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« Tell Everyone: I am Affirmative Action | Main | And So I Cry »

Justice and Photography

Photographs and Justice.


My fascination started with a picture of passengers in the steerage of a ship, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, and another of the one of the busy city street during a snow storm. Photographs of ordinary days in the life of the city during the early 1900’s in the glossy pages of Beamont Newhall’s History of Photography. This was the text we were using in my undergraduate Photography class.


We studied the development of film, the daguerreotype, processes of silver and albumen, Lumiere brothers, Muybridge and successive photos revealing the movements of horses. We found that photography developed (no pun) quickly from requiring the subjects sit for twenty minutes while the light etched their representations on plates to the easy stop motion. We studied the inventors like Eastman who created roll film, Louis Lumiere, who developed autochrome which led to colored photos.  It was a fast moving art that evolved not only in technique and facility but also in purpose.   

Then here, four weeks into the semester, was Steiglitz and his pictures of cities. The early pictures seemed ordinary, without much beauty, and in the two in the book, no one was facing the camera—not deliberately.  My teacher explained that Steiglitz, along with many other photographic artists of the time, were using photographs as documentaries; the images not only represented life, they also commented on it.


We did have not big projections or power point presentations when I was in undergraduate school, but I had the Beaumont book (which I own still, forty years later) and I studied the nuances of the photographs: the angles, the details from the frost rising from the horses backs to the broom leaning against the newspaper box (?). This was 1893, “A Coachman in a Snowstorm” and the street life intermingled in ways that allow us to see the action and the paralysis of the snowstorm in the city. 

 Steiglitz and Edward Steichen and other Secessionists, used their lenses to illustrate issues of poverty and wealth, the conditions of the streets and of the country. While no direct political statements were attached to each photograph, they provided a deliberate perspective that had emotional force.



I was captivated because I learned then, that photographs were not representational, not very often at all. They are a way of seeing. When the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Marguerite Bourke-White illustrated conditions during the war and the depression, my connection to the documentary photography movement was set. While I could appreciate the nature moments of Ansel Adams, I was more drawn to Henri Cartier Bresson images of WWII this moment of confrontation. 

In the pursuit of this, I spent hours at Hillman Library going through the old periodical section of Life and Look magazines and I fantasized about a life in photojournalism. To be there for “The Kiss” or peeking in the windows at the Leesburg Stockade like Danny Lyon, whose witnessing led to the released of the imprisoned women (Lisa Gray thanks)?


I built a darkroom in my closet, got a great SLR, first a Pentax DTL 1000 then a Minolta. I had interchangeable lenses and loaded my own film and developed my own photographs. I shot friends and family and scenes and events. Sadly I was all mechanical and had to swallow the truth that I could not shoot something that had a perspective—sure, there was composition, but not interpretation.  I didn’t have the eyes or technique or passion. Courage.


Nevertheless my need to view the world through the photograph was fulfilled by the constant access to pictures through print magazines and now the Internet.  Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, photographs gave us the images of death, hate, and resistance. The revealing cover picture of the massacre at My Lai people allowed us to question the righteousness of the Vietnam War. The picture of the students gunned down at Kent State brought the protest home for us. These kids were ordinary and familiar.


We have seen peaceful resistance and violent response to civil rights for more than sixty years. The march on Washington is now iconic in the image of King linked with other leaders.   Bull Connor attacking marchers with dogs…this is our memory


These pictures, which were documentarian, also had a perspective of the truth, an uncomfortable truth, a truth that weighted on us in our daily lives.

The government understood that and so the scrutiny of our actions abroad was controlled.  Records of the Iraqi invasion are not documented to the public in the same way as Vietnam. The emotional response that photographs evoke was avoided. Mass graves, assassinations, destroyed villages, tortured victims, biological weapon responses—these are pictures of the past.


            So when the images of Abu-Gharib were momentarily available, a reaction rose up and then fizzled out—something had changed.  The outcry was momentary and the horror did not settle in us as a country in the same guilt-ridden way as My Lai. We got dependent on everything that was presented to us-- Life without journalists and photographers capturing the raw truth of the invasions and incursions helped us switch away from seeking the frankness of images without explanation.  Our complicity could be a little more fluid (looking up those pictures was devastating by the way)





Now we are in a new era and there are lots of photographs and films, and the pictures that are showing up are presented by the public -- they are pictures taken by phones and pads--movies and images that illustrate the current systemic war against black and brown people and children in this country. They are the rawest form of documentary photography that we have ever had, some by photographers and some by passersby.


These photographs and movies are witnesses to crime and often suppressed. The video of the police officer shooting the handcuffed man in El Paso last year was blocked until last week—long after the man was gone. Often the police’s dashboard cameras on cars seem to go dead, so we are dependent on the quick skills of the public to help position us emotionally in these stories.

We are deluged, not as much in the news, as in our feeds, Facebook and twitter. Citizen to citizen.

What do we see when we see these children sleeping side by side with less room that cows in a barn?


What is our response to tanks and military weapons facing down civilians in Ferguson?


There are lots of pictures and videos, convincing and damning and yet they don’t have the emotional impact of the Massacre at My Lai for instance, even though these stories are happening here on our soil.


How does a viewer see something different from subjugation and oppression?

Disproportionate force and suffering children?

(not to mention Gaza, Syria, etc.)


            I am mystified and each time one of these photographs or films surfaces, I review it with the same detail that I did Steiglitz, look at the nuances, angles, emotions…


            Sure, if I believe the images, then I have to believe that our world isn’t safe and the folks who are in charge will hurt us bad. That’s a hard truth, but I don’t think that is the issue here. AND, I don’t think it’s because we’re immune to the images of violence since we’ve seen so many.


            Back to my college education and a theorist named Erving Goffman. Frame Analysis. Let’s face it; I'm theory light—probably on the Dr. Seuss level of theory. But Goffman hit me right away—his Frame analysis, work on stigma, and discourse theory connected the world of media and language. Frame Analysis and I'm quoting some puff online thing here. In the social sciences, framing comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality. Framing involves the social construction of a social phenomenon - by mass- media sources, political or social movements, political leaders, or other actors and organizations. It is an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual's perception of the meanings attributed to words or phrases.


Now what’s important about Frame Analysis, you can “frame” a concept in a total lie and then it becomes truth (re-keying) kind of a revisionist history, before it’s historical. It’s the Weapons of Mass Destruction approach to understanding history. According to Goffman, more than one source has to be in the job of the construction of the rekey—Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, for instance, says that the Democrats benefit from racial strife. Fox news announces that only racists talk about race and Ferguson has nothing to do with race.


As these ideas are absorbed or even dismissed, the lens with which one  sees the photographs and videos coming from Ferguson refracts in the direction of the keying. Not all responses are the same, but all are affected.


Many rhetoricians, linguists, discourse theorist, communication specialists have demonstrated the effects of the these slippery media re-wirings of fact and opinion and how the compilation of the frames change the way we see things. I am more horrified, others are dismissive. Some say it’s awful and they purposely look away. Some don’t want to talk about it. Not see it. Not see a thing. Not seeing is also a way of keying. You can have no experience with the horror and so it deepens your commitment to its unimportance. A whatever.


For whatever it’s worth, the persistence of these images have not brought justice. Not to Oscar Grant, not to Michael Brown. So the frame has hardened. But hopefully not for everyone.


Homework: I offer 3 here, to examine with the frame that houses your perceptions. Go in, like it’s Dorothea Lange or Albert Steiglitz. And immediately re-key.






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