NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

May 6th, 2013

What Does Injustice Look Like?

Posted by Lucaites in visual memory

Birmingham_campaign_dogs

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama.  By many accounts it was the tipping point in generating national public support for the civil rights movement, and much of that effect is often attributed to the national news reports that showed Birmingham police officers using attack dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protestors. Chief among the most famous of those images is Bill Hudson’s photograph of high school student Bill Gadsden being attacked by a police dog.  It appeared the next day, May 4th, above the fold in the New York Times and has been reprinted perhaps more than any other image affiliated with the civil rights movement.  The photograph was memorialized in a statue in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park in 1993, fixing the meaning of the civil rights movement as a response to repressive state action.

There is much that could be said about this photograph, but perhaps most important is the way in which it puts the relationship between dominance and acquiescence on public display. Prior to the Boycott in Birmingham one could find photographs that visualized the ways in which white citizens sought to enforce the codes of social and racial hierarchy through verbal and physical intimidation, the most prominent example being the photograph of Hazel Barnes “barking” at Elizabeth Eckrich in the streets of Little Rock.  But typically such images located the agency of such control in the hands of civil society, i.e., ordinary citizens.  Here the agents of action are duly authorized police officers armed with guns and in control of highly trained attack dogs.  And of course that marks a huge difference.  Indeed, it should be of little surprise to anyone that the scene above, cast in the full light of day and executed by officers of the state, was characterized as a “legal lynching.”

To see the image through the haze of memory and framed by the contemporary consensus that state sponsored racial segregation was a profound injustice destined to be eliminated by a truly egalitarian society is in some ways to dull the effective, functional power of the image at its point of production and dissemination–however powerful it remains today.  But imagine seeing the photograph in 1963 and in the context of reports made by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, that the protestors were a serious threat to public security.

The young man in the photograph does not appear to be a threat to anybody.  Note in particular his somewhat passive stance.  Despite being viciously attacked by a police dog his right hand rests at his side, while his left hand is on the police officers arm in a manner that seems either to be steadying himself or pushing the police officer away.  We might imagine a much more defensive or even aggressive stance in response to such an attack, but here we have an almost textbook example of nonviolent resistance.

The lack of threat is manifest in other features of the image.  Notice, in particular the countenance of the two police officers.   One seems to be pulling the youth into the dog’s maw, not so much trying to subdue him as to hold him still while the dog attacks.  The other police officer, with a handgun prominently displayed in its holster, heels his dog while he observes the scene before him.  One might imagine that if the black youth were truly a threat, so much so as to warrant the use of a dog to attack him, that the second police officer would be more directly and actively engaged.  Surely he would have his dog assisting in subduing the suspect, or that he would have pulled his gun.  But nothing of the like happens.  And the reason is manifest, for the action in the center of the screen is not about public safety.  Rather it is a public spectacle put on display for the enjoyment of the second police officer (and who he represents) and for the intimidation of the black citizens in the background.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was challenged by reticent and fearful black religious leaders in Birmingham with the question, why are you here, he responded, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”  Injustice can be a difficult concept to put into words, but once made palpably visible it is difficult to ignore. Sometimes we have to look closely to see it for what it is, sometimes it is there simply waiting to be seen.

Photo Credit:  Bill Hudson/AP

4 Responses to ' What Does Injustice Look Like? '

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to ' What Does Injustice Look Like? '.

  1. Dave McLane said,

    on May 6th, 2013 at 6:20 am

    I can’t remember where I saw another explanation for the above photo but it came to a different conclusion based on additional information. One of the problems is that such photos are only one still image whereas if you were to see a short clip showing before and after things often look quite different. Because of this, I think that applying emotional words to such scenes such as “passive,” “viciously,” preclude coming to a rational conclusion. Another problem is editors/photographers chose just such stills to project their emotional but non-factional conclusions.

  2. Hariman said,

    on May 6th, 2013 at 6:43 am

    Dave, you many have been thinking of a critique by Martin A. Berber, who claims that the Birmingham images evoked sympathy at the cost of implying black powerlessness; Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  3. Clay M said,

    on May 6th, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Perhaps it was this piece on BagNewsNotes back in January. Gives quite a different account of what actually occured. However, the photograph tells a different story and does evoke the feelings mentioned in this article without any context.

    http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2013/01/on-the-wrong-side-of-history-further-thoughts-on-an-iconic-civil-rights-photograph/

  4. Dave McLane said,

    on May 6th, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Perhaps Berber’s book has the same thing but what I remember was quite a few years ago. This is not to say that such images didn’t evoke sympathy at the cost of implying black powerlessness because I think there was such only that I challenge that “pictures don’t lie” as they do. I don’t feel that idea is wrong, it’s just that it’s incomplete.

Leave a reply


FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains images and excerpts the use of which have not been pre-authorized. This material is made available for the purpose of analysis and critique, as well as to advance the understanding of rhetoric, politics, and visual culture.

The ‘fair use’ of such material is provided for under U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Section 107, material on this site (along with credit links and attributions to original sources) is viewable for educational and intellectual purposes. If you are interested in using any copyrighted material from this site for any reason that goes beyond ‘fair use,’ you must first obtain permission from the copyright owner.