A photographer's lens is a powerful tool, but it is often used to serve a false narrative—one that could put Black lives at risk.
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In one of her landmark TED Talks, the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of “The Danger of a Single Story.” The single story, she explains, is the overarching narrative told about people that robs stories of their intrinsic nuances and complexities, and as a consequence can deny a group their humanity. In order to perpetuate this singular narrative, power lies at the core of these single stories. It is the single story that will tell you about the arrows of the Native Americans, and exclude the provocation of the British. The single story continually affirms the “savagery” of Native Americans, because the British armed with power clench the keys that unlock who tells the stories, what stories are told, how they are told, and when they get to be told. I think of photography as stories, charged with dangerous single stories. Stories that are catalysts for harm, when the camera is placed in the wrong hands.
Photojournalist Robert Cohen captured the image of what appeared to be a protestor hurling a flaming tear gas canister, back at the police, in the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The iconic photograph, was part of a package that earned the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a Pulitzer Prize for their photography of the unrest. The protestor, Edward Crawford, was charged with violating two county ordinances: assault and interfering with the police. We would later come to find out from Crawford that children were present at the scene and his actions were not to be anarchist—in the way the photograph had depicted it—but powered by a desire to protect children from harm, being that he was also a father of four.
“I didn’t throw a burning can back at police, I threw it out of the way of children,’’ Crawford told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Regardless of intent, Cohen’s photograph conveyed a singular story, one that made Crawford known to the public, and, potentially, the police. The photograph failed in capturing the wider context of the scene and the violence of the police in throwing tear gas at a crowd of people including children. It became yet another haunting example of white journalists profiting from the trauma of Black people. Cohen likely benefited by receiving the inevitable career boost that comes with a Pulitzer—and the access that allows. The Post-Dispatch received $10,000. There is no evidence to suggest that Cohen had gained consent from Crawford before circulating the image on social media. The two met for the first time shortly after the image garnered attention. Crawford was found dead from a gunshot wound, in his car, two years after the protests in Ferguson. The charges against him in St. Louis County were still pending. Crawford’s death, despite being declared a suicide, raised suspicion as it was one of the many deaths of prominent Ferguson activists.
Amid the current widespread protests, following the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, Black protestors are rightfully erring on the side of caution, in fear of history repeating itself. Mass surveillance is increasingly being ramped up to round up protestors. It was only a week ago, that the official FBI Twitter page, sent a tweet seeking digital media of “individuals inciting violence.” Similarly, the Dallas Police Department set up an app for the public to upload digital evidence of illegal activities at protests, which the K-Pop internet subculture on Twitter, hilariously spammed with FanCam videos and negative reviews on the App Store, forcing the app to temporarily shut down.
We are living through historical times, and it is of course expected that many will flock to capture it. For photographers in particular, whether rookies or veterans in their field, this moment presents an opportunity to use the power of their lens to create a historical record. Furthermore, the resistance, sorrow, and grief of marginalized groups historically have birthed Pulitzers and a plethora of other A-list photojournalist awards. Many have thus attempted to appeal to the moral senses of photographers, asking that they center human lives by maintaining a duty of care towards protestors, as their work is an easy and convenient tool for mass surveillance. The Authority Collective, whose members are women, non-binary and trans photographers of color, have created an extensive resource for photographers about ethics in documenting protests. Though, what is essentially a reasonable request, has been met with resistance amongst photojournalists. Veteran photojournalist Yunghi Kim, rebutted the recommendations from The Authority Collective on Twitter, accusing the collective of “preaching consent to others.”
Adichie’s remarks about the single story, is a call to action to all storytellers. It is crucial that photographers move beyond the single story. It’s not just harmful, it is incomplete. Moving beyond the single story calls us to create space for the other truths and narratives. When Black people mobilize, and the focus is on the alleged “looting” and “violence,” it diminishes our struggles. It serves as a reminder that our pain is not a priority, that materialism and otherworldly possessions trump our experienced marginalization. The focus on the single story endangers the lives of protestors and gives credence to those who seek to harm them. Photographers must shift their lens to the injustice enacted against protestors to dismantle the power of singular stories that reinforce the maltreatment of protestors. In simple terms, rather than the photographers shoving their lens in the faces of Black protestors, they should tell the stories of the militarized police forces throwing the flaming tear gas, and not Edward Crawford returning it to protect those young Black children. Tell the stories of the police cars plowing into human lives and the elected officials who serve their electorates on a platter from which the vultures feast.
In order to move beyond the single story, we must acknowledge that photography is a field dominated by classed white men. We cannot rely entirely on the privileged outsiders to tell our stories. White photographers must recognize the dominant position they occupy in the photography world, and must thereby act as allies in creating space for Black photographers. They must direct opportunities that require engagement with our communities, to those Black photographers, who are far more qualified to tell our stories. Patricia Hill Collins, speaks of the “outsider within” in black feminism, in the context of academia. The “outsider within” is the marginalized person, who gains access into dominant spaces, and armored with their distinct experience as outsiders can then challenge the distorted representation of the outsider. In the photography context, the Black photographer must play their role as an outsider within, in order to move us beyond the confinements of the single story. And the white photographer must aid in creating this space.
First, they came for the protestors, and I did not speak out because I was not a protestor. Then they came for the journalists and…
The US Press Freedom Tracker is currently investigating over a hundred violations of press freedoms amidst the protests. Linda Tirado, a photojournalist working in the field at the Minneapolis protests, was shot in the face with a rubber bullet leaving her permanently blind in the left eye. This should serve as an important reminder of the necessity and urgency of allyship between photographers and protestors. Powerful institutions that violate and infringe on the rights of the people, inevitably extend that abuse of power towards journalists. We are currently witnessing it in action, and we have seen it repeatedly in history. It is the quintessential ingredient of a fascist state.
Photographers must not perceive themselves as distinct from protestors, and should not contribute to the surveillance of protestors exercising their First Amendment rights to protest peacefully. It’s critical that photographers examine their personal and professional ethos in this moment. Every photographer must ask themselves if they value the lives of protestors, and what they imagine for the future. They must steer away from the single story, and direct their efforts towards holding the state accountable for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and the countless Black lives lost to systemic racism.
At some point, these protests will come to a standstill. With that standstill, comes consequences. Many young Black people will find themselves at the mercy of a criminal justice system that profits from their incarceration. Photographs will undoubtedly aid in the further criminalization of Black protestors. Their crime will be that they dared to resist and fight for their survival. As for the deaths of the prominent Ferguson activists, we can ensure that history does not repeat itself by protecting the identity of each individual that places their life on the line for all of our survival. Great storytellers are imaginative and photographers must be imaginative enough to move beyond the singular stories a white supremacist world teaches us to tell.
This story has been updated for clarity, additional sourcing, and to correctly cite the 2015 Pulitzer Prize award to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo staff for Breaking News Photography. Photographer Robert Cohen declined to comment for the updated version of this story.
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