This essay is a long-form version of an essay written for Book Title, a book about photography and sustainability published by the Community of Visual Professionals.
When I was asked to contribute this essay addressing sustainability and photography, I was unsure of what to write. As a current graduate student, I am continually immersed in my own creative work and research about race, violence, and photography. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to step out of that: to read, think, and write about something new. However, as I finally found a free minute to put pen to paper, the subtle glow of my cell phone snapped my current critical concerns back to attention: Michael Slager, Officer in Walter Scott Shooting, Gets 20-Year Sentence. The killing of Walter Scott was not the first video of a Black individual being murdered by a police officer that I have watched, and the article stirred up a flurry of other names: Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald.
I could go on.
I cannot write these names without mentioning the accompanying images. The sometimes grainy and shaky cell phone renderings, other times a driver's license photograph, a mugshot, or a reproduced family snapshot. The name, the image, and the circumstance all melding to the point of inseparability. I'll only know Tamir Rice as the young man who was killed by a Cleveland Police officer for playing with a toy gun. It is only in my imaginary that I can see his face smiling back at me through a photograph as Tamir Rice the college graduate, Tamir Rice the father, Tamir Rice the President; the light of human potential snuffed out before it was given the chance to burn bright. Another part of this relationship that cannot go unmentioned is the long history that is also inescapable from these images; an American history pockmarked with the stealing of Black life by white hands. There exists a long line of images of these acts that seem to connect: photographic surfaces that rub against one another, their grain generating a hot friction that leaves behind an imprint on my mind.
The first result in a Google image search of 'shooting of Walter Scott' produces a still from the now infamous video captured by Feidin Santana. A tree trunk bisects the view, creating the effect of two independent frames. In the left, Scott's green shirt billows as he runs; in the right, Michael Slager stands poised, his gun raised and at the ready. For those of us who have watched the video, we know what comes next: the multiple recoils in Slager's arms, the slow and subsequent fall of Scott's body, Slager picking up the taser and his intentional dropping of it by Scott. This particular video still recalls a set of images from similar circumstances forty-six years prior.
Omaha policeman Jame Loder, 30, an adopted son of Hedy Lamar, Wednesday was charged with manslaughter in the death of Vivian Strong, 14 (right). Vivian was shot once in the skull.
The way in which these photographs are presented for archival purposes—one image placed next to the other with a headline taped above—is not unlike the Walter Scott video still. The border of Loder's portrait touches Strong's. The white borders dividing each frame, but also inversely emphasizes the content of the other. Loder stands resolute for his portrait. Perhaps he is a newly minted officer of the law; his tie is done up tight and his white skin is set starkly against the black of his police uniform. Strong's portrait is perhaps a photo booth snapshot given away by the bright flash that makes her face shine and the faux curtain backdrop behind her. Her direct gaze and sharp tilt of her head gives her an air of curiosity. Although these images don't show what happened and no recording or image of Strong's death exists, the mental calculus involved becomes the same. James Loder, like Michael Slager, was white. Vivian Strong, like Walter Scott, was Black. Strong, like Scott, resisted arrest and ran from her murderer.
Did Loder yell for Strong to stop in the same way that Slager did at Scott before firing his gun?
Did her clothing billow as Scott's did as she picked up speed?
Did her body crumple from the impact of the bullet and fall to the ground in the same way as Scott's?
Leap back another fifty years, and there's another image, and another bisecting line separating aggressor and victim. A crowd of white faces look into the camera as they stand before the burning and broken body of Will Brown; a Black man who was accused of raping a white woman. The men, who gaze upon us—some beaming with pride, others apathetically looking on, all of them full of hubris—lynched Brown, shot his body, dragged it through the streets of downtown Omaha, and ultimately set it ablaze. The ground on which the mob stands become the bisecting line. They leer over Brown as if to show how they have conquered him.
If we retrace our steps back through time, the mob becomes Loder.
Loder becomes Slager.
They all become one in the same, stones in the foundation that set the trajectory of the structure.
I could go on.
The video of Slager killing Walter Scott becomes important to this history, because the image fulfilled its role in serving as evidence in the court of law to violence that has been sustained throughout time; a counter to the evolution of violence that has become shrouded by nuance, giving it near invisibility. The recording and subsequent viewing of these acts through photography has also been sustained, and it is easy to get caught up in the emotional response to the life taken before our eyes: the utter terror, fear, disgust, and anger. I am not trying to discount the impact of the emotional response, however, what is more imperative is how these images—and therefore the act of photographing—can be used to sustain resistance. What we must come to rectify is not only the photographer's sight, but our own sight as well. Our ability to re-contextualize these images and read them anew.