Snuff Photos and Honoring the Dead

Philando Castile, recent victim of fatal police violence

Content warning: the following post discusses police brutality, death, respect and disrespect for the dead, and mass suicide

What if I told you, you don’t have to use snuff photos to discuss deadly violence? What if I told you that such images not only have the potential to shock complacent people, but also to harm survivors and loved ones? What if I told you that it’s harder for readers to identify and empathize with a corpse than a living person?

I wrote a series on Jonestown this year, one of the largest mass suicides ever, and the largest mass death of an American cult. We have countless photos of the fields of dead. We even have an audio recording of their agonized screams as the poison worked its way through them, and as they watched their loved ones die. I refrained from using either.

Instead I showed pictures of the cult compound, the busy adults working on their paradise, the children laughing and playing. The people they were before they died. I wanted my readers to care about their lives and mourn their deaths. I did that by showing them, not their recently vacant dead bodies.

You can make the same choice when writing about police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Show them as they were before they were killed. Black people living under the constant threat of police brutality or white gun owners do not need to be “shocked” into caring. They don’t need a graphic or brutal image to want to address the issue.

A dead body is a dehumanized image. It can actuality desensitize the very people you hope to shock. And dead black bodies have a long history of being used by white Americans as threats. From public slave beatings to lynchings to our current Death Row, the United States has seen lots of dead black bodies, while refusing to recognize the humanity of black people.

Some might bring up Emmett Till’s  open casket funeral at this point. I would hope such people could grasp the difference between a body at a crime scene and that same body after being respectfully cleaned, dressed, and laid out for last goodbyes. I would also hope they understand the difference between his own mother making that choice and some stranger. I have nothing but respect for Mrs. Till, nor any desire to take that choice away from grieving loved ones. But I know when I’m a stranger, and when how to display someone’s slain child isn’t my choice to make.

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