Search “Baton Rouge protestor” and Ieshia Evans of Pennsylvania will appear.
She stands tall with her knees locked, shoulders back, and dress fluttering around her ankles. Her body language is a stark contrast to the riot-gear clad Louisiana State Police officers approaching her. Their knees are bent, their bodies angled and arms outstretched reaching toward her.
It’s easy to wax poetic about the photograph that was taken by freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman for Reuters. Writing for the Guardian, art critics Jonathan Jones and Nell Frizzell described Evans as “a Botticelli nymph attacked by Star Wars baddies.” The Atlantic called it “remarkable,” the BBC “legendary,” and the New York Times “powerful.”
Mostly though, Bachman’s image has been called iconic. Which begs the question: is it?
CNN seemed to have an internal struggle on the matter, calling it “the photo everyone is talking about,” speculating whether it would become the iconic image of the Baton Rouge protests. The protests, of course, had formed in the wake of the shooting death of Alton Sterling by police on July 5th.
Two days later, an article published by contributor and former photojournalist Kenny Irby, questioned whether it’s reasonable to declare Bachman’s photo iconic without the distance of time.
Irby, like many others, compared it with other “protest photos.” The so called “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square, protesters being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, and a peaceful protest in Washington D.C. with flowers placed in the rifles of National Guardsmen.
More modern incarnations of the protest photo have been brought up too, though perhaps not as recognizable as the ones I previously mentioned. A woman facing off with neo-Nazis in Sweden, police pepper-spraying a woman in Turkey, a Jewish woman resisting destruction of a settlement in Israel.
Ilby argues that an “iconic” photo “carries the weight of an entire story, even movement, in one photograph.” The photos of older events, like the Tank Man, seem to pass this test. They stand as the defining image of an event. The newer photos aren’t quite as well known, and for now, Bachman’s photo stands with them.
Taking on the full weight and complexity of the Black Lives Matter movement’s story is a tough task for a single photograph.
A photograph can leave out important context of an event. In the celebration of Bachman’s photo, some have accused it of just that, making Evans’s stand and subsequent arrest righteous without mentioning that the police had ordered people to clear the highway or they would arrest them.
Bachman’s photo boasts unarguably beautiful composition. But, before it’s declared iconic, it is important to consider the story it represents, and if that story should be the defining moment of an entire movement.