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.
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.