Interviews

Police, Protest, and the Matter of Black Lives: A Conversation on the Power of Photographs

Tweet showing Jonathan Bachman's photo of Iesha Evans at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge (screenshot via @Reuters/Twitter)
Tweet showing Jonathan Bachman’s photo of Ieshia Evans at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge (screenshot via @Reuters/Twitter)

The death of the photograph has been announced more than once. For at least a century, prophets have assured us that moving images, first on large screens and, now, on very small ones, would inevitably replace the photograph as the media that people look to first for news about their world. It has not happened yet. In fact, audiences continue to hunger for photographs precisely because they do not move. They are still, and because they are still we can linger over them, teasing out the information they carry. We read them as carefully as we would a poem. And, like a poem, photographs can pack an emotional wallop.

Several photographs that were made during the protests and mourning that followed the recent shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers circulated widely and rapidly in the press and on social media. After two, in particular, went viral, editors at Hyperallergic invited us to talk about why they so forcefully lodged themselves in the public imagination. What follows is an edited version of our virtual conversation. —John Edwin Mason

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John Edwin Mason: I want to begin with Barbara Davidson‘s photograph of protesters and counter-protesters praying together on the streets of Dallas and Jonathan Bachman‘s photograph of Iesha Evans just before she was arrested in Baton Rouge.

Both of these photographs are true.

I mean more by this than that they are accurate representations of events that recently occurred on the streets of Dallas and Baton Rouge. I mean that they capture essential truths about the United States in 2016.

Not everyone will agree with me. Attitudes toward the two photographs will vary with attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter Movement and policing in this country. Some people are already calling Bachman’s photograph of Iesha Evans confronting members of the Baton Rouge police department “iconic.” Perhaps it will be someday. It’s certain that it has been seized upon by those who support or sympathize with Black Lives Matter as a symbol of the struggle and political moment in which we find ourselves. People who do not support or sympathize with the movement are likely to dissent. They may admire the photograph for its aesthetic qualities and symbolic power, but they’re unlikely to embrace the message that the movement’s supporters ascribe to it.

To judge from much of the chatter I’ve seen on social media, people who embrace the photograph of Evans reject the meaning that many others have found in Davidson’s image of Black Lives Matter protesters and American flag–waving, Confederate flag–wearing counter-protesters clinging to each other in prayer. As so often in life, what we see depends on where we stand.

Yet both of these photographs are true.

Davidson’s photograph shows a moment of unity and reconciliation that many Americans, traumatized by last week’s all-too-public spectacle of blood, long to experience. We all want the killing to stop and the divisions to heal — and this photograph seems to assure us that this is possible. It answers Rodney King’s lament — “Can we all get along?” — with an emphatic “yes.”

This reading of the photograph is more than wishful thinking. Only people who have never lived in the South will be surprised to see blacks and whites on opposite sides of political issues yet standing together, arms across shoulders, bowing their heads in prayer. The relationships that people of different races form in workplaces and schools, on ballfields, and in bedrooms in the South, and all over the country, refute any notion that the races are irredeemably separated. Davidson’s photograph seems to tell us that even in the face of shock, anger, and death, we can come together as human beings and as Americans.

The photograph is true, and it is also too easy. To read the image without fully acknowledging that the context for the protests and prayers was created by the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers, as well as the last few years of black deaths at the hands of the police, is to miss its most important point. Reconciliation without justice is as fragile as an eggshell, as hollow as a balloon. There is nothing easy about it.

So we turn to Bachman’s photograph of Evans. It, too, is true. The moment happened, and the image is an accurate representation of it. Its truth supplies necessary context for our reading of Davidson’s photograph. Supporters of Black Lives Matter have applauded the photograph’s depiction of Evans’s strength, dignity, and almost superhuman calm. (It is important to remember that the photograph records only a split-second in time. Responding to a gif showing the moments immediately before and after Bachman’s photograph, the historian Mark Speltz tweeted, “Iconic photographs represent but a millisecond of an event, a campaign, & especially a movement.” An image made when the approaching policemen were in a less awkward position or as they arrested Evans and hustled her away would read very differently.)

The truth of Bachman’s photograph is larger than Evans’s courage, however. The juxtaposition of the unarmed black woman and the heavily armored policemen points to the long history of the brutalization of black people in the United States. It reminds alert viewers that the exploitation of African Americans as slaves and sharecroppers rested on violence and the threat of violence, and that the instruments of that violence were often agents of the state. It confirms the ongoing vulnerability of black people to state violence, which creates and reinforces social and political marginalization.

Both of these photographs are true.

Seph Rodney: I find the photograph of the embracing protesters really problematic, for some of the reasons that John highlights, but also for others I’ll get to. The groups are seemingly at polar ends of the spectrum of responses to the recent murders (and here I want to make clear that, given the video and eyewitness evidence, I think the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are as unlawful as the killing of the police officers in Dallas). It’s not only the skin color that visually signifies opposition; it’s also the cultural signs stitched into the clothing of the people gathered. There’s the obvious Confederate flag paired with the camouflage cap, and the stetson hat that’s being tipped back — all typical symbols associated white, Southern, rural life. On the other side is the T-shirt that reads “Dabb on Em,” along with a figure wearing a basketball uniform and athletic footwear. Another black man wears a cap that features the symbol of the Houston Rockets basketball team. The clothing and symbols worn by the black men are associated with black, urban life. As such, the subjects in the photo all seem like they would represent antipodean political viewpoints, but we don’t know what they actually think and feel.

I’m not surprised to see blacks and whites coming together. I know that happens. I don’t believe that the crucial political faultline in the US is racial — rather, it’s ideological. I disagree with John here. I think in many ways this photograph is false, primarily because it compels us to make inferences about the participants, given popular cultural signs and the inescapable sign of skin color. The photo is suffused with assumptions.

Putting aside for the moment the crucial realization that reconciliation must be founded on justice, as John observes, I can’t even be sure what is supposed to be reconciled here. I don’t really know what the two groups’ (ideological) positions are. Given their appearances within the context of a fraught historical moment, we think that seeing these people embrace is an indication of a coming together as human beings or as Americans. I don’t buy that. In order to believe that, I would need to know under what conviction they showed up in the first place and under what understanding they are supposed to be reconciling.

What’s even worse for me is that the obvious answer to the latter question is “to pray.” This indicates to me that we really are in trouble, because we are not prepared to be grownups and come to difficult, intellectually mature solutions through clear-eyed negotiations. The subjects appeal to a supernatural force beyond themselves, which seems to me to shirk responsibility for constructing a political and social reality in which black men are not prima facie assumed to be the phobic object. Yes, in the days of the Civil Rights Movement, the church played a powerful role, as a bastion of moral high ground and an institution supporting and propelling political organization. But as the movement has expanded to embrace LGBTQ, gender, and immigrant issues, the church has often ended up being a conservative institution that seeks to check this expansion.

I appreciate Bachman’s image of Iesha Evans more than Davidson’s photo because the former seems to represent a moment of both artistic and historical clarity. Or rather, Bachman’s photo is a window onto a crucial set of circumstances. It shows that there is a flood of state-supported, armored, and trained men who approach the black body with fear and are prepared to stamp it out given the least provocation.

Recognizing this, I want to introduce another photo, by Max Becherer, of a woman in a hijab gesturing with her fingers at her own face. Her mouth open and her face muscles tensed, she seems to say to the police officer in riot gear that she’s facing, “Do you see me?” I like this image because I think that’s a fundamental question that everyone who comes into cultural contact with an “other” must ask and then (especially for law enforcement personnel) make some choices about how to behave. It’s a question that must especially be posed to law enforcement workers — precisely because they don’t see black people as fully human, even when they themselves are black as well. That’s what I want to ask. Do you see me? Really see me?

Caille Millner: Barbara Davidson’s photograph pushes all of the right emotional buttons, and it’s obviously not staged — look at that awkward arm flopping around on the left side of the frame. But I agree with John and Seth that it feels cloying. There’s a special genre of photography that shows up during moments of racial turmoil in the US. These photographs offer us “Kumbaya” moments despite evidence that the polis is indeed divided. I’m thinking of pictures like Johnny Nguyen’s “The Hug Shared Around the World,” of a white officer hugging a 12-year-old African American boy at a 2014 Ferguson-related protest in Portland, Oregon.

These photos are true, in the sense that they are real moments and that, as John says, racial unity within this country is at least as complicated as racial strife. But their real truth is what they expose about the viewer. How badly we wish for simple solutions to deep-rooted problems! How wistful we are that hugging it out won’t solve racism, institutional inequities, and hatred.

Jonathan Bachman has taken incredible photographs in Baton Rouge. What makes both his photo of Iesha Evans and another, of a police officer’s legs and knees atop the face of a protester pinned to the ground, so powerful is their combination of classicism and contemporary menace.

In the moment Bachman caught, Evans holds herself with the poise and posture of a goddess in classical statuary. I’m thinking of Phidias’s statues of Athena in Greece or the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” in the Louvre. Due to Bachman’s angle, it looks like she has her eyes closed — as a goddess might, in prayer. Clearly, she’d be praying for the multiple riot officers who are rushing her at once. The photo says Evans’s moral force and physical beauty are more powerful weapons than all of their military gear.

Bachman’s other photo has similar subject matter: a protester is being detained with far more force than seems necessary. Again, Bachman takes difficult content and matches it with stunning form. The composition of the image has clear lines, and there are harmonious angles to provide us with light. The protester’s eyes, right in the center of the frame, offer a circular component amid all of the angles. Something wrenching is happening, but the photo is composed of all of these abstract elements. It feels almost peaceful.

Whether protest photos should be peaceful is an altogether different matter. Becherer’s photo of protesters crying out before the police line adds an important dimension to the discussion because it shows the rage and anger people in Baton Rouge are feeling. They are yelling at a police line with so many heavy shields up, you have to wonder if those officers can even hear what they’re saying. The photo becomes a metaphor for the protests themselves: furious, wounded citizens crying out for relief from a force that can’t or won’t hear their pain.

JEM: Seph, in Davidson’s photograph, I love the Confederate flag on the white man’s shirt as much as the black man’s “Dabb on em.” They complicate the image and lend poignancy to it. I have no doubt at all that these men and women (whose presence can be seen in videos of the event) genuinely wanted to connect with each other. Over the last few years, I’ve spent a good deal of time around people wearing camouflage hats and Confederate flags, on the one hand, and hip-hop T-shirts on the other. (Check out any drag strip in the South, and you’ll see the same thing.) Some of the former are friends. None have wanted to be my enemy because of my race or politics. Progressive politics are built, in part, on relationships like these.

At the very least, the protesters and counter-protesters shared grief, anguish, and confusion. They also shared faith in Jesus. Here, too, we part ways. Religions have, of course, been oppressive. But they have also been vehicles for liberation, as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. would be happy to tell you if they could. Faith can steer us toward our better selves, as it seems to have done here.

I suggested that this photograph has resonated with so many people because they see in it a vision of the America in which they want to live. It may well be a “Kumbaya” moment, Caille. That does not bother me. Such moments are necessary steps on the road to justice. Without them, we cannot believe that change is possible. They are necessary — but not sufficient.

SR: Caille, I really appreciate your visual analysis of the images and find that it brings some key issues to the conversation. One is the complicated nature of composure. On the one hand, Iesha Evans and the figure in Bachman’s other photo radiate a kind of calm self-possession that might read as acceptance, or the poise of people who have divine protection or status. Yet, the calm of the officers in Becherer’s photo I read as stony indifference. In both cases we have people who will not be moved from their purpose. In one case, the image of Evans, we imbue that composed resolve with heroism, but in the case of the police, we see a similar kind of resolve as barbaric.

I do want to say one last thing about the role of religion in the images of the hugging protesters. I’m reminded of messages that fluttered across my Twitter feed after the Orlando shooting, when several elected officials sent out anemic notes requesting prayers for the affected families. A few responses to those calls struck me with their discerning observation that instead of tackling the much more onerous task of changing legislation regarding the possession of firearms, the politicians offered a poor substitution of thoughts and prayers. This is a horrendous abdication of responsibility — both by legislators who have given up doing their jobs and by citizens who tacitly give up the task of reforming the legal frameworks governing our possession and use of weapons of war.

Again, I have to say that a prayer circle does not constitute any meaningful reconciliation, and I don’t believe it provides any stable foundation on which to build the social compromise that’s necessary. It’s a photo op that papers over how different segments of the US public see foundational ideas that shape our interactions: the nature of the social world, what constitutes public service, what ethnicity means, and the costs of state-sponsored violence.

JEM: I agree with Caille that Bachman’s photograph of the African American man being forcibly restrained is “stunning,” in terms of its formal qualities as much as its content. She’s right, as well, to say that, oddly, it “feels almost peaceful.” The man has been thrown or pushed to the ground; cops are grinding his face into the pavement. Yet his eyes, which are all we can see of his face, do not seem fearful to me, nor do they seem angry. I see a kind of resignation in them — a willingness to accept what is happening to him as the unavoidable price of fighting for justice.

It’s hard not to read this photograph as a metaphor for the African American experience writ large. It certainly captures the brutality and oppression that we have endured. But the metaphor is incomplete. Nothing in the photograph points to our long, unrelenting struggle for freedom. There is no reflection of our astonishing creativity as a people. There is only the smallest hint of our capacity to love.

Gordon Parks, "Emerging Man, Harlem, New York" (1952) (photo by Gordon Parks, © and courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation)
Gordon Parks, “Emerging Man, Harlem, New York” (1952) (photo by Gordon Parks, © and courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation)

The photograph also reminds me of “Emerging Man,” an image that Gordon Parks made in 1952 as part of an effort to illustrate Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man for Life magazine. In both photographs, virtually all we see of an African American man is his eyes. Some sort of duress — physical or psychological — is apparent, and in both, the emotions that the eyes convey are ambiguous. There’s no doubt that Parks intended his photograph to be a metaphor. Bachman’s may be an accidental one, but it is no less powerful for being so.

Seph is surely right that Becherer’s photograph of the young woman in the hijab confronting a line of policemen is extraordinarily powerful. As he says, the gesture of pointing to her eyes, demanding to be truly seen, speaks volumes. We are also aware of the unusual courage she possessed at that moment.

The hijab is important and might catch a viewer’s eye as much as the woman’s gesture. It adds complexity to the picture, given that most will probably read the woman as African American, and few white Americans are aware of the significant Muslim presence within the black community. They associate hijabs with foreigners and immigrants. In this case, that is very likely wrong.

CM: I love that Gordon Parks photo, John. In a way it syncs up perfectly with the woman’s gesture toward her eyes in Becherer’s AP photo. She’s insisting on her right to be seen as a human being, and Ellison’s work was all about the psychic violence of invisibility: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me … When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”

You could say this is an overwhelming theme of the current protest movement. African Americans are demanding the right to be seen in public and before the law as human beings, not reacted to as a threat in someone else’s imagination.

Seph, it’s so interesting what you say about interpreting composure depending on who appears to exhibit it. Obviously, we want police officers to exhibit emotional restraint in their work. Again, it goes back to this crucial idea:  African Americans are saying the defense of “I felt afraid” as a reason for shooting an unarmed human being is unacceptable and unconscionable.

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