• On Photography, Protests, and Citizenship

    As I look at the images of police violence that continue to surface, I find myself thinking about the ethics of “regarding the pain of others.” Susan Sontag’s phrase carries a question within it. To regard is to consider, to look, to watch, but with its roots in the French garder it also suggests to guard, to protect. Can regarding suffering somehow also guard against suffering? Or do we become anesthetized over time to the pain of others, requiring greater shocks to be moved? Does looking dehumanize the photographed subject, turning them into a visual object for our gaze? Does it treat violence as spectacle? Are we voyeurs?

    The theorist Ariella Azoulay suggests that these are the wrong questions. Or, rather, these questions emerge from a limited understanding of what photography is. Pushing against ontologies of photography that prioritize the camera apparatus, the authority of the photographer, or the material photograph, Azoulay explores a political ontology of photography as event. The event of photography is an open and un-finalizable encounter, one that plays out between photographer, camera, photographed subject, and spectator. This encounter is not reducible to the photograph that results from it, and no one party can determine the photograph’s meaning.

    Understanding photography as an encounter among multiple participants moves us away from questions of voyeurism, for it places a much-needed accent on the agency of the photographed subject. Even in a moment of crisis, the subject who appears before the camera addresses the photographer and the spectator. Through this address, the subject makes demands on us, the future spectator of their pain and suffering.

    To take seriously this address reshapes the ethical concerns of being a spectator. For if we were to dismiss a photograph on the grounds that the photographer exploits or aestheticizes the suffering of the subject, this would discount the photographed subject, the role they play in the encounter, and our obligation to them. Azoulay’s questions about regarding the pain of others are, then, quite different from Sontag’s: “Why does the person in the photograph direct her gaze at me? Who am I for her? What allows her to assume the existence of a civil spectator? What is the relation between her gaze at the photographer and the manner in which she looks at me? Am I the effect of her having been photographed? What does she expect from me?”

    At stake in all this is nothing less than citizenship. Azoulay, born in Tel Aviv, positions her book The Civil Contract of Photography as emerging from the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising in 2000. For her, spectatorship must be practiced as a “civic duty” towards those we meet in photographs who have been dispossessed of rights. They call upon us to “recognize and restore their citizenship.” The past few weeks have confirmed what we already knew: that Black people are systematically denied full citizenship in America. In such situations, Azoulay encourages us to turn to photography as a political space in which any of its participants can become part of the “citizenry of photography” and challenge the governing power.

    When Darnella Frazier recorded the lynching of George Floyd, she did so with the belief that there would be future spectators who would see this as injustice and be moved to take action. In On Photography, Sontag writes that taking photographs is “essentially an act of non-intervention,” a tacit endorsement of the status quo. Indeed, after Frazier posted the video on social media, some people reportedly criticized her for not intervening. This ignores situations where one’s only recourse is to record, where recording is itself an act of resistance. To say that the photographer does not intervene misunderstands the event of photography. The photographer and camera are always part of the encounter; their presence shapes and determines it. Frazier set in motion an encounter that has not yet finished.


    Police driving into crowds of protesters. Beating protesters with batons. Firing tear-gas and pepper-spray. Shooting rubber bullets. Aggressively patrolling neighborhoods after curfew. Kettling protesters. There are also, I am told, “powerful” images of police officers kneeling with and embracing protesters.

    What relationship exists between these two bodies of images? How might we bring a “civil gaze” to unpack the larger encounter inscribed in these images? Azoulay reminds us, “The photograph is out there, an object in the world, and anyone, always (at least in principle), can pull at one of its threads and trace it in such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what it shows, possibly even completely overturning what was seen in it before.” I would like to pull at one of those threads.

    In early June, CBS News joined many other news outlets in promoting images of police officers meant to console: “There have been a number of violent clashes between law enforcement and demonstrators across the country — but in some cities, officers have knelt in solidarity with demonstrators.” The syntax here is illuminating. Balanced on an em-dash, the sentence asks us to weigh these two acts against each other. But the grammar is certainly stacked in favor of the latter phrase. Moving from an agentless impersonal construction (“there have been a number of violent clashes”) to the active voice (“officers have knelt”), this account grants more weight and legitimacy to the acts of supposed “solidarity.” Such shifts in voice are all too common. As Patrick Blanchfield has noted, police violence causes the English language to twist in unusual ways.

    The story of this sentence is: they are violent, but then they kneel. However this reverses the typical order of events: officers kneel for a photo-op and then violently attack protesters. This is what we saw in Buffalo, NY. Five officers knelt in Niagara Square before an 8 p.m. curfew on June 3rd. Detective Losi said they were acting “in solidarity” with the protesters. The following evening, in the same square, two officers shoved a 75-year-old protester to the ground. He sustained a serious head injury after hitting the pavement. One of the officers who had pushed the protester began to bend over to check on him, while the very same Detective Losi grabbed the officer by the back of his uniform and pushed him to keep on walking.

    Rather than placing the images of police brutality in opposition to images of police kneeling, we should see them as mutually constitutive. One makes possible the other. Under cover of such images portraying positive interactions, the police continue to brutalize protesters with virtual impunity. These photo ops offer a visual accompaniment to the ready-made narrative that the problem consists merely in weeding out a few “bad apples,” rather than fundamentally dismantling the system of policing. Such gestures cost the officers nothing, but buy them much in terms of symbolic capital. Photos of cops kneeling or hugging protesters muddy the waters. Sure, you have seen police drive into a crowd of peaceful protesters, but have you seen this photo of a cop kneeling?

    AP Photo/John Bazemore

    While the flattest reading of these photos tells a story of reconciliation, this is not the only narrative available within these frames. When we linger on the image of an officer with his arms wrapped around a protester, we might begin to notice the differences in their bodies. The officer’s face is obscured by his riot helmet, face shield, and gas mask. He wears a bullet-proof vest, while the protester wears only a t-shirt and shorts. We might use the available visual evidence as an occasion to think about the encounter that extends beyond the frame. We might ask why the officer needs riot gear and how it will be put to use. Our attention might shift to the faceless row of officers who stand in the background brandishing shields. All this might lead us to reflect on the outsize police budget that finances such gear. Or we might remember the originary act of violence that led to this encounter in the first place.

    In this photograph, the figure who most commands my attention is an officer on the right. He looks directly at the camera. His right hand clutches what appears to be a large semi-automatic rubber bullet gun. Two objects shaped like light bulbs hang from his chest  —  I look this up and find that they are flash-bang grenades. A tear gas cannister is tucked into one of the folds of his uniform. How could anyone place faith in the promise of the police-protester embrace in the face of such abundant counterevidence? Such visual details work to deconstruct the very message the images supposedly convey.

    In another photograph of Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett hugging a Black woman, I find my eye drawn to his badge. A black band covers his identifying badge number. Many officers in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Seattle have been covering their badge numbers, claiming they are mourning bands worn to honor the officers who have died of COVID-19. (Given his concern for the virus, I wonder why he is not wearing a mask.) Concerns have been voiced about how this practice would frustrate accountability in the event of police violence. It seems an indication of the intent to commit unlawful acts.

    The more I look at these images, the more I see the hugs as another display of power. This embrace seems to say, You must routinely bear the brunt of our violence and still display love for us because, in this one moment, I have chosen not to harm you. It is the action of an abusive partner who beats you and then bears flowers. It is worth repeating that, according to several studies, at least 40% of police officers are reported domestic abusers. Domestic violence is two to four times more common in families of police officers than the general population.

    I imagine it will not be long before these images are absorbed into advertisements. Think, for example, of Budweiser’s “Typical Americans” commercial for the 2020 Super Bowl. The ad used footage from the 2016 Charlotte protests over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. The commercial spotlights images of Ken Nwadike Jr., peace activist and motivational speaker, as he offers hugs to police officers in riot gear. Or consider the 2017 Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner that depicted a protest in which people carried signs with anodyne phrases like “Join the conversation” and “Love.” In the ad, Jenner leaves a photoshoot to join the protest. Her brave act of solidarity is handing a police officer a can of Pepsi; when he takes a sip, the crowd cheers. Perhaps this is the kind of feel-good parade, shorn of any concrete political demands, that Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson had in mind when he told protesters in Flint, Michigan: “I want to make this a parade, not a protest.” The Pepsi ad was quickly pulled a day after distribution for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, but it seems we are here again.

    The media’s appetite for such imagery is revealing, if unsurprising. Corporations have an investment in maintaining the legitimacy of the police, given their role in managing economic inequality and exploitation. How much easier it is to imagine that the problem rests on the actions of individuals. Neither a hug nor a can of soda will solve the systemic racism at the root of our policing institutions. As Alex Vitale notes, procedural policing done correctly in this country is still racist policing.


    In early May, a time that already feels so distant, the art historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis wrote about the lack of images of the coronavirus pandemic. The archive of images attesting to the crisis seemed as invisible as the virus itself. Of course, there were the photos of empty shelves, of masked faces, of sourdough starter. But few were the photographs documenting the human suffering caused by the virus. We know the power of images: to bear witness, to furnish evidence, to galvanize an apathetic public. What would it mean, she wondered, to go without such images?

    Now we have a surfeit of images. The photographs of the protests offer an estranged picture of the crisis; while not the expected images of a pandemic, they present its complexities in startling relief. The urgent demand that “Black lives matter” is also an indictment of a deadly pandemic disproportionately killing Black people; of the conditions that made it so; of a $1200 stimulus check; of not cancelling the rent; of no sick leave or hazard pay; of insufficient PPE; of reversing health protections for trans people; of spending more on police than on healthcare.

    Self-isolation and social-distancing were always acts of solidarity to protect those most vulnerable among us, a sacrifice made for the good of the collective. But it looked and felt like our atomized, individualistic society taken to a dystopian extreme. As millions of protestors march — keeping safe distance, wearing masks, giving out food and medical supplies, healing the wounded — they make visible the social bonds that were momentarily hidden. Azoulay’s citizenry of photography remains a “hypothetical public,” but it is one struggling to be born right now in the streets.


    Top image: Dan Aasland, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0