Images of black death satisfy disturbing desires and purposes


The protests sweeping the United States after the latest police killing of a black man again speak to the ability of images to evoke powerful emotional responses. George Floyd died this week after police apprehended him in Minneapolis. A video shows a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, with his knee on Floyd’s neck as the latter pleads that he cannot breathe. Within hours protests began.

Floyd’s death happened just three months after Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was killed by two white men. A video was distributed showing the African-American jogger being pursued and shot in the state of Georgia. 

These killings happening as the US marked a grim milestone — more than 100 000 Covid-19 deaths. The pandemic also appears to have generated a flood of distressing images. 

“In the 16 years I have followed news photography,” writes Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures, a web-based nonprofit, “I never would have imagined that pictures depicting the ill, the dying and the dead would reach the volume and visibility we have seen in this crisis so far.”

There is a history of images of black death being publicly available in the US. From postcards commemorating lynchings to today’s videos on social media, black corpses and those dying have been treated as a public spectacle. 

The same is the case with the US media’s portrayal of death in other countries. Images of tragedies such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa outpace the coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in volume. 

Such imagery is not limited to the US. Brutality in Kenya generates shocking images, though only a few make it to the TV screens. Two that did were the beating of Boniface Manono by Kenyan police in 2016 and the cellphone footage of the public execution of Mohamed Khadar in 2017 by plain-clothed policeman. On social media, however, there is a constant stream of images of violence. 

There is little discussion about the ethics and effects of gruesome images. When used judiciously, images can communicate the horror of a situation in a way words cannot. Their absence in the coverage of conflict or tragedy tends to sanitise the situation. But these images can traumatise people. 

Safiya Umoja Noble, of the University of California, notes that almost 30 years of graphic videos going back to the beating of African-American Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers, three of them white, has not resulted in more convictions, but rather has a trauma-inducing effect on black people.

News outlets may have ignoble reasons for using violent images. Images of black death have “a tremendous amount of media value” in the news cycle and the “experts” industry, says Noble.And Allissa Richardson of the University of Southern California notes that “images of white people’s deaths are removed from news coverage all the time”. 

Open discussion about graphic imagery of black death on mainstream and social media is needed. The potential harm should not outweigh the benefits. Recognising that publishing images of death and dying involves ethical choices may lead to them being used briefly and respectfully — and only for purposes such as social justice. It may lead us to ask, as the author of On Photography Susan Sontag did: “What pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown.”And why.

Patrick Gathara is a journalist, writer and cartoonist in Kenya

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Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara is a communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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