Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Prism’d Perspectives

Written by: on October 14, 2019

On August 9th, 2014, Ferguson Police Officer, Darren Wilson, gunned down Michael Brown in his Canfield Green neighborhood and left him lay on the sunbaked street for four hours.  Rather than being an isolated event, the shooting was yet another in a long and storied stream of events that manifest the systemic oppression of Ferguson’s black community by a majority white police force.  This one, however, was the spark that released the collective anguish of the black community and unified them against the violence that they’d suffered.


Four days later, after back-to-back evenings of protest where violence mixed with non-violent strategies created a confusing and unstable environment, Ferguson Police, newly militarized, unleashed a barrage of tear gas canisters at protestors.  Recently minted activist, Edward Crawford was there, alongside Saint Louis Post-Dispatch journalist, Robert Cohen.  The moment that connected these two men resulted in this iconic image which, based on one’s proximity to power and pain, generated diametrically opposed interpretations.

(Credit Image: Robert Cohen/St Louis Post-Dispatch/ZUMAPRESS.com)


This picture, ripped from the context of the intersection between Chambers Road and West Flourissant on the hot evening of August 13th, 2014 reinforced for many who were proximate to power and far from pain their understanding of the rogue violence of the black community and, thus, justified for them the police force’s use of violence to subdue the uprising.  Further, it created all of the visual evidence needed to convince them that the death of Michael Brown was an unfortunate necessity such that order could become a possibility within the ghetto.  For many who were proximate to pain and far from power, the picture of Edward Chambers became the icon of the resistance: he was a freedom fighter pursuing the yet-to-be-realized ideals of the flag he wore. It emboldened a national uprising of non-violent protests against the systems and structures that had been generated by white supremacy and had targeted dark-skinned bodies.


One Image.  Prism’d Perspectives.


In her third edition of Doing Visual Enthnography, Sarah Pink explores visual ethnography which is the use of photography, video, and web design to study humanity and culture in everyday life. The book reveals her fascination with how media is, in and of itself, a form of knowledge that is interpreted differently based on both the situating of the image and the meaning-making of the researcher or viewer (Pink, 143).  As her argument for the power of visuals to create meaning unfolds, she is adamant that “attention must be paid to the contexts in which images are produced….” (Pink, 147) and is fascinated by how interpretation of media may or may not match the accuracy of the moment captured. Based on one’s interpretation of an image or video clip, one may or may not come to the same conclusion as the researcher.


Now, while Doing Visual Ethnography is positioned for the academic community and focuses on how researchers utilize media throughout their work, and while Pink does well to include a new chapter in this edition on the role of the internet, her work left me wondering about the shifting sands of authority and where the public now turns its attention in order to secure their knowledge and make their meaning. With the onset of smart phone technology and the advances of social media, citizen journalism seems to be replacing the need for the credible expert, resutling in the opportunity for the masses to come to our own conclusions.


With video cameras now embedded in all of our hands, those formally deemed as credible experts are consistently being exposed as agenda-driven pawns in a race for the hearts and minds of the masses.  Time and again, “expert” analysis is being replaced by visual evidence, captured on the devices of the public, that frequently exposes that the opposite of what the trusted expert is suggesting is, in fact, true.  The use of real-time, face-time, live-stream technology has created a new, liberated channel for meaning to be made based not on expert analysis, but on personal interpretation of live footage.


In light of these reflections, let’s return to the iconic photo of, recently deceased, Edward Crawford.  In a follow-up interview of the now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Robert Cohen, he offered a retelling of the video clip that would have unfolded had he been recording rather than snapping photographs that evening.  Cohen paints a picture of a young father of four who had turned out that night to participate in the non-violent demonstrations.  He later learned that Crawford had selected his favorite shirt in an effort to communicate that the America of his dreams is better than what he had grown up experiencing.  He chose the shirt because he wanted to expose the power of freedom to protest and the irony that black people are still fighting for that freedom.


As the evening unfolded and, with little indication that things would escalate, a generous protestor gave Crawford a bag of Red Hot Riplets which, on each bag, boasts this snack as “the flavor of the American heartland.” As he sampled his snack, the police, feeling the heat of the advancing line of protestors, began launching tear gas canisters into the crowd.  Crawford watched as one of the canisters came dangerously close to a group of children and, without hesitation, ran into the street with bag of chips still clutched in his left hand, picked up the burning hot canister, and threw it as far from the children as possible.


From Cohen’s perspective, rather than an act of violence, the moment he captured of Edward Crawford was an act of protection and preservation of his community that left his right hand permanently scarred. Had we known that this was a heroic rather than violent action, how would it have shaped the understanding of those proximate to power of the Ferguson uprising?  How would it have informed their commitment to becoming allies of the resistance rather than accomplices through indifference?


There is power in the use of images and video to both understand humanity and shape the perspectives of the multitudes.  Thus, there is truth in that fact that an image is worth a thousand words.  May we hold with humility the fact that an image is also worth a thousand interpretations that may or may not be accurate nor generate the outcomes that we desire.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

13 responses to “Prism’d Perspectives”

  1. Joe Castillo says:

    Jer great post! I think back on March 2, 1991, close to where I live. That date will change the way police conduct business forever. LAPD Beating of Rodney King Was Captured On Video. “If only there was some proof of what you’re saying,” so many would hear. But now there was. Finally. A new era: an era of personal “camcorders” that meant anyone, anywhere could theoretically catch the police on film carrying out illegal acts of brutality and injustice.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Joe. Such a great example. And I agree…that was the moment when everything changed. No one could deny that what happened to Rodney King was unjustified. Little did we (the dominant culture community) know that this happened on the regular to our black relatives. My late freind, Bassam Masri, a Palestinian American and native of Ferguson, MO pointed to the footage of the Rodney King beating as his motivation for being the primary livestreamer of the Ferguson Uprising. The Arab Spring livestreamers and those who are livestreaming from within the Hong Kong protests are contemporary branches of King’s citizen journalist. Amazing, isn’t it, how upgrades in technology have literally changed the way the masses are able to crawl inside global tragedies rather than to simply hear the commentary & interpretations by news anchors. Again, while Pink is focused on how researchers utilize visual media, perhaps a book needs to be written on visual ethnography from with our world’s uprising.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer, thank you for this thoughtful post. I wonder how different is this from the click-bait thoughts you shared about previously? The snap? The post? Part of the story? Sometimes the whole story? Often times not.

    On BBC, I recently watched the body cam footage from the Ft. Worth police officer’s killing of Atatiana Jefferson. Such events have become so common place that this evening, the story isn’t even listed under the US & Canada section. I had to look under the World tab to see the updates. Is such imagery visual ethnography? Or based on the speed of news and events, would we need to comprise multiple images and stories over a period of time to garner a fuller ethnographic picture? It’s one thing to be on location and study bull riders in Spain, it’s another to be a journalist, citizen, or officer capturing immediate events that are released into the world via social and news networks in real time. Is there a difference between journalism (responsible or not) and visual ethnography? In what ways does visual ethnography need to adapt to our swiftly changing, image filled world? Can it even keep up?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy. Great thoughts here. Honestly, my impression of the general public’s perspsective of black lives being prematurely extinguished by (most frequently) white police officers is that these events are seen as unfortunate but necessary casualties in the “greater pursuit” of law and order. If serious, academic visual ethnography was done on the now multiutdes of images, body-cam video, and footage from citizen journalists, I wonder what conclusions could be (must be) drawn regarding what is actually happening in our streets. One reality is for certain: our black relatives do NOT see these as isolated events. They don’t need academic research to tell them that the system is doing exactly what the system was originally designed to do.

  3. Nancy Blackman says:

    I’m going to piggy back off what Joe mentioned. There is a new Citizen app. Maybe it’s not really new, but it’s new to me. The premise of it is that you can be instantly notified of “dangers” near you. It’s called the Citizen app because citizens of the city are posting up photos and videos as things are happening. Talk about a whole of PTSD.

    Since the word “ethnography” means “the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures” and we are in a century where social media and apps like this are exploding with all sorts of visual information, I wonder how much is too much.

    Incidently, it was after the Michael Brown incident that I took a long sabbatical from the news and Facebook.

    Also, I will push back on this statement (as I did with Darcy as well). “May we hold with humility the fact that an image is also worth a thousand interpretations that may or may not be accurate nor generate the outcomes that we desire.” Imagery is imagery in its original state. I get that it can be photoshopped and manipulated to create fake news, but imagery can emulate goodness (which I know you know) and how you interpret an image, no matter how original it is, will be vastly different then someone else. Probably everyone else. We can be responsible for what we know but if we take on the interpretations of others as if we are wearing their baggage, what are we left with?

    Which begs my original thought, how much is too much?

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Jer!

  4. Jer Swigart says:

    Thanks Nancy.

    To your first point about is the oversaturation of images and videos too much? On the one hand, I’d say, “Absolutely.” The sheer volume is breathtaking and, I fear, causing too many of us to move toward a place of paralyzed indifference toward the plight of those marginalized by unjustice systems who live among us. Further, I recognize how this oversaturation of images and footage, ripped from context, are being woven together to support a particular agenda or demonize a particular person or group. On the other hand, I see value in the burgeoning access to real-time footage from within previously inaccessible places and movements as I watch it serving the underside of power by validating their story over the convenient and frequently self-serving narratives of the dominant culture. So is it all too much? Maybe…and it’s not going to change. So I guess we have to become the people who learn how to navigate it as visual ethnographers.

    As to your pushback, I’m not sure that I understand what you’re pushing back against as I’m not making an argument that we take on anyone else’s interpretation. What I’m suggesting is exactly what I think you’re saying: namely, that we must, with humility, recognize that based on the positioning of a person, two people might view the exact same image, interpret it and, therefore, build their understanding of “truth” in ways that are both contrary to one another AND both might be missing the actual significance of the image altogether. I’m inviting us toward a deeper humility with ourselves and others. Let me know if we’re vibing or if I’m still missing what you’re saying.

  5. Greg Reich says:

    You wrote “Based on one’s interpretation of an image or video clip, one may or may not come to the same conclusion as the searcher.” I grew up during the Vietnam War. Despite a person’s opinion or political feelings of this time of great turmoil and civil unrest what was obvious was the surprised shift in public opinion on war. Up until Vietnam all wars were a semi private affair that were often glamorised by victory parades and war stories from the winners perspective. Not so with Vietnam, due to the fact that it was the first televised war. For the first time people saw war for the stark reality of what it was not what it was made to be. In our current world of real time with everyone having the ability to be a visual ethnographer sitting in the palm of their hands the lines of responsible research and tackless journalism are being quickly blurred.

    • Jer Swigart says:


      I agree that the live footage of Vietnam was a game-changer for our nation and world. The myth of the glamour of war was exposed and the dire reality of violence toward others and what war does to all involved was revealed.

      However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, with the onslaught of photos and videos available to us, we are all visual ethnographers. The way the masses position our thin and passionate opinions based on our perspectives of what we’re seeing is not the same thing as visual ethnography. And that is one of the problems. To truly be a visual ethnographer requires that we take the time to fully analyze the moment, it’s context and its impact in relation to other similar and contrasting images/footage. Too few of us are willing to put in the time and do that kind of work, choosing, instead to believe that our narrow perspectives are 20/20 vision. Perhaps the road in front of us that we all need to walk is one in which we become visual ethnographers who can offer humble commentary based on research rather than arrogant “truths” based on opinion.

  6. John McLarty says:

    A White House photo came out today of yesterday’s meeting between the President and some members of Congress. Speaker Pelosi is standing, while everyone else is sitting. Some interpreted this as evidence of a meltdown. Others said it was a sign of confidence and strength. In theory, the ones who would know the truth would be those who were actually in the room. But as we’ve seen, the differences in interpretation began with those in the room. I’ve been struggling with this reading this week because of how subjective and contextual images can be. As your post describes, what we experience as an image is only one part of the story.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I’m with you in the subjectivity of photos and footage. As I attempt to point out in my article above, my experience is teaching me that one’s proximity to power shapes one’s lenses through which we see these images. We have to acknowledge this. Before meeting friends and fellow activists on the streets of Ferguson, the predominant understanding of the Edward Crawford image that I had heard among the dominant culture community (who were not there) is that he was throwing a Molotov cocktail. Those on the streets (far from power) knew the truth of what the image represented. That said, it wasn’t until a dominant culture journalist confirmed the non-dominant narrative that the dominant culture was willing to accept it. Honestly, John, the closer I get to the impacted communities, the more suspicious I am of my own perspective.

  7. Steve Wingate says:

    The role of public opinion as the source of truth seems to have been in contention for the replacement of Truth a very, very long time. You wrote, “…the public now turns its attention in order to secure their knowledge and make their meaning.” I am far from being a daily perfectionist here, yet I would challenge all of us to alter all of us to put Scripture, prayer, and corporate worship of Jesus Christ high on the list of where we gather Truth from with a high degree of disagreements. Arguments are good in my opinion, even conflicts are good because without them I would not have had a need for Jesus Christ in the first place.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks, Steve.

      I hear you, and, yet I wonder how you would suggest that one’s understanding of truth, according to Jesus, Scripture, and Holy Spirit, helps us discern what the Edward Crawford image above is all about. I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just inviting you to help us understand how the shaping of “truth” by Jesus, Scripture, and Holy Spirit contributes to the discipline of visual ethnography.

      I would cherish your thoughts.

      • Jer Swigart says:

        While we’re on this topic, four other questions occur to me:

        1. What do we do about the fact that there are so many varying understandings of truth (discerned through Jesus, Scriptures, Holy Spirit) that have been and currently are shaping the contrasting perspectives of and responses to images like the one above?
        2. What do images, like the one above, expose to us about what we believe is true?
        3. What do we do if the “truth” that informs our response to the picture above causes us to demonize Edward and the movement that he’s a part of from a distance?
        4. If our responses from afar to images that we don’t fully understand is disdain and disgust, at what point do we interrogate our “truth” and its sources?

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