The Charlotte police video documenting the killing of Keith Lamont Scott ignited fierce debates and protest before it was released last weekend. Indeed, photographic evidence and incidents of violence have a long, intermingled history. A look at that history helps illuminate why the current controversy is so important.
From the earliest days of photography, photographic images have been used in two very different ways: to reinforce power or to show the otherwise invisible faces of human injustice.
One vein goes back to the Italian photographers who documented Ethiopians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Italian journalists, historians and military personnel took photos of Ethiopians during multiple wars, presenting images that suggested a “primitive culture.” In these images, Ethiopians became the objects of a kind of target practice for Italians. The camera “shot” had immediate double meaning.
Similar examples occur around the world before World War II. In the early history of documentary photography, white photographers in the United States shot Native Americans and African-Americans, British photographers shot Afro-Caribbean people and Germans shot Roma and Jewish communities. The photographs reflected the worldview of white shooters, and the demeaning images suggested that the photographic subjects were “less than.” A white photographer introduced his 1947 work this way: “These photographs are intended as an introduction to the Bantu peoples of South Africa at this crucial time in their development as they strive to pass from their primitive way of life into the stream of the Western world.”
And yet, from the earliest years of photography, other people used the camera to a very different end: to right the scales, in a sense, to demonstrate the equality of human beings. The works of Peter Magubane in South Africa, Alice Seeley in the Congo or recently that of Will Wilson, Zanele Muholi and Sheila Pree Bright are all part of this second tradition of liberation photography. These photographers focus the viewer on the feelings, thoughts, actions and humanity of the erstwhile subjects – people who are black or brown. They remind us of what Emmitt Till’s mother Mamie Till Bradley said of her decision to keep her son’s casket open: “Let the people see what I have seen.”
This second tradition helps us understand the arrest of citizens who document police: Ramsay Orta, jailed after taking video of the killing of Eric Garner in New York; Kevin Moore, arrested after filming the arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Diamond Reynolds, taken into police custody after broadcasting the police killing of her partner Philando Castile; Chris LeDay, arrested for posting video of police killing Alton Sterling Jr. The videos of Orta, Moore, Reynolds and LeDay sit squarely in this deeply humane practice of documentary photography.
These two photographic traditions do not have equal power. The majority of visual gatekeepers – the photographers, editors and publishers who decide which images become part of the public sphere – are overwhelmingly white. This is true today, just as in the 1890s and 1930s. Over the last 150 years, this fact shaped which photojournalists were given resources to cover a story, and which news outlets published them. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie noted recently in a TED talk, stories are inseparable from power. The same is true of images. Power decides how stories are told and who tells them, and to a large extent power also controls what we see.
Images, though, have their own sort of power. They often determine which human lives are considered worthy of resources, empathy and equal protection under the law.
People like Orta, Moore, LeDay and Reynolds make a record of what would otherwise be an invisible archive, existing only in the experience and memory of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. We must, therefore, stand up for these photographers on the frontlines. If we do not fully protect those who share images that capture the humanity of the most vulnerable of us, we have no chance to uphold the 14th amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law.
Part of the video record was just released in Charlotte. It is urgent that full video of any police conduct, whether made by police cameras or bystanders, be made public without penalty or delay. Laws like House Bill 972, which took effect Saturday and blocks the release of footage from body or dashboard cameras, must go. Photographic and video evidence liberates us all. If only the powerful are allowed to share their images, we will never see a full picture of the world we inhabit.
Wesley Hogan is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.