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Speed Read: Beyond the black square

In 1826 or 1827, a Frenchman called Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created what’s generally regarded to be the first ever photograph of a real-world scene; certainty the earliest image of this type that has survived. Pointing his adapted camera-obscura from a window at his estate in St-Loup-de-Varenne in eastern France, Niépce used a pewter plate covered in asphalt to capture and, crucially, preserve the image of the view. In truth, it’s a rubbish photo. I mean it would get absolutely no likes whatsoever on Insta, whatever filters he slapped on it but Niépce had made history: he had changed forever the way humanity would view itself.

One hundred and ninety-three years later and billions of photographs are taken every second. The team behind a photo-storage app called Mylo (no, me neither) commissioned some number-wranglers for an advert interesting piece of mathematics at the beginning of the year. According to the results 1,436,300,000,000 (that’s 1.4 trillion) photographs will be taken in 2020 which is, you know, quite a lot. The overwhelmingly vast majority of these will disappear into the electronic miasma: there’s that girl you went to school with pouting in front of a nicely coloured door near Borough Market; there’s your mate’s dog; there’s a sunset; oh look, Sandra from HR has had a baby and that’s what the baby looks like . . .  ephemeral moments all of them, glanced at once and then forgotten.

But occasionally an image defies the odds, occasionally an image sticks.

It’s been another extraordinary week, not least for the fact that the ongoing battle with Covid-19 was, for a short time at least, relegated from the world’s front pages of the world by story that I’m choosing to represent in three images. But before I start, I’ve got take a moment to wrestle with myself and indeed wrestle with my language in order to get the telling of this correct. It’s not easy. Even my use of the word “story” above is erroneous or at the very least offensively reductive: this is a system, this is a history, this is a reality for millions. This is so much more than a story.

On May 25th a black man called George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis for allegedly trying to buy cigarettes with counterfeit currency. A white police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes while Mr Floyd cried repeatedly that “I can’t breathe”. George Floyd later died.

Image number one: still from video of the arrest showing policeman kneeling on George Floyd’s neck

The arrest was captured on video (in which George Floyd can clearly be heard saying “I can’t breathe”) but photography remains the most potent documentary form and a single still extracted from the footage has become a call-to-arms. It shows Floyd lying face down, his body is hidden from shoulders downwards by a police car; his neck is being knelt upon by the uniformed white police officer who looks towards the camera.

It’s as potent a piece of symbolism as you’ll ever find. Not for the only time this week, it made me think of George Orwell – “if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a face forever” – but it’s not a face, it’s a neck and it’s not a boot but it’s a knee. And it’s an image of the horrors of a shameful past as well as Orwell’s all-too-plausible dystopian future.

No wonder people took to the streets, in America and around the world. That’s the very least that needs to happen.

Image number two: President Donald Trump holds aloft a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC

From George Orwell to Margaret Atwood. If you’ve read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale then there was an even greater potency to this profoundly disturbing image, particularly when hearing how it was created. This was Christianity weaponised. This was the teachings of Jesus, whether you believe in him or not, used for political ends. The path to the church was cleared of protesters decrying George Floyd’s murder by authorities using tear gas, arrests, rubber bullets and flash-bangs leaving the way free for Trump to make his procession towards his cynical photo-op unimpeded. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Image number three: no image

Sometimes the most powerful image is no image at all. On Tuesday, a worldwide protest went viral on social media, on Instagram in particular. #BlackoutTuesday began as idea that no one would publish anything during the day – podcasts, videos, any type of content. However, this idea was overtaken by users posting only a single black square on their accounts. The idea was simple: it was a protest against racism, against brutality and oppression; it was solidarity, showing that you too believe that black lives do matter and that things needed to change and change now.

But it was also problematic. And I say this as someone who did what everyone I know was doing and posted a black square on my Instagram. Was it a helpful gesture? It was certainly well-intentioned but were those good intentions squandered by tokenism? Was it simply a means of allowing people to feel better that they’ve done something but without actually doing anything at all? Yes Instagram turned black for a single day but if by the next day it was to return to its usual parade of pouts and sunsets (which it did) then what was the point?

I grappled with this for a while before posting. And then I posted. Three days later, I still think this was the right decision. But I am not certain.

Beyond the frame

An image is by its very nature exclusive: you can’t see beyond its frame. But this is exactly what we need to do right now; we need to see and understand contexts, we need to demand changes to the macrocosm as well as being enraged by the details. The UK media has had a good week, on the whole, in helping begin this process. BBC Radio has been outstanding: on Radio 1 Clara Amfo and Greg James were given platforms to make powerful, personal testimony as was Nihal Arthanayake on Five Live (listen to this clip if you haven’t yet); the newspapers carried the news but many also printed explanations, even reading lists about black history and the black experience. This hasn’t happened before.

My excellent colleague Vaneetha Balasubramaniam wrote a brilliant piece about brands and their relationship to race and why a black square is not enough on its own. I urge you to read it.

In his seminal book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote: “We never look just at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” He was talking about objects but the same is true of ideas, of history. I don’t know enough about black history; I don’t know enough about black culture; as a white man growing up in Devon racism was just not something I had to think about it.

But then I did think about it. And I still need to learn more. And that’s what I am going to do. It’s been a shocking week; it’s been an inspiring week. Let’s not simply remember it. Let’s act upon it.

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