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Are there images we ought not see?


If memory serves, I’ve attended at least five academic presentations spread out over the last six years or so where brutal photographs of racial lynchings were splayed onto a big PowerPoint screen as the objects of critical analysis.  These are terrifying images that reveal acts of horror:  bodies twisting at rope’s end, defaced and sometimes castrated, victims often killed for crimes they did not commit by vigilantes milling around in the picture apparently oblivious to the atrocity and acting more like attendees at a company picnic.  And of course it is this very casualness of the crowds that compounds the shock value of these photographs.

Such images have been long available to historians of visual culture, but were launched into wider circulation in 2000, when an archival collection of lynching photographs that had been mainly assembled by James Allen was organized into an exhibition at the Ruth Horowitz Gallery in New York City.  Soon afterward (or perhaps fully contemporaneous with the exhibition, I don’t know which) the display was organized into a book and bundled together with essays by Allen, Hilton Als, Leon Litwack, and John Lewis under the title Without Sanctuary (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000).  The New York exhibition toured several American cities, and I first encountered it when it came through Atlanta.

I struggled with the decision to see the exhibition, and although I finally found it carefully contextualized and deeply educational, it also raised serious reservations for me then that have only been compounded in the years since.  The issue is complicated, and in trying to sort through my own thoughts I mean no insult to the very careful and rightly motivated presentations I’ve seen that relied in part on lynching images.  In fact, I think some measure of my confusion is revealed by my own hypocrisy – while I mainly question the use of lynching photographs in this entry, I also illustrated an essay I wrote a couple months ago on this site on the topic of Civil War battlefield deaths (I had just read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War [Knopf 2008]) with a gruesome Matthew Brady battlefield photograph.

The arguments for showing such photographs is often persuasively made.  A great part of lynching’s brutality resides in the fact that the evidence of the crime was so often obliterated or kept secret, and so the act of publication can be thought an important historical corrective, and especially so for younger students for whom lynching is too easily considered an abstraction.  It is also true that the real depravity of racism may only be convincingly communicated by way of the visual evidence:  the sheer shock of seeing that a lynching photograph has been made into a postcard (a postcard!), and that the correspondent has written on the other side to a family relative, “this is the barbeque we had last night,” instantly focuses the mind.  I think it was Patricia Williams who at the time of the touring exhibition said that for her, attendance was required as a kind of historical pilgrimage, necessary to set the rosier picture of American history into its true and murkier context.  Seeing the range and grotesque similarity of so many of these images (which quickly disabuse one of the notion that these were singularly unique or the bizarre work product of a sadomasochistic subculture) has undeniably produced (in a phrase that pops up pretty frequently on the web) an “important reflective learning experience” of America’s racial history.

All this seems compelling when brutal images are wholly contextualized in a well organized gallery exhibition or in a museum – in such cases the viewing experience is so totally controlled as to avert the risks I see – but I am currently skeptical whether building lynching images into a academic conference lecture Powerpoint is ever finally justified.

Part of my reaction is admittedly visceral – when the slide changes and it’s a lynching photograph up on the big screen I admit I become nauseous, actually for a moment sick to my stomach.  I find myself turning away because I cannot resist the thought that this murder victim is someone’s grandfather or aunt, and I wonder how any of us would feel to have so brutal an image of, say, a loved one displayed even for well-intentioned academic purposes.  The murders are public, and awfully so, but I can’t help feeling I’m violating the victim’s privacy by scanning the picture, even at a century’s remove.

But for me the real problem is that when a lynching photograph is shown to a group of academics, too often (and I think perhaps inevitably) the audience is unwillingly made complicit in the violence.  At the Madison conference I attended last weekend, as the one slide was held in view, the almost wholly white audience variously attended with total seriousness to the image, while some (a vanishingly small minority to be sure, since the talk was compelling and smart) passed notes, did email, drank coffee, slipped out to run an errand or make a call – which is to say, we had become a modern day live enactment of the picnic-going spectators in the postcard.  I found myself resenting my own insertion into the lynch mob even though these normal audience behaviors are not the fault of the speaker.  Made to be a modern-day voyeur to the murder, in a situation where the presenter will invariably speak for a moment about the crime scene and then move on to something else, I wonder if there is any proper response in such a setting that does not compound the complicity.

Audience members who seriously and intently stare at the photo end up grouped with the majority of the actual bystanders photographed, who also stare at the swinging bodies, fixated for whatever reason.  Those who let themselves be moved onto the next slide or who lapse back into their normal behaviors end up not unlike the chatting and bizarrely happy people also evident in the postcard.  And if one turns away from the screen or because s/he cannot stomach the violence leaves the presentation one is simply reenacting the erasure of the victim that makes these images so noteworthy in the first place.  Which is to say:  there is no adequate viewing response, at least in the context and given the typical decorum of the conference lecture hall, which I think transposes any viewer into either a voyeur or a bystander, just like the people milling around in the photo who are being condemned from today’s lecture podium.

I do not think it simply reflects a too-fragile psyche to note that inducing this audience/subject position inflicts damage that is not necessarily undone by the self-reflective moment when one realizes s/he has been interpellated as one of the brutalizers.  At least in my own experience, and I do not normally consider myself easy to offend, the fact of having been interpellated in such a way proves quite difficult to walk back.

And I wonder too if there are any speaking behaviors that sidestep these risks either.  I’ve seen several strategies, all of which felt a little flat.  One presenter I saw a couple years back simply noted that the audience “should be warned that this material is very disturbing,” but such a warning only accentuates the voyeurism when the photograph is finally presented.  And at least in my case I found that the warning sounded (again, this clearly wasn’t the intention of the speaker) like language whose main consequence is simply to normalize the shock value; like the “don’t try this at home” warnings whose main benefit is to let the speaker off the hook but that for many listeners only produce an inducement to the horror, the warning can easily sound more like an unserious gesture than an engagement with the true difficulties yet to be presented in the talk.  The damage was in that case compounded when the lynching Powerpoint slide was kept up on the screen long after its purpose was passed and the Q&A (mostly centered on other issues) was well underway.

At a more recent conference talk, the presenter argued that only by posting the lynching image could the audience see the formalistic properties of the photograph that linger in more subtle but dangerously racist modern photographs, such as the famous picture of Elizabeth Eckford walking through an angry white crowd in Little Rock after she was briefly denied admission to the school building.  I found the speaker’s point well taken until I realized that in calling attention to the lynching photograph’s formal properties (where is the eye led to focus?  how is the event framed?  who is centered and who is marginalized?) I was being (innocently) led to see right past the corpses.  I was attending to the aesthetic dimensions of the photograph at the expense of the victims whose awful stories faded right out of mind.

Because I know that many of my colleagues in these academic audiences interpret their own viewing experiences very differently and more positively than me (my impression is that some insistently stare at the photographs for as long as they remain on screen as a way of bearing witness), perhaps the totalizing concerns I assert (that such images should never be used in an academic research talk) would be satisfied were scholars to agree not to show such images unless they are either specifically mobilized to induce sentiments of specific mourning/remembrance or audience outrage.  Such an exception does not admit very many research talks back into defensibility, if my own experience is characteristic, because the normal modes of academic research presentation are not normally given over to, say, moments of silence or explicit agitation.

But these, after all, are the affective responses appropriate to lynching images, for only by responding in sorrow or in anger might one do real justice to the victims and the danger that in reshowing the image one is simply reenacting the crime.  And the uses of lynching photographs that seem most effective are those designed with sorrow or outrage in mind.  One northern newspaper mainly produced for African American readers agreed to print the famous lynching photograph taken in Marion, Indiana but only by adding a caption that (paraphrasing) described the standers-by as a “a party of unknown identity.”  The caption is brilliant because it quotes the police report seeking to explain why no arrests had been made, connecting it to a photograph that clearly provides the evidence needed to identify many of those present.  The juxtaposition (again, one hard to achieve in a traditional academic talk) can only arouse anger at the injustice.

I close by reiterating my own uncertainty on these matters and also my respect for scholars who are navigating them as best they can.  But I also would caution against those who might be tempted to dismiss concerns about how lynching photographs position their viewers as nothing more than the assertion of too delicate a sensibility.  More serious matters are I think also in play.  Some of these are engaged in a recent book by Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife:  On Destructive Spectatorship (Fordham UP, 2007).  Harries, using the story of Lot’s wife (who in the Old Testament account was punished, turned into a pillar of salt, for looking back at God’s fire and brimstone judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah when warned not to), notes that while the sublime and terrorizing image can be engaged as a mode of witness bearing, there is also some reasonable risk that the sight of historical catastrophe risks destroying the spectator.  Harries deploys the Biblical account metaphorically – it would be exceptionally rare that staring into the imagistic abyss actually savages the psyche – but as he argues, we must neither ignore or downplay the real possibility that “after some contemplation, one emerges a little destroyed.”

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