Disclaimer: some opinions which follow may be upsetting to some readers. Sections IV to VI are my own personal opinions/rants.
Trafalgar Square. March 1990.
London erupts in a frenzy of riots, protesting poll taxes — an unpopular tax reform that would mark the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership.
A photo is published, with the caption “A West End shopper argues with a protester”. The contrast is sharp: the well-dress lady, her gold watch glinting is across the barricades from a leather-jacketed punk, his hair tightly shaved, a half lit cigarette in hand. Except that by her own admission, the woman is shouting not at the man, but at the police restraining him. “I look like the typical conservative middle-England Tory voter (which I’m not), objecting to the protest. The truth is, I felt bloody angry that day,” she wrote to the Guardian.
Birmingham, Alabama. May 1963.
Martin Luther King Jnr is in the middle of a series of protests, boycotts, and marches in the southern city, which he has called the most segregated city in America.
A German shepherd lunges at a young Black teen. A white officer behind the dog looms large in his dark sunglasses. A photographer takes the photo. The New York Times publishes it across three columns on the front page, above the fold. The president notes he is appalled, and the Secretary of State Dean Rusk intones that the photo will, “embarrass our friends abroad and make our enemies joyful.”
Except that the photo probably didn’t capture a moment of police brutality nor was it clear that a confrontation between the teen and the officer followed. There are three of them: the police officer Dick Middleton of the city’s K9 Unit; Walter Gadsden, the black teen; and Leo, the German shepherd. I will let Malcolm Gladwell take it from here:
“Gadsden and Middleton just look startled — the way people do if they unexpectedly bump into each other. Gadsden has his knee up as a reflex, and his hand on Middleton as if to steady himself. Middleton has one hand on Gadsden and his other arm is flexed. He’s yanking back on the leash. Leo has freaked out and he’s trying to restrain him….. Middleton’s not letting Leo loose on Gadsden; quite the opposite.”
I have written about both photos before. The reactions to London photo are muted; the comments under the Alabama photo were virulent. It touched a nerve: some accused me of rewriting a crucial piece of American history. Others demanded ‘citations’ (not something I am often asked on this blog). One commenter accused me of rehashing an unsubstantiated claim from a racist website, mainly because that’s the only other mention of the story online.
I wrote about the Alabama photo in 2010 (most likely using hard-copy library books, I don’t remember). Since then, I was glad to see the story confirmed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘David and Goliath’ (2013), and mentioned again in his excellent Revisionist History: this summer. There were a few small pieces of discrepancies between Gladwell’s sources and mine: for instance, Gladwell mentioned Gadsden broke the dog’s jaw. I wrote down that Gadsden attacked the dog (after being already bitten in his stomach). Did the photo show the moment the dog attacked Gadsden or the moment a few seconds later when Gadsden fought back? His hand clutching Middleton who was most likely separating the two was another mystery.
I remember the only other item in my library’s index cards system on Gadsden was an interview, conducted on May 25, 1996 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. As Gladwell would note in his podcast, this is a troubling interview, in which Gadsden noted that neither he nor his family benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, that he preferred the term “colored”. You should just go and check out the whole podcast here.
This is a lengthy blog post. This post is as much about the history of the Alabama photo (and photos in general) as about people who use them, and build their narratives on them.
The men in front and behind the lenses are just small bit players in a lengthy process which involved editors, article writers, and publishers. Last month, I had a lunch with a reporter friend. His editor had cut a few paragraphs of an article he wrote, citing lack of column spaces, thus resulting in a piece which was more one-sided than he intended. This sort of things happen all the time — sometimes by accident, sometimes because writers and editors have their own agenda, sometimes because it fits the prevailing attitudes, prejudices, or narratives.
Photography is an exceptionally tricky medium because of this. On one hand, many insists that ‘seeing is believing’. More realistically, it is still manipulated. Photography in its short existence has tread a fine line between information and art.
But art is interpretive. Art has the artists’ views, feelings, and emotions embedded in it. That’s why we debate about its parameters and intent: is an art piece ‘punching up’ or ‘punching down’? Is it currying favor with the elite or defending the downtrodden with its message. That’s why a photoessay like Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (seemingly mocking the vacation habits of British lower classes) was so controversial artistically.
A recent comic gives a powerful discourse on our visceral reactions when our beliefs are challenged: sometimes we accept them easily. Sometimes, we fight back. When I told you the story about London photo, did you accept it easily? When the Alabama photo is discussed, did your mind fight back?
Let’s step back. When you hear phrases like ‘globalization’, ‘single-payer healthcare system’, ‘net neutrality’, ‘gun rights’, ‘late-term abortions’, or ‘#blacklivesmatter’, what do you do? Do you read beyond headlines, beyond captions, and listen to the other side’s concerns and grievances? or do you just stick to your own pre-formed notions?
You might struggle to remain fair or neutral.
Remember that reporters, photographers, and editors are people like you too.
Gladwell and I are not impartial either. We have our own biases and blindspots. Neither of us are Americans; we write about American politics in a detached way. Many a commenter has noted that I am unqualified to write about race or racial politics. Maybe I am.
What we — and all of us — are: sum totals of our upbringings, families, surroundings. We inevitably view the world through these experiences. There is nothing wrong with that. We just need to know everyone is looking through different lenses.
I finished university just a few years before ‘trigger warnings’ became a thing. When a controversial speaker came to the campus, we protested but then we sat down and listened. We didn’t disinvite them. Modern world is a messy clash of ideas, and of narratives. We shouldn’t stifle them. We should debate them, with facts and actions. Even when the ideas are disagreeable and dangerous, we should listen to them, and understand where they come from, and what sort of environments and societies enabled them. Otherwise, we would end up teaching and learning sanitized versions of ideas and information — history with its rough edges sanded off.
I wrote this because of a conversation I had with someone on my Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.”
It has been a few months since I started Patreon, and it has given me a few creative ideas and encouragements. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Here is the link to my Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos.