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When Cotton Was King

Memory32

Photographs serve many purposes, not least witnessing and memory. Here we have a photograph of a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta near the town of Money. But what is being witnessed or remembered?

You probably have never heard of Money, Mississippi, but you probably have heard of Emmett Till. An African American born in Chicago, he visited relatives in Money at the age of fourteen during the summer of 1955. While there he allegedly “flirted” with a married woman—a white, married woman—in a local grocery store. And for that “crime” he was stripped, beaten and shot in the head, his face mutilated beyond all recognition, and his bodied tied to a cotton-gin fan and deposited in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral and the now famous photograph of the disfigured Emmett Till appeared first in Jet magazine before being picked up by the mainstream media. The two perpetrators—Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam—were found “not-guilty” by an all white jury who deliberated for less than an hour in a segregated courthouse in nearby Sumner, Mississippi.

One might imagine that a contemporary photographer seeking to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till might photograph the dilapidated grocery store—or its historical marker—where Till violated the rigid codes of the Jim Crow South, or perhaps the spot on the river where Till’s body was eventually discovered. Or maybe even the Sumner, Mississippi courthouse. Instead, Andrew Lichtenstein chose to photograph a nearby cotton field.

It is hard to know if the sun is rising or setting here, but whether you imagine that the camera is facing east or west there is no question that cotton is cast within a metaphorical timescape. The sun is either setting on cotton and hence a reminder that by the 1950s the economy that relied upon it was in full decline, or the sun is rising on it, and a reminder of the new day soon to be be ushered in by the nascent Civil Rights Movement. In either case, the photograph of a cotton field in Money, Mississippi is a poignant testament to the fact that while Bryant and Milam lynched Till and tied his body to a rusted cotton-gin fan, it was truly cotton—and the economic and social order that it animated—that killed him.

Andrew Lichtenstein, Forgotten Moments

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If it Bleeds it Leads … Sometimes

Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 9.29.33 PM

Photographs of violent death show up in the mainstream media slideshows with some degree of regularity.  Not every single day, to be sure, but often enough to identify some sort of genre.  Such images don’t always include mourners, as does this one, which amplify the pain and suffering by extending it to the living, here a family member in grief, but they almost always feature the bruised and bloody body, often gruesomely so.  This image comes from Cairo, where the  government recently cracked down on supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, but it could have been almost anywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Chile, to Syria, Tibet and beyond.

The key phrase in that last sentence is “almost anywhere in the world,” because it is highly unlikely—approaching certainty—that we would ever see such a photograph taken in the United States and on display in the mainstream media.  Going back as far as the 1950s one of the very few exceptions I can think of is the photograph of the tortured and mangled body of Emmett Till, and that horrific image was put on display because his outraged mother insisted that the world bear witness to his lynching.  Another exception might be one of the photographs that appeared at the time of the slaying of students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, though even there the most vividly gruesome images (here and here) received very little sustained attention, while a less  gruesome image went on to achieve iconic status.  And there maybe other exceptions, though I am hard pressed to identify them, but in any case they are so rare as to stand as proof to the rule of the convention.

The obvious question to ask  is why?  Why do we encounter such photographs from other parts of the world with regularity in the mainstream media, but not from our own world? This is not an easy question to answer.  Perhaps fewer such pictures are actually taken in the US, but that only begs the question, for while there might not be the same degree of concentrated violence in the US as elsewhere, there are surely enough occasions where such photographs could be taken and shown, but are not.  Or perhaps it is that we privilege the privacy of the individual in our own culture, but don’t allow privacy concerns to impede the ways in which we represent and depict alien cultures.  Or perhaps it is simply a perverse voyeurism that promotes our own culture over those we might characterize as “others.”  And there maybe other possibilities at well.

However we answer this first question, there is a second and, perhaps, more important question to ask:  Given the regularity and almost ubiquity of such images in the mainstream press, how is it that we see them without actually noticing them, viewing them all too frequently with a tired glance as we flip from one image to the next.  Just another photograph.  Some are no doubt content to answer this question with the old sop of “compassion fatigue,” but if that were true it is unlikely that photographers would keep taking the images or that editors would keep posting them with regularity, especially in slideshows where they are often surrounded with other images that don’t clearly address or inflect the violence that was perpetrated.  There has to be something else going on here.  I don’t know the answer, but the regular (commodified?) presence of such images of people from distant lands is surely a provocation to consider how it reflects our values and desires as much, if not more, than those of the people and countries being depicted.

Photo Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

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Photographer's Showcase: A (Southern) Civil Rights Memorial

Till, Store

We are pleased to introduce NCN readers to Jessica Ingram‘s “A Civil Rights Memorial,” a photographic exploration of the ways in which important moments in the struggle for civil rights in the American south are remembered—or perhaps more to the point, the ways in which such events risk being  forgotten as they fade into the landscape of time or are otherwise awkwardly remembered as part of the local context in which they occurred.  The above photograph  is the contemporary, unmarked site of of the store in Money, Mississippi where in 1955  Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was accused of whistling at a white woman, an event that led to him being beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. To see the exhibit click here.

We first encountered Ingram’s work at the Visura Magazine Spotlight—a site designed to support emerging artists and students. It is a web resource that we strongly encourage NCN readers to visit.

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