Would Ahmaud Arbery’s story have been told without a violent video?
Though there have been more than 75,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus in the United States, there have been almost no images of dead bodies in the media during this pandemic. Instead, we are shown images of empty streets. Shuttered storefronts. Hospital workers in masks and shields. Graphs with curves flattening or rising. And armed white people storming government buildings. These are the dominant images on television, in traditional news outlets, and on social media. Where are the images of the virus’s dead?
These missing images are even more apparent to me now that there is a new image of death circulating: the video of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, being graphically shot and killed on February 23; Arbery was attacked by two white men, identified as Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael, while he was jogging along a residential street in Satilla Shores in Glynn County, Georgia. No charges were made against the McMichaels (or the third man who recorded the video) until civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, who is representing Arbery’s family, reposted the video on his Twitter account, and it went viral.
As someone who has been studying images of violence for 15 years, this is what I’ve learned: Images — both those we see and those blocked from our view — send messages about whose lives count, about whose lives should be mourned, about who belongs to us and who doesn’t. And those messages are shaped by racism.
In this current context, with the images of people dying of Covid-19 hidden, the very fact that I can watch Arbery being killed (though I have chosen not to view the video) marks his body as somehow “different,” as less than. Because we aren’t allowed to see the victims of the virus, because their bodies are protected from our view, it’s the visibility of Arbery’s dead body — and of Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s and Eric Garner’s and Tamir Rice’s and Walter Scott’s and Freddie Gray’s — that renders his bullet-ridden body as other.
In a call to release photos of people dying of Covid-19, Harvard professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis wrote at the New York Times, “Visualization is a powerful tool — it can help us more deeply understand the severity of the situation as we work to curb the virus. But the visuals we need most in this time are difficult to come by.”
Lewis argued that if we could see the suffering wrought by the virus, we might take the disease more seriously and stay home. She traced the history of images’ effectiveness — from the Civil War, to Dorothea Lange during the Depression, to the AIDS crisis, to the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan.
She is right: Images have made a difference. I’m thinking of Nick Ut’s photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc during the Vietnam War, David Jackson’s photograph of Emmett Till’s open coffin, and the photographs of torture taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Pictures can help stop wars, can bring attention to long ignored injustices, can provide evidence of denied violence. And it seems the video of the McMichaels killing Arbery might make a difference, too: Its wide circulation on social media, without which his death might never have made it to (mostly white- and male-run) national news outlets, led to the two men’s arrests, two months after the murder.
But that is not the only kind of work such images do. If privacy is granted to the dead American soldier, to the person dying alone in a hospital room from Covid-19, to American children killed in their classrooms, then why is no privacy granted to people of color killed by the police?
Why, during the Ebola crisis, did traditional media outlets like the New York Times show dead bodies on the floor, bodies in the dirt, bodies being burned, but now there are no images of such bodies in the coronavirus pandemic? Why is it acceptable practice to broadcast images of dead and injured Black bodies, but not to do so when it comes to white bodies? I am not suggesting that hiding images of white supremacist violence is the solution. But I am suggesting that when other images are hidden from view, then being allowed to see images of dead Brown and Black people does racist work. And at this very moment that disparity is even more visible.
The video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery reminds me of lynching photography — pictures taken while Black people were tortured and killed by white people. Photographers would document the event and then sell their images as postcards on the spot, which people who attended the lynching would buy to mail to friends. The images, like the video of the Arbery killing — were taken not to protest violence, not to stop it, not to wake people up to the horror of these practices, but to celebrate it. The man who recorded the video — a neighbor Merritt says “conspired” with the McMichaels — is now under investigation, too.
There is a narrative that images that capture police brutality against Black people have spurred awareness and launched movements like Black Lives Matter, a coalition of Black liberation organizations that have had tremendous political and social effects, from addressing police corruption to forcing college presidents to resign to “mediated mobilizations” that use social media and public protest to effect change.
But how many more videos do people need to see to believe that this racist violence happens, every day, all the time? These images take a toll on those who view them, especially on communities of color. They send a clear message about the expendability of Black and Brown bodies and about white supremacy. They read like a threat.
White people can hold automatic weapons, intimidate government officials, storm federal buildings, and scream at police officers with no consequence. Meanwhile, Black people can’t jog, can’t sit on couches in their own living rooms, can’t walk through their own backyards, can’t carry Skittles home from a convenience store, and can’t drive without risking being murdered.
There is no shortage of photographic evidence of racist violence. The challenge, then, is to learn to look and then to act. To turn an emotional response to an image of racist violence into concrete political action that stops that kind of injury from happening again, such as holding perpetrators accountable. And I’m not sure that kind of ethical viewing is possible when decisions about whose bodies are granted privacy and whose aren’t fall along racist lines.
The same reasoning might hold were we to see images of those dying from the coronavirus. It’s not only whiteness that protects such images from view, it’s also ideas about what kind of death is granted privacy. And if photographs of the virus’s dead were published, perhaps, again, we’d be shown images of Black and Brown bodies. The pandemic’s disproportionate effects on communities of color, as documented by organizations like Data 4 Black Lives, reveal that structural inequalities shape people’s susceptibility to the virus and chances for recovery. Would such pictures fuel racist responses to the virus? Or would they activate viewers to dismantle barriers to quality health care for communities of color?
When the most visible dead are Black and Brown people killed by police in the United States or killed by war and disease in other countries, then those violent images — even when they help generate outrage that leads to arrests — become part of the armature of white supremacy, too.
Sarah Sentilles is the author of several books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN American Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care, will be published by Random House in 2021.