Confronting violent images in the age of media overload

TW: Police brutality, antiblack violence

The sentiment goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. 

On the 25th of May 2020, a ten-minute-long video was shot, showing the arrest of a forty-six-year-old unarmed Black man by the police. The man is seen on the ground, pleading for his life as a police officer looms over him, his knee on his neck, with no intention of moving. Within eight minutes and forty-six seconds the man died in that position. This was a video showing a man’s death, and it was seen by  millions. 

His name does not need to be said, nor his picture shown, as who I am talking about and the video in question has been cemented into public consciousness; witnessed on iPhones, tablets and TV screens around the world. After this video, more footage began circulating of Black people being threatened and interrogated by white people for the most benign reasons, prompting the grim hashtag “*something* while Black”. The trangressions  which come with  bigotry, which has been known but rarely acknowledged, can now be recorded, catalogued and shared from the devices we keep at arm’s length. 

It is a divisive debate, discussing the ethics of sharing a controversial image or video on a worldwide public platform. On the one hand, such images can spark a much needed movement for social change and reform. The murder of George Floyd brought about Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests from every corner of the world, from the city of Minneapolis, where the murder occured, to Sydney, Australia. With these protests, many police reforms have been made and colonial relics brought down. Through spreading videos and images, stories which would have become trivialised and forgotten now have human faces attached to them. One which people connect to, more than words.  

In her popular essay collection On Photography, writer Susan Sontag discusses how a photograph is evidence, physical proof that something has happened. Unlike prose or paintings, which are subject to interpretation, photographs are images of the real world, they involve objects and entities which exist. There is a common practice by institutions to downplay the violence or injustice that they enforce. 

Before the videos of George Floyd’s murder were released, the Minneapolis police described the death as a “medical incident”. We know from that 10 minute footage, that kneeling on a person’s neck for over seven minutes is far from a medical incident. The ability we have as a society to individually record and make records of events and share them with people is the strongest power we have in holding institutional power to account. This is because of the raw quality of images. Unlike words, we are not engaged with the thoughts or interpretations of a writer but with the picture itself, it gives us the space to make our own conclusions and judgement over what has happened. The image is thus a more personal and interactive medium. 

Yet, things are not always what they seem. 

The circulation of images inevitably runs the risk of  exploitation. In September, Vanity Fair put a portrait of the late Breonna Taylor on their cover, the portrait itself created by painter Amy Sherald. It is a breathtaking painting. A regal Taylor stands tall in a soft blue gown and looks out serenely  into the eyes of the viewer.  Personality radiates from this image, emotion can be felt from her eyes, her lips and even her hands. This image communicates that Breonna Taylor was someone who lived, who led a life, her own life, one that went undisturbed and unimpeded on by the world.   The issue includes a tribute to Taylor as well as interviews with Taylor’s mother, who discusses her daughter’s life intimately and builds a character of who she really was. 

The beauty of such a tribute almost goes unspoiled before the encroaching thorn pokes at the viewers side. Before you scroll down to read the issue, Vanity Fair does not hesitate to remind you to subscribe to their publication, lest you forget that they are a business that needs the attention of you, the consumer. Many have noticed this trend of corporations and media outlets shamelessly exploiting the language and images of civil unrest and tragedy as a ploy to promote their products. It begs the question of whether such acts of social activism truly go beyond the realm of performance. 

Even with physical activism, the image can be exploited. In the heat of the BLM protests, thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality, expressing their support to the movement by posting links to GoFundMe’s and various charity organisations. This type of activism is legitimate because money is power, and putting it where your mouth is aids those whose oppression is not  just a short-lived reality but a systematic status quo. 

Many ‘activists’, however, only flippantly acknowledged this  reality. 

One can remember back in May-April of this year, Twitter and Instagram were littered with black squares and pictures of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was fatally shot whilst out jogging, on people’s feeds. On Blackout Tuesday, social media users took the day to show their solidarity and pay their respects to George Floyd and the men, women and children who lost their lives at the hands of police officers. Of the 28 million Twitter users who posted black squares, only 13 million went the extra mile and signed the petition to hold the officers who killed Floyd accountable for their actions. This disappointment comes with sleuths of white Instagram users and influencers who posed for selfies and ‘candids’ whilst out at the marches. Like corporations, social media users have catalogued the images of injustice and converted them into tokens of social currency, using them strategically to elevate their social status as “allies” of the movement, rather than make real contributions to help reform and change their systems.  

This way of handling and processing media has sinister implications. To hark back to Sontag’s point, photographs are evidence, and evidence is truth. In this instance, the truth is violent and distressing, and yet it is a truth which has become so readily available and expandable to us. The lack of knowledge and experience in  harbouring such images of violence and the  effect it brings on our psychological comprehension of tragedy is an issue which has rarely been called into question, and has led to devastating effects. To share a video of a man’s murder, a man you likely never new, and critique it, whther positive or negative, involves some level of desensitisation and detachment. When the victims of violence become household names and their faces can be published and plastered on magazines and t-shirts alike, a part of them moves away from being recognised as human beings, and more as objects. And they become just that, objects. Objects of truth, pieces of information. 

Social media, and smartphones at large, are still relatively new inventions. We have not yet come to terms with the whole world being in our pockets, and thus have not fully understood what it means to have images and videos of death stored in our camera rolls. It takes less effort searching up that 10 minute long video than it does researching the history of police brutality against the Black community or supporting the charities which directly help the ones most exploited by it. Images may be a sign of valid proof, but how people choose to use and understand them will always be subject to exploitation. It is because of this, that a new form of education must be established when dealing with the new reality of being in possession of images of violence. In our socially-networked world, people must come to terms with the fact that what they have been confronted with, beyond politics and opinions, is not an object, but a human face.  

By Aniqah Majid

***