By Angelica Poversky
June 27 2020
Using highly graphic images of trauma for “evidence” against a culture of denial— to sway people who are not experiencing violence to believe that violence is there— is growing on all media platforms as a tactic.
The cartoon news game Darfur is Dying aims to attempt to increase empathy for victims of genocide by immersing players into a representation of military-state genocide in Sudan.
In the game Gone Gitmo, the designers— “to evoke the power of the medium to impart empathy on the player”— used traumatic images of Detainee 063, Mohammed Al Qahtani, at the Guantanamo Bay Prison. The game brought players to witness the torture chamber and embody the torture the detainne faced under the explanation that this video game seeks to “inform the American public about relevant conflicts.”
During the Bush administration, images of the abuses and torture by the United States Army and Central Intelligence Agency personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were revealed to the public en masse. But much like with images of police brutality, the political containment effort of the US government deflected accountability. Instead of a public call of unlearning taking hold, politicians and media organizations competed to frame the images in any way that would prevent a potential call for a societal shift.
So what is the actual effect of this ubiquity of representation of violence, death, and assault against Brown and Black bodies?
While certain writers argue that this spectacle of representing trauma visually is a response to “compassion fatigue,” it is an idealistic attempt at ignoring how such representations continue to mobilize whiteness.
How many images and videos of Brown and Black people being killed by the police, the military, and prisons have to be taken to the web before the non-Black public believes that we need to abolish these systems of violence?
White supremacy, as an import from Europe - requires a genocidal disconnection. White supremacy is an exploitative force which takes data, images, and consumer habits from the public without granting the citizens any compensation or benefits in return.
People with lived experiences of anti-Black and anti-Brown violence share traumatic images as an activist response to attempt to secure attention in over-saturated digital economies that are not taking stands against injustice.
While large media companies, video game creators (like the aforementioned), and news networks simply continue to spread an individualistic approach to the discussion of white supremacy while signalling for the continuation of oppression of Black and Brown bodies.
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter LITERALLY profit off of images of violence against Black people. But they do not profit off of calls to action for systemic change, in fact they make it increasingly difficult for people to have nuanced discussions about the truth of racism and white supremacy.
Centralizing the suffering and violence against marginalized bodies under the guise of consciousness-raising, compassion-provoking or empathy-building, media companies promote images of violence, grief, and brutality as an algorithmic tool of oppression that seems activist, but is in truth violent.
And only now, it seems that the internet and some of the world is finally waking up to systemic anti-Black racism and white supremacy that has been plaguing the Americas since its colonization.
Between Twitter users and large media companies, there is an ongoing discussion that the awakening is due to the viral circulation of images of George Floyd’s unjust murder. The video, images and other media surrounding his murder by police officers has served as a veil lifted on algorithmic oppression models which tend to undermine content that calls for systemic change.
And here we are finally—looking at these large collections of violences trying to build something like “empathy” or “awareness”— meanwhile violence is circulating on our phones non-stop, and the people have lived experiences of the violence are becoming retraumatized.
UBC based Media scholars Nathan, Shaffer, and Castor, in a 2015 study, describe that in doing archival work on colonialism in Canada and revisiting images of traumatic histories associated with the Residential Schools there are tensions between how images and large collections of images can finally assert a truth against a culture of denial, yet this is in conversation with the profound impact on the people who have lived experiences within these traumatic histories. The academics describe that traumatic archives, while they seek to transform a cultural denial, dismissal or devalue of a historical trauma, always live in a conflict-ridden space of tensions of visual information becoming transformed for salacious, political or other ideological motives.
Asserting the truth of violence against people who are oppressed is always a negotiation of trauma, and making a moment of violence or mourning into a call for a movement. This predates social media, digital archives or even the ability to use the internet at light-speed.
Before social media and digital collections, people were already building cases of visual evidence. In 1985, San Francisco queer activist Cleve Jones was motivated to provide assurance that the AIDS epidemic in the United States was real, leading him to create the AIDS Quilt which engaged in queer art archival activism.
The city was engaged in memorializing and recalling the suffering of bodies impacted by AIDS/HIV in America. The large public art piece was placed in front of the White House, to demonstrate the ongoing suffering caused by the life-threatening condition, and the mass government inaction. This art piece was as much as a call for action, as a spectacle of mourning. It materialized in the way it showed to a public that was not affected by AIDS the realities that underpinned much of the queer community.
There is huge potential, as we are seeing now, that the documentation of traumatic histories communicated in response to cultures of silence and denial can cause an uprising. And simultaneously, there is a lot of power as to how images and videos are used to maintain cultures of oppression, instead of refuting and rising above them.
As social media users, and media consumers and creatives, the engagement we have with traumatic materials, as we call for accountability, care and justice, is quite literally in our hands.
So how can we assert the truth without retraumatizing our news feed?
How can we create public knowledge that can sustain this moment into a movement?
Angelica Poversky is a queer non-binary media activist. Connect with them on Instagram or Facebook. Check out Angelica Poversky’s latest album and book about sexuality, queerness and gender on their website.