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8 Mar 2019

SHOCKER!! The ugly power of R Kelly's photo with Gayle King as she describes explosive interview

The TV interview was the singer’s chance to refute the sexual abuse claims. But an angry man towering over a seated woman is never a good look

It is typical now, whenever an immediately important photograph appears, for Twitter to start drawing Fibonacci spirals over it and declare it an accidental Renaissance work, whether it is Angela Merkel standing over a truculent Trump, or that brilliantly debauched New Year’s Eve scene from Manchester a few years ago. Many were similarly quick to point out the pristine golden ratio of Lazarus Jean-Baptiste’s shot of the US TV presenter Gayle King interviewing R Kelly in his first media engagement since he was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse (including nine against three victims aged between 13 and 17) in February.


In the throes of denying the charges and numerous other, similar allegations, Kelly stands in the right-hand third of the frame, wrathful, shouting, pointing into the studio lights, as undone as the dismantled coffee cup at his feet. Standing slightly towards the back of the shot, he almost appears to be levitating with the force of his anger. On the left, King remains sitting, staring forward, as calm and still in the face of Kelly’s performance as the bottle of water by her chair. While the image’s proportions are perfectly in line with Renaissance composition, Jean-Baptiste’s undeniably artful shot seems drawn from a more prosaic school: its depiction of male power and aggression is so textbook, it could come straight out of a stock imagery catalogue.

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The photograph has become a flashpoint amid the allegations surrounding Kelly. Even more so than in his recent mugshots, there is a sense of an alleged abuser being held to account – an image that becomes more potent in a week where allegations of sexual abuse surrounding Michael Jackson, Kelly’s former collaborator, reached an irrevocable pitch when Jackson is no longer around to face them. Kelly’s demeanour is revealing: if this is the manner in which he proclaims his innocence – screaming, weeping, pointing aggressively – in a media setting, then how might he wield his power in the private settings detailed by many of his alleged victims, in which they say he makes them call him “daddy” and ask for permission to use the toilet?

In the interview from which the photograph was taken, Kelly claims that this is his first opportunity to discuss the matter – an obvious falsehood given that the Chicago Sun Times’s Jim DeRogatis has been pursuing this story since 2000. It might have been Kelly’s first opportunity to discuss the matter in what he perceived to be a safe environment – opposite a woman, comfortable in the knowledge that if King rose to his bait, her emotions would become the story. This is another way that abusers, the kind that Kelly is accused of being, wield power against their victims: a crying woman is a hysteric whose testimony is unreliable. An angry man is impassioned, virile.

Yet as undone as Kelly is here, he is not a good enough actor to conceal his obvious performance. His lines are so corny and rehearsed (“I have been buried alive, but I’m alive”) that King calls him out on playing the victim. Before and after his outburst, he asks whether the camera is on him, and addresses the audience directly, imploring them: “Use your common sense.” When he stands to rage, the studio lights illuminate the contours of his face with cinematic drama. He knows what he is doing.

Unfortunately for Kelly, the lights also capture a disembodied man’s hand around his arm – that of a publicist or manager standing directly behind him – suggesting he rein it in a bit. The looming hand is as prosaic as it is surreal, the chiaroscuro machinations of the celebrity apology complex made flesh.

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