I can’t get this picture out of my mind.
It was in Baton Rouge, after the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of police, and the killing of five officers in Dallas.
The woman is Ieshia Evans, a nurse from Pennsylvania who traveled to Louisiana to stand up – literally, it turns out – against police attacks on black people. (The photographer is Jonathan Bachman.) The image is surreal, a frozen moment. Evans has been characterized as a superhero, as the statue of liberty, and the small crack in the street between her and the police has been likened to the opening chasm that divides us.
Such is the power of an image.
Images have made Black Lives Matter possible. Shamefully, they didn’t seem to matter so much until cell phones began recording the deaths of people like Sterling. Finally, the deniability that protected racist police evaporated. The world could see and remember the images of people dying…and of people standing against injustice.
Pictures have the power to reframe the world. It happens all the time.
In the 1960s, the onslaught of gripping images, published by news magazines and newspapers, helped drive the Civil Rghts movement, with images of Southern lynchings, demonstrators being attacked with water cannons and dogs, and the iconic March on Washington in 1963. The pictures of brutality shocked us, but the images of courage, like that of Ieshia Evans, gripped us and wouldn’t let go.
Consider one of the iconic images from the 1968: Olympics – the award ceremony for John Carlos and Tommie Smith:
The Civil Rights movement was transitioning to the Black Power movement. The demand for “power,” not just “rights,” made a lot of white people uncomfortable. Carlos and Smith had the gall to bring the movement to the Olympic podium, and the nation was shocked. This photo had an impact that is hard to imagine now – horrifying many, inspiring others. It captured the fears and hopes of the country in a single frame.
Vietnam brought a deluge of unforgettable images. Three are so memorable that most people recognize them, even now: The photo of a young girl, naked, fleeing a napalm attack; bodies stacked at My Lai, massacred by American soldiers, and a young woman bending over a student at Kent State, blood streaming onto the pavement. Each told the story that had to be told. No words were needed.
Another heroic image gripped the world in 1989. The world was in turmoil as Communist countries began to collapse. It seemed that China would be next, as demonstrators converged on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. When the army responded, a single man challenged the Chinese army, stood his ground, and stopped a row of tanks in its tracks. One person, armed only with unfathomable courage.
Images like this tell stories that can change how we see the world. They can change how we think and what we do. They make us question what we assumed to be true, and they can give us courage to act in ways we didn’t know we could act.
As a teenager, the act of John Carlos and Tommie Smith not only gave me new respect for the Black Power movement – they inspired me to similar actions (documented in Some Way Outa Here). Likewise, the photos from Vietnam and Kent State spoke to every American, and drove many of us to action, fueling the antiwar movement.
Of course, pictures never tell the whole story. How many people know what happened to Peter Norman, the Australian on the podium with Carlos and Smith? The silver medal winner, Norman wore a Black Power patch on his uniform in support of the Americans, for which the Australian sports federation banned him from competition for life. It’s easy to forget that the brief victory of Tank Man was followed by the massacre at Tiananmen Square that ended the reform movement. And a few days after Ieshia Evans confronted (and was arrested by) Baton Rouge police, several officers were killed by a gunman who sought to avenge Alton Sterling’s death.
History is never simple.
But now we all carry cameras with us. All the time. Everyone has the power to record events, to report (or even make) news, and to change how we see the world. To change our minds. And our hearts.
You have a powerful tool in your pocket. Use it well.