August 6, 2012

Shooting Aftermath: Visualizing the Sikhs in Oak Creek

Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

My question is, how much does exoticism come into play picturing the Sikh community after the tragic Oak Creek shooting at the Temple in Oak Creek?

The news photos of Sikhs taken at the Temple following the shooting spree on Sunday, especially compared to aftermath images from Aurora, seem to reflect more pensiveness, even a sense of the everyday, than they do shock or grief. There are surely many practical differences, but there must surely be cultural factors at work also, including the community’s concern — being suddenly and intensely on view — with prejudice and stereotyping (factors that seem to have precipitated the hate crime) and, above all, further safety concerns.

Although the story is still fresh and raw, two questions it feels important to put on the table from the outset are: how does the camera — and how does the photographer balancing journalistic integrity with commercial motive– avoid depicting the Sikhs as “the other,” already appreciating how much the visual power of skin color, and, particularly, colorful pants, tunics and turbans create a strong visual pull toward exoticism?


The photo of the two men above was taken by a photographer for the Oak Creek Patch. The artful photo just above is a Getty image.


This Reuters photo of residents waiting for news is colorful and strangely picnic-like.

Sikh Temple shooting

Beyond the everyday quality of the scene here, I’m interested in the way this photo communicates the quality of “us” (blonde, Western, authority at the end of the path, cultural “uniforms”) and “them.”

Buck deer Sikh temple shooting

And then, I have some concerns about this image circulating as part of the Getty edit. (In a previous version of the post, I made a comment that was too flip here, and I apologize for it.) One one hand, I understand how it articulates fear and crazy. Where I have concerns about it, though, is that it seems to model the response of the animal as a more typical or culturally appropriate one in contrast to the look of the Sikhs, who are not exhibiting the same kind of anxiety.  Of course, the last thing you want in this case — and it’s the reason I would have dropped it out of the edit — is to, in any way, set up a comparison with an (exotic) animal.

(Updated for clarity/perspective. 10 am PDT.)

(photo: Joe Todor/Oak Creek caption: Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek 8 / 5 / 2012.)(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: At least six people were killed when a shooter, who was later shot dead by a police officer, opened fire on Sikh congregants in a Milwaukee suburb.) (photo: Allen Fredrickson / Reuters caption: Members of the Sikh temple wait for news following a mass shooting that left seven persons dead including the shooter.)(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: People mill around in front of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin where at least one gunman fired upon people at a service August, 5, 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin. At least six people were killed when a shooter, who was later shot dead by a police officer, opened fire on congregants in the Milwaukee Darren Hauck/Getty Images.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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