A bevy of powerful placards and slogans hovered over streets around the country last weekend at the Women’s March 2020, continuing a tradition that had begun in 2017 as a response to the election of the 45th President of the United States. And while “Trump Is Not My President” remains a perennial theme, the march tackles more: “Shed (Uterus) Walls, Don’t Build Them,” “Nobody is Illegal on Stolen Land” and recently, “No Forced Births.”

It may then seem ridiculous for the National Archives and Records Administration to alter an archival photograph of protesters by blurring out anything that seemed critical of Trump. Mario Tama’s original 2017 photograph packed 500,000 protestors in front of the Capitol with clear messages: “God Hates Trump,” being one of them. The altered version, which was used to welcome guests to an exhibit entitled “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” blurred out ‘Trump’ and other words (read: Pussy Grabs Back) that the Archives deemed obscenities.

The retouched version displayed by the National Archives

Spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman said to The Washington Post, “As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy.” The statement further explained that the attendees of the exhibit were largely students, and that the altered images removed words or blurred parts of the photograph that were perceived inappropriate. 

Considering the organization is independent of the government and is responsible for facilitating public access to the documents it carries, the NARA definitely needs to stay apolitical while being credible. Making digital adjustments to the photograph misrepresents the event and what it stood for, imposing a moral code that shouldn’t apply to historical facts. It also completely erases the message protestors were trying to have heard, generalizing the event into a non-specific feminist protest. The alterations also beg the question – how reliable is the NARA and the documents they have on display?

The federal agency acknowledged this question in an apology statement made over the weekend – “We made a mistake….This photo is not an archival record held by the National Archives, but one we licensed to use as a promotional graphic. Nonetheless, we were wrong to alter the image. We have removed the current display and will replace it as soon as possible with one that uses the unaltered image. We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.”

While strict ethical codes exist for archival material displayed, this brought attention (by chance) to the kind of accountability and credibility required of a federal agency – even when the photograph is promotional.

Image courtesy of Getty

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