The photo is already everywhere. It’s of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holding a young woman’s face in his hands. Her face is set in a grimace, though she seems to be struggling to put on a smile instead; perhaps she’s trying to keep things light, even though she’s clearly uncomfortable.
The woman is Anna Ruch, a 33-year-old who met Cuomo for the first time not long before the photo was taken, according to the New York Times. They were both attending a wedding reception in September 2019, where Cuomo had made a speech congratulating the newlyweds, Ruch’s friends. While mingling afterward, he stopped to talk to Ruch, who thanked him for the nice toast. He then put his hand on her bare lower back; when Ruch removed it, she said Cuomo called her “aggressive.”
And that was when the scene in the photo took place: Ruch said Cuomo took her face in his hands and asked if he could kiss her. A friend standing nearby overheard and snapped the photo, one of many she took at the event.
“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” Ruch told the Times. “I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment.”
It is rare for there to be a photograph like this one, which captures the kind of allegation that is so often doubted or downplayed. In the photo, we can see plainly that at least one part of her encounter with Cuomo happened exactly as she tells it. It’s also hard to look at. This fact makes it more difficult to discount how Ruch felt in the moment, as the accused sometimes do when they try to argue that the person whose boundaries they transgressed was actually having a good time too, going along with the joke, etc.
In situations like these, a photograph can seem like an unassailable form of evidence, the exact sort of thing skeptics are after when they complain of sexual misconduct allegations devolving into “he-said-she-said.” But after more than three years of the #MeToo movement, we’ve learned that it depends on what you’re trying to prove. A photograph of then Minnesota Senator Al Franken pretending to grope Leeann Tweeden’s breasts while she was asleep certainly fueled calls for Franken to resign in 2017; but it didn’t stopped him from mounting an effective comeback tour.
I imagine that people will continue point to the photograph of Ruch and Cuomo in the coming weeks, especially as the New York Attorney General’s office prepares to launch an independent investigation into the two other sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him. But Cuomo—and those who seek to defend him—won’t be as interest in what the photo shows as he will be in what it leaves out. In the negative space, he knows there’s still room for him to emerge relatively unscathed.