- Looking and Telling, Again and AgainThe Documentary Impulse
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In the days immediately following the terror in Charleston, South Carolina, and the murder of nine people attending bible study at the Mother Emanuel ame Church, I was certain I heard a particularly revealing comment on the radio from Reverend Norvel Goff. Reverend Goff, presiding elder of the 7th District ame Church in South Carolina, became interim pastor of Emanuel ame after the murder of Reverend Clemente Pinkney. Reverend Goff officiated all of the memorial services in the weeks following. I’m convinced I heard him, in an interview with NPR or some other in-depth radio program, say that he and others at Mother Emanuel were to the point of “thinking in photographs,” having witnessed so many images in the news. Reverend Goff’s insightful way of talking about the power and primacy of the visual message struck me as even more interesting for the fact that he was so often the one photographed, so often among those represented in the media. Even those in the middle of such a dramatic and difficult time, I thought, could see how photographs were beginning to define the experience for all of us. As I went to confirm just what Reverend Goff had said so that I could quote him verbatim I could find no trace of any comments about photography. Had I dreamed it? Did I simply imagine this eloquent minister as visual culture critic? Or were the photographs working on me in a way that I was the one “thinking in photographs”?
Jon Sersie-Goff, Reverend Goff’s son and a student in our mfa in Experimental and Documentary Arts Program at Duke, was not aware of his father’s comments, but, like me, he was very much drawn to the idea. He, too, set out to confirm just what his father might have said. He found nothing. When he asked his father, Reverend Goff recalled nothing of the sort. I had, it is clear, heard something that was not said—or, more likely, imagined something that was never said, but certainly could have been. The powerful abundance and ubiquity of images does begin to define how we understand an experience, even for those within the action, even those whose lives and actions and words are the “content” of those images. Whether Reverend Goff was thinking of the Charleston terror in photographs or not, many of the rest of us were. Much of the darkness, power, and redemption in Charleston and the unfolding events throughout those several weeks came to us through images. Words almost always accompanied the pictures, but it was those still photographs, along with live and recorded video, that combined with all else we read and heard to describe and evoke place, emotion, and the relentless outpouring of anger and compassion.
We also learned as much or more about the accused and indicted murderer Dylann Roof through photographs as from any other source. We can never erase the images he made of himself—did he use a self-timer or did he have help?—at a range of historic sites around South Carolina. Posted on his own website, these photographs surely tell us as much about his twisted, evil madness as anything [End Page 4] else ever will. We know from this dark photographic collection where he went, what symbols he embraced, how he wanted to “frame” the historic sites he visited, and much about how he wanted those images to live in the world of the Internet. Frances Robles, writing in the New York Times, explained that Roof’s website contained “a stash of 60 photographs, many of them of Mr. Roof at Confederate heritage sites or slavery museums . . . ”1 The primacy of photographs in what little we do know about Dylann Roof is extraordinary, and mostly from his own self-portraits, his own self-documentation.
Driving in Anderson County, Tennessee, in 1990, I turned onto a divided highway in the town of Clinton and saw a car on the side of the road with an...