so my own words were gnawing at me …

In a new post for Reading the Pictures, Wendy Kozol and I reflected on the in/visibility of gendered and racialized trauma that structures the surveillance footage of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter in the back of a police car.   As we were exchanging drafts, Wendy and I noted that we were both feeling somewhat uneasy about the image archive on which we were relying.

I’ve long been concerned with questions of ethics in scholarship on visual culture, and tried a number of times to write  my way through them.  In particular, I’ve written about the ethics of reproducing and analyzing wartime atrocity or casualty photos, and argued against the perceived “right” or “duty” of academics to utilize such images in any way they see fit.  Such claims of ownership, I contend, instrumentalize the images and objectify the people within them.  I’ve never suggested that scholars shouldn’t research or publish about them (though I do think about how my own career, doing that very thing, depends in a remote but ineluctable way, on the misery of others).  But I’ve questioned the methods and assumptions underpinning those actions, and especially criticized the tendency to reproduce photos of people taken on (what I imagine to be) the worst days of their lives, without their consent.

So my own words were gnawing at me, then, as I worked through the video of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, squinting at surveillance video of them on what was very likely the worst day of their lives.  Going second by second, artificially freezing the image, then reproducing single frames as grainy black-and-white stills … all these actions seemed to me like a kind of violence that could not be readily reduced to the categories of ‘epistemic’ or ‘representational.’  There was something deeply unsettling about the process of detaching the a single image from its accompanying audio, and from the moments that preceded and followed it.

surveillance banner

This situation different from that of the wartime atrocity photos that I’ve written about elsewhere, in that Reynolds herself apparently welcomed spectatorship of the video; her lawyer indicated that she felt strongly about enabling the public to witness this trauma. But I find myself conflicted, still, wondering about the role of the academic in that witnessing.  Wendy and I worked hard to historicize the video, and to consider the complexities that might attend its reception.  We wrote, in short, about all the factors–cultural, political, and visual–that might keep it from speaking for itself.  In the process, of course, of revealing the work that the image could have done or was kept from doing, we added another layer of mediation, in the paradoxical hope that it might somehow make the image appear more clearly.