Printer Friendly

The riot kiss: framing memes as visual argument.

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 respondents offered their evaluation of the photographer's technique or provided links to other snapshots of the couple and articles clarifying the content of the photograph. In this way, those who commented on the image, at least on Huffpost Sports, were not simply asserting random claims but seemed well versed in the available interpretations of this image and evidence for those interpretations. Given that parallel discussions appeared on news sites, social networking venues, and other websites, these posters were ostensibly knowledgeable about the kinds of contentions that could be made about Lam's photograph (CBC News, 2011; "Vancouver Riot's 'Kissing Couple,'" 2011). Moreover, the majority of arguments crafted about the image were not arbitrary assertions but clustered around particular themes (e.g., the photograph as fake, the image as iconic, the couple as drunk). As such, many commentators were familiar with and able to appraise the various ways of seeing and reasoning available to this image.

Given this detail, the riot kiss photograph might be read through the lens of controversy to explain how posters on the photograph did not simply recognize competing frames but used those frames in interactive online forums to create and dispute claims about the image (Finnegan, 2000; Shelley, 1996). In her cogent reading of Time Magazine's darkened reprint of O.J. Simpson's mug shot, Finnegan (2000) contends that the cover is "a site of contestation over the meaning of representation itself' (p. 236). She asserts that the mug shot image offered "a series of possible readings which are available to particular viewers in particular contexts" (Finnegan, 2000, p. 236). Multiple readings of the Simpson image indicated that this cover shot, like texts generally,

is neither a stable entity with a fixed meaning nor a simple visual argument that may be identified and analyzed. Indeed, the Simpson mug shot image generated a field of discourse that advanced multiple readings of the same image simultaneously. (Finnegan, 2000, p. 241)

Along similar lines, the riot kiss image certainly engendered a variety of claims given how it elicited a range of norms of representation. The discussion on Huffpost Sports implies that the image "generated a field of discourse" that circulated around the image stimulating contrasting, contemporaneous readings in the world of social media (Finnegan, 2000, p. 241). Although for Finnegan (2000) divergent readings of the Simpson image are "context-based" (p. 238), the interactive online forum enabled audiences to cut across contexts and engage in multiple frameworks concurrently. Audiences' recognition of multiple frames of interpretation encouraged debate on the meaning and import of the photograph.

Frame theory thus provides an apt starting place to understand the multiplicity of perspectives brought to bear on this image. Yet, frame theory as currently configured cannot fully account for the motivated connection between these online disputes and the images' creative appropriation. In the simplest sense, frame theory was simply not created to imagine the rapidity of online distribution and the uptake of highly malleable images. In a more substantial sense, the circulation of contemporary images across online venues requires argumentation scholars to supplement frame theory. It is not merely that online images travel faster, but that the capacity for online images to swiftly circulate on the internet allows for what were seemingly discrete frameworks to collide and converge. As opposed to Finnegan and Kang's (2004) claim that "dominant discourses" conceal the history of their circulation (p. 395), online images often expose their circulation, leaving material and discursive traces of their travels through viewer comments and a highly accessible archival history (e.g., links). Finnegan and Kang (2004) point out that by effacing its circulation, an image can appear as true, while recognition of the image's movements enables viewers to "question the iconic status of any discourse" (p. 395). As an amplified version of Lake and Pickering's (1998) assertion that placing images in a new visual frame can allow for refutation, the accelerated movements of online images may simultaneously elicit a multiplicity of frames that do not simply provoke refutation but rather motivate viewers to engage numerous modes of argumentation including creative appropriation. Thus, though frame theory enables scholars to consider the relationship between normative schemes of interpretation and audience perspective, extending this scholarship to memes requires us to consider how these unique cultural artifacts work.

Even though memes in popular culture are colloquially defined as internet fads, the science of memetics maintains that memes function through a kind of evolutionary impulse that seeks to ensure the meme's survival (Dawkins, 1989/2006). Memes can be ideas, cultural trends, or behaviors that spread from person to person. As Blackmore (1999) explains, the meme is a virus that replicates by imitation, by "jumping from brain to brain" (p. 6).Johnson (2007) writes that the "meme is self-replicating, at least up to a critical threshold, because the more adopters it infects, the more others will be exposed to it" (p. 42). The nature of the meme virus requires that the infected change in some fashion: "We must adopt the behavior, slang or trend ourselves, or in other words, the meme must influence us to alter our environments in such a way that its chances of replication are increased" (Johnson, 2007, p. 42). For most meme researchers, internet memes exert a limited influence as opposed to more deep-rooted memes (Knobel and Lankshear, 2006), but nevertheless the concept of infection explains the spread of online memes wherein images are taken up and adapted by virtue of their click to click circulation. Thus, the original riot kiss photograph and its creative manipulations are all a part of the same meme insofar as they are all replicated by virtue of appropriation. In his discussion of genes, Dawkins (1989/2006) insists that there are important distinctions between the replicator (that which is copied) and the vehicle (that which carries the replicator). Blackmore's (1999) example of this is DNA that replicates through the vehicle of the biological organism. To relate this perspective to online images, then, the image itself is the vehicle while the idea, trend, or repost is replicated.

Memetic principles as applied to the riot kiss photograph indicate that the original image and its re-creations are the vehicle and the frames, or ways of seeing, are that which are replicated. Aunger (2002) contends that ideas can operate as memes. In this sense, frames can spread memetically as cognitive schemes that infect potential viewers. Blackmore (1999) points out that some memes spread faster by drawing on already established mental pathways-through ideas or ways of thinking that have already infected the host. Moreover, memes work by changing the behavior of the organism. In this way, ways of seeing proliferate through the circulation of an image and change behavior by inviting the viewer to engage these different frameworks. The meme has been successful if the viewer imitates those frames used to read the image in the social. As such, I would suggest that memes can elicit argument by spreading different frames for interpretation and inviting audiences to utilize those frames to evaluate the image. For the riot kiss meme, as viewers on online sites began to employ their own frames to decode the image, other viewers imitated those interpretative rubrics. Both used the mental pathways replicated by common readings of the image to fashion arguments about the photograph. Thus, meme theory supplements scholarly understandings of frame theory in relationship to the contentions generated by the riot kiss: The meme is the way of seeing spread by the image and the arguments elicited from that pathogen.

With some memes, as is the case with the riot kiss photograph, the rapidity of circulation provokes argumentation by replicating myriad ways of seeing. Meme theorists would identify the riot kiss as a memeplex: groups of memes found in one vehicle (Johnson, 2007). Thus, while all images can replicate ways of seeing, the riot kiss image is a memeplex that prompted multiple ways of seeing and available arguments simultaneously. As opposed to those visual internet memes that propagate limited frames of interpretation (e.g., Advice Dog is always dispensing guidance, Overly Attached Girlfriend is always clingy), the riot kiss's travels enabled viewers to recognize and debate multiple frames. Indeed, the intermingling of frameworks across and within mediated sites exposed the instability of any normative scheme of interpretation. On Huffpost Sports, the immediate context of the news website became joined with and juxtaposed against other ways of seeing the image via the interactive forum. Such contrast enabled audiences to recognize the ambiguity of normative rubrics for interpretation.

Recognition of this uncertainty goaded the production of further images that played upon the instability of these norms. The riot kiss memeplex proved successful in its dissemination by drawing upon heated disputes about its import and using the frameworks challenged in those debates for further contestation and appropriation. To be sure, not all memes will produce argument in this fashion. In this instance, the image's circulation prompted reflexivity on numerous visual frames available to read this photograph. As Judith Butler (2009) explains, reflexivity on the normative frame can be brought about by the travels of the image. For her, images that spread across the social transfer norms of viewing to the public by establishing the conditions for what is able to be seen. Yet, Butler insists that the movements of some images can prompt reflexivity on those norms of framing used to read the image. Referring to the circulation of images online, she writes, "What is taken for granted in one instance becomes thematized critically or even incredulously in another" (Butler, 2009, p. 10). The continual circulation of an image can cut against commonplace rubrics to allow for polemical modes of reading. For the riot kiss photograph, the speed of replication within participatory online communities spurred the kind of reflexivity that exposed the instability of normative interpretations.

The visibility of numerous, volatile frames generated the invention of additional works and claims by digital creators. As Knobel and Lankshear (2006) note, successful memes employ the inventional aspects of visual innovation and, I would add, argument creation, to speed replication by "hooking people into contributing their own version of the meme" (p. 220). The images that manipulated the riot kiss photograph were not simply random creations unrelated to Lam's work but motivated by the variety of frames associated with the photograph. In this way, rhetorical structures of reading circulating with the image allowed visual meme-designers to exploit the ambiguity of those various frames of interpretation for their own purposes. Indeed, imitations of the photograph were not fashioned capriciously but structured by those codes of reading that became rhetorically attached to the image (Hariman & Lucaites, 2002; Hariman & Lucaites, 2007). As is clear in scholarship that theorizes the ideographic use of images, appropriations of those images do not simply stand in for any concept but rather are related to those norms of reading associated with the original (Cloud, 2004; Edwards & Winkler, 1997). In the next section, I will demonstrate how the unstable structures of meaning and interpretation spread by the rapid proliferation of the image as vehicle motivated the production of arguments including creative appropriation. In particular, I attend to three frames simultaneously used to craft arguments about the image: naturalism, eros/thanatos, and popular culture trends. While these were not the only frames replicated by the riot kiss photograph memeplex, these three substantiate the notion that this memeplex spread multiple ways of seeing. Once these ways of seeing became challenged and undermined, online posters played upon the tensions of these unstable interpretive rubrics as they spread this memeplex across the interuet.


Within only a few days of its release, the riot kiss photograph quickly traveled across a variety of news sites and social networking venues. As the photograph appeared in these mediated locales, a number of normative frames of interpretation became recognizable to audiences and were used to analyze the image. Many identified the seemingly fantastic quality of the image to deem it an iconic photograph while others used this same quality to question whether or not the image was real (Haddow, 2011; Q ualman, 2011; Quinn, 2011). Additionally, others marked the sharp disparity of the photograph-the romantic embrace of the couple against the violence of the police-to proclaim Lam's work as emblematic of the phrase, "make love, not war" (Frenette, 2011, para. 17; see also Grant, 2011). For a few folks, this image showed the effects of crowd behavior including inebriation and the potential for violence (Controneo, 2011; Lazaruk, 2011; "Vancouver Kissing Riot," 2011). The rapid dissemination of the image replicated a number of frames of interpretation that audiences engaged across and within mediated sites including frames of naturalism, the dualism of eros (love or life instinct) and thanatos (death instinct), and the transient trends of popular culture. While these frames were certainly related to general visual conventions and the composition of the photograph, the important aspect I wish to highlight is that the riot kiss memeplex propagated these simultaneous ways of seeing, among others, and the instability of these common codes of reading enabled further arguments and appropriations. As I proceed, I will describe several frames available to this image as it replicated across online sites and the counter-readings facilitated by the intermingling of contestable and ambiguous interpretive conventions.


A number of commentators employed the frame of naturalism to interpret Lam's photograph as it spread across online sites. Often associated with photojournalism, the naturalistic frame encourages viewers to read a photograph as true or real (Finnegan, 2001). For many posters, Lam's photograph presented an authentic photograph. In this line of reasoning, Lam's photograph is important precisely because it presents a moment of the real, an intervention into the artificiality of the world. As noted by Douglas Haddow (2011), reporter for The Guardian,

When we look at the riot photos, images that are said to have permanently soiled Vancouver's reputation, we see young men acting out for the camera, revelling in the worst kind of apolitical theatre. Through the haze of this absurd and dispiriting pantomime, Richard Lain has captured an image of the rarest form. One that is as authentic as it is romantic and speaks to a present cultural context but also contains a certain timeless virtue. (para. 12)

For Haddow, the photograph is newsworthy and powerful by virtue of its authenticity in contrast to the narcissistic, absurd stagecraft of other events in Vancouver. As such, this meme spread the frame of naturalism associated with journalistic photography and encouraged viewers to read this image as noteworthy given its realism.

Other posters imitated the naturalistic frame and compared the image to similarly composed images in order to suggest that Lam's couple is iconic. Indeed, hundreds of individuals posting on news outlets and social networking sites simply responded to the photograph with the word iconic, as if the term were self explanatory. To deem this newly captured photograph iconic is to suggest that what it shows captures a popular image that resonates with viewers. In keeping with this view, many viewers connected this photograph to other well-known kiss images: Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square, the beach scene in From Here to Eternity, and Doisneau's Le Baiser de L'Hotel de Ville (Anderssen, 2011; Lazaruk, 2011; Rushe, 2011). In part, viewers joined this image to these other popular images given that the composition of the riot kiss photograph is quite similar. Echoing Edwards and Winkier's (1997) claim on representative form, the riot kiss photograph shows parallel figures performing analogous public acts. Thus, the exposed circulation of this image-the notion that viewers could provide links and compare similar popular photographs-enabled viewers to craft claims about the meaning or import of the photograph. In this way, one contention associated with the frame of naturalism was to suggest that the image presented a ground-breaking moment.

Yet, as indicated above, this memeplex replicated multiple ways of seeing that undermined the stability of simple normative associations. A telling instance of this occurs when commentators challenged a naturalistic frame of interpretation by contrasting the photograph against similar images. For a number of audience members, this image was read as a snapshot of artistic protest (Quinn, 2011). The lovers were purposefully mimicking other iconic images in order to protest the violence of police force or to garner brief notoriety. Such claims recognized the import of the Vancouver couple but juxtaposed their iconic kiss with similar historical images and thereby destabilized an iconic reading. With Lam's photograph, the travels of the image undermined the iconicity thesis. For example, the riot kiss image was placed in close proximity to a similar image-a young couple kissing during the 2010 riots in Lyon, France-on a Sydney Morning Herald life and style webpage (Quinn, 2011). Still other sites linked the Vancouver image to the photograph of a duo kissing during the 1990 Poll Tax riots in London ("Two Riots," 2011). These associations played on the theme of iconicity, yet nevertheless positioned Lam's kissing couple as performing for the viewer. That is, the composition of this image appeared quite similar to other popular images and as such this image was seen as a copy of those admired photographs. Commentators who highlighted the dramatic similarities among these images read the photographs against the frame of naturalism. Significantly, to view this image as iconic because it appears similar to other popular images allowed audiences to simultaneously question this image as staged to create that effect. While viewers recognized the naturalistic perspective encouraging the iconicity thesis, the circulation of the image in relationship to similar photographs likewise marked the instability of that norm. On the one hand, this photograph was read as authentic and therefore a poignant snapshot of passion against power. On the other hand, the similar composition of this photograph in comparison to others concurrently highlighted the artificial quality of this image: It seemed fake because it too closely aligned with other images. Interpreters deployed the ambiguity of the naturalistic frame to generate at least two different claims: a) the photograph is an historic moment, and b) the photograph is staged.

Indeed, the circulation of this meme enabled a number of posters to proclaim that the similarities between Lam's image and other photographs provided proof that the kissing couple were performing for the camera. By at least June 20, the association between the Vancouver and Lyon couples became common knowledge and the basis of disputes on news sites and social media about the intentions of those involved. For instance, on both Facebook and Twitter, users employed the parallels between the photographs to indicate that the Vancouver couple deliberately copied the Lyon image (Qualman, 2011; Quinn, 2011). These comments indicate that audience members were knowledgeable about the photograph and its predecessors and able to use the connections between the Vancouver and Lyon pairs to question the naturalistic frame. The quick circulation and uptake of this memeplex enabled viewers to compare associated images. Such comparisons accented the instability of the frame of naturalism and allowed users to not simply see this photograph as iconic but also as a copy of well-known photographs.


Another frame of reading that spread with the photograph was related to the dualism of eros and thanatos: the dialectic imagery of love against death and violence made visible in the disparity between the lovers and riot police. Posters used this frame to affirm the couple's embrace as demonstrative of the power of love against the aggression of disciplinary force. While this perspective was certainly related to seeing this photograph as depicting an historical event, this norm did not simply emphasize the realism of the photograph but rather imagined the couple's embrace as the victory of human will over state and crowd hostilities (McDaniel, 1998). As Scott Jones's own father posted on Facebook, "This is my Son.... Hows (sic) that for making love not war!" (as cited in Frenette, 2011). Those hundreds of commentators who simply responded to the image with the phrase "make love, not war" seem to have interpreted this photograph as eros triumphing over thanatos. As Barbara Grant (2011) of the Ottawa Citizen explained,

The photo shows a compassionate side of humanity, a man kissing and reassuring his girlfriend while in the middle of a horrible display of uncontrolled outrage after the Stanley Cup playoffs in Vancouver. This photo allows us to move on from thoughts of shame to thoughts of love and compassion in the midst of such violence and destruction. (para. 1)

One way of seeing replicated with this photograph elicited the frame of eros and thanatos and enabled viewers to read the photograph as the conquest of the spirit over the fear of death.

Yet, for other commentators, the circulation of various frames available to read the photograph presented a paradoxical perspective on the distinctions between eros and thanatos. That is, the ambiguity emerging from the various frameworks reproduced by this memeplex allowed for arguments that reversed the triumph of love over violence. For some, this photograph illustrated the repressive control of a state increasingly governed by authoritarian rule (Doyle, 2011). As one respondent posted on an ABC news story, "Chaotic Canada. Love not war. In a country where the riot police have take [sic] on the role of storm troopers, might be a reason for the upsurge of riots, very Orwellian" (Potter, 2011). For still others, this frame prompted consideration of the fact that riot police were deployed following a professional hockey game and the will to violence of some fans. On the Huffpost Sports site, many posters decried both the violence of the police against Alexandra Thomas and the notion that this photograph might depict assault. One comment on this site used this frame to posit the image as violent,

I was THRILLED to learn that she was not being assaulted (the other photo I saw looked an awful lot like other photos of a drunk girl being mauled by strangers). However, she was: 1) Knocked to the ground by the police shields; 2) Injured and in pain; 3) Crying and being comforted. I could see instantly that this was NOT a situation in which a normal, happy young lady would choose to place herself. How this turned into a pack of hubba-hubba sex comments by millions of total strangers is clear: the photographer irresponsibly published a photo taken at an angle that was pointed directly at her naked thighs and partially naked buttocks while she was being held and caressed by her companion. (Controneo, 2011)

As is clear in this comment, though viewing Lam's photograph through the classical dialectic of eros and thanatos could point viewers to the simplistic claim of "make love, not war," the circulation of this image simultaneously marked the instability of this frame. This poster highlighted his or her interaction with other photographs of the couple and the new knowledge he or she gained with other posts. As such, the rapid circulation of this photograph enabled viewers to recognize the ambiguity of the frames replicated by the memeplex and thereby facilitated oppositional claims about the violence of the state, patriarchal cultures, and disorderly crowds.

Popular Culture Trend

Another set of contentions fashioned about Lam's work illuminates an additional frame of interpretation available to audiences as this memeplex moved across the internet: This image was read as a fleeting fad of popular culture. In this light, several assertions became recognizable to audiences. For some, the story and photograph distracted from real news. A number of Facebook commentators on a CBC News (2011) page lamented the obsessive coverage of this image on news outlets. For example, Hedrick Blom wrote, "Anything relevant happening in our country? Strikes or riots or anything?" (CBC News, 2011). For others, the image as a popular culture text illustrated the raucous nature of the night. Twitter users claimed that the couple clearly engaged in inappropriate decisions after a night of libations, writing, "Those two had a few too many Molsons" and "they just look drunk out of their minds" (Lazaruk, 2011). A few commentators related the photograph's notoriety to other popular culture figures. As one respondent posted, "William and Kate are here already?" (Controneo, 2011). In these comments, viewers relied on the photograph's ephemeral fame to craft a number of different claims about the nature of spectacular distraction, the behavior of the couple, and the comedy of the photograph.

Certainly, the arguments identified here were not the only ones created about Lam's photograph, but they highlight how this memeplex replicated a multiplicity of frames that viewers used to evaluate this image as it circulated across mediated sites within a few short days. Given the current way in which audiences engage online texts through social media, discussion pages, and other online habits, it is not surprising that commentators on Lam's image appeared fairly knowledgeable about the movements of this photograph across online sites and the myriad frames available to read this image. Moreover, the contradictory claims about this image worked with and against the same frameworks. Such oppositional arguments indicate that this memeplex did not simply enable audiences to recognize different ways of seeing but allowed posters to use the instability of these frames to debate and contest the image's meaning and import.

Re-creations of the Riot Kiss

The dramatic contestation over normative readings of the photograph became the basis for the image's creative redeployment. Within a mere 48 hours, the couple was cut and pasted into a number of other photographs and other popular figures were mashed with Lam's image. These images strategically deployed the ambiguity generated by the various frames of interpretation associated with the photograph to fashion further works with the Vancouver couple and propel the dissemination of the memeplex. Thus, the spread of the image in both its original and manipulated form are all a part of the same memeplex insofar as both spread a multiplicity of interpretive rubrics that goaded the invention of arguments.

One set of these remakes played off of reading the riot kiss photograph as an iconic, newsworthy commentary on the power of love. The riot kiss couple was cut and pasted into both V-J Day in Times Square and a still shot from the protagonists' beach embrace in From Here to Eternity. In the Times Square image, the Vancouver couple is lying on the ground to the right of the iconic couple while in the film shot, the couple was placed behind the two actors. The remarkably similar content in these shots played upon the claim of iconicity. In some ways, these visuals amplified the argument that public kissing in the midst of a tumultuous event ought to be viewed with a particular reverence and are predicated on reading the image as a snapshot of the real. In part, these images extended the claim that the Vancouver couple is of historic import by positioning the pair as repetitions of similar iconic kisses. Thus, while these re-created images altered the original, they nevertheless engaged the same frame that invited the viewer to read the Vancouver pair as real by directly coupling the twosome with similar predecessors. In this sense, these re-creations fashioned arguments generated by the meme's spread of the naturalistic frame insofar as these images partially repeated the claim of iconicity.

Yet, these creative works simultaneously undermined the frame of naturalism by marking the Vancouver image as potentially false, or non-iconic, in relationship to other ostensibly more authentic moments. The juxtaposition of recognizable visual forms with the Vancouver couple emphasized the possibility that this duo was perhaps copying these well-known scenes. The placement of the Vancouver couple next to the Times Square kiss need not emphasize their realism, but could serve to contrast their fabricated kiss against the iconic couple. The film still shot directly communicated this idea by including the Vancouver couple within a clearly staged kiss scene. In short, while these images worked through the frame of naturalism, they did not resolve the ambiguity of that norm. Rather, these mash-ups deployed that uncertainty to fashion new contentions. Specifically, these memes engendered humorous assertions that situated the couple as potentially artificial in relationship to these well-known visuals. But, more accurately, these re-creations spread the memeplex and its numerous ways of seeing. These remakes used the uncertainty generated by the circulation and intermingling of frameworks for inventional purposes.

Another pastiche of images spun from the frame of eros and thanatos positioned the Vancouver image as a snapshot of the power of love over violence. Given that, for some, the image represented the dialectic of eros and thanatos, a number of imitations situated the couple within similar shots. The duo was mashed with the Tiananmen Square photograph, an image from Neil Armstrong's first walk on the moon, a screen shot of the Rodney King video, a still shot from O.J. Simpson's 1991 car chase on Interstate 405, and a single shot of the Kennedy assassination Zapruder film. These iterations employed the instability of the frame to highlight the triumph of eros over thanatos. By joining the riot kiss pair to historic images that display either the victory of the human spirit (e.g., Neil Armstrong, Tiananmen Square) or the brutality of violence (e.g., Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the Zapruder still shot), these visuals worked the ambiguity of those norms of reading the photograph as emblematic of the phrase, "make love, not war." These images contrasted the kissing couple to both heroic images and images of violence. In so doing, reading the couple as simply champions of love became even more unstable. These re-creations could position the Vancouver couple as akin to these famous figures or as incongruous with these shots. Once again, these visuals did not resolve the ambiguity of the frame of eros/thanatos but drew upon the tensions of that vacillation as they replicated the meme.

When the Vancouver couple became combined with other internet meme images, these works played off of the fluctuations of the frame inviting the audience to see Lam's photograph as a pop culture artifact. The couple was paired with George Costanza from Seinfdd modeling his underwear, the still shot from LeBronJames's announcement that he was taking his "talents to South Beach," the backside of Mark Cuban as he held the Larry O'Brien trophy while urinating, and many more. These re-creations emphasized the ephemeral aspect of the Vancouver couple. Because these commonplace images were already well-circulated meme images, their appropriation directed the audience to see these reproductions as commentaries on the absurdity of popular culture. Even such bizarre images were predicated on the notion that the couple was only a blip on the radar of the popular, akin to these other memes. At the same time, because internet memes are well-recognized images, they simultaneously marked the Vancouver couple as significant to popular culture. These images exploited the uncertainty of this frame to fashion amusing images regarding the silliness and yet incredible diffusion of trends. As such, even these banal images accelerated the replication of this memeplex by highlighting the flexibility of common frameworks of interpretation.

In total, the riot kiss photograph was part of a number of imitative works that played upon a variety of different frames of interpretation, among them the power of love against violence, the artifice of photography, the humor of incongruity, and the surreal experience of popular culture. These re-creations were motivated by the ambiguity of those frames of interpretation spread by the riot kiss image as memeplex. The rapid circulation of the original photograph enabled competing frameworks to collide and thereby exposed the uncertainty of common codes of reading. Indeed, with Lam's work, the failures of normative frames were so apparent that the image's mutations were motivated by the slipperiness of its meaning and function. Mash-ups of the photograph with other popular images exercised the very protean interplay essential to the survival of the memeplex. In this way, the frames of seeing and reasoning spread by this image did not simply demarcate different ways of reading it, but emphasized the instability of those means of interpretation and allowed for the inventional deployment of that ambiguity.


This essay has suggested that frame theory might be productively extended to account for arguments produced in relationship to visual memes. For scholars of visual argument, frame theory is often employed to analyze how audiences engage the composition of an image and its immediate context to better discern the normative frameworks available for argument construction. While frame theory provides ample guidance to grasp the multiplicity of claims generated by the riot kiss, I maintain that frame theory can be fruitfully supplemented by accounting for the circulation of online images. Given that meme theory holds that memes spread cultural trends, I argue that frames of interpretation can be replicated through visual memes. The riot kiss image proliferated multiple ways of seeing by virtue of its rapid circulation across numerous participatory sites. The collision of multiple ways of seeing this image on such sites enabled dispute and debate. In these exchanges, audiences became both familiar with the image's online travels and alternate ways of seeing this image. Such interactions allowed audiences to engage multiple frameworks simultaneously and thereby propelled the image's continued movement and contestation.

Amending the concept of visual argument frames for online memes encourages argumentation scholars to reflect on the varied topography of contemporary visual argument. The ambiguity of reading the riot kiss photograph through any singular normative rubric motivated the meme's spread across the internet. Drawing on a number of meme scholars, Johnson (2007) maintains that the evolutionary impulse of memes works by temporarily attaching the meme to other discourses that allow the meme to continue its survival. She explains, "What is taken as a stable entity, either subject or object, is a temporary coagulation of flows with different velocities" (Johnson, 2007, p. 32). The meaning of the meme is thus articulated retrospectively given that it possesses no inherent meaning. While Johnson's essay did not attend to the argumentative function of memes, the analysis presented here suggests that memes can drive the production of argument by replicating different frameworks of interpretation. Extending frame theory to the world of memes thus enables scholars to recognize how the ambiguity of the meme propels replication and the continued invention of arguments about the meme including its mutation in visual form. Investigating the circulation of memes and the possibility that they can reproduce numerous and conflicting frameworks stresses the inventional potential of visual argument insofar as argument derived from this varied landscape must negotiate this uncertainty in order to become "recognizable as such" (Goodnight, 1982/2012, p. 199). Indeed, this uncertainty engenders the continual creation of arguments that can never shore up the meaning of the image but rather operate as engines for the meme's proliferation.

Yet, the numerous arguments spread by the riot kiss memeplex were not simply capricious but motivated by the tensions of the frames that traveled with this vehicle. With the riot kiss photograph, audiences imitated the contrasting frameworks replicated by this memeplex to engage multiple modes of argumentation and thereby exposed the ambiguity of any simple normative interpretation. The arguments fashioned about Lam's dramatic photograph played upon the structural tensions at the heart of normative ways of seeing. Manipulations produced from the original photograph took up these oppositions as the memeplex circulated in new visual forms. Some images played on the frame of naturalism by illustrating how the couple could be read as either iconic or as fake. Other re-creations made sport of those norms suggesting that the couple illustrated the triumph of life over death. In other words, these memes did not emerge from thin air but worked with and against those codes of reading that had become rhetorically attached to the image. Indeed, the humor of incongruity employed by these images depended upon subverting the structures of meaning that typically beget conventional readings.

Understanding how visual memes work allows argumentation scholars to theorize how similar memes can invite argumentation and controversy. By accounting for how these unique visual forms circulate online and can contrast ways of seeing often associated with discrete contexts, this essay suggests that the ambiguity of those juxtapositions does not simply aid in the meme's replication but accelerates the creation of arguments in both discursive and visual form. In this way, the methods employed in this essay could be productively used to dissect popular meme images such as those created with the photograph of police Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying protestors or something as banal as memes deployed using Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney's scowl. Indeed, the meme de jour is a series of images posted on Tumblr: Mitt Romney smiling as he walked away from a press conference where he blamed President Obama for the deaths of US citizens in Libya. Entitled "Mitt Romney Walking from Stuff," these visual memes superimposed Romney's body against a variety of backdrops including images of homeless veterans, civil rights protestors in Birmingham being assaulted by fire hoses, soup lines during the depression, and other scenes. (3) Significantly, at least two of the Romney meme's remakes referenced other meme images including Lt. John Pike and McKayla Maroney. These visual memes seem to operate on a similar principle as the riot kiss memeplex. The various frames available to read these images collide and converge in these visual manipulations. Such combinations replicate these memes and could elicit further arguments about the originals and their re-creations. As such, this essay opens the discussion of how online memes might provoke the invention of argument.

Read more generally, this essay invites argumentation scholars to reconsider the creation of visual argument in the age of digital media. With the riot kiss photograph, a highly visible archive facilitated the intermingling of various frames of interpretation. Given these travels, viewers were able to easily pinpoint numerous interpretive rubrics and use those to engage multiple modes of argumentation. Moreover, the ease of manipulating the riot kiss photograph (e.g., Know Your Meme supplies a template for creating visual memes) facilitated creative modes of argumentation that emphasized the volatility of stable associations. Of course, these features are not unique to the riot kiss photograph. In this sense, argument invention in the digital age requires that argumentation scholars rethink the simplicity of argument frameworks. In online sites, the memetic spread of normative frames goads audiences to rapidly generate numerous contentions. These claims can never exhaust or contain the meaning of the image. Instead, argument construction in the digital sphere is predicated on the circulation of ambiguity. Online, visual texts play upon the ambiguity and manipulability of the digital text to drive controversy and contestation. Yet, given that memes are not limited to the digital arena, their circulation in the popular also begs consideration of how other replicated trends or patterns might evoke argument. Thus, within the contemporary milieu, claims on a meme may be elicited from its contagious publicity-a mode of propagation underwritten by the very ambiguity and uncertainty that drives its replication and the possibility of invention. In this way, this article highlights the meme's infectious circulation as a particularly felicitous tool for unpacking the creation and recreation of argument in the digital age.


Anderssen, E. (2011, June 16). The Vancouver riot picture everyone's talking about. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from article2063781

A tale of two riots: Comparing the 1994 and 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver (2011, June 16). CBC News. Retrieved from

Aunger, R. (2002). The electric meme." A new theory of how we think. New York, NY: Free Press.

Birdsell, D., & Groarke, L. (2007). Outlines of a theory of visual argument. Argumentation and Advocacy, 43, 103-113.

Blackmore, S. (1999). The meme machine. New York, NY: Oxford.

Bufler, J. (2009). Frames of war. New York, NY: Verso.

CBC News. (2011, June 17). In Facebook [Organization page]. Retrieved from posts/208232142555087

Cloud, D. (2004). "To veil the threat of Terror": Afghan women and the <Clash of Civilizations> in the imagery of the U.S. war on terrorism. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90, 285-306.

Controneo, C. (2011,June 16. Vancouver riots 2011: Couple kisses during chaos. [Photo]. The Huffington Post Canada. Retrieved from

Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene: 30th anniversary edition. New York, NY: Oxford. (Original work published 1989).

Doyle, J. (2011,June 20). Forget the riot-porn. Cherish the riot-kiss. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

Duggan, E. (2011, June 23). Riot kiss couple to visit Australia for lunch with Tony Blair. Canwest News Service. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

Edwards, J. (2004). Echoes of Camelot: How images construct cultural memory through rhetorical framing. In C. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 179-194). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Edwards, J., & Winkler, C. (1997). Representative form and the visual ideograph: The Iwo Jima image in editorial cartoons. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 83, 289-310.

Finnegan, C. (2000). Darkening O.J.: Visual argument in controversy. In T. Hollihan (Ed.), Argument at Century's End: Reflecting on the Past and Envisioning the Future (pp. 235-43). Annandale, VA: National Communication Association.

Finnegan, C. (2001). The naturalistic enthymeme. Argumentation and Advocacy, 37, 133-149.

Finnegan, C., & Kang, J. (2004). "Sighting" the public: Iconoclasm and public sphere theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90, 377-402.

Frenette, B. (2011, June 17). Love among the ruins. Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

Gibbons, M. (2007). Seeing the mind in the matter: Functional brain imaging as framed visual argument. Argumentation and Advocacy, 43, 175-188.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. London, UK: Harper and Row.

Goodnight, G. T. (2012). The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: A speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation. Argumentation and Advocacy, 48, 198-210. (Original work published 1982).

Grant, B. (2011, June 22). Love among the ruins. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

Gronbeck, B. (2005). Varied relationships between verbal and visual discourses: Jacob Riis' argument for slum reform. In P. Riley (Ed.), Engaging Argument: Selected Papers from the 2005 NCA/AFA Summer Conference on Argumentation (pp. 174-182). Washington, DC: National Communication Association.

Haddow, D. (2011, June 17). Vancouver's kiss of life. The Guardian. Retrieved from commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jun/17/vancouver-kiss-rioting

Hariman, R., & Lucaites, J. (2002). Performing civic identity: The iconic photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 88, 363-392.

Hariman, R., & Lucaites, J. (2007). No caption needed: Iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Helmers, M. (2004). Framing the fine arts through rhetoric. In C. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 63-86). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Horaczek, S. (2011, June 17). Interview: The story behind Rich Lam's infamous Vancouver riot kiss photo. Retrieved from riot-kiss-photo

Howell, M. (2012, February 15). Stanley Cup riot cost $3.7 million: 20 year-old Coquitlam man will be first person sentenced for participating in Vancouver riot. The Vancouver Courier. Retrieved from technology/Stanley + riot + cost + million/6159068/story.html

Johnson, D. (2007). Mapping the meme: A geographical approach to materialist rhetoric. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 4, 27-50.

Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2006). New literacies: Changing knowledge in the classroom. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Lake, R., & Pickering, B. (1998). Argumentation, the visual, and the possibility of refutation: An exploration. Argumentation, 12, 79-93.

Lazaruk, S. (2011,June 18). Tweeters opine on 'Riot Kiss'. The Province. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

McDaniel, J. (1998). More than meets the eye: An expose on patriotic libido and judgment at the level of the image in American war culture. In J. Sloop & J. McDaniel (Eds.), Judgment calls; Rhetoric, politics, and indeterminacy (pp. 102-160). Boulder, CO: Westview.

McNaughton, M. (2007). Hard cases: Prison tattooing as visual argument. Argumentation and Advocacy, 43, 133-143.

Pineda, R., & Sowards, S. (2007). Flag waving as visual argument: 2006 immigration demonstrations and cultural citizenship. Argumentation and Advocacy, 43, 164-174.

Potter, N. (2011,June 17). Vancouver riot kiss: Photo goes viral, but couple says they were knocked down by police. ABC News. Retrieved from lose/story?id=13866244#.UNJXA4UzoUt

Ross, D. (2008). Dam visuals: The changing visual argument for the Glen Canyon Dam. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 38, 75-94.

Rushe, D. (2011, June 16). Vancouver riot "kiss" sparks mystery. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guard

Qualman, M. (2011, June 20). Vancouver riots kiss incites social media debate. Socialnomics. Retrieved from kiss-insights-social-media-debate

Quinn, K. (2011, June 20). Riot kiss "conspiracy" lights up the web after more pictures emerge. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from pictures-emerge-20110620lgb1h.html

Shelley, C. (1996). Rhetorical and demonstrative modes of visual argument: Looking at images of human evolution. Argumentation and Advocacy, 33, 53-68.

Smith, V. (2007). Aristotle's classical enthymeme and the visual argumentation of the twenty-first century. Argumentation and Advocacy, 43, 114-123.

Two riots, two kissing couples, two decades apart (2011, June 20). The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guard

Vancouver riot kiss (2011,June 21). Irish Examiner. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

Vancouver kissing riot couple surprised by attention (2011,June 17). CTV News. Retrieved from http://ctv.theglobe

Vancouver riot's "kissing couple" tell their story (2011, June 17). CBC News. Retrieved from news/canada/story/2011/06/17/vancouver-kissing-couple.html

(1) Given current copyright laws, it is not possible to legally publish derivative visual memes created with the Vancouver duo. Instead, I direct readers to Know Your Meme, a database that chronicles and archives the images:

(2) The VJ Day photograph as the depiction of sexual assault was discussed in online sites. For a summary, see

(3) Images available at

Leslie A. Hahner, Department of Communication, Baylor University. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 2012 Rhetoric Society of America Biennial Conference, 2011 National Communication Association Annual Convention, and the 2017 NCA/AFA Conference on Argumentation. The author thanks Scott Varda, Bruce Gronbeck, Sam Perry, and her colleagues at the Maine writing retreat workshop (Megan Foley, Josh Gunn, Michael Lawrence, Claire Sisco King and Erin Rand) fir their invaluable guidance. She also is grateful to the editors and anonymous reviewers for their advice on this manuscript. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leslie Hahner, One Bear Place #97368, Waco, Texas, 76798-7368. E-mail:
COPYRIGHT 2013 American Forensic Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hahner, Leslie A.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Previous Article:The orientational transformations in any public sphere: Deweyan thoughts on Habermas, habits, and free communication.
Next Article:Framing silence and absence regarding presidential debates: successful and unsuccessful performances of democratic leadership.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters