Today, more and more people have some level of awareness about how every encounter is affected by a long history of injustice and discrimination based on various facets of our identities. How we depict these encounters through the widespread medium of photography is important for understanding the hows and whys of confrontations between minoritized people and those in positions of authority and/or privilege.
Photos can reveal a great deal about how people see these moments and their underlying issues, in ways we sometimes don’t even think about. We’ve seen this play out with how some dismiss stories and evidence of anti-Black police brutality with the blaming of victims, not to mention how Black Lives Matter protests are often ironically met with further violence, but it also appears heavily even in images of moments that can be easily-forgotten in the 24-hour social media/news cycle.
So let’s take a moment to look at one photo in our recent history that demonstrates how marginalized people are policed, even in spaces claimed to be “separate from our everyday lives” of injustice, disrespect and discrimination.
In a photo provided at the head of one NBC News article, tennis superstar Serena Williams is shown exchanging heated words with the chair umpire after he accused her of receiving coaching during her match with Naomi Osaka in the women’s finals of the 2018 U.S. Open. This was later followed by a penalty for smashing a tennis racket in frustration. The imbalanced composition of this photo demonstrates how subtly a historical violence against BIPOC and women, especially Black women, can show up in photography. With the focal point of the photo on Williams’ face as she argues with the chair umpire, clearly showing her anger. Black folks and women clocked the photographed moment with a heavy sigh, as yet another example of double standards based in misogynoir, intentional or otherwise. However, much of Middle America, particularly conservative white men, viewed the photo with distaste because they saw two things:
1. Someone [a Black woman] bucking against the historical pressures of respectability politics.
2. Another example of political correctness and identity politics that is "ruining sports."
The latter point is made more poignant by the fact that Williams had been a vocal supporter of a Colin Kaepernick, who's on-field kneeling protest against racial profiling and police brutality reportedly got him blacklisted by the NFL.
The white male umpire is pictured at a height looking down on the Black female Williams, signifying a historical dynamic empowering white men over minorities. Plus, tennis is a white male-dominated sport, making a match between two Black women like Williams and Osaka uncommon. Thus, the umpire likely saw Williams’ impassioned outburst as extra aggressive because of how people of her complexion are stereotyped as violent, not to mention how women are dragged for “inappropriate” displays of emotion. On-court shows of rage by players happen plenty, and generally aren’t penalized because they’re considered harmless. Here, the white male umpire wielded his authority to police a Black woman for her perceived aggression, her emotion, symbolically showing how the U.S. loves its history of “vigilante justice,” of the violence that has caused many Black and indigenous deaths.
The photo’s compositional imbalance also represents how institutions value authority over justice. For instance, on the left side of the photo, the chair umpire is accompanied by a wealth of tennis equipment, whereas Williams has no tennis equipment accompanying her on the right. This imbalance photographically demonstrates how the United States Tennis Association lent its weight behind the umpire. The penalties stood despite boos and outcry — implying that the USTA will back double standards that penalize women like Serena Williams for impassioned outbursts, yet permit male counterparts to do so sans penalty.
While there were calls on social media to hold the umpire accountable, they meant little to the USTA. And this is reflected in the photo, because all of that support amounted to mere airspace, sparking questions and conversations about the efficacy of “social media activism,” which recent protests have been tackling. Even with public support behind changing something, institutions with power are far from willing to right any harm done, a kind of violence that maintains the status quo and can make marginalized people wonder about the value of speaking out.
The fact that only Williams, the chair umpire and tennis equipment are present in the photo makes it easy-to-use journalistically. It also emphasizes the conflict between Williams and the chair umpire, scaling a full societal conflict down to two-person argument. Here, the issue being how women (of color) are heavily scrutinized and mistreated. A woman and a man; victim and accuser, the hero and the antagonist, depending on the perspective taken. In fact, the umpire’s face remains unseen in the photo, making it easier to forget his personhood;
- for some, meaning we forget that he has feelings and a livelihood to sustain,
- for others, meaning we forget how this larger systemic violence (physical, financial, emotional, etc.) is perpetrated by everyday people with power.
The detachment of personhood from the umpire’s actions obscures our focus in discussing, and addressing, these issues; so we focus too much on specific people, or we view the problems as an insurmountable entity. That crisis of focus becomes a violence of forgetting, of protecting power by forgetting that people with power are often the ones creating and enforcing these unjust attitudes and systems.
A year after the event transpired, Serena Williams wrote about how that public experience with misogynoir made her question herself in an all-too-common way for Black women. “What could I have done better? Was I wrong to stand up?” She asked herself this constantly, while simultaneously battling with feeling like she stole Naomi Osaka’s moment of celebration because of how the umpire treated her unjustly. That right there is a textbook example of the emotional violence inflicted upon Black women when their experiences are so-often dismissed. For Williams, it steeled her resolve to continue advocating and fighting for justice, but Serena Williams is not every Black woman. Any Black woman would be well within their rights to walk away from the fight. Fighting to be seen as human everyday is tiring.
All of this violence — of historical vigilantism, against hope, of obscuring memory and protecting power, against emotion — it was shown in one photo. That 2018 photo of Serena Williams arguing with the chair umpire is only one example of how a photo can mean so much more in the context of our world’s problems with injustice. And there’s no separating anything from the context of our extensive history of injustice.
So the next time you look at an image, remember that even a photo showing something that seems simple can have immense power over the narrative of conflict, of demonstrating a cyclical history of violence without using any obvious tropes of violence. This isn’t about philosophizing a mere argument into a debate over our heavy history and toxic cultures. It’s about recognizing how in capturing and discussing these moments, the history of violence we have still drips through, whether we know it or not.