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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 457-478
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Lynching Photographs and Legacies of Lynching after 9/11
Wayne State University
TODAY WHEN WE LOOK AT LYNCHING PHOTOGRAPHS, WE TRY NOT TO SEE THEM. Looking and seeing become seeming forms of aggression that implicate the viewer, however distressed and sympathetic, in the acts that [End Page 457] turned human beings into horribly shamed objects. Most of us would prefer not to look. Even when looking, the pictures are hard to see, and they are made all the more so by the presence of death, already difficult to look at but here having occurred so excruciatingly in an atmosphere of self-righteous cruelty and gloating. Discussing another form of horrible death, a type of Chinese execution known as "the death by division into a thousand parts," James Elkins writes; "According to original Chinese law, the nose, ears, toes, and fingers are to be cut first, and the pain is to be prolonged as much as possible." This also describes the process of many ritualized spectacle lynchings. Elkins observes: "There is also a nearly unbearable immorality to these images. The crowd of complacent executioners moves aside each time the photographer wants another shot, and the photographer did not protest or run away or intervene." 1 The immorality resides not only in the execution itself and in the attitude of the participants but also in the role of the photographer, whose ostensibly neutral position is not neutral but appears to sanction the acts he records by declining to oppose them in any way. We, as viewers, are invited to occupy the photographer's viewing position.
In a series of four photographs of such a Chinese execution, Elkins suggests that death itself is trapped in the sequence, between the frames, that begin with a living woman (accused of adultery) and end with a butchered corpse. Most lynching photographs (with some exceptions) are not produced in sequence from life to lifelessness but are taken after death, with the executioners and spectators still present, or of the corpse by itself, or with later groups of spectators who were not present at the lynching. The horror of death resides in the relationship between the self-confident white killers or voyeuristic spectators who turn to face the camera and the hanging, burned, and/or bullet-riddled black bodies. The contradiction represented here embodies the relationship of power to helplessness, citizen to outsider, privilege to oppression, jubilation to degradation, subjecthood to objecthood, community to outcast, pride to humiliation. The photographer who records the gruesome spectacle is implicated as rendering a service to the lynching community through the taking, reproduction, and sale of lynching postcards as commemorative souvenirs that record the race-color-caste solidarity and lethal "superiority" of the white community. But the passing of time, the changing contexts for the presentation of the photographs, and our own subject positions change [End Page 458] how we perceive the photographs. Most of us reject the complicity implied in assuming the position of the photographer and recognize a much different issue at stake today in this legacy of representation, namely...