help , how to even grief… We will be there for you in your time of need. (331)-330-9955 (708)-364-0580 Our offices open at 11am . close at 7pm Mondays-Thursdays CALL TODAY. FOR YOURSELF, FOR YOUR FAMILY, FOR YOUR FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES. Let’s get through this difficult time together. Elemental Center family ?

A photo posted by Elemental Center Ltd (@elementalcenterltd) on

Other types of visual responses began to appear as well. GLAAD released a filter on Facebook — a rainbow flag at half-mast accompanied by the text “WE ARE ORLANDO” — that could be added to a user’s profile photo. The impulse to share a selfie in solidarity was further encouraged with full rainbow filters on selfies, similar to the full tricolor filter after Paris. Following the identification of each victim, each of their photos was distributed to the media and many mourners shared the collage of the 49 faces with their social network.

#weareorlando

A photo posted by ?Stacy Joy? (@stacyrockswraps) on

Using a bit more site-specificity, Rifle Paper Co., a stationary and lifestyle brand, created an illustration of a heart-shaped orange after the popular fruit of the Sunshine State. The “O” of Orlando was the focus of other images. After my own shock subsided just enough that I could start physically moving again, I researched Orlando to learn that the city’s downtown is the site of Lake Eola Park, which is home to a variety of swans, and popular paddle boats in the shape of swans. I thought the animal was a beautiful symbol to represent the city so I created two of my own solidarity memes, joining the many other artists around the world participating in a kind of healing process through art and creation (even described on social media with the hashtags #ArtHeals and #DrawForOrlando). For me, the most moving solidarity meme was the distribution of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1984 black-and-white photograph “Two Men Dancing” — a perfect image that describes the many elements of this complex story that words just can’t accurately express.

Por aquellos que lo único que querian era bailar. #PrayforOrlando

A photo posted by Ricky (@ricky_martin) on

A word that has kept popping up during news coverage on June 12 and since is “inspired.” As an artist, I latched onto this word, but it was not used in an art context. Journalists were trying to describe the motivation of the killer, calling it “ISIS-inspired” because they couldn’t yet factually label it as an ISIS attack. I want to take back that word and continue to use it to describe the many artists out there who were inspired to share their artistry when a simple status update wasn’t enough, whether it was through pencil or ink drawings, watercolors, rainbow filters on selfies, rainbow lights on international monuments, photographs of vigils, videos of celebrities singing tributes, or even a black square of silence. I’m thankful for each solidarity meme – even Mickey (and the $1 million donation from the Walt Disney Company to assist the shooting victims) — for bringing me comfort in this dark time.

Ten years ago, I was a bartender at Pegasus, the popular gay nightclub in downtown Pittsburgh that closed in 2009. It was a place where I met people who had never been to a gay nightclub before, who drove a hundred miles across state borders to be with tolerant people, who just wanted to have a good time and dance. It was my honor to serve those patrons, and I hope that everyone behind the bar, the DJ booth, and in the back office of every gay nightclub across th US continues to work with pride, free of fear. Stay strong, Orlando.

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