Once again cellphone videos showing white police officers shooting and killing African Americans are at the center of public scrutiny, reigniting debate about the accumulation of images of black death in contemporary American culture. Even among activists there have been calls both to share and to bury the videos. “Why do we engage in circulating footage and photos of lifeless Black bodies?” one Facebook page asked. “We need to see,” says one reply, invoking the hashtag #EmmettTill.

Since its explosion onto the global stage, Black Lives Matter has had an ambivalent relationship to the visual image. Perhaps more than any other social movement, it is signified by a series of moving pictures, an endless loop of black men and women who have been shackled, beaten, hurt, and killed by police. On the pages of Facebook groups such as The New Jim Crow and the many chapters of Black Lives Matter, videos displaying police violence—some infamous, others obscure—play almost constantly, condemned as well as called forth in protests over the last two years. The videos of Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and now Alton Sterling and Philando Castile repeat on major and independent news channels as both evidence and incitement. They have become one of the dominant means by which racial violence is measured, known, and consumed.

This proliferation of images of violence against black bodies has met its share of anxiety and critique, not least because, in the neat causality of the New York Times, they “have led to nationwide protests.” There is a suspicion that empiricism is not enough: even with such visual evidence, prosecutions and convictions of police officers are rare, and there is little in the way of positive legislation—requiring a greater proportion of police budgets to go to social services or the disarming and demilitarization of police departments. Indeed, many African American journalists, including Adreanna Nattiel, Jamil Smith, Phillip B. Williams, and Charing Ball, have wondered whether the amassing of such images is simply another form of consumer “entertainment,” a way “to be able to pull up a seat and watch the lynchings take place over and over.” One writer refers to the videos of Garner, Brown, Rice and others as a “spectacle of black death,” reproducing pain without addressing or healing it. These viewers worry that images of violence against African Americans circulate less as evidence or documentation than as a reinscription of whiteness—underwritten by the very privilege of removed spectatorship, the power to look at pain from a safe distance.

These arguments raise large questions. What does it mean to look at images of African Americans being murdered? In an age in which footage of fatal shootings appears alongside cat videos and selfies in social media feeds, what claims can be made for the representational power of filming? Afro-Pessimist theorist Jared Sexton writes in a recent essay that black suffering is “unrepresentable” and “can produce no witnesses.” Yet one wonders in the face of these pained and painful inquires what the movement would be without such images. Is the solution to erase them from public consumption? These concerns have a long history dating back to the origins of the photographic image. Grappling with the fraught legacy of lynching photography, in particular, provides one way to reckon with their long shadow.

Race, Lynching, and the Documentary Image

Contemporary claims about the double-edged nature of these videos find a striking antecedent in Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer” (1934), which reflects on the paradox that “the bourgeois apparatus of production can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence . . . into question.” Benjamin’s target was the way mass culture of capitalism annulled the radical potential of the materials it disseminated. Through photography, Benjamin wrote, images of poverty and “the struggle against misery” could become aestheticized, even pleasurable:

Its political significance has been limited to converting revolutionary reflexes, in so far as these occurred within the bourgeoisie, into themes of entertainment and amusement. . . . The characteristic feature is . . . the way it transforms political struggle so that it ceases to be a compelling motive for decision and becomes an object of comfortable contemplation.

These claims referred to developments in Weimar Germany, but they parallel the racialization of the photographic image in postbellum America. As Shawn Michelle Smith argues in American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (1999), photography in the second half of the nineteenth century trained the American eye to “establish social hierarchies anchored in new visual ‘truths.’” Smith chronicles the way the “private” practice of portraiture and child photography in middle-class white homes reinforced normative views of whiteness, contrasting them to the “public” photographic practice of eugenics, phrenology, and police mug shots that worked to define black bodies as deviant, criminal, and primitive. Equally reliant on photographic documentation were the eugenic typologies of Francis Galton. Creating composite photomontages of biological “types,” Galton infused race within the habits and practices of visual culture, reinforcing the presumption that bodies had racial essences that could be documented by the scientific image. Photography thus came into being as a tool of racial segregation, shaping and codifying what it meant to be black or white. It was primarily a medium about African Americans, rarely by and for them.

What does it mean to look at images of African Americans being murdered?

Perhaps no form did more to cement the connection between photography and race than the dissemination of the lynching image from the Gilded Age to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1930s. Distributed as postcards, mementos, ornaments, and handbills, images of lynching both documented and helped to construct communities of white supremacy. As Dora Apel explains in Lynching Photographs (2007), “Spectacle lynching emerged in the antebellum and Jim Crow South when white landowners began to fear an alliance between poor white and black workers” as a means to “consolidate white supremacist solidarity across class lines at a time when the gap between rich and poor whites was huge.” In terrorizing African Americans in order to secure their labor and prevent their mobility, lynching helped to fashion communities of cross-class whiteness.

The images themselves are studies in contrast. There is the pathos of the black victim juxtaposed against the crowd of white men, women, and children—some in overalls, some in suits—gathered around the corpse, keen to be seen in the photograph. Whether the lynching takes place in a rural backwater or a broad public square in front of thousands of eager viewers, the images are ritualistic and formally repetitive. Recurrent elements include the picnic air of celebration, the centering of the black body (often burnt beyond recognition), and the crowd gathered in the foreground. The crowd is significant, suggesting the cultivation of community is the point, not just the result, of lynching. Sharing characteristics with contemporary American gun culture, these images were private—objects of personal collections—and yet ubiquitous, elements of the entertainment culture of the era. They secured white Americans’ right to look at black bodies in pain but also marked white Americans’ entrance into the visual culture of modernity on the solid footing of white supremacy. Like much cinema and music of the time, they helped to orient whiteness in the shifting world of disruptive and class-riven industrial capitalism.

Yet African American civil rights activists did not cede visual culture to the relentless white supremacy of fin-de-siècle American life. A sharp counterpoint came at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, where W. E. B. Du Bois exhibited a series of carefully staged, dignified portraits of “influential and forceful” African American men and women. Elegant and composed, these images countered ideas of biological inferiority and granted the sitters the humanity often reserved for white, middle-class photographic portraits. According to Allan Sekula, the photographic portrait is always “shadowed” by a look up at one’s “betters” and a look down at one’s “inferiors.” By framing the black middle class of Atlanta in the private portraiture reserved for the white middle class, Du Bois invites the presumptive white viewers of the Paris Exposition to configure themselves in front of their black “betters.” Disrupting the formation of white solidarity around images of the violated black body, Du Bois substituted for images of black death a rich archive of black life.

As the NAACP’s director of publicity and research over a decade later, however, Du Bois made a dramatic about-face when he decided to publish lynching images in the pages of The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly journal. This decision was so central to Du Bois’s life and his conception of the black liberation struggle that David Levering Lewis opens the second volume of his biography with the great writer and civil rights activist pondering the many lynching images the journal received—from white racists and African American activists alike. This duality was key to Du Bois’s thinking. At once an act of violence and a protest against it, the lynching image acted as a perverse mirror to the “double consciousness” of African American identity that Du Bois poetically described in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), suspended simultaneously inside and outside of American life. Lynching images shared this strange twoness: as Jacqueline Goldsby documents in A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (2006), they were widely disseminated through informal networks but generally did not appear on the front pages of national magazines and newspapers. Lynching, like photographs of it, existed within a culture of both terror and disavowal. By circulating surreptitiously these images could remain uncontested, ubiquitous yet invisible—thus insulated from public critique.

The lynching photograph was at once an act of violence and a protest against it.

Du Bois was not alone in coming to think that lynching images could be put to reformist rather than racist ends. Leigh Raiford has detailed that anti-lynching activists in the 1910s through the 1930s released once suppressed images of lynching during the long struggle to enact a federal lynching ban. To place lynching images in the official public sphere—in downtown New York City, where the NAACP held their offices—was to co-opt their use by white people, thereby changing the conversation about lynching as well as what the images represented. In effect, Du Bois turned the tactics of whiteness against itself, showing how lynching images could function not as tools of terror or white solidarity but as instruments of protest and change. By subjecting the pathologies of white supremacy to a public discourse and exposing its workings on a national stage, African American activists aimed to rob lynching photographs of their racist power. For Du Bois and other anti-lynching activists, the lynching image could undermine the very white supremacy it had helped to construct.

One NAACP flier from the 1930s, for example, features a photo of the lynching of Rubin Stacy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the alleged crime of “threatening and frightening a white woman.” Stacy’s body hangs in front of smiling white men, women, and children, dressed as though for a weekend picnic. Text beneath the photo instructs the viewer, “Do not look at the Negro,” directing one’s gaze instead to “the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacle.” The caption calls to mind artist Ken Gonzales-Day’s project “Erased Lynching,” which removes the bodies of lynching victims—many of whom were Mexican-American—from lynching photos, focusing the viewer’s attention instead on the white perpetrators and spectators. Rather than record the suffering of the victim, the focus on the spectators highlights the pathologies of whiteness.

The Wonder Gaze, 2006, by Ken Gonzales-Day, courtesy of the artist and Luis de Jesus Los Angeles

Not all activists who saw the political power of lynching images sought to displace attention away from the victims. Others focused on exposing—even risking—attacks on black bodies in order to expose the violence of white supremacy and the state. A marked example was the response to Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955. Till’s face and body were gruesomely beaten beyond recognition, yet his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, and a photograph of his face ran in nearly every black-owned newspaper and magazine in the country, including Jet, New York Amsterdam News, and Chicago Defender. Likewise, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations in the South relied heavily on their own photographers, producing some of the most iconic images of the fight against segregation. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Why We Can’t Wait (1964):

Nonviolent resistance paralyzed and confused the power structure against which it was directed. The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved.

Note King’s attention to the radical act of looking. Subverting the lynching photograph’s role in the social construction of white supremacy, these assertions of African American agency over images of racial violence—a radical kind of reverse cultural appropriation—became central tools of activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

“This is My House”: Ramsey Orta and the Right to Film

The videos of police violence against African Americans that have come to define the Black Lives Matter movement are more formally diverse than lynching photographs. Some are produced by activists and neighbors of victims, others by dashcams and security cameras. They are disseminated by national media outlets, rather than by police (indeed police departments are often reluctant to release them). Yet precisely for that reason their meaning is not carefully situated in an activist context. Unlike the Crisis or SNCC photographs, they serve no overtly critical function. It is clear that the kind of control the SNCC and Mamie Till Mobley had over images of white violence is not exercised over contemporary images of police brutality.

I think it is little accident, therefore, that the video of the murder of Eric Garner, in particular, has received so much attention on progressive news websites. Of course, it was the first of the videos to explode into national consciousness, and it was filmed in New York. Yet what makes the video so different from the others is Ramsey Orta’s powerful narration. As Eric Garner is taken down by a half-dozen police officers, Orta can clearly be heard saying:

Once again police beating up on people . . . [Garner] didn’t do shit; he didn’t do nothing . . . you all just gonna keep piling up; that’s all he did was break up a fight; you gonna lock him up for nothing; all he did was break up a fight. . . .

Orta’s voice refuses to allow the actions of the police to be naturalized. Refusing to see Garner as an aggressor, he insists on Garner’s innocence, placing the violence he witnesses in a long history of “police beating up on people.” Orta also states repeatedly that he “lives right here” and that “this is my house,” staking his right to video Garner’s murder as well as to stand on the sidewalk. His claim to visual representation is located by and within his knowledge of the black community of Staten Island. Much like the NAACP caption, he focuses attention away from Garner’s body and to the violent actions of the police. His commentary makes it impossible for the viewer to regard Garner’s death merely as spectacle or to remove Garner from a community of people for whom his life matters.

Du Bois and other activists showed how images of violence could serve as instruments of critique.

Orta’s video does not resolve the complicated and contradictory history of documentary photography and black visual representation. For evidence of how that fraught history endures one need only look to the recent relocation of a suburban Chicago mural depicting the faces of the white lynchers of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 following demands by conservative white lawmakers and black protesters alike. But the social movements of the past may point us to other paths besides erasure. Perhaps what is required is a set of practices for critical documentation and radical recirculation. As Benjamin insists, “we must demand from the photographer . . . the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture . . . as will confer upon it a revolutionary use value.” We must acknowledge, as Orta does, that images of violence against African Americans do not speak for themselves. To prevent the national media’s naturalization of violence—its annulment of the radical content of these images—one must articulate both a subject position as well as a counter-narrative to white supremacy.

When I forced myself to watch the video of Alton Sterling, I felt a wave of relief when a startled voice demands “They shot him?” followed by a woman’s “yes,” and the sound of sobs. This is not the running commentary of Orta, but these human voices redeem, in Sterling’s last moments, the value of his life and his humanity. The power of Diamond Reynolds’s video, taken as her boyfriend Philando Castile dies in the seat next to her, lies not only in her remarkable courage, but also in the fact that she never surrenders her narrative—even as she must surrender her body—to the armed and violent police standing above her. That Orta, who films police for the anti–police brutality organization Copwatch, faces jailtime after a year of harassment by the NYPD suggests the state understands very well the subversive politics of his visual and narrative representation. The voices of those like Orta and Reynolds show, as NAACP captions and SNCC photographs did a century ago, how images of violence have the power not merely to reproduce pain but also to create the society that will work to end it.

A colleague on Facebook recently posted that while, as an African American, he can no longer watch videos of police violence, he is glad organizations such as Copwatch exist. The reference to this organization, in particular, is telling: it does not pretend to ideological neutrality but documents violence within a framework critical of structures of white supremacy. I can’t imagine that Du Bois, over one hundred years ago, felt that we were close to a world in which justice would be delivered, yet he decided to publish images of lynched black bodies anyway. Perhaps he placed too much faith in a public sphere, in a community that could act to redeem that violence, but he devoted his life to creating counter-public spheres in which different truths could be expressed. I can’t imagine an alternative to such action. When I think of Ramsey Orta, Diamond Reynolds, and countless others risking their lives to document the death of friends and loved ones, I have to think that representation, in all its imperfections, is all we have.

Note: The author would like to thank Rachel Ida-Buff for her comments on an earlier draft of this essay.