Earlier this week, media outlets across the country (e.g. NPR, the Los Angeles Times, TIME, Mashable, the New York Times) devoted coverage to a hashtag — #iftheygunnedmedown — aimed squarely at them. (Us.)
The hashtag started trending on Twitter after media outlets began circulating images of Michael Brown, who had been shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Many of the tweets containing the hashtag juxtapose two images of the same person in very different contexts — reading a book in one, say, while blowing smoke and flashing a hand gesture in the other. The paired images effectively but implicitly present many questions about how we choose the images that come to represent the individuals we cover, and the effects of those choices.
Most of the coverage of the hashtag was about those (very good) questions. But we were still curious about the photos themselves, and the individuals behind them. So we reached out to a few of the tweeters, and here's what they told us.
C.J. Lawrence, 33: "The first picture was from Tougaloo College, I was the student government association president at the time. I was the speaker at the commencement, and President Clinton was speaking after me. The reason he was laughing so hard because I had just told a joke. ... The second picture was me for Halloween dressed up as Kanye, with the Hennessy bottle and the microphone that he took from Taylor Swift. The Hennessy bottle does not really have Hennessy in it, it's Coca-Cola."
We asked which image the tweeters felt represented them more accurately. Almost to a person, our respondents said both images were representative. "They say never judge a book by its cover," said Darien Williams. "For me I'm both of those. I left an impoverished environment to do something better for my life. Now when I return to that environment, I'm what people look up to."
Darien Williams, 19: Williams has served in the Air Force for more than a year. The image on the left, depicting him out of uniform, was taken this past March. The image of him reading to kids was taken in June. "In the left I was hanging out, just hanging out being me," he said. The other one "was me volunteering, reading to kids — being me — bringing joy to their day."
There's that ambiguous "they" in the hashtag, and we asked the tweeters who, in their minds, it referred to. Generally they said it referred to those with power and authority — in particular, the police and the media. "But it could have been directed to anyone who is small-minded enough to fear a young black person automatically if it's nighttime, if he's wearing a hoodie, if his music is too loud, or if he's reaching for his wallet," said Brianna Chevonne. "It can apply to anyone of any race who is ignorant enough to be fearful of young black people to the point they would take their lives."
Brianna Chevonne: "The photo [at left] was taken a week or two ago. I was in the car with my younger brother, and we were just joking around taking pictures. It's like the e-side hand sign — because I live on the East Coast. The photo [on the right] is a recent graduation photo of me. I graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor of arts degree."
The nuanced message of the hashtag is easily flattened, our respondents reminded us. These shorthands we wield — college student, Air Force officer, attorney, unarmed teenager, robbery suspect — carry with them many subtle and not-so-subtle shadings. The effects of those shadings can be significant. "The true purpose of placing the two pictures together juxtaposed," said C.J. Lawrence, "was to show that [neither] our appearance nor class nor academic achievement should be the determining factors for whether we live or die."
Emmarr Butler, 26, depicted with his friend Roderick Morrison:
On top: "It was St. Patty's Day. We were out in Chicago and it was a little cold that day, so he had on a sweatshirt and I had on a hoodie. We were also still inside the house so thats why neither of us had our hats completely on. And we decided to take a silly picture." On the bottom: "That's Rod with the cap and gown on, he had just received his Juris Doctor from the University of Illinois, so we were celebrating him graduating law school."
Interviews for this post were conducted by Nicholas LaFleur, Victoria Walker and Molly Roberts; they've been lightly edited for style and clarity.