The Power of the Image: Sean Bell

I was reading an article about Sean Bell the other day, on the CBS 2 News website. Accompanying the story was this image:

It’s a pretty ambiguous image. The text says “Police Shooting” at the top, not specifying whether Sean Bell shot the police or was shot by them. He looks sort of grim – not smiling, alone, almost like a mug shot. And did you notice that the right side of his head looks a little weird? Flat, maybe?

Yeah, that’s because that’s where someone at CBS edited out his wife. That shot of Sean Bell is actually taken from this image:

That’s Sean Bell, his wife Nicole Paultre-Bell, and one of their daughters. Presents quite a different, well, picture than the top image, doesn’t it? A family man, with his beaming fiancee and chuckling little girl.

Flicking through the channels, if you saw the words “Police Shooting” over the shot of the somber, unsmiling Sean Bell, you might assume that he shot a cop, and keep on clicking to something more entertaining. If you saw the words “Police Shooting” over the shot of him with his family, you (a) would not ever think he did the shooting, and (b) you would be sad. You would think oh, what a shame, that nice family man was killed by police. Just remember that when you’re watching the news. They could have used this picture instead.

At the rally and march for Sean Bell today, I saw filmmaker Byron Hurt, who made the great documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which aired earlier this year on PBS. I asked him why he was there, and he said that as a Black man, he feels like it could be him next. And he talked about the fact that the media paints Black and Latino men as violent and as criminals, and that these representations puts fear into the head of the police. Fear that leads them to see guns where there are none, and to shoot unarmed men.

I teach media literacy, so I think about the power of images a lot. But seeing the doctoring of Sean Bell’s image, and talking to Byron Hurt, I was reminded that portraying Black and Latino men as criminals, as threats, isn’t just wrong. It’s lethal.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Power of the Image: Sean Bell

  1. we got our site shut down for using a photo of one of sean bell’s killers 31 shot mike
    it’s crazy but you can follow the story here
    http://propagandapress.wordpress.com/

  2. Rhonda

    I am deeply appauld that we are sittimg here debating this woman’s actions… NYPD officers took away her provider, partner, and father of her children the night they decided to play cops and robbers. This lady is left to fend for her and her children the best way she possible can. IF she needs to keep this man name and honor in the public and can support her children from it. I say Keep doing it. We don’t hear NYPD offering lifetime support, college tuition for her children or any support. It will never happen. I think it is another way to try and smear a innocent persons reputation and life.

  3. reginal

    shawn bell’s death was a tragic simply because the cops have used the phrase “i thought he had a weapon”. how many times will the new york city cops use it. once the shooting began and you relized there were no shots fired back, your mind should of clicked “their not shooting back”. Fifty shots are way too many. I bet if shawn bell was a young whit men he would of had a 95 percent chance of living. when will the racism stop.

  4. Jean

    God will have the last say over all evil on earth. The three officers may have been found innocent in a court of law but that man’s law not Gods. I will continue to pray for Shawn Bell’s family. May the “Grace of God this country “Favor” and not judge us for our evil ways.

  5. froggylove

    So sad. This really makes one think.

  6. sosa

    only his daughter didn’t get killed so they wouldn’t use her picture in the photo. Also, I thought they went easy on him. They could have also put up a photo of strippers and a condom and wrote, “police shooting” and you’d know it wasn’t a family man but a guy looking for hookers the night before his wedding.

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