Alice Seeley Harris, a missionary stationed in the Congo Free State, took this photo of Nsala of Wala with the severed hand and foot of his five year-old daughter murdered by ABIR militia, a result of King Leopold of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule. This was all that remained of a cannibal feast following the murder of his wife, son and daughter. Harris documented the atrocities with a Kodak dry plate camera and shared these images in slideshows across Europe and the United States. Ndongo District, Congo Free State, c. 1904, Alice Seeley Harris, Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP.

Alice Seeley Harris, a missionary stationed in the Congo Free State, took this photo of Nsala of Wala with the severed hand and foot of his five year-old daughter murdered by ABIR militia, a result of King Leopold of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule. This was all that remained of a cannibal feast following the murder of his wife, son, and daughter. Alice Seeley Harris, Ndongo District, Congo Free State, ca 1904 (courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP; all photos courtesy of the Bronx Documentary Center)

New Documents at the Bronx Documentary Center is the most important exhibition I’ve seen all year. It’s not necessarily the most conceptually elaborate, or the most aesthetically alluring, but it is the one art exhibition I’ve seen that makes crucial sense of our contemporary compulsion to document sociopolitical upheavals and state-sponsored violence. New Documents is also the most moving show I’ve experienced — yet it avoids being overly sentimental. It presents critical historical moments when pedestrian observers documented some atrocity, or crisis, or clear failure of public policy that, without that visual record, would likely have been resolutely disputed by official actors and information channels, and become tangled up in the knots of hearsay, accusation, and counter claims. Not the eyewitness accounts, but the images of a North Charleston police officer calmly shooting a fleeing Walter Scott in the back are what galvanized public consciousness to an ongoing problem at the core of our culture. Indeed, the images in New Documents are harrowing — they depict death and dying, assault and terror, and still they arm us. They equip us to see the world as it is and not merely as we wish it to be.

Installation view of ‘New Documents’ (photo by Cynthia Rivera)

There are many ways to navigate this exhibition; the way I did was by paying attention to hands and arms. If you look in this way, you see the emphatically gesticulating arms of Eric Garner before he is pinned beneath the New York Police Department officer who would eventually kill him; you see the bloodied, awkwardly bent arm of Philando Castile, still constrained by his passenger-side seat belt; the arms of Antonio Zambrano flailing upward as he falls beneath gunfire from police, who killed him in 2015; the arms of the UC Davis students seated on the ground during their protest in 2011 are folded in tight, the hands not visible as Lieutenant John Pike methodically douses them with pepper spray. There are hands in the air waving hats at the protests held in response to the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2010, at the start of the Arab Spring movement. I saw a group of hands pressing fervently on the head and chest of Neda Agha-Soltan, who, despite the desperate ministrations, soon bleeds out after being struck by a stray bullet during protests in Tehran in 2009. You will already have seen the unforgettable footage of the police savagely beating Rodney King after a car chase in Los Angeles in 1991. You are reminded of how the batons are often swung with two hands; the arms rise and fall and rise again, with obscene frequency. And then, lastly for me, was the rending image of a man in 1904, living in the ironically named Congo Free State under the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter.

I learn again and again, through watching each vignette, that our cruelty to each other is astonishing, and that one of the few mechanisms that might check that impulse is the possibility of having each unconscionable act documented and seen. If you care at all about the relationship between documentation, imagery, and political power, you need to see this show. Mind you, the videos and pictures likely won’t be news to you. You will already be very familiar with these images because of the 24-hour news cycle and their endurance on the internet. But seeing them all together, the force of their content builds cumulatively, to the point where I regard our basic survival as not being predicated on obedience to authority, and not even on the crucial act of recording acts of atrocities, but rather on luck and happenstance. Despite living in ostensibly civilized societies, we are subject to raw, raging violence, sometimes at the hands of those sworn to protect us.

On August 6, 1988, New York City police attempted to enforce a curfew during a rally held at Tompkins Square Park. The police violently broke up the rally; videographer and artist Clayton Patterson filmed the event on his VHS camcorder. His footage captured multiple incidents of police brutality, leading to the indictment of six police officers. (courtesy of Clayton Patterson)

Videos recorded on mobile phones show the first protests in response to the suicide of 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in front of a government building after his produce had been confiscated by the police. Bouazizi’s public suicide marked the beginning of the Arab Spring. Tunisian citizens uploaded this and other video to YouTube and Facebook, which was crucial in spreading news of the protest. (courtesy of YouTube)

Another view of ‘New Documents’ (photo by Cynthia Rivera)

New Documents at the Bronx Documentary Center (614 Courtlandt Avenue, South Bronx) is on view until September 18.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

7 replies on “Acts of Cruelty Captured by Citizens”

  1. Please pardon my observation, however, that while an off hand passage written in her personal journal several decades ago by Marina Abramovic, taken out of context and condemned by a certain writer as demonstrative of that artist’s character has resulted in a virtual and immediate blizzard of comments and criticism of her, this article on the visual record of real and horrendous cruelty has so far to date (08/23/2016) gone without a single post whatsoever.

    1. The Abramovic story was more successful as outrage porn because it allowed readers to feel personally enlightened as they shamed a celebrity they already disliked. Everyone gets the rush of excitement by dropping the gavel. (Hyperallergic had picked up on something already viral and dramatized its own judicial proceedings.) This story, of an exhibition, is an incoherent mix of recycled outrage porn, and there’s no emotional rewards in decrying police (in general) or governments (in general), even if that made sense as something to do. It also has no compelling relationship to art or the art world, so there’s no tie-in for people interested in art. Mostly, it lacks a quick narrative of good vs. evil with identifiable shame targets for people interact with as if participating in something important.

      1. Subject, Form and Content. The big three of Art – The What, the How and the Why of it.
        Many focus solely upon the subject (What), but totally ignore the form (How) and how subject and form combine to impart meaning, i.e. Content (Why).
        It would be nice if a forum that claims to explore Art and Culture actually engaged in a true exploration of the “Art” while larger exploring issues that have been addressed in a given ‘art form’, in this case photography.

        1. Dear Reasoned Observer,

          What you’ve cited is quite rudimentary and well-worn art criticism largely shaped by the discourse of art history. You make it sound like a). a “true” (as opposed to ersatz?) exploration of art (not sure why you place art in quotes, as if its status is under question) consists only in this approach; and b). that this forum, which I imagine you are familiar with, is not a place that frequently engages in conversations that take other approaches to criticism. More, you have erected a kind of hierarchy that makes the sort of critique you seem to prefer, the only valid kind. What if it were not?

          1. Yes, there are approaches to criricism, but frankly, most articles herein ignore most save that superficial focus on subject alone. The art critique this writer prefers an approach that does not ignore the actual Art itself in favor of a somewhat limp look at the hypothetical subject of that Art.
            I place “Art” in quotes because, yes, it is in question, namely the question of what about the “Art”?
            The critique of that Art herein that largely ignores the choreography between form and subject that in turn imbues an image, or any Art Form with meaning is no critique at all. What IS it about these photos, e.g. those details of Form, that serve to reenforce, or inform the subject?

          2. Dear Reasoned Observer,

            Two things have recently become quite clear to me: one is that though you comment a great deal, you don’t seem interested in actually seeing and experiencing for yourself the work I write about (here, for example you haven’t groked that these works are mostly videos); and the second which is related is that you are a troll only bent on making the discourse on these ideas about you which is not a worthwhile pursuit for anyone. I’m done.

          3. Dear Seph;
            Pardon my having given you the wrong impression; I am quite sincere…your dismissingly defensive response notwithstanding.

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