Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
April 28, 2015

The Looting Selfie and Portraits of Media Bias in Baltimore

Out of the more than 2,000 people who marched to City Hall that afternoon, Al-Jazeera America reports that about 100 were responsible for the chaos. CNN noted that there was an “overwhelming peaceful majority” and that members of protests put themselves between the “small group” of angry demonstrators and police lines, leading Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to thank the peacemakers in the crowd…. Despite the fact that there have been peaceful protests in Baltimore every day since Gray died on April 19, some folks seem determined to frame the narrative around the actions of a disgruntled minority.

One Tweet Shows the Hypocrisy of the Media’s Reaction to Riots in Baltimore (Mic.com)

It’s not that there hasn’t been visual coverage of peaceful protests or constructive acts of civil disobedience in response to Gray’s death at the hand of the Baltimore PD. For example, take a look at the photo story penned by Alex Madrigal for Fusion titled: These are the most striking pictures of the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. Or, there’s the article and accompanying photo montage at BlackWestchester titled: 10,000 Strong Peacefully Protest In Downtown Baltimore, Media Only Reports The Violence & Arrest of Dozens. Representative of big media’s bias toward violence, however, is this 34 photo slideshow, “Images of the Unrest in Baltimore,” published at The Atlantic, or this 77 picture slideshow Zimbio published featuring images from Getty, titled: “Protests in Baltimore After Funeral Held For Baltimore Man Who Died While In Police Custody.”

In talking about “leading by bleeding,” however, and the inherent racial stereotyping when the visual media feasts on mayhem and acts of violence, criticism can come up short in terms detailing how and in what ways the images shortchange us. Looking through the current photo galleries, there are two elements that stand out. One, a factor common to most of this kind of coverage, is geography.

If the visual coverage of violence is disproportionate, one has to always consider how much those incidents are contained to a specific moment and locale — a particularly dangerous stretch of streets, the vandalizing of a particular store, the destruction of a specific vehicle drawing the media hive.

What was peculiar to the photo coverage of protest violence this week, though, was the portraiture. Like our post yesterday about the protester and the CNN reporter, I don’t recall citizens so willing to share such derision with news photographers in an actual pose before. I’m assuming its cumulative, the frustration almost beyond the pale at this point, like a fever blister oozing open. Infected over time by the highly publicized cases — such as Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Manuel Loggins Jr., Ronald Madison, Sean Bell — these images seems to capture the cauterization by the unrelenting, and literal rapid-fire of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and now Mr. Gray.

The photo leading this post, for example, was a first for me in what’s become the most popular popular genre of both news and personal photography, the “looting selfie.” From this, and other photos, I didn’t get the sense he felt caught unaware.

A consistent way the epidemic of police violence (or, more accurately, the growing exposition of it) and the skyrocketing frustration expresses itself in these poses is in the blunt demonstration of the middle finger. (I imagine those empty liquor bottles, by the way, are all too easy to find.)

Ironically, this man delivers the bird underneath liberated toilet paper. It’s the consumer good of choice for the selfie subject, too, the bag the man just above is carrying also revealing supplies for a baby. The man’s face looking almost quizzical, the fire engulfing the police van almost like a projection.

(Here is still another bird, by the way.)

In this instance, the caption says: “A young man covers his face to protect against pepper spray and tear gas during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray.” This photo included in the Zimbio “show” amidst violent photo after violent photo, the trappings of “the mask,” the post-Trayvon ambiguity of the hoodie and, especially, the expression in this otherwise sensitive image is as likely to be interpreted as “gangster” and threatening, as much as hurt or questioning.

As suggested above, the repeated social blows inflicted on African-Americans by state violence easily explains these blatant portraits. More confusing, on the other hand, is how much their inclusion in photo galleries obsessed with violence make these citizens seem as much the proponents of hate as visual respondents to it.

(Updated for clarity, 5/2/15)

(photo 1: Patrick Semansky/AP. caption: A man holds a cell phone as he carries items near looted stores in Baltimore on April 27, 2015. photo 2, 3 & 5: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. caption: Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore’s west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. caption 4: (Editor’s note: Image contains obscene gesture.) A young person holds empty glass bottles before throwing them at the police during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore’s west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. photo 4: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters. caption:  A man carries goods near a looted CVS drugstore as he walks past burning vehicles during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 27, 2015. caption 5: A young man covers his face to protect against pepper spray and tear gas during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore’s west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody.)

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