- Visuality, Surveillance, and The Afterlife of Slavery
In July 2016 the New Yorker printed “American Exposure,” Harvard University historian Jill Lepore’s reflection on the widely circulated video of Philando Castile’s deadly encounter with police officers that his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds recorded and uploaded to Facebook. Lepore’s decision to watch the footage of Castile’s death sets in motion a sustained reflection on visual media’s thorny role in the long African American freedom struggle, leading her directly from Reynolds to none other than Frederick Douglass. Recounting her viewing experience, Lepore writes:
So I forced myself to watch. And, as I did, the screen went black—the police had thrown down Reynolds’ phone, and put her in handcuffs—and you could only hear voices, the muted, distant sound of Reynolds crying and praying, and closer, the urgent voice of her four-year-old daughter, and right then I remembered that photograph of Douglass.
The image in question is a mid-1850s daguerreotype. In 1968 Life’s portrait appeared as the cover of its special issue “The Search for a Black Past,” printed a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination and the subsequent riots where police violently faced off with mostly black protestors.
Douglass, we know, was deeply invested in the camera’s transformative capacities.1 In the countless photographic portraits he commissioned, Douglass proffered his own image, made legible through a well-rehearsed syntax of respectability and liberal personhood, to craft visual arguments for black citizenship and its associated rights, privileges, and protections.2 In an 1860s lecture aptly titled [End Page 191] “Pictures and Progress,” Douglass elaborated what he saw as photography’s democratic potential. Equating photographic production to freedom, Douglass claimed the camera could “dissolve the granite barriers of arbitrary power, bring the world into peace and unity, and at last crown the world with just[ice], liberty, and brotherly kindness” (qtd. in Lepore). When confronted with incontrovertible photographic evidence of black humanity, the public would be spurred to act in defense of black civil rights. The 1968 cover, Lepore maintains, was the magazine’s attempt to sketch a historical trajectory that, with Douglass’s portrait as a starting point, would reveal a future devoid of racial violence and the continued repudiation of black life. In contradistinction to photographs taken right after King’s death (also published in Life) and press coverage of highly violent police encounters, Douglass’s image of embodied subjectivity was a visual reminder of blacks’ capacity to embody citizenship, even if their so-called unruly behavior across US cities suggested otherwise.
Although Lepore cannot account for her involuntary move from Reynolds’s video to Douglass’s daguerreotype—“I don’t know how to explain why I thought of that photograph while watching Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook video of the police shooting of her boyfriend,” she writes—like the editors of Life, “American Exposure” endeavors to reconcile an incomprehensible black “present” with its homologous “black past.” This is a present characterized by relentless assaults against black life and the wide circulation of visual evidence of antiblack violence in the name of political reform. But rather than adopting a forward-looking view, Lepore draws out the uncanny reverberations syncretizing the past and present. Although Reynolds’s and Douglass’s camera work is separated by more than a century, Lepore recognizes their shared confidence in visual technology’s capacity to incite political transformation, even as “the overwhelming evidence of history” instructs us that visual media has never been able to undermine the workings of antiblack violence. Reminding us that there is “no technological fix for atrocity,” Lepore’s essay implies that remaining faithful to a narrative of the past that necessarily equates pictures with progress threatens to undermine contemporary freedom movements and conceal the myriad ways the past animates the present.
“American Exposure” is just...