When Seeing Isn’t Believing: On Images of Police Brutality

by | 5 Aug 2016

Our TV screens and social media feeds are saturated with images of police brutality towards African Americans; the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling among the most recent. While visual proof of police violence towards African Americans is not new — as images of the 1935 Harlem race riot reveal — it is now more prevalent than ever.


The increased visibility of police violence is commonly understood as an unambiguously positive development in the fight for justice. Belief in the power of photographs and videos has seeped into the very language of social change; to “bring an issue to light” or “expose abuses by the state” is to hasten justice. Visual materials are seen as objective records of moments in time, offering a seemingly irrefutable form of evidence free from the bias of individual testimony or the interpretation required from an expert witness. The uncle of Michael Brown, whose killing was not recorded, lamented the lack of footage from the scene saying that he just wished “we could have had solid proof”.

In some instances, visual evidence is the “solid proof” needed to change the course of a case. According to the original police report and media narrative, Walter Scott was shot by a police officer only after he grabbed the officer’s Taser, causing the officer to fear for his life. After hearing these false reports, a passer-by who had filmed the encounter on his phone came forward with footage of the shooting. The footage shows Scott running away from the officer who fires eight times into his back. After the release of the footage, the offending officer was arrested and later convicted of murder.

Such instances are the exception; more often than not, police escape criminal charges or convictions despite the availability of visual evidence of police brutality. Video footage of Eric Garner shows him surrounded by police and placed in a chokehold for allegedly selling cigarettes unlawfully. Notwithstanding the clear use of excessive force, a grand jury failed to indict the officer responsible. Visual evidence can also fail to sway public opinion. Despite footage of a white police officer singling out and physically abusing black teenagers at a pool party in Texas, claims in defence of the police -such as that the teenagers had smoked weed and acted like hooligans and the local residents were in fear – surfaced on social media. Clearly, photographs and videos do not simply “speak for themselves”.

Instructive to this discussion is Judith Butler’s analysis of the failure to indict the officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King (Butler 1993). Video footage showed King on the ground, being beaten with batons by police officers and dragged on his abdomen. In the trial, the footage was presented by attorneys representing the police officers as evidence that the police acted in self-defence. Butler questions how “this video can be used as evidence that the body being beaten was itself the source of danger?” (15).

Racism, Butler answers, “pervades white perception” such that the visual field is not neutral and independent of wider racist prejudices. The black male body is perceived as dangerous even when it is seen attacked. The Rodney King trial showed that there is no recourse to visual evidence — that even the most shocking footage will not provide indisputable proof of police brutality. As Butler states, visual evidence “is still and always calls to be read, that is already a reading, and that in order to establish the injury on the basis of the visible evidence, an aggressive reading of the evidence is necessary” (18).

The point which underlies Butler’s analysis is that the video is not literally an emanation from past reality. The mechanical objectivity of the camera is a myth. Rather, as John Berger put it, “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe”. The objects we see in videos and photographs acquire meaning through our experiences and knowledge of the world. Turning again to Butler, our way of seeing is determined, at least in part, by ideologies of race which act to define who is a recognizable subject and, thus, whose vulnerability matters. In the racial schema within which the video of King’s beating is viewed, King himself is seen as an agent of violence.

The inability of visual evidence to effectively counter arguments made by law enforcement personnel has a long history. In 1940, the first FBI investigation into a torture case in the American South took place (Niedermeier 2013: 91-111). 16-year-old African American Quinter South had been tortured in the headquarters of the Atlanta Police Department. The trial of the police officer responsible had returned a not guilty verdict despite a wealth of evidence. As part of the investigation, the FBI took photographs of Quinter South showing the burns on his body. Despite validating the testimony of the victim, devalued in the racial hierarchy of courtroom witnesses, the case in which the federal evidence was presented resulted in a mistrial. The all-white jury had been unable to reach a verdict. Even the bureaucratic objectivity of the FBI could not overcome the effect of a visual field saturated by race.

If the value of visual evidence cannot be located simply in its ability to “speak truth to power”, then perhaps it is to be found in its capacity to move others to do so. Susan Sontag in On Photography argued that photographs could not, on their own, create a political or moral position but could only reinforce a particular stance based on the viewer’s existing political consciousness. “Images transfix” suggests Sontag, “images anesthetize” (20).

Contra Sontag, the increased availability of footage of African Americans killed at the hands of police has coincided with the most sustained period of antiracist protest in the US in decades. Rather than being “anaesthetized” by images, many have been mobilized to political action. Protestor Tef Poe describes the moment he saw a photograph posted on Instagram of the stepfather of Michael Brown; within hours of seeing the image, he was in Ferguson. Activist Ashley Yates said at a rally in October 2014 that “[i]f you can see a dead black boy lie in the street for four and a half hours and that doesn’t make you angry, then you lack humanity” (emphasis added).

Sontag may have argued that those who took to the streets after seeing footage of police brutality already had the requisite political consciousness. Perhaps what is absent from Sontag’s analysis, however, is attention to the content and form of the visual evidence and its means of distribution.  The visual evidence that has played a role in galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement is remarkable in its semblance to “normal” American life and its widespread and de-centralized mode of distribution. Unlike the photos from Abu Ghraib, for example, which sensationalized the “spectacle-like aspect of torture” (Viterbo 2014: 285), these images of African Americans being killed are in very familiar settings; a parked car (Philando Castile), a NYC sidewalk (Eric Garner) or a public park (Walter Scott). The shaky camera-phone quality and occasional narration from the person filming also render the footage more relatable.

As crucial is the manner of distribution. “Images do not move by themselves, but are trafficked along material networks and embedded in platforms” (McLagan and McKee 2012: 16). Most of these images are first shared on social media or YouTube, before being disseminated by the press. In the case of Philando Castile, the shooting and its aftermath were live-streamed on Facebook.  Such images share the same platform as family and friend’s photos and updates, and thus feel more familiar and immediate than those broadcast in a news report of a faraway war.

These differences have the effect of emphasizing the familiar and, therefore, the human. In Frames of War, Butler suggests that a photograph can elicit outrage, opposition and critique depending on how it is framed, where framing is the act of “jettisoning and presenting…without any visible sign of its operation” (Butler 2009: 73). If it is framed such that the human is brought “into view in its frailty and precariousness”, then this allows the viewer to “stand for the value and dignity of human life, to react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated without regard for their value as lives” (77).

Images of police killings have motivated political action at least in part because they show that, for African Americans, this could have been any of “us”. Barack Obama said of Trayvon Martin that “this could have been my son… Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago”. Protestors who were arrested during the protests in Ferguson, when asked their name, replied “Michael Brown”. The familiarity of the image allows viewers to identify with the victim and see the humanity and, therefore, vulnerability, inherent to them, eliciting the exact outrage that Butler implores. The challenge is to encourage a more “aggressive reading”, such that those who cannot empathize with the victim based on a sense of shared identity are able to relate to them by reason of their shared vulnerability in life and grievability in death.

This analysis suggests that the increased availability of photos or videos of police brutality is not, in and of itself, a harbinger of positive change. Even when there is reliable visual evidence of wrongdoing, a police officer is unlikely to face criminal sanction for killing a person of color. Our political demands should not, therefore, focus narrowly on measures which increase transparency, such as more body cameras on police officers or unfettered rights to film law enforcement. Not only is visual evidence insufficient to ensure accountability,  the privileged status of visual evidence may make it harder to punish police where there is nothing but witness testimony.

The prime value of the increased availability of visual evidence is located, not in the courtroom, but in the street. Photos and videos of police brutality can initiate solidarity between viewer and viewed and incite political resistance to the institutions and ideologies which devalue black life. “Can” is the operative word here — images must be appropriately framed and instrumentalized. The Black Lives Matter movement provides a model of how this can be done, by using images to raise public consciousness of racialized state violence and galvanize protest.

Eda Seyhan is a Masters student at the School of Law, SOAS, University of London, and a solicitor qualified in England and Wales.


—Butler J, ‘Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia’ in Gooding-Williams R, Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising (Routledge 1993)
—Butler J, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (Verso 2009)
—McLagan M and McKee Y (eds), Sensible Politics (Zone Books 2012)
—Niedermeier S, ‘Violence Visibility and the Investigation of Police Torture in the American South’, in Martschukat J and Niedermeier S (eds), Violence and Visibility in Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan 2013)
—Sontag S, On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1977)
—Viterbo H, ‘Seeing Torture Anew: A Transnational Reconceptualization of State Torture and Visual Evidence’ (2014) 50 Stanford Journal of International Law


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