If you were considering doing some visual analysis this week then there would be one overwhelmingly obvious candidate for it. A photograph by Reuter’s photographer Jonathan Bachman which shows protester Iesha L. Evans about to be arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gone viral, and is already being hailed as a ‘legendary’ image destined for the history books. In the photograph, a young black woman stands in an empty street, as two armour clad, white police officers move in to grab her. Her uprightness and poise is remarkable, and by comparison the two officers are frozen in a moment of motion which make them look as if they might actually be being repelled away from her by the magnetic force of her sheer will. To the left behind the officers, a long row of riot police look on, to the right behind the protester a row of bystanders and protesters watch from the far distance. It is a potent image, and like many great ones it is ripe for reading and counter-reading. It is a remarkable example of what the camera can do so well, an episode which by the accounts of bystanders lasted less than half a minute has been made permanent and indelible by the camera’s mechanism. It is also though an example of what the camera does so badly, in this image is only a sliver of time, shorn of context, which explains little of the wider cause or aims of these protests. It can easily be read as a simplistic binary of an overpowered, anonymous, authoritarian, white, male American state using disproportionate force against an unarmed, black, female citizen, which is certainly a truth, part of the truth, but not perhaps the whole truth.
In a piece on American Suburb X Brad Feurhelm hyperbolically declares Bachman’s image a ‘complete failure’ for rather different reasons, including because it repeats the tropes of a previous protest image, Marc Riboud’s photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower up to the sheathed bayonets of a row of soldiers during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. The formal similarity and the looming presence of Riboud’s photograph in recent popular culture might account in turn for some of the success of Bachman’s photograph, but I’d argue that this similarity is far from a source of failure, far from evidence of a visual culture rendered so lazy by mass image consumption that it seeks familiar tropes by which to reduce all present events to familiar antecedents. Bachman’s photograph is important precisely because it sets present events in terms of the political struggles of the 1960’s, both the anti-war movement of which Riboud’s photograph was a direct document and the wider political milieu of that era, including of course the civil rights movement. The anti-war movement is a significant reference point because at least part of the reason that people are today dying on the streets of American cities is because of the way police forces have been progressively militarised with surplus hardware from conflicts in the Middle East (something which becomes clear from the armed man in fatigues in the final image of Bachman’s complete sequence of the event). These protests then are at least in a very small way protests against conflict, militarism and their inevitable impact on the home front, ideas I will be writing on more next week.
In turn, the civil rights movement is clearly an important reference for these current protests because Black Lives Matter in so many ways feels like a spiritual successor to that movement. It seems historically apt that an image like Bachman’s should come from a protest in Baton Rogue, where the first civil rights bus boycott took place in 1953 and thinking in terms of this history Bachman’s photograph actually has a far greater similarity for me to a 1963 photograph taken by Bill Hudson in during protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In the image, a 17 year old black protester named Walter Gadsden is being savaged by a police dog, but as in Bachman’s photograph what strikes the viewer is the remarkable poise he seems to show. Far from running from the snarling dog (which even the nearby police officer seems to have lost control over) the young man appears to be walking willingly and with total resolve into its snarling maw, while his hand grips the police officer’s wrist as if it to say ‘it’s ok, let go’. Onlookers behind look back perhaps in curiosity, surprise, and as with Bachman’s photograph it is an image which seems to say much, but which also tells little outside the fraction of a second when it was taken.
Is Bachman’s photograph a ‘complete failure’ then for echoing this history and these photographs? I would argue not at all, in fact it is that echo which is precisely what makes it important. This is not a case of an image of protest or war stylised like the works of a past work of art to which it bears no relation, or worse which casts the new image in terms of a moral or cultural framework to which it bears no relation. Think of the often inappropriate religious readings of Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the subtext such readings have for the supposed value of what is basically meaningless suffering (if I were to offer an art history reading of mine it would go rather further back, Evan’s pose reminding me of classical renditions of Clio, the muse of history) In its resonance with images of a much more recent past, Bachman’s photograph is one which demands that viewers remember that the question of civil rights in the United States is profoundly unresolved, and it is powerful precisely because in its historical reverberations it carries with it a sense of what the Black Lives Matters movement might need to be in order to have a chance of creating the change it’s supporters desire. While it is too soon to tell what impact this image will have, it is one, I would say, which does much to cast the movement as one which is as morally irresistible as its opponents are morally indefensible.