The unrest has abated in Ferguson. The quest for justice has not.
As I watched events unfold last month, I did not at any point feel I had something to add to the news coverage or commentary. I am still not convinced I do. That said, when the very soul of America is at stake, when the life of a young man has been taken, when the police turn up in military get-up, and when all this is being played out in front of the world’s media, I was aware questions needed to be asked of media-makers.
I take this opportunity not to make statements but to ask questions.
Barrett Emke, a young photographer from Kansas, was kind enough to share his photographs from Ferguson with me. He allowed me to make an edit. I publish them here alongside a short Q&A.
These are questions I’m just putting down in digital ink now, but probably come from weeks of thinking in circles. I was not brave or knowledgeable enough to write anything about Ferguson or its people when events were most immediate and raw; when people protested peacefully and faced off with law enforcement.
I want to start finding out about what photography did for the people of Ferguson and what it might do for them in the future. What might it do, or not do, for other communities wracked by racial inequities?
Barrett was in Ferguson August 19-21, I am penning this mid-September, but we know that from the tragedy of Michael Brown’s murder and from the town’s outrage must come long-term positive leaps forward; must come an accelerated and enlightened path to justice for us all as one.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you go to Ferguson?
Barrett Emke (BE): I live in Kansas City, so the events in Ferguson definitely felt close to home. As a photographer and a person, I felt I had somewhat of a duty to go there and experience what was happening firsthand – this piece of history and injustice, and the community’s response.
I had to do something other than just watch what was happening on the news or read about it on the internet; maybe my photographs wouldn’t be seen by anyone or make any difference, but at least I would be there to document a piece of it.
PP: Did you know what you wanted to do beforehand?
BE: Not really. I just dove into the situation and worked intuitively, gauging the events as they came. From the first day I got there I had a rough idea that I wanted to make pictures of as many people as I could.
PP: What does it feel like to have tank in the street?
BE: It was a little overwhelming at first, but you acclimate quickly.
PP: On your website you’ve presented a wider edit with B&W images, pictures of law enforcement who are in action or stationary.
I’m not that interested in your distant (usually nighttime) images of cops. They seem to break up the warmth that maintains throughout the portraits of Ferguson residents. Does that make sense?
BE: I can see that. Obviously, the images of the militarized police, and the tear gassing, and all of that are everywhere now, and I knew that I wasn’t going to do that. But the images I did include I feel have their place in the sequence – I think of them more as portraits of the officers who were part of the situation as well.
PP: How did you feel when your were in Ferguson?
BE: Honestly, I felt human.
The people I interacted with and photographed were open, genuine, and earnest. Beyond the conflicts and the clashes between protestors and police, I definitely felt a strong sense of community and humanity present there, among those who lived in Ferguson and others who had traveled from elsewhere to be there.
PP: How do you think your feelings compare with residents?
BE: It’s hard to say. Many people who I spoke with and photographed were totally willing to engage with me – in times of crisis, that sort of social barrier kind of breaks down. At the same time, I definitely heard residents express their anger and a certain distrust toward the media, this sentiment that after the spectacle has ended, their lives in Ferguson go on.
PP: What was the behavior of the media like in Ferguson?
BE: I think the presence of the media was essential, to record and broadcast what was happening. At the same time, it became a little gross to the see the camera crews flocking to and descending upon every little scrap of conflict each night, trying to get the scoop. It definitely seemed vulture-like at certain moments, and there were instances in which I felt like the media’s presence was exacerbating the situation.
There were times when interactions between protestors, police, and the media became problematic, with the media fanning the flames a bit. I’m not sure what the alternative would have been; if the media hadn’t been there reporting, would the militarized aggression of the police have only escalated? Would Michael Brown’s story and its larger implications have been told?
PP: How did people react to you photographing?
BE: Generally, people were receptive to me photographing. I tried to be as respectful and sensitive to the situation and individuals as possible.
PP: What did Ferguson residents think generally about the media and/or photographers?
BE: There was a certain ambivalence about the media that I picked up on. As I mentioned previously, I heard the sentiment echoed that once the media circus had skipped town, the residents still had to go on about their lives and their realities. But at the same time, I heard many people express that the situation would be worse between protestors and the police if the media wasn’t there to report on what was happening, and to check that militarized aggression.
PP: What was the overall sentiment of the people you photographed?
BE: People were there on West Florissant in solidarity and were fed up with everything that had led to this point. Those I photographed were resolute in their anger and sought justice for Michael Brown, meaning the indictment of Darren Wilson and a major shift in policy, representation, and attitudes going forward. What I heard echoed again and again from people was that this situation wasn’t just about race, it was also a human thing. Beyond that, I perceived an overwhelming amount of positivity and hope from the individuals I met.
PP: Did this sentiment match that of the media generally?
BE: As in, did the media share the same drive for justice as the residents and protestors? I’m not sure, but I would say that they seemed to be there to do their job, which was reporting.
PP: Is America a racist country? I’m not being incendiary here; it actually seems like a fair question if we consider this excerpt from this New Yorker piece The Color of Justice:
Whites support tougher criminal laws at least partly because they overestimate black and Hispanic crime rates. Blacks and Hispanics do commit certain crimes more frequently, per capita, than whites, but not all. But whites consistently overestimate the difference, according to one study, by as much as twenty to thirty per cent. That perception affects attitudes toward offenders and sentencing. Studies show that the more whites attribute higher crime rates to blacks and Hispanics, the more likely they are to support harsh criminal laws. It is less that they are consciously seeking to subordinate racial minorities than that they fail to treat the negative consequences of high incarceration rates as their problem. As the report explains, “attributing crime to racial minorities limits empathy toward offenders and encourages retribution.”
This is a damning indictment. If anyone were to admit that they preferred the death penalty, life without parole, or harsh sentences because they believe the perpetrators of violent crimes are more likely to be black or Hispanic, we would immediately condemn them as the worst sort of racist. If a prosecutor, judge, or juror expressed such a sentiment, any resulting conviction or sentence would be swiftly overturned. No one admits that they feel this way, but the studies recounted by the Sentencing Project suggest that this is precisely what many white Americans feel.
BE: America is a racist country, with its long and complicated history of prejudice that it still cannot shake.
Racism in the United States is deeply entrenched and systemic, even today, as we’ve seen. As a white person, I have tried to be consistently aware of my privilege and the way racism can be internalized by someone who would never consider herself or himself “racist.” It is a process of learning and unlearning that I still grapple with. One can always do better, listen more. It is not enough to simply not be racist; one must be anti-racist.
When a person of color in America can’t be certain that she or he won’t be shot and killed during a routine encounter with police, or a total stranger, something is utterly, intrinsically wrong. I believe it is the duty of those who benefit from white privilege, male privilege, heteronormative privilege, to fight alongside those who are disenfranchised under the law and throughout society.
PP: What did photography achieve during August for the messages coming out of Ferguson?
BE: I’ve seen an abundance of profound, earth shattering photographs come out of the events of Ferguson. I believe these photographs have been successful in demonstrating to the world what was unfolding and to preserve these moments as historical documents.
PP: Do photographers need to stay in, or return to, Ferguson soon? And/or often?
BE: Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like my work was simply done when I returned home. A situation like this is ongoing. Nothing is solved. There is still more work to be done, and I would like to return to make more photographs.
PP: Do you think that’s going to happen?
BE: I believe that to be committed and thorough in a situation like this, it has to be longterm.
PP: Thanks Barrett.
BE: Thank you, Pete.