Opinion: Looking at old photographs

Posted on Oct 20 2017 - 8:00am by Liam Nieman

In one of the most powerful and telling images of the civil rights era, a white teenager angrily shouts at a black teenager clutching a textbook to her chest and stoically walking to school. The black woman, one of the first nine black students at Little Rock Central High, is Elizabeth Eckford; the white woman, another Central High student, is Hazel Bryan.

There are many photographs just like this of the civil rights struggle of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In them, angry white people — brutal police officers, laughing young men or seemingly harmless schoolgirls — abuse and harass black men and women.

They spray protesters unrelentingly with high-powered fire hoses. They taunt the people sitting at a segregated Woolworth’s counter and pour ketchup and mustard on their heads. They block children from walking to school.

This semester, I’ve been taking a course with visiting professor Ralph Eubanks that looks at the changing image of the American South through documentary photography. Recently, we turned our focus to these civil rights era images, taken by photographers like John Vachon, Gordon Parks and Charles Moore.

Specifically, we began looking at pictures from the riot that rocked Oxford in 1962 when James Meredith tried to enroll at the university. As Sept. 30 rolled into Oct. 1., a crowd comprised of Oxonians, students and complete outsiders ravaged the campus and town. Much of this chaos was captured through the lenses of courageous photojournalists.

In these photos, lawmen joke and laugh wickedly as they wait for the inevitable tumult to begin, young men proudly wave Rebel flags and others take on the National Guardsmen charged with keeping the peace in Oxford.

This subject made me contemplate thoughts that’ve been churning in my head for a long time about the connections between history and photography, especially on this campus.

We tend to apply our own morals to history and assume that, had we lived in a past era, we would have done the right thing. We wouldn’t have owned slaves or protested integration. Yet, in “A Muscular Empathy,”  Ta-Nehisi Coates asks readers to shy away from this typical belief and assume they would’ve done the wrong thing.

By believing we would’ve been able to do good, there is nothing more to the thought, and it ends happily and naively. Rather than let this happen, Coates insists that we must assume guilt and ask why we would have done that.

The core of the second part of Coates’ argument, based on “a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity,” is that there is no reason why we could knowingly think we would do anything less than the most evil actions in the past. Coates writes, “The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling.”

And this logic makes sense — the chemicals that comprise our bodies and drive our thoughts are the same ones that comprised our forebears’ bodies and drove their thoughts.

Photographs, rather than words, are far better at tangibly communicating this abstract connection. Reading a story or even a witness’s description of a past event, it is easy to forget the physical, human connection between the characters and think of them as far different from ourselves.

Photographs, unfortunately, can do the same if we look at them as frozen moments of time, not pieces of a continued history. But if we look at them with the knowledge that the people we see in the photographs are part of the same complicated human ancestry, we are forced to muscularly empathize. We must make a conscious choice to look critically.

I remember the first time I really looked and thought about the photographs that capture our campus’s great tragedy. I remember how I couldn’t shake the thought that those rioters had children and grandchildren who are living, that they probably go to school with me, that, ignoring my being a Yankee, that could’ve been me.

Though there is a visual connection, as presented in a Time magazine article and cover comparing 1968 to 2015, between photographs of the classical civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement of our own era, I’m more interested in the real and physical connection, the forced muscular empathy of photographs.

It’s one thing to look at a photograph of the present day and say it looks similar to something that happened in the past. It’s another thing to say that, given the visual similarity and our humanity, the photographed event could happen today.

Sure, these civil rights era photographs provide a glimpse into our past. But they also undeniably say something about our present. They visually communicate the smallness of the space between our own time and the insanity of a previous era. Looking at old photographs should be a visual reminder, a warning of how close we are to violence and disarray.

Liam Nieman is a sophomore economics and Southern studies double major from Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania.