How a Photo Changed a Country




3 minutes reading

Photographs are often compared to paintings. When Freddy Alborta died last August, we were reminded of this by his photo of Che Guevara lying dead on a table surrounded by his captors. The British art historian John Berger compared the image with paintings by Rembrandt (The Anatomy Lecture by Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632) and Mantegna (The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 15th C.). In the Vietnamese napalm girl by Nick Ut, you can see Edvard Munch’s The Cry (1893). Over the last few years, countless portraits were made that directly refer to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

However, occasionally you come across a photograph that has never been painted before. This summer I was at a loss for words when I saw a particular fifty-year-old photograph for the first time. It was of a male torso in a white shirt and black jacket, with a face above it that was no longer recognizable as human. The face was extremely swollen with one eye missing and other mutilations. It was the body of a fourteen year old boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, who was spending his summer holiday with relatives in the southern state of Mississippi. We often underestimate how small the step is from civilisation to horror; one cannot blame a fourteen-year-old for not being aware of this. All he did was whistle at a white woman. Four days later, he was dragged out of his aunt’s house by the woman’s husband and his half-brother. They beat him wherever they could with whatever they could find. They shot him with a .45. Finally, they tied barbed wire around his body, fastened it to an eighty-pound paddle wheel and dumped him in a river.

In the days before, Emmett Till had been showing his friends a photo of a white girl he knew. For teenagers living in a town where African-Americans addressed whites with Sir and Madam and where public interracial contact between men and women was considered a mortal sin, this was thrilling stuff. In this slightly excited atmosphere, the naive Emmett whistled at the white Carolyn Bryant. His face was beaten to such an unrecognizable pulp that one of the reasons the all-white jury gave for acquitting the culprits, was that they were unable to establish if it was in fact Emmett Till’s body. Only much later the culprits confessed their guilt to a journalist from Look Magazine. In June 2005, through DNA testing, the buried body was identified as Emmett Till. This indicates that after fifty years the event still touches people. This is for a great part because of the photograph. The imagecould be taken because Emmett’s mother decided that the coffin should remain open at the funeral: The whole state of Mississippi will pay for this. With thousands of people present, the funeral became a sort of demonstration. At first, the photograph was only published in Jet Magazine, a publication for black Americans. Other major magazines did not dare to confront their readers with this shocking image.

The image of the unrecognizable Emmett spread like a flame through black America. Not owing to any reference to art history, but because the black community was ready for a great social change. In December 1955 a young black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat reserved for whites in a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It was an event that gave a powerful impetus to the civil-rights movement in the United States and went down in American history as a great act of protest. Parks, whopassed away last October 24th, later said that she was driven to her action by the photograph of Emmett Till.