Visual Culture

Why Certain Photographs Quickly Come to Define a Movement

Molly Gottschalk
Jul 12, 2016 7:54AM

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

By now, you’ve probably seen the above photograph countless times. It’s likely occupied your News Feed and topped stories from sources both Left and Right. Jonathan Bachman’s photo has come to represent the heart-rending events of last week: the fatal police shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, the protests that spawned in response, and the sniper attack that, in the midst of one of those protests, saw five Dallas police officers killed.

In it, Ieshia Evans, an unarmed black woman in a sundress and ballet flats, peacefully faces off police officers sporting full riot gear outside the Baton Rouge police department. The 35-year-old nurse remained on the street after police asked protesters to disperse and was cuffed just after Bachman captured his shot. She was released from jail on Sunday evening, perhaps not yet knowing that her profile had become a new emblem for the struggles represented by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Bachman’s is not the first photograph to emerge out of Black Lives Matter and cement itself in the popular imagination nor will it likely be the last. But, like all feats of photojournalism that go on to define major social movements and news events, it captures and humanizes the very fear, pain, and struggle that motivates those at the heart of each movement in a way that words—particularly the removed words of journalists—cannot. Throughout recent history, iconic images like these have represented the ravages of war, captured long-endured injustices, highlighted the absurdity of the state power apparatus when placed against the individual, and mobilized mass movements for change. In each frame, a message: It could always be you.

So it was on June 5, 1989, when, following nearly two months of demonstrations in Beijing and the Chinese military’s violent killing of thousands of protesters, a lone Chinese rebel fearlessly walked before a row of moving army tanks in Tiananmen Square. The unidentified protester (forever remembered as “Tank Man”) stood his ground as the engines revved. He climbed on top of the first tank to speak to one of the soldiers and was later whisked away—whether to safety or to his death remains unknown.

But the resulting photograph, which appeared on the cover of the New York Times the next day but remains censored in Chinese media to this day, shows only the stand-off. It hints at omnipresent state violence, irrespective of Tank Man’s fate. In retrospect, it hints at the momentous changes to come in Mainland China during the following two decades, this individual splitting off from any collectivity, whether communist or otherwise, in self-definition. The image became a symbol more widely of courage and nonviolent resistance and remains one of the most iconic representations of civil disobedience—and of the late 20th century, period.

On October 21, 1967, French photojournalist Marc Riboud was among a crowd of some 100,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters who stormed the Pentagon, confronting the more-than-2,500 rifle-wielding soldiers that guarded the building. It was there that he fixed his lens on 17-year-old high-school student Jan Rose Kasmir and snapped a portrait of the young woman, dressed in a flowered blouse and clutching a chrysanthemum, peacefully confronting a row of the National Guard holding sharply aimed bayonets.

Kasmir’s efforts to speak with the soldiers weren’t successful. Shortly after the click of Riboud’s shutter, protesters were arrested, beaten, and clouded with tear gas. But Riboud’s photograph and American photographer Bernie Boston’s similar image “Flower Power” traveled the world. They became emblems of the movements around the globe in the coming year that confronted the military industrial complex with an alternative consciousness empowered by peace.

As social media has proliferated in recent years and powerful cameras have found their way into the pockets of many more participants in global struggles, the number of these defining photographic moments has also multiplied. Just last year, Devin Allen captured an image that came to define the uprisings surrounding the death of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray, who was killed while in police custody: a portrait of another young black man being chased by a pack of armed policemen.

The Baltimore-based photographer had begun documenting his community as the protests intensified and first published his image to Instagram. It was later circulated by the likes of Rihanna and Usher and featured on the May 11, 2015 cover of TIME magazine, bringing millions of viewers to the innermost depths of the protests. “He found himself in the middle of these protests because he was part of that community,” TIME photo editor Olivier Laurent told me earlier this year. Because of many more millions of amateur photographers out there, as Allen was at the time, we now get closer to moments that have before and still to this day evaded the lens of the six o’clock news.

Photo courtesy of TIME


Today, photos like Jonathan Bachman’s of Ieshia Evans assume the language of social media: They go viral. But while shares can amplify the impact that these images have, they’re not what give the images their power. There is a reason Evans’s face cut through 20 of your friends’ multiple paragraph-long Facebook posts and the 10 news articles that were spaced in between them. Her position, that of Tank Man, and that of Jan Rose Kasmir—an individual standing up to a more powerful group that seeks to oppress or suppress her—is one that is infinitely relatable in a way that images capturing the actual violence that inspires such civil disobedience are often not. (This is particularly true for those in positions of privilege or power.) She becomes a blank canvas in which you can place yourself. You become a part of the struggle and the movement.

By the time this article has been published, I’d venture that 99% of those who’ve seen Evans’s image will have either forgotten or will have never known her name. That doesn’t matter. By the time this article has been published, she’ll have gone on to inspire solidarity, or at least a moment of reflection, among millions around the world. And perhaps, one day, a more equal and nonviolent society.

Molly Gottschalk