Against an older view of war photography that images of brutality and suffering will surely unite people of good will—“us”—against violence, Susan Sontag observes that we cannot take for granted the “we” when the subject at hand is looking at other people’s pain. This would neglect the cultural frame of interpretation—what can be depicted, which lives can be grieved, what is interesting, abject, or salacious within a given historical moment. According to Sontag, then, photographs in and of themselves cannot offer understanding of what they depict (which is the work of narrative); rather, she writes, they “do something else: they haunt us.”
We do not need the pomp and circumstance of cannon fire to see that images of police brutality beating, choke-holding, and killing black and brown bodies constitute war photography in the domestic United States. This statement bears nothing in common with the sentiment of the lone wolf sniper in Dallas this week, who took himself to be at war with white cops and shot a dozen people, many of them cops, following a peaceful protest. The point, rather, is that to live at risk of state-sanctioned violence and murder without recourse to justice—except tentatively via camera phone—is to live in a state of war. In these conditions, citizen photographers require nothing less than the courage and cleverness of photojournalism on the front lines. Thus, Diamond Reynolds live streamed the murder of her boyfriend, 32-year-old Philando Castile, by a Minnesota police officer, which took place during a routine stop over a taillight. With unimaginable courage in the moment, she presents a recent example of what we might appropriately call— given police militarization, incarceration and detainment of as well as brutality against bodies of color —‘war photography’, documenting injustices that would have been dismissed only a few years ago with the passing headline: “Armed Black Man Killed by Police.” On Wednesday night, then, we may be unsurprised that the St. Anthony Police Department, which employs the officer who killed Castile, issued a brief statement that “shots were fired” during the traffic stop and that “one adult male…is deceased.”
On Tuesday this week, two citizen photographers in Baton Rouge actively made it the case that 37-year-old Alton Sterling would not fade away under this tired description. Baton Rouge Police came to the convenience store parking lot, where the father of five regularly sold CDs, after a homeless man reported to 911 that Sterling “brandished a gun” at him. In the moments following the arrival of police, store owner Abdullah Muflahi—who had known Sterling for six years and joked with him that morning—became a key witness and impromptu citizen photographer, using his camera phone to film a video that he then hid from police as they confiscated his store’s surveillance footage, releasing it later on Wednesday through his own lawyer. The first video to be released came from a local organization called Stop the Killing, which monitors police-scanner chatter and follows those confrontations that sound like they could lead to violence. That morning, an unnamed member of the group heard the call, drove to the parking lot in question, and took a video from the passenger side of the car. The group then posted it to social media on Tuesday evening as a means of “forcefully seeking justice.”
Then on Wednesday, Diamond Reynolds documented her boyfriend’s shooting live to social media, even as the police officer shouted expletives and continued to point his gun, narrating the scene with behavior journalists have called ‘calm,’ ‘dissociative,’ ‘composed,’ and ‘courageous,’ or as one psychologist put it, “the brain on horror.” Arguably, the factors shaping Reynolds’ relative calm are also cultural and historical, rooted in a long U.S. history of holding black people to higher standards for the most basic social recognition; as Melvin Rogers has observed, the media problematically took Reynolds’ capacity for calm under trauma “as an indication of her credibility” as a witness. Her video has been viewed millions of times, over three million views by Thursday morning. As she told reporters on Thursday: “I wanted to put it on Facebook and go viral so the people could see.” She added, with visible emotion, “They took my lifeline. That was my best friend.”
In the immediate aftermath of Castile’s shooting, major media sources paid more attention to the fate of this video—briefly removed from Facebook on a technical glitch, thus raising questions about how we regard the brutal treatment of others in a world where these images are readily available—than to the fate of Reynolds herself. On Thursday, Reynolds explained that she was handcuffed and taken to jail, where officers took all her possessions, separated her from her child, and treated her like a prisoner. Castile died from his wounds at 9:30pm, but Reynolds was not told of his death until 3am, and not returned home until two hours after that. In this series of events, Reynolds’ ingenuity to live stream this violence was pivotal, as posting to social media would have been impossible minutes later in handcuffs.
Many have asked, in the wake of this violence, about the social media circulation of these images for seeking social justice. Is their circulation necessary for social change or, against its best wishes, does this circulation risk further desensitizing viewers to violence against black bodies or, worse yet, risk making these traumatic videos into objects of curious spectatorship? The same questions of war photography with which Sontag dealt in the late 20th century remain salient: How ought we bear witness to the pain of others?
It nevertheless remains unquestionably the case that these images and videos need to be viewed by someone, indeed, by many people in order to be effective tools of resistance. Because Reynolds bravely kept filming, the Governor of Minnesota asked the White House for a federal investigation into Castile’s shooting. Because Stop the Killing listened to police scanners and followed potentially violent calls, and because Abdullah Muflahi hid his camera phone video from the officers—who turned from violent offenders to investigators capable of seizing all surveillance within moments—the Justice Department already has a civil rights investigation underway. We need these videos—these hauntings, to use Sontag’s phrase—but what we ought to do with these hauntings, in response to them, is a more complex ethical and political question.
Notably, the body cameras in the Sterling murder on Tuesday were “dislodged” and “fell off during the scuffle,” though police investigators are “canvassing for witnesses” in the aftermath (witnesses other than members of Stop the Killing and Abdullah Muflahi, it appears). The St. Anthony PD in Minnesota does not use body cameras on its officers but, even if they did, these cameras would not capture the same picture. Pinned to bodies in radically different positions of power—on the other side of the trigger—police body cameras lack the capacity to attribute vulnerability to those with whom they engage. In the very framing of their lenses, these body cameras cannot—for instance—sit next to a bleeding and beloved body. This capacity, far from neutral, is shaped by one’s cultural imaginary, which—in America—is steeped in figurations of angry, amoral, and armed black bodies. This acculturation through the inundation of images frames everyday perceptions of black men and boys; thus, a twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland with a toy gun appears to be a twenty-something with a real one; thus, former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson could describe, of Michael Brown’s final moments, an aggressive face that “looked like a demon,” grunting and bulking up through the bullets as though about to charge. Without the resistance of citizen photographers to post footage on social media, Wilson’s narrative would still win the day without question; today, while such footage has not yet led to police indictment, it has begun to shift the cultural frames through which we understand vulnerability to violence in America, developing the language of “The New Jim Crow” to name injustice in our historical present; perhaps such a cultural shift must always precede substantive political change.
Already in 2003, Sontag felt the shifting immediacy of “news” in what she called an increasing tele-intimacy; with reference to photojournalism at sites of violence abroad, she observed that our cultural understanding of “war” as such is shaped by these images repeated on our newsstands and TV screens. This tele-intimacy—beyond what Sontag could have imagined with instant uploads to social media—involves us in one another’s lives in unexpected ways. These uploads have brought widespread attention to state sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies, with the site of resistance made possible by the camera phone. Sontag is right that these images will not give us understanding of our present historical condition, nor of any way forward to social justice; rather, they haunt us. What to do with a haunting—a poltergeist of American shame, repressed vulnerability and violent aggression—is no easy task, and one cannot simply bust the ghost, which is at once everywhere and nowhere, in half-remembered anecdotes and images, in prudent advice from elders, in fear-inducing graphics and music on the news. Perhaps, at the very least, these videos might inform our sense of what it means to live in a state of “war” and, in turn, shift our national self-understanding about the state of precarity some of us have been forced to endure.