Secret Histories | “New Documents” Explores Citizen Journalism as Agent for Change
Photo: The coffins of American service members killed in Iraq sit aboard a cargo plane waiting to be sent back to the United States. Tami Silicio, an American contract employee working at the Kuwait International Airport, photographed the coffins; a friend of Ms. Silicio gave the photos to the Seattle Times which printed them despite a ban on the publication of images of dead or wounded soldiers. Kuwait City, Kuwait, 2004. Courtesy of Tami Silicio/Zuma Press.
Two years after Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the only person to be sentenced to prison was Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the killing on his cell phone. Orta, who believes he became a target of law enforcement releasing the video, was arrested several times over the past two years and took a plea on an unrelated weapons and drugs case.
Although the medical examiner concluded that Garner’s death was a homicide due to the use of an illegal chokehold, neither his report now the video were enough to secure an indictment against the killer. Instead, the City of New York settled with the Garner family out of court for a sum of $5.9 million aka blood money. Meanwhile, Pantaleo remains an active member of the NYPD.
Since Garner’s death, a new wave of citizen journalism has come to the fore. Although police body cameras have notoriously “malfunctioned” when extrajudicial killings are made, citizens have put their lives and livelihoods at risk to bear witness to legally-sanction murder at the hands of police. Most recently, the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul, which happened back-to-back on July 5 and 6, were filmed and livestreamed, resulting in a cataclysmic wave of trauma for millions of people.
At the time of these killings, the Bronx Documentary Center had been working on New Documents, a new exhibition of citizen video and photography to explore the way in which these materials have become primary drivers for social, political, and policy change around the world. In light of the shootings, BDC founders Michael Kamber, a former New York Times photojournalist, and Danielle Jackson, former cultural director of Magnum Photos, reorganized the show to respond to current events.
New Documents, now on view through September 18, 2016, presents a selection of photography and videos made between 1900 and the present, that reveal how ordinary people have put themselves at risk in order to expose injustice, crime, and the abuse of power. The exhibition charts an extraordinary series of events that were made visible due to the advancements in technology.
The exhibition begins with a photograph taken in 1904 by Alice Seeley Harris, a missionary stationed in the Congo Free State. The image is a vision of horror, as Nsala of Wala looks quietly at the severed hand and foot of his five year-old daughter. She was one of more than 15 million people killed, tortured, or mutilated under King Leopold of Belgium’s genocidal rule of the Congo. Harris documented the atrocities with a Kodak dry plate camera and shared the photographs in Europe and the United States to tremendous effect. In 1908, public pressure forced Leopold to cede his control of the colony to Belgium’s parliament (SN: the nation did not become independent until 1965).
Beginning here, New Documents takes us into 14 countries around the world, showing us the horrors of history including scenes from Auschwitz, the My Lai Massacre, the Haditha Massacre, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Tompkins Square Park riots, the Rodney King beating, Hurricane Katrina, the capture of Muammar Qaddafi, and the killing of Philando Castile, among others. Each scene is presented intimately, the videos show on small format devices like tablets and smart phones, much like the way we experience them today. Each scene is presented with its historic context, revealing what happened as a result.
New Documents reminds us that we are living in a time of censorship and disinformation, as mainstream media and publicity firms work together to regurgitate and repeat specific narratives that reinforce the power structure’s aims and goals. Although we do not live in the age of Woodward & Bernstein, technology has made it possible for everyday people to bypass the professionals when it comes to reporting the truth.
Danielle Jackson reveals, “We looked at an additional 40 videos after Philando Castile’s death. We focused on the people and the activists who used their work to fight back. We want to make people aware of he abilities we have to make and share evidence. The exhibition is by no means comprehensive but it presents works that are historically important. We looked at the level of intent, and how the works were released to the public. We looked at what happened outside of the traditional media. We have to remember how stories and ideas get circulated and enter into the mainstream. That’s the way the conversations and arguments start—from the ground up.”
New Documents ultimately makes it clear that the power to change is within our grasp, should we have the courage to walk the path. We do not need to rely on professionals to tell the truth, and perhaps it may even behoove us to doubt their version of events. Mainstream media, first and foremost, is a business, one that reflects not the historic record but the agenda of the publishers. Whereas citizen journalism is comes from a different place: a desire to speak truth to power and act as an agent for change. New Documents puts me in mind of George Orwell, who observed, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.