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.