I was completely unable to look away, but terrified to look towards. I was stuck mid-scroll on Instagram, on this photo of Black bodies, doing what I’d seen our ancestors do in the face of injustice. This time, they were marching in the streets, protesting the killing of George Floyd and the endless police brutality before him. But this photo was different. It didn’t have the pieces that struck the chords of the protests in the ’60s or even the protests and riots in ’92 after the beating of Rodney King.
Brent Lewis is a photo editor in New York City and cofounder of Diversify Photo, a platform dedicated to showcasing the work of BIPOC photographers and providing editors with the resources to find talent that they might have missed.
The photo, from a photographer I follow in New York City, had a bar across the eyes of a protester, blurring his facial features. It removed the humanity of someone wanting to be seen and have his frustrations heard and turned them into a faceless black body. A black body with that same body language of vexation and anxiety, but nothing to humanize those emotions. Nothing to help connect them to someone who maybe didn’t understand why he was out there or who may have been there just to have some familiarity with the Black existence in general. It scared the hell out of me. Not for my own sake, but for how images like these would be perceived in the broader lens of America. And that was even before I put on my journalistic hat.
For the past month, a small but vocal portion of the internet has been calling for photographers covering the protests to blur or not show the faces of protesters, over safety concerns. This subset, which was shocking to me, isn’t really made up of protesters. It began when some Twitter users called out the fact that several protesters featured in identifiable photographs in 2016 had since died in questionable circumstances or had disappeared. Soon after, the call to blur faces and hide identities started popping up throughout social media (a lot of these commenters were younger and seemingly more ally than protester). These commenters don’t seem to understand the ethics of journalism or the power of images, nor do they fully get the significance of these protests in the larger context that they play in the narrative of Black people rising up in this country. Yet, with the ability to spread information and a bunch of non-photojournalists looking for information as well as feeling the pressure from previously mentioned groups online, it began to happen.
A quick search on blurring photos of protesters will bring up a bunch of articles from outlets like TechCrunch, Mashable, Popular Science, The Verge, and WIRED explaining how to do this and why one should. But I beg to ask, has anyone actually spoken to protesters who are out there about what they are hoping to accomplish and how they would like to be viewed? Or are these do-gooders just taking the thoughts of a few people who made it into their network and spreading that information as a monolithic truth that covers every Black protester out there, as if they all are not aware of what is at risk. There is power to the photo and there is power in numbers. Why would someone go through preparing to protest in the midst of a global pandemic, over an issue that has taken more Black lives over the last 200 years of modern policing than Covid-19 has taken, just to have their image blurred, hidden, whitewashed? (Go Google Frederick Douglas.)
If photographers blurred the faces of the marchers and protesters from the Civil Rights Movements, would the needle have moved as much in the 1960s? John Lewis and other protesters being beaten while marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Black adults and children being sprayed with water hoses: What would these iconic, galvanizing images become if you couldn’t look into the eyes of the oppressed and feel what they were feeling? If you couldn’t recognize the humanity and perseverance they must have to put their lives on the line for a better, more equitable tomorrow?
If you’re taking photos of Black bodies, it’s crucial to know the history of the image when it comes to Black uprisings. Knowing that ensures you know that by hiding Black bodies, you aren’t avoiding the problem, you’re part of it.
I understand the concern. I see the ominous rise of software like Clearview AI, and I know the historical track record of law enforcement when it comes to spying on protesters and the suspicious deaths of protesters over the past four years. I am aware of the staggering amount of surveillance we pass on a daily basis without even noticing it. But I also see the slippery slope this could send journalists down if they were to cede to these demands.
News outlets are having their credibility attacked at every turn. Between the rise of the phrase “fake news” and the idea of institutions carrying a specific bias against one side or another, blurring Black bodies would give credence to these criticisms. Not only would readers trust these news organizations less, the organizations themselves would be abiding by rules that toss journalistic standards out the window in favor of succumbing to the pressure of a vocal few.
Consider the images that emerged out of Charlottesville in August 2017 of protesters carrying tiki torches. I am certain a few of those people would have loved to have been able to have their faces hidden or blurred; in some cases it would have saved their jobs and relationships. Or even in the case of Amy Cooper, who was fired last month after Christian Cooper (not related) recorded her calling the police on him in Central Park. Would she not have demanded the same treatment? The old saying “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” comes to mind, and therein lies the question of how far is too far.
The real question we should ask is, how can we do even more respectable journalism in this moment, so the photojournalists and documentarians are clearly distinguished from the more problematic people with iPhone cameras just there to make something for the ‘Gram? The answer is simple: Do your job at the level that you were taught and know how. We are quickly getting over the era of parachute journalism, where someone (often from New York) flies into a far-flung place, photographs it, asks minimal questions, and heads back home. We’re beginning to work more with people on the ground, who understand the communities they cover and have at least some skin in the game. Just the ability to be aware of the nuances and make sure that you are documenting this story in a light that feels honest and true to your community is what this is all about.
On top of that, it comes down to speaking with the people protesting, These people want to be heard and have things to say, otherwise they wouldn’t be out there. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 125,000 people and has infected over 2.5 million in the US alone, but they are taking to the streets, in close proximity to one another, to make sure that their voices are heard. It’s imperative to be the journalist part of photojournalist, now more than ever. Take your pictures, attempt to grab names—this is Journalism 101—spark conversations with your subjects, understand even more about an issue that you might not have been well educated in before, and come away with the buy-in of the people that you photographed. Plus, as the public face of your organization or outlet, the community will begin to build a rapport with your journalism—and, hopefully, can begin to rebuild that bridge, which, as we have seen in this moment, is not nearly as strong as some might have assumed.
Photojournalists aren’t there to pick a side or highlight certain flattering aspects of a story. They are there to document the moment in a way that the community and history can recognize as truthful. And when that is done at the highest level, it has the power to bridge gaps, create conversations, and foster an understanding between people that, at the end of the day, we are all just human beings. Allow even the slightest blurring of that humanity or that truth, and the whole power of journalism and history gets blurred right along with it.
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