“no nazi is going to march here, it’s not okay.”
You’ve been sitting much too long
There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong
There’s a midget standing tall
And a giant beside him about to fall
— Sly Stone, “Stand!”
The image of Tess Asplund protesting a neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) march in Borlänge, Sweden, is powerful in its own right. She spontaneously tried to block the march, with humility and bravery, declaring to the Guardian: “It was an impulse. I was so angry, I just went out into the street. I was thinking: hell no, they can’t march here! I had this adrenaline. No Nazi is going to march here, it’s not okay.”
The image also connects to a striking photographic iconography. This is not only the case in Sweden, where it reminded many of Hans Runesson’s 1985 image tanten med väskan (the lady with the bag)…
…but also other famous images, such as “Tank Man,” from the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and taken by Jeff Widener for the Associated Press.
Also the 1968 Black Power salute protest at the Olympics by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, photograph taken by John Dominis.
These images serve as reminders of a history of dramatic individual actions that together constitute a collective visual history not only of speaking truth to power, but embodying it as well.
Keshia Evans, Baton Rouge, 9 July 2016. Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters.
Jonathan Bachman’s image of Keshia Evans from the Black Lives Matter protests in Baton Rouge this July adds to this iconographic lineage. Novelist, critic, and photographer Teju Cole recently wrote of this and other “superhero photographs” from the Black Lives Matter movement. As Cole astutely points out, “Black Lives Matter as a movement originated in images: the video clips showing the extrajudicial killing of black people.” For him, “The ‘superhero’ photographs of protesters, with their classic form and triumphal tone, are engaged in a labor of redress. They bring a counterweight to the archive. Against death and helplessness, they project power and agency.” Cole argues that these images symbolize “the existence of many unacknowledged everyday black heroes.” The “images of supernatural heroism don’t confuse us about what the human body can accomplish or endure. What these images do is make elaborate internal states like patience, fearlessness, anger and dignity temporarily visible.” They also, as he points out, tap into a memory bank of photographs: “Images trigger our memory of the history of images.”
Cole’s essay is marvelous, but lately I do also wonder about the problem of how human subjectivity gets represented in the context of these terrifying moments of protest and struggle against both long-running and immediate traumas of unjust state power. Once there were “superpredators,” now there are superheroes. The images of people of color toggle between the two, violently, particularly in the United States. To work toward a different reality on the other side of the lens—in reality—remains the challenge: a political and cultural situation in which people can be people in the fullness of their humanity, in experiences of lives well and fully lived. It’s an old dream, perhaps an elusive one, but it remains the most important one. This is yet another reason why the pairing of blackness with lives matters.