Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

#iftheygunnedmedown: What We See and What We Believe

Laurie and Debbie say:

In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man named Tyler Atkins posted these two pictures on Twitter:

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He used the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which is now a 25-page Tumblr and shows up in well over 150,000 tweets.

First, we have to honor the pure political power of these photographs … and all the young people killed by police whose tragic deaths have generated this power.

What does this project tell us?

“One picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliche so basic that we hardly even hear it when we say it. In fact, if you ask most people, they’ll tell you that in these days of Photoshop, pictures aren’t real, and can’t be trusted.

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But still, we react to what we see, and we especially react to what we see first. The first image we see of someone in a story (tragic story or otherwise) will create the story. We are primates; this is probably hard-wired into the connection between our eyes and our brains. Thus, the media’s habit of choosing a specific photograph to repeat and repeat with a particular story is a method of controlling not just our reactions, but the story itself.

In the case of Michael Brown, we are supposed to see the stereotypical “he was a black thug” photograph, which carries the message, “So it was okay for the cops to shoot him.” (Of course, that’s vicious racism; we’re just saying what message is being conveyed.) In a few cases, the family gets a clean-cut shot into the media before they get their hands on a “thug shot,” and that changes the story. “Saintly victim” stories work the same way: images of thin blonde girls with blood on their faces send just as clear a message as images of tough black youths.

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In #iftheygunnedmedown, African-American young people, starting with Tyler Atkins, are taking control of their own images. This kind of response is important and rare and, like the app recording police encounters (also created by African-American youth), it has some potential to change the story, especially when (like this hashtag) it shows up as a front page story in the New York Times. When the victims and targets take control and expose the mainstream culture’s lies for us, something important can shift in us.

#iftheygunnedmedown comments on human complexity. No one is just a saxophonist or just a street kid, just a college graduate or just a club dancer. No one — no one — is just a black thug.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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