March 28, 2012

Reading the Pictures: Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman As Stereotypes

One thing that’s been bugging me is how, from the time the Trayvon Martin story broke until this past Sunday, he and George Zimmerman were overwhelmingly represented by just a few photos. There is the (full-size and cropped) cherub-like photo of Trayvon in the red t-shirt with the word “Hollister” on it. And then, there is the photo of him, seemingly also about the same age of 11, wearing that now renowned hoodie.

For Zimmerman’s part, the only photo that I’d seen circulated was the (mug shot-like) one above featuring the grim and glum (“I must of done it”) expression, the neighborhood watch volunteer sporting that orange-y shirt (evocative of a prison jumpsuit). Comparing the two, which were published in innumerable places side-by-side, seems like an open-and-shut case, no?

But then, fasten your seat belts. Starting with the story this weekend, among other reportedly less-than-complementary history, including Trayvon having had a baggie with trace amounts of pot in his backpack, the “visuals of choice” have begun to shift.

I haven’t actually seen these two photos published side-by-side, but with the stories mentioned above, as well as the reports of alleged eye-witnesses offering more complicated descriptions of what happened in Florida that fateful evening, it’s interesting to see Zimmerman — no longer just the volunteer neighborhood watch guy but now the mortgage risk analyst — (“suddenly”) smiling while Trayvon has suddenly leaped six years “morphing” into a six-foot-three, not as innocent and happy-go-lucky-looking black seventeen-year-old male.

With new facts and alleged facts swirling and the nation paying close attention, beware the emergence of previously unseen imagery in combination with the tendency to stereotype. Perhaps the most troubling instance so far is ABC’s use of the photo above left.

It’s one thing for this image to be published on a flier circulated in the black community announcing Tayvon’s memorial. It’s another thing, however, the way ABC extracts the image from the flier so it loses its R.I.P.-context, and crops it so that it amplifies the skull-and-cross bones and the scary blood red imagery without the context of Trayvon’s name, using it to close out its Nightly News story raising doubts about Martin’s role in his death, this image in the video clip appearing coincident with the words:

“At this point, Zimmerman claims Martin tried to grab his gun. Thats when he shot the 17 year old.”

Heading into visually dangerous territory, we’re already a long way from hoodies, skittles and ice tea.

(photos: AP Photo/Handout-Martin Family; Orange County Jail; unattributed; unattributed.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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