This past Saturday, protesters gathered in Baton Rouge to protest the death of Alton Sterling, an African American man shot to death while being arrested by white police officers. A video of the event had gone viral, sparking an announced Justice Department investigation and protests this weekend as over a thousand gathered in the streets.
Among the protesters was Ieshia Evans, a nurse and mother from New York who had come down to Baton Rouge to show solidarity with the community. As protesters stepped back from heavily armored riot police, Evans stood alone, maintaining her calm as two officers ran up to arrest her. Jonathan Bachman, a Reuters photographer based in New Orleans, snapped a photo that would quickly capture the attention of social media users and mainstream media alike:
The power of Bachman’s photo no doubt comes from its contrast — white men dressed as if for war rush up to a black woman standing serenely in a summer dress and ballet flats with her arms crossed, as if being offered up for arrest — and the way it sums up emotional resilience in the face of physical power. Part of what makes Bachman’s photo so strong is that Evans does not seem to engage at all in a terribly frightening moment. Indeed, many online responses to the image compared her to a goddess, which convey something of her nearly supernatural calm coupled with the fact that the police seem to be thrown backwards by an invisible force:
Why, amongst so many other powerful photos Bachman took the same day, does the picture of Ieshia Evans seem to have so much resonance online? It stands up amongst some of the strongest imagery of the Civil Rights Movement. But specific images go viral for a reason.
Sometimes they are funny, like a dancing cat. Sometimes they are strange and cause debate, like the famous blue dress. But sometimes, as with the Ieshia Evans photo, they tap into a long trajectory of visual culture predating the internet. These visual memes — in this case, the composition of a solitary unarmed figure standing against a formidable foe — extend through long cultural memories whose histories we can trace back through cinema to photojournalism and further still. Indeed, the photograph draws its effectiveness from its resemblance to a long line of imagery in the West that depicts the confrontation between coercive and moral authority.
Consider Neo halting Agent Smith’s bullets in the Matrix — or any number of movies where antagonists square off against one another. These are often contests between an individual with moral, and sometimes supernatural, authority against an individual whose authority is backed up by violence. Such scenes are frequently choreographed so that the actors face each other in profile, parallel to the screen. As viewers, we have been trained to view confrontations in this manner, without even realizing it, due to this repeated composition. Compositions and themes in one film harken back to older films, which in turn borrow those components from the long history of art and popular imagery. All are individual links in a long chain. And we half-acknowledge this; the comments that viewers have made about the Evans photo are placed into this confrontational context: the police are “Robocops”, “imperial storm troopers” or “space marines”, and Evans is a “goddess” or “superhero.”
“Graceful in the Lion’s Den,” noted the title of one Washington post article, quoting Facebook commentator Dani Heide’s response to Bachman’s photo. The photograph’s semblance to Briton Riviere’s 1872 painting of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, might be apropos, then, given the depiction of Daniel with arms crossed (in back, rather than in front), standing apparently without fear as the lions approach.
But we see the strongest parallels with the long history of the Arrest of Christ (also known as the Betrayal of Christ, the Taking of Christ, and the Kiss of Judas), a common pictorial theme depicting Jesus being arrested at the hands of armed soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane, his hands held out, already bound or waiting to be bound. This theme almost invariably portrays Christ standing calmly amidst a roiling storm of armed adversaries; more rarely depicted is the moment directly following, when Christ identifies himself and the soldiers fall to the ground. The photo of Evans uncannily evokes the liminal point between these two scenes: the awkward stance of the police suggests imminent collapse.
Thematically, the Arrest of Christ and the picture of Evans share critical elements: one figure stands assuredly, hands prepared to be bound, while the nearest figures, awkward as they are, threaten to engulf her with violence. Compositionally, it’s in keeping with many pictures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Evans and the police are on the same level, parallel to the picture plane, and therefore evoking the classic portrayals of the theme by Duccio and Giotto. In contrast, by the time of the Baroque era, artists developed different compositions that recede from the picture plane, frequently at a diagonal. These compositional influencers were adopted by several 19th-century artists, like Riviere above, and ultimately they became part of the broader pictorial repertoire that extends to cinema and viral imagery, though modern images of confrontation often still harken back to that pre-Baroque standard of actors placed parallel to the picture plane.
Social media has dramatically shortened the time frame between permutations of any image that captures the public imagination. Within days of the Ieshia Evans photo being posted online, the photo has lent itself to a number of illustrations and mashups, posted to social media by those inspired by this image of steadfast resistance in the face of physical power:
Perhaps the most fascinating version comes from Philadelphia-based illustrator Veronica Jamison, who transforms the composition to show you what the other protestors must have seen, standing behind Evans on the street.
This isn’t an angle that has been presented to the public in photographic form, but Jamison’s version is reminiscent of a scene in Beyonce’s “Formation” music video: an example of how disparate but related themes, in various media depicted from various angles, mix in the minds of people as they process powerful imagery.
“For Ieshia,” Jamison wrote, after posting the illustration to Instagram. And then she added three hashtags: “#blacklivesmatter #blackwomenmatter #blackartsmatter.”
Bachman’s photo of the confrontation between Ieshia Evans and armed police is resonant — and beautiful, and inspiring — but it would be well for us to recognize the circumstances of Evans’s presence at the protest, and the protest itself. There have been a large number of unjustifiable deaths of black men and women — to such an extent that there are videos devoted to preserving the lives of people of color at routine traffic stops. The nation has a bout of soul-searching long overdue. Perhaps Evans’s calm composure in the face of undue aggression can help that process.