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2018 Symposium Papers

The Offender Behind the Lens: The Enduring Ethical Legacy of Beitler’s Lynching Photograph


By Jeffrey Tse


Racial prejudice in the 1930s is a widely explored topic in terms of the motivational factors behind the oppression of African Americans. One theoretical standpoint suggests that the racial tensions between black and white citizens increased due to the economic stressors experienced during the Great Depression[1]. Nevertheless, American history has shown that racism and oppression experienced by the African American community was also codified into US law, bearing a multitude of ramifications on the social rights, and often, the lives of African Americans. Furthermore, racial prejudice experienced by African Americans deprived many of their lives, as history has made evident during the Slave Trade, but also through contemporary activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter. The attitudes during the 1930s encompassed intense violence towards the African American community, a situation largely accepted by white citizens, and even reveled in. The Jim Crow era, originating in 1877, was a particularly brutal time for African Americans, which saw the murder of many innocent black people with little cause, often relating to the single fact of difference. The denigration and humiliating depictions of lynched men were captured in photographs, which also included the poses of proud white supremacists. White photographers at the time of the Great Depression are commonly thought to have sympathized with these white supremacists, ensuring that their presence during a lynching was accepted. The social responsibility of photojournalism and the role of this profession in perpetuating racism in the US has frequently come under scrutiny. The manners in which these photojournalists have captured historically shameful moments in the past are also known to have contributed to the social attitudes in the country. As abovementioned, this attitude, codified into US law, still persists in modern American society. One such photographer was Lawrence Beitler, who appears to have had foreknowledge of an upcoming lynching and prepared his tripod to capture these murders. It is often debated whether Beitler’s photography of these murders was a result of the non-interference approach in photojournalism, however, it is suggested that photojournalists in the 1930s often adopted complacency towards the violence that they documented. Beitler further developed these images for sale in the form of postcards, indicating that the lynchings were an acceptable and profitable practice. This study, therefore, analyzes the extent to which photographers contributed to the desensitization of white society to repeat lynchings inflicted on African Americans, and how these recorded images further devalued the lives of the victims. Furthermore, I will discuss how the distribution of these images thereafter allowed for such levels of violence to be seen as commonly acceptable during the Great Depression: ultimately contributing to the mistreatment of African Americans in the periods which followed, for instance, the Civil Rights Movement. In analyzing the role of photojournalism contributing to the racial prejudice experienced by African Americans, I will critique the field of photojournalism in terms of professional ethics and complacency.

[1] Julius E. Thompson, Lynchings in Mississippi: A history, 1865-1965, (Jefferson, McFarland and Company, Inc., 2007), 114.

Content warning: Please note that the PDF below contains graphic imagery. 

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