On May 3, 1963, 15-year-old Walter Gadsden was skipping school when he became the center of national news. Gadsden was walking around Birmingham, Alabama—then the most segregated city in the United States—when his curiosity drew him near the crowds of a protest organized by Martin Luther King Jr. As Gadsden watched the demonstrations, a K-9 lunged at him and the dog’s corresponding officer clutched the teenager by his shirt. The photographer Bill Hudson captured the moment, depicting Gadsden looking down blankly at the German shepherd, the teen a vulnerable recipient of the violence set upon him. The image would become one of the most iconic photos of the civil-rights movement, with Gadsden emerging as an unwitting emblem of racial injustice. It was used as a political symbol to help Black leaders gain attention for their cause, turning eyes to the ugly truths of segregation and attracting white sympathy for the movement. The image of Gadsden is said to have pushed President John F. Kennedy to propose the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he announced one month after the photo was published.
Leaders of the civil-rights movement knew that protest photography—such as the famous image of Rosa Parks riding a bus—was a successful tool to inspire transracial solidarity. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in particular, “understood the importance of photographs not only as documents of efforts of thousands to raze the world of southern oppression; but also as visual bricks in the raising of a new, integrated free world,” wrote the African American studies professor Leigh Raiford in her book Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare. But because these images of unambiguous conflict received substantial news coverage, many of the protest photos from the civil-rights era are ones that emphasize Black stoicism and white aggression. The lasting result is a popular archive of “visual bricks” that prizes Black passiveness and white agency.
One hundred years before Hudson’s photo of Gadsden circulated in newspapers, abolitionists disseminated a photo famously known as “The Scourged Back” to advocate for the end of slavery. In this photo, an enslaved man named Peter (formerly identified as “Gordon”) is sitting with his back turned to the camera, exposing skin that’s webbed with sinuous scars that spread across his shoulders and stretch down to his lower back. Although the picture encouraged white support for abolition, its fame—the photo is said to be one of the most circulated depictions of American slavery—turned this gruesome depiction of abuse into a dominant representation of Blackness in America. In working to engage a white gaze with this image, abolitionists ultimately informed how Black Americans would be visualized for centuries to come.
Even today, during another period in American history in which citizens are confronting the injustices and fallacies of our democracy, “The Scourged Back” continues to undergird Black visual imagery. A recent cover of Vanity Fair, which features the actor Viola Davis looking away from the camera with her back turned and exposed in a deep-cut dress, garnered attention for its invocation of the Peter image. The photographer Dario Calmese (Vanity Fair’s first Black cover photographer) said he was attempting to transmute the white gaze and beautify the grim photo. But the cover has received some criticism for perpetuating an old narrative that flattens the Black experience to Black pain, one that stereotypes dark-skinned women as mule-strong creatures and admirable bearers of trauma.
During this year of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, spurred by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, photography was once again used as a tool for protesters, bystanders, counterprotesters, and journalists alike. Images from protests proliferated on social media, including photos of law-enforcement officers assaulting demonstrators. Other photos, such as ones of looted storefronts and burning police cars—rare occurrences that nonetheless dominated headlines—cast protesters as antagonists.
But the 2020 demonstrations, arguably the largest protest movement in the country’s history, have also given way to widely circulated photographs that do more than document violence. Images spread of protesters dancing and singing together in the street and children resting on the shoulders of their parents. These depictions of joy, love, and unity reject the trope that protest images must convey simple messages of spectacular conflict. And although this current style of protest photography predates the Black Lives Matter movement, the ubiquity of smartphones and social media has enabled a more apparent diversity in representation. As more photographers, especially Black ones, are able to share their work outside narrow channels like print publications, the power shift allows for more nuanced storytelling from community members. Photographs of large multiracial demonstrations, and even predominantly white ones, have captured national attention, including a “Wall of Moms” in Portland, Oregon—considered the “whitest big city in America.” Though such images are susceptible to criticism for prioritizing white protesters as powerful symbols of change while Black protesters receive harsher characterizations, they present a visual narrative of transracial solidarity that conveys the collective nature of the movement.
The Peter and Gadsden photos, and images like them, became representations of their movements for a reason. Of the Gadsden picture, the historian Martin A. Berger wrote that the “appeal of such photographs to whites rested largely on the success of the images in focusing attention on acts of violence and away from historically rooted inequities in public accommodation, voting rights, housing policies, and labor practices.” Such images are effective in advancing racial-justice movements through straightforward depictions of individual victims and villains. But, as Berger wrote, their one-dimensionality risks obscuring the fuller image of inequities that exist and allows audiences to avoid confronting their own complicity in systemic injustice.
It’s too soon to determine which photographs will become lasting representations of the 2020 demonstrations, but it’s important to recognize the significance of documenting social-justice movements while being sensitive to the risk of commodification. The professor Nicole Fleetwood, who specializes in visual culture and Black history, wrote that “context provides a more complex understanding of the strategies involved and deliberate actions taken to actualize black freedom struggles.” The diverse renderings of protest spaces this year have expanded the visual archive by some measure, but without contextual work, a dominant archive that has historically prioritized basic narratives and white legibility could flatten even these more nuanced photographs.
Requests for such contextual work are growing amid concerns that today’s protest photography is being used to surveil protesters. Some demonstrators, for instance, have called for photographers to blur or otherwise obscure faces, sparking a larger conversation about the right protesters have to participate in their own image-making. Without community engagement, protest images are divorced from context and coerced into tidy narratives. That kind of dissonance between image and reality allows for protest photographs to become iconic, while the subjects who made the image possible are left out of the conversation. Raiford wrote, “It is not that photographs ‘lie,’ but we unduly invest them with the burden of an all-knowing truth.” Relieving protest photography of such a burden requires us to acknowledge that photography is always subjective, contingent on both photographers and viewers. Raiford’s approach suggests that, while a single dominant archive cannot ever capture the full range of such images, recognizing those limits is already a step in allowing for different, more complex visual narratives to inform the way we remember protests.
After Gadsden’s photo was popularized, the teen eschewed all the attention he received from it. He granted a single interview to Jet magazine, in which he admitted that he had just been a curious bystander and not a protester. Decades later, the journalist Diane McWhorter reached Gadsden by phone after having searched for him for years, and she later recalled that “he told me he did not want to ‘become involved’ in my story and politely hung up.” Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a person who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight and made a symbol as a teen would not want to talk about it. After all, the photo had already claimed to speak for him. But how might depictions of Black lives, of this year’s protests, change if Black people were treated as active agents in their own record? We might know—and remember—much more.