The Power of a Photograph
In an effort to drive change, is it finally time to circulate images revealing the destructive reality of assault rifles?
One week ago, just hours after the Fourth of July massacre in Highland Park, Illinois, the state’s governor J.B. Pritzker did not offer thoughts and prayers. “This madness must stop,” he said during a press conference, his anger thinly veiled. “There are no words for the kind of evil that shows up at a celebration of freedom, hides on a roof and shoots innocent people with an assault rifle. There are no words I can offer to lessen the pain of those families who will no longer associate the Fourth of July with celebration but instead with grief…It is devastating that a celebration of America was ripped apart by our uniquely American plague.”
Illinois’ Democratic governor had more to say, words that need to be considered, then channeled into action. “If you're angry today, I'm here to tell you: Be angry. I'm furious,” he said, adding this:
“I’m furious that more innocent lives were taken by gun violence. I’m furious that their loved ones are forever broken by what took place today. I’m furious that children and their families have been traumatized. I’m furious that this is happening in communities all across Illinois and America. I’m furious because it does not have to be this way. And yet, we as a nation, well, we continue to allow this to happen.”
On Saturday, I raised the question, “Can a Photograph Change Minds?” Referring to the horrific violence caused by AR-15s, I also asked this: “Is the sanitizing of the grisly reality not desensitizing a public that could be motivated to demand change?”
For those who responded, you already know that these questions generated a rich conversation. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to take a look at the many thoughtful responses, most of which agreed that it’s time to start sharing the visual record of these deadly events in the hope that those of good will stop allowing this horror to be normalized and tolerated. As risky as it will be to publish the insane destruction that an AR-15 causes when striking a human body, I would say there was a general consensus that this is a risk we must take.
Several commenters wisely noted the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the decision his mother made to share the gruesome images of his mutilated face and body. She was determined for the world to see what the racist perpetrators had done to her boy, a brave act that helped mobilize the Civil Rights era.
It happened on August 28 in Money, Mississippi. Till had traveled from his home on the South Side of Chicago to spend time with relatives. He and his cousin went to a store, Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where Till didn’t realize what a danger it would be to whistle at a white woman working there. After the incident, Carolyn Bryant alleged (and years later recanted) that he put his arms around her.
But the damage was done. Several days later, he was wakened from his guest bed, kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Bryant’s husband and his half-brother. Till’s nearly unidentifiable body was found with his temple shattered by gunfire, his eye gouged, his ear severed, his nose crushed, wrapped in barbed wire and at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound metal fan. An all-white jury quickly acquitted the two men.
Grief stricken and furious, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, contacted reporters at Ebony and Jet magazines, insisting that people needed to see what white men had done to her son in Mississippi. She decided to have an open casket for his church funeral, and refused to allow a mortician to make him look better. As a PBS documentary noted,
“At a church on the South Side of Chicago, Emmett Till's mutilated body would be on display for all to see. Fifty thousand people in Chicago saw Emmett Till's corpse with their own eyes. When the magazine Jet ran photos of the body, black Americans across the country shuddered.”
The widely circulated photos of Emmett Till’s ravaged body and his brave mother’s standing over his casket forced Americans to confront racism’s modern-day brutality. Neutrality and indifference were increasingly not options. “For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity,” Time magazine wrote in a reflection on the 100 most important photographs of all time. “Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.”
It’s hard to criticize the consistent decision of editors and producers not to publish or broadcast the carnage of the AR-15. As one trauma surgeon told The New York Times, “The tissue destruction is almost unimaginable. Bones are exploded, soft tissue is absolutely destroyed. The injuries to the chest or abdomen—it’s like a bomb went off.” Said another, “You will see multiple organs shattered. The exit wounds can be a foot wide…I’ve seen people with entire quadrants of their abdomens destroyed.”
In May, Eulalio Diaz Jr. was the coroner responsible to identify the 21 ravaged bodies of mostly nine- and 10-year-old children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. He wished he wasn’t. "It's something you never want to see and it's something you don't, you cannot, prepare for,” said Diaz, who’s also a Justice of the Peace.
It would be irresponsible to widely circulate photographs, particularly without permission from the victims’ families and substantial warnings to protect those who don’t want to be harmed by the painful images. (As Diaz described what he experienced, “It’s a picture that’s going to stay in my head forever.”) Publishing such photographs will take enormous care and discretion. Perhaps the circulation begins with every member of Congress. And let’s not doubt that there will be plenty of voices claiming the images are fake.
But have we reached a point where we must do something to finally convince Americans to demand action—and that elected officials cannot keep evading the horror of mass murders, especially as so many of these result from high-powered assault rifles? Could the power of a photograph finally turn the tide?
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