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"The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement"


Writing for the New York Times Magazine, novelist and photographer Teju Cole examines a number of iconic images from the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, including the above image of protester Ieshia Evans being detained by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana earlier this month. Cole teases out the genealogy and formal properties of these images, suggesting that the most powerful ones “honor the black body.” Here’s an excerpt from Cole’s piece:

The relationship between superhero movies and the photographs from Black Lives Matter is not a matter of photographers trying to make protesters look like superheroes. It is that when such photographs emerge from the countless thousands taken at rallies and similar events, they are immediately recognized by a crowd already sensitized to their formal qualities. The most successful of these images have relatively simple compositions, featuring a single protagonist alone or contending with a number of adversaries. The images, which play into our collective desire for defiance, look like things we’ve seen before. They are conceptually neat, perhaps even Manichaean.

Black Lives Matter photographs also have a deeper genealogy. In their basic trope of the individual confronting terrible power, one of their most striking antecedents is “Tank Man,” from June 5, 1989, near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. These images (there are at least four variants, in addition to video footage), of an unknown solitary protester standing in the way of advancing tanks, encapsulate the plight but also the greatness of an individual taking extreme personal risk. But unlike the photos of Evans and others from Black Lives Matter, there’s an air of gloom around Tank Man. Given what we know happened in Tiananmen Square, we presume he was doomed in some way. A closer emotional comparison to the pictures from Black Lives Matter might be found in certain images of the civil rights movement, like Fred Ward’s photograph of the activist Gloria Richardson pushing her way past a National Guardsman’s bayonet in Cambridge, Md., in 1963. But even there, the mood is of dignity intruded upon rather than of outright victory.

Images trigger our memory of the history of images. Ieshia Evans, standing full-length, in profile, calm, carrying something, her robes billowing from an unseen gust, reiterates almost perfectly the form of a nymph that the early-20th-century scholar Aby Warburg described in his “Mnemosyne Atlas.” Warburg, undertaking a historical study of repeated forms, showed that figures matching this description were present in works by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Raphael, as well as in Roman bas-reliefs. The immediate legibility of images like those of Evans cannot be separated from the way their dynamism, evocative of ancient painting and sculpture, honors the black body.

Image: Protester Ieshia Evans being detained in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 9. Via NY Times.