Spectacle as Camouflage | Warscapes
Repertoires of representation about black bodies and black narratives remain largely unchanged in contemporary depictions. A hundred years after Gordon’s scarred back was photographed and circulated, the civil rights movement is remembered through dramatic photographs of protesters attacked with police dogs and fire hoses, firebombs and shotguns, and tear gas.4 Art historian Martin Berger argues that the most famous images of the era show black activists victimized by violent Southern whites.5 In his analysis of the thirteen photographs of the Birmingham campaign published in Life magazine on May 1963, he writes:
With great consistency, those photographs that most effectively stirred the consciences of northern whites routinely cast blacks as the passive and hapless victims of active and violent whites…It was not that photographs depicting “active” blacks did not exist, but that they held little allure for liberal whites…The appeal of civil rights photographs to whites rested largely on their success in focusing white attention on acts of violence and away from historically rooted inequities in public accommodation, voting rights, housing policies and labor practices.6
These gruesome acts of violence against blacks were framed as spectacles that generated discomfort and outrage among the white population, while offering a socially acceptable way of depicting racism. "Spectacle is a form of camouflage. It does not conceal anything; it simply renders it unrecognizable."7 The historicity of men and women of Black America, their everyday struggle, resistance and heroism remains camouflaged and their narratives have become subsumed into a generic denunciation of the mass suffering.
Photographs that depict white cops inflicting hurt on the black population, aids the narrative that identifies black bodies as victims. These images while potent as forms of representation that create uproar always mask the structural injustices and inequalities that have benefited white societies. It also successfully positions the “problem” of race, as the problem of “violence”, performed by “bad” white actors on “innocent” black victims. When representations of black passivity and victimhood are the norm, images that adhere to this norm reinforce and aid the maintenance of racial systems of domination.