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September 21, 2007

Window On Jena



First off, I should say I haven’t looked at a wider cross-section of media images from Thursday’s march in Jena.

Through the window of the one NYT slide show, based on 12 photos by Times photographer Damon Winter, however, I have an editorial and a historical observation.  (For easier reference, by the way, each image is numbered and linked to as a pop-up at the bottom of the post.)

From the accounts I read, it seemed the march was notably peaceful, even festive.  This series of photos, however, seems to be “looking for trouble.” 

For example:

In #1, notice the guy in the car (a Nation of Islam member, in the suit, doing a security thing?) seeming to photograph the photographer.  It offers a paranoid subtext to me.

#7 is a portrait of the Nation of Islam “protection.”  We’re these guys that prominent Thursday?  Is it fair to put that much weight here?  And, is that the same car (far left) that we saw in #1?

Again, is #8 (showing a verbal confrontation between two kids, basically — marcher and trooper) that representative of the day?  Notice the three black troopers in the background looking more casual, by the way.  So, does this shot really represent “tempers flaring between protesters and troopers,” as the caption says, or tension between marchers (or one marcher) and one (white) trooper?

I’m less sure about  #4 and #5 on this thesis, but I do think it’s interesting both shots mostly isolate black men alone.  In #4, outside Rusty’s Rig and Supply, you have what spatially reads like a white couple (although, on closer look, it seems pretty clear they are not together) “sidelined” by the black marchers in the road.  (I’m wondering if the suitcase, pulled by the marcher — combined with the body language of the white girl, like she’s really stuck there, actually lends a more temporal sense, thus a hint of occupation.)  Then, in #5, the shouting mouth — if a poignant conveyance of anger and frustration — seems as much a distorted and primitive vision, as if someone or something might end up bitten or swallowed.

I was also interested in these images as a generational snapshot, highlighting the aging of the civil rights movement.  If inadvertently, it feels like this is the real story the photographer captured.  Again, a few examples:

In #1, we have a striking case of two generations.  Interestingly, the caption identifies the woman, Nikole Pollard, at left, but not the name or relation of the youth with her.  This shot, and the others I’ll mention, however, made me wondering about  the status of “the movement” and its lack of both newer faces, and an overall face or identity.

In #3, Reverend Sharpton (with the mother of he student at the center of the storm, Mychal Bell) is more a symbol of the old guard.  #9 is even more striking in that regard.  The photo is divided in half, the older marchers, in black, on the right, holding a photo of Dr. King, with the young kid, in white, left, and behind.  (This photo probably gets even more complicated as the kid seems to be Latino.)  The other generational signifier here, however, is the kids gesture, which is the primary subject of #6.

At this point, the sight of the raised fist — the Sixties symbol of black power — seems mostly ironic.  I say that because its appearance here, in singular focus (against the American flag, no less), seems to evoke as much nostalgia as affirmation.  Given the case at hand, however, I wonder how much the absence of the gesture (or any contemporary equivalent in person or coalescing symbol) has to do with racial progress, as opposed to pacification, or other sets of factors.

Image # 1

Image # 2

Image # 3

Image # 4

Image # 5

Image # 6

Image # 7

Image # 8

Image # 9

Image # 10

Image # 11

Complete slide show. Article link.

  • Blake Incarnate

    Great photo series, the best I’ve seen yet. The situation is a lot more tense down there than I realized, and I like that. There is a Rodney King feel to it all. Cinderblocks coming next week? The splinter groups that are down there keeping their cards in the game. Nation of Islam, Black Panthers, Jessie and Al. Do they have a dog in that fight or are they looking for a fight to join. What is the fight. A poor youth that couldn’t make bail? There are hundreds of poor black youths awaiting trial that can’t make bail in Denver. Ditto the entire nation. The hanging tree noose photograph singled this out for stardom. Paint a swasticka on a Synagogue in any city in America and you have an instant National News item.
    That city has a powder keg feel to it and there are people on many racial divides that would like to strike the match. The jailed high school kid is an excuse. Like Billy Joel says: Somebody’s gonna hurt somebody before the night is through.

  • jrmas

    Image #10 with the caption “Visitors at the site of the now infamous White Tree on the Jena High School campus. The tree was cut down by school officials in the wake of the arrests of the Jena Six.” also has a singular focus of the flag surrounded by shadows, legs and feet. What is missing from the caption is to note that the flag is on its staff upside-down, a symbol among sailors of distress, not to mention controversy in America today. Folks on the right take it as a sign of disrespect in their continued efforts to silence oppostion. Nobody said it would be easy.

  • La Cabeza Grande

    “This series of photos, however, seems to be ‘looking for trouble.’”
    The NYT editor wouldn’t have accepted anything less than a pictorial essay fraught with racially explosive potential.
    Jena, LA is overwhelmingly white. There will be no LA-style riots of pent-up rage and indignation. If you notice, the two Caucasian individuals in the parking lot are seated casually – unconcerned for their safety as they have nothing to fear based on numbers alone.
    By the way, I’d be careful about labeling someone as “white,” “black,” or “Latino.” It is very American to do so, but as someone with Louisiana roots, I can tell you that those classifications can often be visually misleading.

  • margaret

    The media are so expert at this. And, it’s not a new story. In 1961, when the Univ. of Georgia was integrated, in the aftermath of a losing basketball game against their arch rival, Ga Tech, the students were walking home to their dormitories. Some of them chanted, 2-4-6-8….etc. (You fill in the blanks.)
    But, before they ever arrived on the part of the campus where Charlene Hunter’s (Gault) dormitory was located, there were already a mob of middle-aged white men with axe handles, throwing rocks at her dorm. Time magazine shot a picture of a “student” burning a cross (a staged photo), and it became a definition of “student participation” in the riot. There was some, but mostly, it was conflated with the loss to Ga Tech, earlier in the evening. I witnessed the moments before the male students combined with the middle aged mob with tear gas and police already on the scene, in front of Charlene’s dorm. I was in a passing car, and scared to death. I was terrified for Charlene’s safety.
    The media fed into the rage, tapped it, and inflated it, and made a bad situation worse. In time, the University of Georgia rose to the level of it’s basic good nature, and fully integrated and restored their honor. But, I have always resented the power of distant media, with no agenda but to sell their product, to interfere in social processes, without being truthful or helpful in furthering the dialogue which needs to be present during cataclysmic social change. Media is necessary, but it should be truthful and responsible.

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