‘Magical’ protest photo takes world by storm

You shall not pass: A woman confronts police at a protest in Baton Rouge on July 11th.

Last week, a photograph of a protester in Louisiana was widely circulated. The image has come to define the current tensions between black Americans and US police. Why is it so effective?

Photographer Jonathan Bachman had come to the police headquarters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where demonstrators were protesting at the killing of black men. As he began snapping the stand-off between locals and the police, he heard someone say, ‘Wow — she’s going to get arrested.’

He turned around, and there she was: a lone woman standing in the way of two heavily armoured policemen. She seemed to be repelling them with an almost magical force. Bachman pointed his camera at them. The resulting photo took the world by storm; it was circulated on social media and published in newspapers the world over.

Of course, this is not the first time an image has defined a crisis in the popular imagination. Last year, photos of the drowned Syrian three-year-old Alan Kurdi brought home the horrors of the migrant crisis. For many, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 are indelibly associated with the shot of the ‘tank man’. In 1930, a photo of the lynching of two black men sold thousands of copies, and inspired the famous song Strange Fruit.

These examples illustrate a widely acknowledged truth: images can affect people in ways words cannot. A single photo can change public opinion. Why is this?

According to one view, throughout history pictures have aimed to represent reality as accurately as possible. With the invention of the camera, this process was completed. Certainly, the supposed ability of photos to ‘capture’ reality directly is one appeal of photojournalism. ‘The camera never lies,’ as the adage has it. And when it does — say, through Photoshop — people are disappointed.

At the same time, photos are inherently unnatural. They preserve a moment in time, stripping it of all context and giving it an ethereal quality. As The Guardian art critic said of Bachman’s photo, ‘A moment stilled from days of rage creates a stillness, a silence, into which we pour our belief in the human spirit.’

Photography thus seems to combine contradictory elements. Why is it so important to journalism?

Picture perfect

People want to know the truth about current affairs, say some. With text, events are filtered through the writer’s interpretation, but photos can be trusted to show things as they are. They are honest, direct. What is more, they can immediately be understood by anyone in the world — a bonus in this age of globalised media. Herein lies their power.

That is naive, reply others. Photos show, but do not explain; as such, they are often misleading. In Bachman’s picture, the woman could be anyone. In fact, this is the power of photos: they set down the template for a story, which we are invited to complete. Far from telling the truth, they stimulate the imagination.

You Decide

  1. How does Bachman’s photo make you feel?
  2. Can a photograph change the world?

Activities

  1. Look at Bachman’s photo. Imagine you are either the woman or one of the policemen, and write a 500-word account of how you feel in this exact moment.
  2. As a class, choose a theme conveyed by Bachman’s photo (such as ‘identity’ or ‘protest’). By tomorrow, each come up with an image — either a picture or a photo — that deals with this theme.

Some People Say...

“Photography is truth.”

Jean-Luc Godard

What do you think?

Q & A

I find it harder to read than look at pictures.
That’s normal. After all, humans have been processing visual information since the dawn of time, whereas verbal language — and writing — are relatively recent. No wonder we tend to scan images more quickly, and remember them more easily, than words. This phenomenon is known as the ‘picture superiority effect’.
Wasn’t writing originally pictures?
You’re right. Almost all scripts in use today have their roots in simplified pictures. For example, the letter ‘A’ evolved from an Egyptian hieroglyph of an ox’s head; it gets its sound from ‘Aleph’, an old Semitic word for ‘ox’. One exception is Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which was invented in the 15th century. Its letters were designed to represent the sounds they stand for — no more, no less.

Word Watch

Killing of black men
On July 5th, Baton Rouge police shot a black man dead. The killing exposed longstanding tensions between African Americans and the US police, and set off a string of protests and violent reprisals throughout the country.
Woman
She was later identified as Iesha Evans. She was arrested after the photo was taken, then swiftly released.
Tank man
The photo of a lone man standing before a column of tanks is one of the most famous ever taken. The man has never been identified.
Lynching
Killing somebody for an alleged crime (usually by hanging) without a trial.
One view
This reading of history has flaws. For example, it ignores the development of non-representational art in the 20th century, and the fact that realism is not that important to many non-Western artistic traditions.
Disappointed
Earlier this year, controversy erupted when it emerged that photos by Steve McCurry — he of the famous ‘Afghan girl’ portrait — had been doctored. McCurry defended this: ‘I would define my work as visual storytelling,’ he explained. (See Become An Expert)

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