I am striving to keep abreast on the struggles happening in Ferguson, Missouri. As a writer of historical and contemporary visual culture in the United States, I have found a lot of amazing work that addresses important issues on how to talk about privilege and race if you’re white, race and the police state, and the important role of photography as an activator in both the digital and print worlds. However, I have found little work that correlates the contemporary events in Ferguson with America’s not-so-deep and distant past. The murder of Michael Brown is another page in the American history of racist systemic violence. The photographs that document this atrocity are also to be understood as a crucial piece of our visual culture. To contextualize this particular past, I want to highlight lynching photography as a genre and as a starting point toward understanding how we view racist systemic violence through the cultural use of photography.
I have been hesitant to correlate the murder of Michael Brown to our nation’s past of lynching. I have been going back and forth on it for weeks. As a white woman who writes about death, I could not find any kind of entry point into this without trying to identify the history of this kind of photograph. Scrolling through social media feeds in recent weeks, I’ve been confronted with low-resolution images of Michael Brown’s body, lying on the pavement. His cheek is laid down on the pavement, his chin tucked in slightly. The stream of blood comes out from under him. This photograph has been posted and re-posted on my Facebook feed, printed in the newspaper, shown on television screens, tweeted, hashtagged, and shared in every way possible. The more recent video, and now audio, of his murder are also being shared across all mediascapes at an increasing rate.