DOCUMENT: Internet

National Archives Feared "Political Attention"

Agency struggled with posting STD research images


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NARA Explicit Photos

APRIL 26--Concerned about “unwanted political attention,” National Archives administrators preparing the release of a 12,000-page collection on sexually transmitted diseases struggled recently with how to make available online graphic images from the medical papers, records show.

In advance of the March 29 publication of the papers of Dr. John C. Cutler, a former U.S. Public Health Service employee, National Archives and Records Administration officials were “struggling” with how to handle “approximately 200 explicit photos of syphilis sores on male genitalia,” according to an e-mail from a NARA attorney.

Regarding the release of such explicit images, lawyer Hannah Bergman wrote that NARA’s concerns about placing such material online included “the unwanted political attention we may draw to NARA if these photos are too easily accessible.” Bergman’s  account of NARA’s concerns about posting explicit material was included in an e-mail sent last week by a colleague to a mailing list whose members include government employees handling information policy issues.

While the agency’s apprehension is not further described, it seems likely that NARA administrators were anticipating criticism from conservative political circles if hundreds of penis photos (despite their medical nature) appeared on a government web site. A small, safe for work, excerpt of one Cutler photo can be seen above.

Similar “unwanted political attention” was directed recently at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery by Republican congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor, who were angered by the inclusion of a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz in “Hide/Seek,” an exhibition focusing on “sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.” In the face of GOP attacks on Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire In My Belly,” which includes footage of ants crawling atop a Jesus figure on the cross, gallery brass abruptly removed the video from display.

In addition to concerns about “political attention,” Bergman wrote, NARA wanted to ensure that if explicit material was placed in the agency’s databases of records, it would not be “accessible to components of our web site like,” which is geared for teachers and their students.

Though Bergman, a NARA assistant general counsel, noted in her e-mail that the agency did not plan to upload the graphic Cutler photos--and instead planned to “make them available on request to researchers via DVD or email”--agency plans apparently changed shortly before last month's release of the collection. As seen here, the Cutler papers include a series of files that include the explicit images. But before a PDF can be downloaded, a “FILE WARNING” notes that a viewer will encounter “graphic medical images of the effects of untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including syphilis, which may not be appropriate for all audiences.”

The files have been made available, NARA reported, “to preserve the completeness of the historical record in this important area of research.” This will, of course, satisfy the completists at 4chan and other web outposts where fresh penis photos are always being sought. Especially if the sexual organ has been photographed in the palm of a medical professional wearing a surgical glove so thick and yellow that it leaves his hand looking like a prosthesis.

To help guide NARA’s future handling of similarly explicit images, the agency last week unveiled its new “Policy on Online Access to Archival Photographic and Audiovisual Materials Depicting Human Anatomy,” a PDF of which can be downloaded here. (1 page)

Comments (8)

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Takeaway lesson: Fear of a Republican witch hunt = propagation of ignorance.
I'm assuming the gloved hands had to be in the picture to make it more professional or medical, rather instead of just being photos of the 'organs'. Yet, it seems a bit offensive that each organ IS being held by a hand. And seems like they could have made an effort to surround the 'members' with white cloth or something more professional than seeing jeans with the flys open.
i don't see the story here. this looks like the kind of thing they should be thoughtful about distributing. Just because you can find these photos elsewhere doesn't mean the government has no responsibility. This is their job and they are trying to do it correctly. Or are we never allowed to say anything that's not negative about the government?
Dear Government, Google the words syphilis sores on male genitalia, or go to wiki. Your redundant efforts cost me more than I care to pay. Tango Down with that crap...we have more than enough on the web. Nanny statehood to the 9th power.
Don't look at the photos if you are planning on eating hot dogs today, stick with the soup...don't look at the photos at all...ewww
I'm not looking forward to this week's Friday photo fun.
I wonder what it was about the first one hundred and fifty photos that made them say "no, I think we need at least fifty more of these..."