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August 6, 2012

Shooting Aftermath: Visualizing the Sikhs in Oak Creek

Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

My question is, how much does exoticism come into play picturing the Sikh community after the tragic Oak Creek shooting at the Temple in Oak Creek?

The news photos of Sikhs taken at the Temple following the shooting spree on Sunday, especially compared to aftermath images from Aurora, seem to reflect more pensiveness, even a sense of the everyday, than they do shock or grief. There are surely many practical differences, but there must surely be cultural factors at work also, including the community’s concern — being suddenly and intensely on view — with prejudice and stereotyping (factors that seem to have precipitated the hate crime) and, above all, further safety concerns.

Although the story is still fresh and raw, two questions it feels important to put on the table from the outset are: how does the camera — and how does the photographer balancing journalistic integrity with commercial motive– avoid depicting the Sikhs as “the other,” already appreciating how much the visual power of skin color, and, particularly, colorful pants, tunics and turbans create a strong visual pull toward exoticism?


The photo of the two men above was taken by a photographer for the Oak Creek Patch. The artful photo just above is a Getty image.


This Reuters photo of residents waiting for news is colorful and strangely picnic-like.

Sikh Temple shooting

Beyond the everyday quality of the scene here, I’m interested in the way this photo communicates the quality of “us” (blonde, Western, authority at the end of the path, cultural “uniforms”) and “them.”

Buck deer Sikh temple shooting

And then, I have some concerns about this image circulating as part of the Getty edit. (In a previous version of the post, I made a comment that was too flip here, and I apologize for it.) One one hand, I understand how it articulates fear and crazy. Where I have concerns about it, though, is that it seems to model the response of the animal as a more typical or culturally appropriate one in contrast to the look of the Sikhs, who are not exhibiting the same kind of anxiety.  Of course, the last thing you want in this case — and it’s the reason I would have dropped it out of the edit — is to, in any way, set up a comparison with an (exotic) animal.

(Updated for clarity/perspective. 10 am PDT.)

(photo: Joe Todor/Oak Creek caption: Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek 8 / 5 / 2012.)(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: At least six people were killed when a shooter, who was later shot dead by a police officer, opened fire on Sikh congregants in a Milwaukee suburb.) (photo: Allen Fredrickson / Reuters caption: Members of the Sikh temple wait for news following a mass shooting that left seven persons dead including the shooter.)(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: People mill around in front of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin where at least one gunman fired upon people at a service August, 5, 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin. At least six people were killed when a shooter, who was later shot dead by a police officer, opened fire on congregants in the Milwaukee Darren Hauck/Getty Images.)

  • kidzmom1

    I think that last is simply a deer bolting from all the humans. Food is prepared and shared but from what I have read, animals are not killed on premises but in the usual way most Americans get their meat products. In other words, snark fail.

  • Ratna

    The second to last photo:

    The crowd gathered in the far right is interesting. The all women inclusion works but the POV is unsuccessful (too confrontational).

    The photograph with just the cop’s shoulder/arm in the frame with the maximum depth of field available would have been better, perhaps?

  • LanceThruster

    “It pains me even now, even a million years later, to write about such human misbehaviour.
    A million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race. That’s all I can say.”
    ― Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos

    And you don’t even have to go back a million years, unfortunately.

  • PrettyRadical

    Really not seeing what you’re seeing. They look calm. But so did the Amish after their school shooting.

    • Michael Shaw

      Yes, that reserve, calmness, stoicism, emotional protectiveness? — I’m not sure what to call it because I don’t understand it — is what I’m talking about. I just added a link to the post where I drew a contrast with the aftermath images in Aurora. In Denver, you saw a lot of grief, sadness and shock in a way you don’t here. 

      Here’s a good slideshow from the Denver Post, many of the photos taken a fairly equivalent amount of time after the shootings there — although I believe the photos in this post are actually closer in time to the event than many in the Denver slide show which run into the day after.

  • Cactus

    The identifiable people in all the photos look like they are still in shock, in addition to most likely being told by the police to remain on site.  I don’t find their behavior that unusual.  They are an outlier group and as such used to not over-reacting.  Successful black men have that same demeanor.  Arthur Ashe and Pres. Obama come to mind.  They are always under control because they know that in this country they are just one word away from what happened to Gates (in his own home!).
    Amy Goodman did some interviews this morning with Sikhs and they are no strangers to such incidents; one Sikh was shot on the streets in CA and two were shot, out in the open, back east, I think all in the last year.  ‘Nuff said.  Back to the photos.
    The top one with the two men in FG, it looks as if the man on the left is looking right at the camera with his hand up as if to say ‘not now.’  The photographer is intruding into their grieving.  The women are all looking away from the camera.  The second photo is all too obvious.  The only thing in focus and light is the pretty girl in red.
    The next photo looks to me more like people waiting for more information; who is still alive, who isn’t.  They are worried, not having a picnic.  No one is smiling.  It’s a well-composed photo of a composed group of people.  The next one, I agree, whether subliminally or not, the photographer shot the white/blonde symbol of power opposed to a colorful group of ‘the other.’  Also, the break in the concrete and the red & blue markings reinforce the separation of power and other.
    The deer, I just don’t get it.  The photographer could not have been there to get a reaction from the shots or even the sirens.  The only connection I make is that it might be a more rural area???  Otherwise, it’s just opportunistic and way too obvious.
    The Denver photos just illustrate the difference between the dominant culture and the other.  Americans, especially white Americans, show their emotion all over the place and if we don’t know how to do that, all we have to do is watch TV. 

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