PetaPixel

Photography, Authority and Race

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I am troubled by what I have seen.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed terrible, on-going episodes within our borders through photos and video that speak volumes about the tragedy of race. Racism is as old as human history, and there is a long, rich history of capturing race conflicts in the US by photographers like Charles Moore, Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks and others.

But in this post 9/11 world, the balance of power has shifted towards authority — militarized officers outfitted with high-powered machine guns and body armor straight out of central casting for a Michael Bay film who seemingly police differently depending on the color of your skin.

This image by Charles Moore published in LIFE magazine changed history. Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger commented that the image “transformed the national mood and made legislation not just necessary, but possible.”

Photo by Charles Moore

Photo by Charles Moore

In her seminal essay On Photography, Susan Sontag writes “Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” Photos and video are crucial to a functioning democracy, but if we’re too immune by the barrage of our digital world, what hopes do we have for society?

In Russia, the car dash cam is ubiquitous because of the level of lawlessness and corruption. Witnesses are shills, cops are corrupt, and dash cam footage provides the only factual account of crashes, bumps and dents. In other words, photography/videography is the only means to fight corruption. In the US, we continue to find inequality in the treatment and incarceration of blacks. Will photography help us to uncover this disparity and turn disbelievers into advocates? Can photos spur not only regional outrage, but national outrage and create a transformative dialog?

How will these three photographed events shape our world?

1. NJ Cop: Constitutional Right to Take Pictures in Public Null Because “Obama Has Decimated the Friggin’ Constitution”

Video Still by Steve Ronko

Video Still by Steve Ronko

Irrespective of which side of the aisle you sit, you have a constitutional right to take photos in public places including places of government. When NJ resident Steve Ronko tried to file a Open Public Records Act request with camera in hand to get information about an animal shelter, Officer Richard Recine challenged his constitutional right.

Recine is caught on video saying, “Obama has decimated the friggin’ Constitution, so I don’t give a damn. If he doesn’t follow the Constitution, we don’t have to.” Police officers swear to uphold the constitution with an Oath/Affirmation, and the Constitution is an imperative vehicle for upholding our rights as citizens. The police cannot selectively choose to defend the Constitution based on mood. Although we’ve seen story after story about this, the NYPD apparently felt that its officers needed a reminder.

2. Eric Garner dies after alleged choke hold by NYPD

Were it not for the citizen journalism, the police report would have merely indicated an individual resisted arrest and then died upon being transported to the hospital. Instead, not only do we see an unarmed man with a history of arrest for selling loose cigarettes being forced to the ground and complaining of not being able to breath, we also see EMTs not even attempting to revive an unconscious victim.

Photo by The Daily News

Photo by The Daily News

Although the case is pending, we have at least seen some lip service given to the issue. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that is “looks like a chokehold to me,” and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton ordered an extensive training review. But Staten Island where Garner was killed has the highest number of most-sued cops despite having the smallest population. So barring a more aggressive effort on the part of Internal Affairs or the FBI, citizens will have to continue to be vigilant to ensure that police are evenly protecting the community rather than assaulting it.

3. The Death of Michael Brown in Ferguson

There are no photos or video of the incident itself. There is a dispute as to what happened. But what isn’t in dispute is that an unarmed teenager was shot dead by a policeman in St. Louis, a city with a rich history of racism and segregation. What we do have photos of is the police reaction to an upset community like Scott Olson’s photo of a man with his hands raised approaching what looks like a SWAT team, but is just the every day Ferguson police force.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ferguson isn’t a war zone. This is not Gaza, Donetsk, or Damascus. This is St. Louis. The response is disproportional to the threat. Protesters are being tear gassed on their private property as captured by Rich West.

Journalist Ryan J. Reilly was arrested in a Ferguson McDonald’s after taking a photo of a cop.


The Huffington Post reported:

“They essentially acted as a military force. It was incredible,” Reilly said. “The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald’s and then sarcastically apologized for it.”

What exactly was the threat in the McDonald’s again? Since when did obesity and high cholesterol require a police force?

17-year old Tyler Atkins challenged the media’s portrayal of the black victim with a tweet and the hashtag #If TheyGunnedMeDown. His diptych shows photos of himself with his saxophone and another as a rapper that he made for a school science project.

Photos by Tyler Atkins

Photos by Tyler Atkins

The tweet was in response to the widely circulated photo of Brown flashing the peace sign, but who some in the media portrayed as a gang symbol.

Photo by Michael Brown via Facebook

Photo by Michael Brown via Facebook

That a teen wanted to appear cool shouldn’t be an indictment of his character. If a Japanese girl made the same gesture, how would she be portrayed by the media? Can a black teen be treated like a white teen? Can we eliminate the highly polarizing and race-loaded words of “thug” and “gangster” for blacks and “bro” for whites? Are we visually literate enough to be skeptical of images we come across in the mass media and social media because we know we’re being link baited for clicks?

The newspaper front page has been supplanted by YouTube and Buzzfeed. But the barrage of images shouldn’t numb us to this problem of race, it should inculcate us to the disparity in how different people of different races are treated in this country.

Let yourself be outraged by these images. Write letters to your representatives. Talk to a cop. Exercise your constitutional right to photograph that which ails your community. The community your deserve is the community you help build.

Still not outraged? The camera doesn’t lie.

Updates




About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    we have to be so thankful that people in Ferguson have phones and there are a few journos that have been able to keep broadcasting images. They have a no fly zone over the city to stop news helicopters, blocking more journalists from getting there in cars/vans and as we’ve seen – tear gassing Al Jazeera and then dismantling their gear after they’ve fled for cover. Without the efforts of the people posting to Twitter etc – we wouldn’t have a clue what was going on in there.

  • Trent

    No doubt this is a tragedy. Too many things wrong with this story. But this author sure seems to be one sided.

    PetaPixel, maybe it would best if you applied a disclaimer before guest’s posts. Something like: “The opinions expressed in the following article do not necessarily reflect the views of our organization.”

    You have always done a great job of keeping non-photo related opinions out of the articles. That is why I continue to return. Thank you.

  • http://www.dolekemp96.org/main.htm DickCheney

    Which “side” are you referring to when you say the author is being one sided?

  • monoloco

    There is an increasing tendency in the US for the police to shoot first and ask questions later citing the dangers of law enforcement, but the fact is that law enforcement work barely makes the top 10 most dangerous professions in the US, ranking about the same as driving a taxi, in fact it is more dangerous to be a garbage collector than a cop, and over 3 times more dangerous to be a farmer. As far as the dangers of daw enforcement go, the majority of police officers who die on the job are killed in traffic accidents, so there is really no need for the heavy handed militarized trend in law enforcement. It’s time for the police in the US to examine their tactics so that they become appropriate to the actual threat.

  • http://www.livingonthefarside.org/ Derek Helt

    It’s clearly framing things from the “cops are at fault” perspective. I don’t think that’s unfair nor needs to be apologized for, but it is an “opinion piece,” as it were. I sympathize with that viewpoint, but let’s be honest about it.

  • http://www.dolekemp96.org/main.htm DickCheney

    Perhaps so there are fewer hurt feelings they could publish a counterpoint “opinion piece” defending chokeholds and the practice of telling citizens they aren’t allowed to photograph.

  • Aaron Link

    “…the widely circulated photo of Brown flashing the peace sign, but who some in the media portrayed as a gang symbol.” While this may not be a gang symbol, it is certainly not a peace sign. The hand sign Michael Brown is making is an affectation, a symbol referencing literally nothing. Were the fictional Japanese girl to make the exact same hand sign she would likewise only be doing it to “look cool”. I couldn’t take either individuals seriously. I don’t think it’s fair or even accurate, however, if Mr. Murabayashi is relying on readers to recall stereotypical images of Asian girls making V-signs (their fingertips up and palms out) to rethink cultural perceptions. Saying Michael Brown’s gesture and the V-sign are the same thing is like suggesting the “#1″ index-finger sign and the middle-finger, “flipping-the-bird” gesture are the same.

  • http://blog.joshsouzaphotos.com/ joshsouzaphotos

    The sideways peace hand gesture is “duces” meaning , “bye” . Nothing more, nothing less.

    If you don’t believe me Google “duces hand gesture”

  • Mr Hogwallop

    I don;t know what “taking someone seriously” means but here’s another dangerous OG throwing flashing some gang sign

  • Allen Murabayashi

    I do believe that when the government overreaches its authority, that citizens need to be vigilant, and photography helps us do that. There are many good cops out there, but there is an undeniable escalation in military-style policing in this country — the antithesis of “serve and protect.”

    btw, whenever you see my byline at petapixel, it’s 99% likely to be op/ed.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Nice to see a more civil conversation on the topic here this time around, without the thinly disguised hate and racism. Hope it keeps up…

  • Aaron Link

    Why would I not believe you? And to the point of the meaning of “deuces” as a farewell, that’s all well and good, until the symbol is reduced to something merely fronted for a photo opportunity because the individuals believe they need to be doing something with their hands. The fact remains, it’s NOT a peace sign.

    Again, a “peace sign” is a specific gesture used in a specific context. Palm in, toward the body, tilted on it’s side and it becomes something else. Held vertically with palm in shown anywhere in the United Kingdom and it becomes an insult.

  • Aaron Link

    I don’t take Jay Leno seriously. Thanks for the photo illustration.

    By “taking someone seriously” I mean there are individuals who feel in any photograph they must be doing something, anything, as long as they aren’t simply standing there. See: Duckface – adds nothing of value to the image, yet it’s pervasive. The perception suggested by the article’s author that the above symbol is associated with gangs by the media isn’t new – he’s completely right on that point. Because, in reality, the symbol is NOT associated with any particular gang. Does Leno know this? He’s a “comedian”, so his posturing is likely rooted in satire. Ergo, I don’t take this kind of thing seriously when ANYBODY does it. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re posing.

  • mzungu

    What does the picture of Michael Brown robbing the store says about thing now?

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    At most it says that the police are somehow justifying his death because of a stolen cigar.

  • Jadan

    How is this a “non-photo related” piece? Seems that it is photography that had shed light on current and past acts of racism. Without photography we would simply be acting on one’s word vs another’s, and we all know how well that goes if you are in the minority. I personally applaud the work of Peta Pixel’s coverage of the rights of photographers and humans in general.

  • Jadan

    I thought the same thing. But being a kid stealing some cigars does not mean its ok for that cop to blow him away for walking in the street. And as far as I know or have heard, the cop didnt get an APB on him. Cop went nuts and killed a kid. Its as simple and as tragic as that.

  • David Vaughn

    I love how I wrote out an entire response here and it was just deleted. Whatever wasn’t appropriate wasn’t edited out, nope. It was just not posted at all. Isn’t internet discussion awesome.

  • mzungu

    Well, I would imagine as a police officer with a loaded gun, you get very worried and alert if someone is stupid/crazy enough to attack you… If someone is crazy enough to do that, you never know what they’ll do next.

  • mzungu

    what it says is that the suspect thinks that he is going to get caught for robbery, and panicked, and escalated things from there.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Many would say if anyone is stupid enough to actually believe he attacked the officer…

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Except that every eye witness says that he had both hands raised high when he was shot multiple times.

  • Chang

    To be a true point counterpoint however, we would need the opinions of several people whose photography has allowed them to scope out and plan terrorist attacks without interference from the police. Like the guys in Madrid, or Mumbai, or London.

  • Chang

    None of us know, and it’s excessively cynical to insist the policeman was at fault without evidence. I don’t know why this is perceived as morally complex. Either the policeman shot and malefactor who is attacking him, and in that case there should be no criminal consequences; or he shot someone who was completely innocent and just my knees on business in which case there should be criminal consequences. That is truly all there is to this. The

  • Chang

    There is also, to be fair, a long history of violent crime perpetrated on police officers by suspected criminals.

  • Sean Hurt

    When did PP become PolitiPixel?

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Yes- but (to be fair) not by one one race or ethnicity.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    “None of us know…”

    I say say as much directly below.

    “…it’s excessively cynical to insist the policeman was at fault without evidence.”

    Interesting! Why did you not chide mzungu for his cynicism for automatically believing that Brown attacked the policeman?

    “And rioting isn’t going to retroactively create the evidence necessary to make that determination accurately.”

    And hordes of overarmed, camouflaged SWAT teams will neither make nor keep the peace. An officer familiar with the community, fair play, and common sense achieved that.

  • Tzctplus -

    It says that local police are a bunch of idiots. No civiised police force would try to justify a killing this way. The problem is that US society holds the belief that violence is with solution to everything.

    You should really have a look at reality TV shows of how other police forces deal with crime, the British police is mostly unarned because guns are largely illegal, add widespread racism and you have a situation out if control.
    The US lives in a state of low level warfare but don’t want to wake up to this realization.

  • John Cooper

    Disturbing pictures will continue to surface as long as people fail to obey and respect the law. The ‘attitude’ of some citizens is they do not have to cooperate, answer a question or follow orders of law enforcement. When detained for any reason, they always have an excuse for fighting with law enforcement. Eric Garner was arrested several times for illegally selling cigarettes. If he cooperated he would still be alive. The police look like an army when responding to civil disturbances because people these days frequently kill police and turn the neighborhoods into war zones. The first night of so-called peace when the State Police arrived in Ferguson, three officers were injured by objects thrown by the ‘peaceful’ protestors. Criticize the police all you want, but also Google the number of police assaulted, or killed by African Americans in the US. Google the racial makeup of prison populations. Controlling civil unrest methods will always be criticized by those who stand back with cameras or IPHONES and watch. For those who disagree with my view, dress in street clothes unarmed, then join the police barricade or walk with them the next time there is rioting and looting. JMO

  • Juan Bautista

    “I have a dream” it will ever this dream be full fill?

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Were you ever followed in a department store simply because you were Black? Were you ever stopped and frisked on the street (even though you committed no offense), and interrogated simply because you were Black? Were you ever stopped behind the wheel for DWB (driving while Black)?

    Why don’t you Google the stats for the percentages of convictions and the differences in lengths of sentencing when it comes to Blacks vs. Whites committing the same crime? Why don’t you Google who gets the death penalty more often for the same crime, and who gets executed more often?

    How many Black undercover police officers have been killed by their fellow (White) officers? Yeah, I could go on…

  • Mr Hogwallop

    Seriously?

  • John Cooper

    Who commits a disproportionate number of crimes in America? Selling drugs, gang killings, looting, and destroying property isn’t how you improve your social standing and gain respect. If you prefer to justify your behavior by past mistakes, go ahead, but don’t expect empathy or change. NBC News reported a 50% increase in gun sales in the Ferguson area. Why do you suppose that is? There is a justice system in America, and the black community needs to respect it, not riot the day after an incident before any facts are known. And as crime statistics prove, African Americans receive jail time commensurate with their history of multiple offensives and/or convictions, not their race.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    “And as crime statistics prove, African Americans receive jail time commensurate with their history of multiple offensives and/or convictions, not their race.”

    Nice, if obvious, sidestep of the question(s) posed…

    So let’s try it again:

    Why don’t you Google the stats for the percentages of convictions and the differences in lengths of sentencing when it comes to Blacks vs. Whites committing the same crime? Why don’t you Google who gets the death penalty more often for the same crime, and who gets executed more often?

    The American (in)justice system will be respected by all- when all are treated… equally. Not when cops act as judge, jury and executioner of certain groups, races, ethnicities…

  • Aaron Link

    Totes on the serious.

  • John Cooper

    You continue to ignore the details in the statistics. Blacks receive no more punishment for crimes than any other race, except in cases where the crime committed is a culmination of a HISTORY of criminal activity. Should a person who commits one robbery get the same sentence as someone with prior convictions and jail or prison time? The sentencing statistics reveal CAREER criminals and repeat offenders do get more jail time. Google the racial makeup of San Quentin or any major prison and then try to argue it houses more minorities solely on racial and judicial bias.

  • Dov

    Yeah them cigars can be dangerous you know

  • Dov

    Not really based on the history of the police int he are, you know charging a man getting his blood on them while they beat him up.

    We can also say how cynical of yourself and everyone posting like yourself who have already tried and convicted the man based on the video released by the cops thats entirely unrelated to the incident but that the cops are using to try and frame a flimsy story on.

  • Dov

    Wen was it ever not or to more make the point when has photography not been political.

    Ive been stunned to watch so called photographers eviscerate their rights on forums like these. Stand up for 2nd amendment issues but totally toss 1st amendment issues under the bus.

    I think any photographer who posts the photographer was wrong when the officer told him to not shoot needs to turn in their camera and give up