Black Lives Matter have not only rendered black people visible but also the existence of white supremacy within the United States. The power of the hashtage #blacklivesmatter has fostered the transmission of video footage that means that cases of brutality can no longer be hidden. This is linked to the social epistemologies of Miranda Fricker and Charles Mills in the following ways:
For Charles Mills, we interpret data- in our case, photography- through a grid of concepts which are orientated toward theories of knowledge about how the world works. Political culture in the US is conceptualised as essentially egalitarian and inclusive with its long history of racial subordination trivialised as deviation from the norm. Strategic colourblindness, in existence since the civil rights movement, denies past differential treatment which is tantamount to continuing. The black lives matter movement then -particularly the accessibility of such information facilitated by the hashtag- pools knowledge which reminds oppressors of their history.
Fricker’s epistemic theory of testimonial injustice posits that certain information or testimonies may not be considered credible due to an identity prejudice in the hearer. The black lives matters movement, through photography, pools knowledge and offers a conceptual tool for those trying to articulate these issues. Significantly, these mediums are considered authoritative which undermines hegemonic knowledge systems in so far as power relations structure society and by extension, the knowledge it produces. Hermeneutical injustice, refers to the injustice experienced by groups who lack the shared social resources to make sense of their experience. The internet, the decreasing cost of capturing information, and social media have thus undermined the unfair advantages of the powerful in structuring collective social understandings, due to their lack of interest in achieving a proper interpretation.
Ultimately then, the black lives matter movement serve to undermine hegemonic narratives and bring to the forefront of our consciousness the reality of America’s history of racial subordination
In an image-based knowledge economy, where words are often sublimated in favour of easily digestible images, these synecdochic prompts wear the guise of knowledge, without ever really telling us whether the ‘knowledge’ we are consuming through an image is true, impartial or verifiable.
The question offered by both Sontag and Nelson, of what kinds of knowledge can be generated through images, gains even more significance in our contemporary context, where almost all of the ‘information’ we process is image-based.
Through television, smart-phones, tablets and screens, the images we receive are transmitted to us at the speed of light, often a single click away. Where speed creates the sensation of having unrestricted and immediate access to information, this immediacy equally fosters a relational perspective which feels like that of impartial and unfiltered knowledge.
An image offers us is a single view into a singular conception of a near or distant past. Insofar as a snapshot offers proof that a given thing has happened, the role of the image is to furnish evidence, and as such images exist to corroborate specific narratives.
YET where images do a good job at helping us remember – by eclipsing other forms of understanding – they equally, implicitly prompt us to forget. As such, images are not only about selective or prescriptive remembering – they are about stipulating – about telling us that something happened ‘this way’, that ‘this was important’, that ‘that’s how it ended’.
Nelson calls into question the instability of images arguing that although they may goad us into feeling something, that feeling neither produces truth nor reflects understanding. She states: ‘Focusing on the question of whether or not an image retains the capacity to produce a strong emotion sidesteps the problem that having a strong emotion is not the same as having understanding’.
The industrialization of photography brought about a shift in which photographs became important institutional mechanisms of social control. From this moment, the worth of an image could suddenly be quantified, not only by what narratives an image could offer, and what narratives it could negate, but equally how quickly these narratives could be disseminated, processed and internalized by a viewing audience.
A photograph is not only unstable insofar as it can be attached to specific narrative. This instability is added to, when we start to consider the agency of the photographer; when we begin to question: What is going on outside the frame?’ ‘What are we not seeing?’ ‘Why has the photographer chosen to show us this thing that we’re seeing?’ In this way every photograph, by definition contains an absence, a patch of silence, and a blind spot.
A photograph is a piece of incomplete knowledge.
The question we will be asking today is to what extent images defy or define the narrative and knowledge produced both by, and about Black Lives Matter movement. As such, we will be arguing that substance of the image is cultivated not simply through what the image in isolation shows us, nor simply through the narrative that is superimposed onto it .
Of the utmost importance to our presentation are the power structures which shape or warp this narrative, the structures which implicitly provide us with our knowledge of how the image should be read.
Using the black lives matter movement as our case study, we will attempt to question – To what extent can a photograph ever be read ‘transparent account of reality?’
For philosopher Walter Benjamin, ‘the image must be understood as historical’ and history ‘must be conceived as imagistic’. Thus, ‘history happens with photography’. A statement of such magnitude warrants careful consideration almost a century later– to what extent can a photograph be understood not to mirror, or depict history, but in fact to dictate it? According to Benjamin, it was photographic technology that reversed ‘the total function of art… instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics’. If the ‘transparent mediation’ provided by photographic representation can be taken to drive a narrative, then the space occupied by Black Lives Matter, a movement rooted firmly in and wholly dependent upon the instancy of the digital age, can be seen as emblematic of this.
In the defiant removal of the Confederate Flag from South Caroline State House, according to the New York Times Bree Newson ‘by scaling the pole and removing this emblem of hate has stolen its power and demystified its history’. Although in the act itself, Bree Newson’s antagonistic action of protest arguably constitutes heroism, the photographic representation of a flag lowering alongside a promptly trending hash tag becomes instantly symbolic – a freeze-frame of feel-good fantasy, an allegorical elimination of white supremacy.
The camera now documented a symbol’s imminent invisibility. Yet, in the end, it goes without saying that the celebration of such is not the same as dealing with the underlying institutional, emotional, economic and historic complications that it represents. Through the camera’s immortalizing lens, society is represented as objective, allowing concrete meanings and myths of significance to be assumed, attached and entrenched by the global online masses, through the prevalence of social media and what Baudelaire cites as photography’s ‘natural alliance with the mob’. Black Lives Matter thus to some extent becomes a willing slave to its own representation, defined through and by the photographic medium whereby it thrives.
Photographic coverage seek to depict strength and agency displayed by participants/protesters of BLM against a backdrop of police/state brutality and violence. My argument is that despite the intention of BLM photographic matter to challenge hegemonic stereotypes of Blacks, several visual representations appear to be hinged on images of Black people fuelled by their roles in American film, television, radio and other media as thugs and maids.
In particular, since Blacks gained visibility in American films, good Black characters either played assistants to white lead characters as magical black man or black best friend and had no inner drive or live stories, or were domesticated servants. On the other hand, bad Black characters were thugs, dangerous criminals involved in illicit activities, or brash women who were aggressive.
This binary stereotype of Black people as either good helpers or bad troublemakers continue to haunt the narratives of some BLM photographic materials. In particular, BLM activists display drive and agency, and therefore do not fall into the stereotype of secondary helpers. As such, visual representations which attempt to depict the agentic nature of BLM activists can often be influenced by hegemonic stereotypes, and end up defining rather than defying narratives of Black activists as troublemakers. I therefore align with Sontag’s (1977) perspective that “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have”.
Through a comparative analysis of visual materials, I seek to demonstrate how Bogle’s (1973:10) comment that “there was a moral order at work in the universe. […] that things were in order only when whites were in control and when the American black man was kept in his place” emerged in some of the BLM visual narratives. In particular, several depictions came to criminalise BLM activists as troublemakers, justifying the actions of the policing state (in the form of white supremacy) to restore order. An example is the picture below which depicts a black man challenging a group of armed police officers.
The above image may be trying to convey the strength and determination of black people in their struggles against state violence and racism. However, the depiction of a black, naked man with a masculine profile, trying to fend off a group of armed officials lined in an orderly manner, parallels filmic portrayals of black people as brute black man. This brute black man imagery first emerged in Birth of a Nation (1915) where black men were portrayed as innately savage, criminal, destructive and deserving of punishment.
In the above picture, the protestor is in the foreground, standing with his bare, masculine back against the camera. The focus on his strong, bare, black body with outstretched arms suggests an image of innate savagery, an oversexed body which is violent and powerful, such as in the black brute. Light is also cast on the blackness of his skin and his immense physicality, with a faceless representation further reinforcing the suggestion of intense violence and sexuality innate in him.
In addition, superimposing the black protestor against a background of orderly police dressed in official uniform with more subdued hand gestures overemphasises the brute/state, orderly/disorderly, lawful/unlawful, violent/defensive divide. In so doing, the black protester becomes criminalised, depicted as the destructive one who is deserving of punishment, further justifying the use of state violence to subdue the barbaric black who is out to raise havoc, to “put [Blacks] in their place” so that the nation can grow and proper again.
What we finally have yet to consider is the photographer’s position in constructing the photograph’s narrative.
For this part, we will be not looking at how the photograph’s narrative is changed with its distribution and contextualisation, but going backwards to look at how the INHERENT NATURE OF THE PHOTOGRAPH IS SUBJECTIVE.
And the reason is: why is it, when we read a book, we will refer to and quote the writer instead of the character, we will speak of the techniques of the piece in terms of the writer and not necessarily the story itself, and yet, we look at a photograph, we talk about it as itself an entity and not for the photographer as its creationist.
So if we look to the photographer as we look to the writer, we come to the question of: can we define photography as historical artefact or art?
When we cross this boundary, we then have a challenge to confront: the question of subjectivity of the photograph and in what ways a subjective viewpoint benefits the viewer. As Susan Sontag said in ‘on photography’: ‘the very question of whether photography is or is not an art is essentially a misleading one. Although photography generates works that can be called art- it requires subjectivity. It can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure.’
Yousef Khanfar, in his essay on storytelling with photographs, suggested that the essence of photography is writing with light and describes photography as the ‘visual language’ we use daily to communicate with.
In considering the photographer, we will be looking at, and cross-studying two photographs: one from a civil rights protest in 1963, and another from a Black Lives Matter protest in 2015.
Firstly,Civil Rights photographer: Charles Moore.
His photographs supposedly spurred the passage to the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The photograph at hand, is probably his most famous. As a contract photographer for TIME magazine, he set out to specifically photograph what could bring the reality of the situation to the magazine’s audience. Covering some of the most famous protests of the movement.
As described of the photograph, in the recent exhibition at the Steven Kasher gallery of Moore’s work: ‘He wanted his images to be felt; if the firefighters were going to use hoses, his images had to feel wet.’
This shows how the photographic medium even transcends the senses – as Moore describes the aesthetic feel of his photographs, making it an all-encompassing, more immersive source of knowledge?
Why is it that the most famous pictures from the era were taken by those in favour of the movement and of black civil rights?
That is where we see the subjectivity lie – we use the photographs of Moore for example, someone in favour, particularly because we know the outcome, but I guess if they hadn’t received the civil rights act, would we be seeing these photographs? Or in the same way?
It is from the civil rights movement in USA in the mid 1900’s that we know the effect photography has upon the documentation of both the acts of racial discrimination made against the black citizens, and with it, their response.
So here we have Charles Moore- though never provided a caption to his photographs, distributed his photographs to the Times and other prints where they provided a caption or narrative to them. He never provided his own narrative and yet could we argue that he, with a visual language, said everything he needed to anyway?
In comparison to Moore who never aided his photographs with a narrative or caption, Allen from the offset has always had the opportunity to give a direct narrative to his photos.
Devin Allen, a 26 year old amateur photographer became a viral sensation on Instagram with his photographs of the Black Lives Matter protests, namely the one you see before you. His photographs have consequently been shared and reused by media organisations around the world.
Adding about his work: ‘Of course, since I’m a black man, I understand the frustration, but at the same time, I’m a photographer. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m going to tell you exactly what happened..’
But isn’t a subjective viewpoint exactly what we do see in photography?
‘Repost: Spread the word’. With that, Allen captures, literally and figuratively, the effect of the photograph. In its ability to spread an unwritten ‘word’.
Time used the photograph as its cover in 2016, with 1968 crossed out, and 2015 written over it. Accompanying with it: ‘What has changed. What hasn’t.’
Why is it that newspapers and newsreels such as TIME, The Times, CNN, the Guardian as so forth have so much of their stories as ‘in pictures’? – Why to photographs have a higher intelligibility and what can we receive from photographs that we cannot from the written word?
Similarly, Andres Tardio, in an article for ‘The Hundreds’ on Allen’s rise to fame as a photographer, describes him as ‘one of the most powerful voices in Baltimore’ – This added element of the ‘unwritten word’ and voice beyond our vision, suggests the medium’s ability to permeate the boundaries of our sensory experience.
As time defined photographs such as these in its edition: ‘These visual representations represent only a millisecond of a long, contested struggle, but shape how we see and remember these events for years to come’ , as they did with Moore’s photos.
The impact of the traumatic image is not only shared, broadcast etc. but also internalised by the viewer.
The visual narrative of the protests define our knowledge of the events whilst also building sympathy for the cause, as the written word would.
Where accounts or expressions in literature account the human experience, photography has the individualistic ability to dehumanise the subject or make the subject abstract. – The photographer can either take the subject out of context or contextually imbed them.
In using instagram, Allen has contextually imbedded the photographs into the Black Lives Matter narrative with the use of captions, he has assigned his photographs directly to a narrative. In one caption:
‘still controlling and pushing the narrative for my city’ – alongside this photo: uprising