By Robert Stephens
Gawker, a news website, reposted the image of Trayvon Martin’s body shortly after he was murdered. Many people have called for the image to be taken down, and they find it indecent. I disagree. There are White bros posting photos of themselves laying face down while holding a bag of skittles and an iced tea; that’s indecent.
George Zimmerman’s defense and mainstream media hijinks have successfully obscured the fact that Trayvon Martin, a young boy, was murdered. Zimmerman killed Trayvon after racially profiling the boy, stalking him, and instigating a confrontation with him. The image of Trayvon’s body laid out in the grass is a stark reminder of the true horror of Zimmerman’s actions. His lifeless body reminds us that racism is a matter of life and death.
The Power of Images throughout History
A 1998 study published in the National Academy of Sciences shows that images are more memorable than words for most people. Also, keep in mind that we live in a television society in which we are bombarded with thousands of images daily, which has heightened the importance of images in our culture.
Though these images offend your notions of “decency”, they are often necessary and significant contributions to the public discourse.
Part of what made the anti-Vietnam protests reach a boiling point was that the mainstream press would show real battle footage and death.
The song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday was based on a poem that was inspired by a photo of a lynching.
Meeropol “was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.” Meeropol once said the photograph “haunted” him “for days.” So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday. When Holiday decided to sing “Strange Fruit,” the song reached millions of people. Elizabeth Blair, The Strange Story of the Man Behind ‘Strange Fruit’
When Emmitt Till was murdered, JET Magazine published pictures of his brutalized face, and it became a defining image of the early civil rights movement.
I was 6 when I first learned of the Civil Rights Movement. We watched a video of the hoses and the dogs biting people that looked just like me, and I will never get that image out of my head, nor will I forget the pain those images evoked. I was 14 the first time I saw Emmett Till’s swollen face. I saw him in a room full of my White classmates, many of whom awkwardly looked at me. I felt terribly uncomfortable, not only because of the setting, but because I saw myself in Till’s face. I couldn’t sleep that night.
In this Culture, Seeing is Believing
Images matter, and we shouldn’t hide from them. Censoring those facts and images is in the interest of those who perpetuate the injustice.
The Bush Administration knew the power of images, so as it was pursuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon banned the media from showing images of caskets returning from war.
We needed to see Rodney King’s beating. Yes, many of us would’ve believed it even without the evidence, but culturally, we needed to see it. We needed to see Rihanna’s face, that’s part of the reason why so many people believed her (and there are still doubters mind you).
Now, we need to see Trayvon’s body.
We live in a society where seeing is believing. So, instead of being upset that the image was shown, I think it’s more productive to criticize a culture that doesn’t believe our words and our scars… unless you’re George Zimmerman…
Now, I can’t speak to Gawker’s intentions in posting the photo. They could be doing it for the wrong reasons. However, I draw a distinction between intent and impact.
These are some of the iconic photos that I described above. What are you going to remember more, the written descriptions or the following images?