The Debate Renews: Show Images Victims of Mass Killings in the Press?Historians in the News
tags: mass shootings, journalism, Gun Violence, Uvalde Massacre
On an evening seven years ago this month, a twenty-one-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street, in Charleston, South Carolina, pulled a semi-automatic handgun, and murdered nine Black congregants, in the midst of their Bible study. When he was arrested, the following day, he confessed to the murders, citing a convoluted theory of defending white sovereignty as his rationale. In the years since, his reasoning has become no less opaque, even as similar thinking has become more commonly articulated. But, as if to demonstrate the clear horror of its impact, the prosecution in Roof’s trial, in December, 2016, exhibited images from the crime scene. The tableaux of death brought gasps and quiet sobs from those in attendance, some of whom were survivors of the attack, others relatives of the victims.
The root of their pain lay in the photographs’ gruesome specificity and its capacity to answer in precise detail questions that were too lurid to have occurred otherwise: how the bodies lay; how the dead faces were contorted; how the spatters of blood patterned the walls. Many in the courtroom, journalists and family members alike, averted their eyes. It seemed that the cumulative detail of those images could tell them little that they did not already know: nine people were dead for no other reason than the color of their skin.
That moment returns to mind in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, in which yet another group of innocents was slain for arbitrary, inscrutable reasons. The deaths of nineteen children and two adults at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas—just days after the shooting deaths of ten adults at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo—have provoked new waves of frustration and despair, and new demands for change. The sheer redundancy of these needless tragedies has people searching for any dynamic that might finally effect a meaningful response to them. David Boardman, the dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, wrote, on Twitter, “Couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago, but it’s time—with the permission of a surviving parent—to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like. Maybe only then will we find the courage for more than thoughts and prayers.”
In the past week, others have begun to consider the idea. The Times ran an exploration of the politics of graphic images and their power to shape public opinion, and CNN’s Brian Stelter took up the issue on his show. Many people, having repeatedly grieved children murdered by semi-automatic weaponry, have come to suspect that only showing what an AR-15-style rifle actually does to a child’s body will shock gun-reform opponents out of inaction. But, while this thinking is understandable, it is probably misguided, and potentially self-defeating. Showing such images could cause the sympathetic public to avoid media coverage of these incidents; for those who do look, it might risk inuring them to the terrible nature of gun violence. The most commonly cited example in defense of the practice is Mamie Till’s decision, in 1955, to let Jet magazine publish photographs taken of her lynched fourteen-year-old son, Emmett Till, as he lay in an open casket. No one who has seen the grisly abstraction of his face has difficulty recalling it.
Mamie Till reportedly told John H. Johnson, Jet’s publisher, that she wanted to show the world what had been done to her son. Her audacious decision not only morally indicted the men responsible for Till’s death—that year, none were found guilty by a court—but galvanized public opinion against segregation and Jim Crow. Yet it is important to recall that Till was far from the first lynching victim to be photographed, and the overwhelming majority of those images, some of them even more graphic and sickening, had no discernible effect upon public opinion, and may even have reinforced the crude propensities of those who saw and circulated them. (Many of the photographs survive because people turned them into postcards.)
“Without Sanctuary,” an exhibit of lynching photographs that first opened at a New York City gallery, in 2000, was a window into the abject cruelty of the era, yet the horrors depicted in the images weren’t nearly as striking as the exuberance of the murderers and the onlookers. The historian Amy Louise Wood, in her book “Lynching and Spectacle,” notes that, although we view the pictures as evidence of monstrous cruelty, at the time they were taken they were likely seen as part of a different genre: the hunting photo. In them, men proudly pose near charred and desecrated Black bodies as if they were grasping the antlers of a fallen buck. Most of the imagery associated with lynching had the opposite effect of the Till photograph—serving to further distance the viewer from the victims, rather than humanize them.