Krauss included the photo in his explanatory document. The woman leans against Krauss, whose hand, blurred by movement, hovers over her chest. The astrophysicist added a gray circle to block the woman’s face; only Krauss’s face is visible. “I may have inadvertently touched her breast, but it would have been a complete accident,” Krauss said.
Read: Lawrence Krauss and the legacy of harassment in science
In this case, the camera captured a distinct moment—the moving hand—which both sides could use to bolster their very different arguments. The witnesses claimed Krauss was moving it toward the woman; Krauss insists he was moving it away. In other cases, there is little to dispute. The misconduct occurs behind the subjects, where the camera lens can’t reach.
In October 2017, just a few weeks after the Harvey Weinstein investigations were published, an actress alleged that in 2014, the late George H. W. Bush, by then in a wheelchair, had groped her while they posed for a photo. Within a month, at least seven more women came forward with similar stories of their own photo ops with the 41st president. Their experiences spanned more than 20 years. Two women said that Bush said “David Cop-a-feel!” as he groped or squeezed their buttocks. One of the accusers said Bush groped her when she was 16 years old. In a flash, Bush’s admirers were made to feel like victims.
Bush apologized in response to the allegations, through a spokesperson: “To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
The statement gave this explanation for the disturbing pattern: “To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke—and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate.”
If they had not said otherwise, it would be easy to believe that these women weren’t bothered by Bush’s actions, that they found the gesture, as his spokesperson suggested, innocent. In the photos, the women stand close to the president, almost pressing into him. Everyone is smiling. Looking at the pictures, no one would think there was something wrong.
The roles in a photo op gone wrong—the admirer as alleged victim, the celebrity as alleged predator—can be reversed. Consider the legal battle between the singer Taylor Swift and a former DJ named David Mueller. In 2013, Swift, Mueller, and Mueller’s then girlfriend posed for a photograph at a backstage meet and greet after Swift’s concert in Denver. Swift said that Mueller groped her buttocks as the photo was taken. Mueller denied the claim.
The legal standoff would likely have followed the standard “he said, she said” narrative that has guided and decided stories of sexual misconduct since time immemorial. But there it was, publicly available and widely shared, the photo of the exact moment in question: Swift stands between the couple, with Mueller’s arm behind the singer, positioned well below her waist. At the trial, which took place in the summer, Swift and Mueller offered two very different characterizations of the same image to the jury.