Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
December 3, 2014

… the more things stay the same.

Of all of the hundreds of photographs of the protests and violence and destruction to come out of Ferguson in the past week it was this image that stung me the most. A lone black man squatting amidst a raging cauldron of hate and fear and frustration, he bears the simple message “Black Lives Matter.” The flames that surround him cast him in a shadow of backlight but illuminate both his sign and the graffiti behind him that implores whoever encounters it to “Kill Cops.”

Each message is equally outrageous and absurd however meaningful it might be under the current circumstances. Of course black lives matter; that the claim even has to be made—and there is no question from this quarter that it does—is a national shame. To incite the killing of police—the avatars of preserving “the peace” and maintaining “order” —is a call to barbarism that beckons to a world governed by the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In short, the photograph is an allegory for how tenuous the fabric of our contemporary society has become.

What made the photograph most striking for me, however, was not the way in which it cautions us against the current tragedy of Ferguson but how it stands as a notice that the problem of black-white relations is the true American tragedy, a problem that never seems to go away, but recurs in cyclical fashion for every generation. And so I could not help but remember another photograph, equally absurd—and equally meaningful in its context—from my youth.

1968 seems so incredibly long ago—a lifetime for those in my generation—that it is hard to think of this photograph as anything but an aide memoire from the era of the civil rights movement. And yet for all the progress we presume to have made in the intervening decades, for all the talk of being in a “post-civil rights” era or a world of “hope,” there is no getting around the fact that the claim to manhood in the older photograph is a precursor to the precarity of black life marked in the contemporary photograph.

The more things change …

— John Lucaites

(cross-posted from No Caption Needed.)

(photo 1: Stephen Lam/Reuters. photo 2: Bob Adelman/Corbis)

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