Hypericons

In the dark days since Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police officers and since five police officers were shot and killed during an otherwise peaceful protest, we have seen numerous images from demonstrations across the country.

The image that has risen to the forefront is that of a lone black woman, seemingly peaceful and strikingly poised, being approached by two police officers dressed in riot gear in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

BatonRouge-Reuters

We have since learned that the woman’s name is Ieshia Evans, and she traveled to Baton Rouge to take part in the protests. Photo by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters.

News outlets across the globe are writing about the image, calling it a “powerful symbol” and “impossible to forget

Having gone viral on social media, one poster called the image “legendary.” The photo has already been hailed as iconic, being compared to such well known images as a lone man facing oncoming tanks at Tiananmen Square and a high school student being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama.

Certainly, Jeff Widener’s photo from Tiananmen Square and Bill Hudson’s photo from Alabama are iconic images, meeting the criteria for iconicity: the image represents a significant historic event, the public acknowledges the image, the image evokes emotion, and the image is replicated across media and time.

So is Bachman’s photo from Baton Rouge iconic?

No doubt that it represents a significant event, that it has been acknowledged by the public, and that it evokes emotion. And certainly it has been replicated across media. But it has not been replicated across time.

I suspect that this image will not endure to become one of those rare images that is forever etched on our shared public consciousness. Rather, I suspect that it will disappear just as quickly as it appeared, much like the photo of a drowned Syrian toddler.

Rather than being a true iconic image, I would suggest that Bachman’s photo from Baton Rouge is a “hypericon.”

Hypericons,” as defined by David Perlmutter, quickly grab media and public attention and then they just as quickly disappear in the ubiquity of harrowing images made available to us through digital news and social media. These types of images do not have time to be firmly established because they are replaced just as quickly as they surfaced.

As another example, Ting Shen’s photo of a sobbing Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) officer was at the forefront of media and public attention just three days ago. Today, it has been replaced by Bachman’s photo.

160708_SLATE_Dallas-Photo

Important photos? Yes.

Emotional photos? Yes.

Defining photos? Probably.

Iconic photos? Not likely.

So while these photos may indeed be the “defining photographs” of these events, they are not likely to be enduring icons.

Incidentally, in addition to my scholarly interest in Bachman’s photo, the photo holds great personal interest for me. Baton Rouge is my hometown, and the building in the background, now police headquarters, was previously part of the hospital where my two children were born. While I will not soon forget this photo, I suspect that, for most, it will quickly be lost as our media and public attention move on to the next unthinkable horror.

Image credits: Jonathan Bachman for Reuters (via Washington Post) and Slate.

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One response to “Hypericons

  1. Very powerful post. I am glad that you mentioned the concept of “hypericon”– it was not one that I was familiar with, but is very pertinent to this topic. I am currently working on a piece that analyzes that efficacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, and find that while the Internet has provided this opportunistic space to disseminate information and messages, it is also plagued by a number of factors that I feel unfortunately water down the potential of the movement, such as it serving as a jumping off point to engage in racially charged argumentation and what I believe to be unfair criticisms of the movement. I would include the concept of hypericon as one that plagues the movement— we become more and more desensitized to this problem with each name of an individual gunned down by police turned into a hashtag. In a sick sense, it becomes normalized. Just some thoughts 🙂 But I love this post, you did a wonderful job!!

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