The Power of Civilians and Cell Phones

The Bronx Documentary Center explores the “brave people who choose to create and share visual evidence”

Diamond Reynolds livestreams
From the front seat of a car, Diamond Reynolds live streams to Facebook as her partner, Philando Castile, lays dying next to her from a policeman’s bullet. Reynolds confronts the police officer as she talks into the camera and recounts the moments earlier when the police officer fired on Mr. Castile. St. Paul, Minnesota, July 2016. Courtesy of Diamond Reynolds/Facebook.

The amount of terrible violence that has filled the news this summer has been, in a word, overwhelming: Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, Fort Myers—the list of U.S. cities where men and women have been senselessly killed seems to go on and on. But these killings haven’t just filled the headlines. Because of brave eyewitnesses who have documented and shared these horrific events from their cell phones, these acts of violence have infiltrated social media and seem to be changing the conversation.

One has to wonder, if Diamond Reynolds hadn’t been live streaming her interactions with police after they shot and killed her boyfriend Philando Castile, would that story have caught the nation’s attention?

Mohamed Bouazizi
Videos recorded on mobile phones show the first protests in response to the suicide of 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in front of a government building after his produce had been confiscated by the police. Bouazizi’s public suicide marked the beginning of the Arab Spring. Tunisian citizens uploaded this and other video to Facebook, which was crucial in spreading news of the protest. Courtesy of YouTube.

A new photo and video exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center, New Documents, which opened last week, takes a careful look at the way that everyday people who have recorded extraordinary events have helped expose abuses of power. The biggest challenge was to create an exhibition out of traumatic footage that many people are sick of seeing.

Flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward, Hurricane Katrina
Using a small camcorder, Kimberly Roberts, a lifelong resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, films Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters creeping through her windows and into her living room. Roberts’ first-hand account was included in the documentary, “Trouble the Water”, and helped raise awareness of the government’s negligence in aiding the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005. © Kimberly Rivers-Roberts

“We wanted to be sure that we were not creating a show that was going to feel in any way gratuitous, demoralizing, or traumatizing,” says Danielle Jackson, who curated the show alongside Bronx Documentary Center director Mike Kamber. “How do we show this idea responsibly? In a way that people can actually take something away from it that’s important to the history of visual culture.”

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi
Recorded on a cell phone by a rebel fighter on October 20th, 2011, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is seized from his hiding place in the city of Sirte by rebel forces. With no media present, these citizen videos are the only account of Gaddafi’s capture and execution. Sirte, Libya, 2011. Courtesy Freedom Group TV

The exhibition features documents from 14 countries, with the earliest images coming from Alice Seeley Harris, a missionary who worked in the Congo Free State in 1904, and spanning to the present day with Reynolds’ Facebook live stream. Visual documents from Auschwitz, the execution of Gaddafi, the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina and the Arab Spring also have a place in the exhibition.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau
A group of Jews is led to the gas chamber and their bodies burned in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. These are the only existing photos taken by prisoners showing the inner workings of a German World War II concentration camp. Alberto Errera, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Poland, August, 1944. Alberto Errera

“We decided to focus on the actions of the brave people who choose to create and share visual evidence,” says Jackson. “It was an opportunity to place the actions of say, Diamond Reynolds, into a longer trajectory of historical actions.”

Alice Seeley Harris
Alice Seeley Harris, a missionary stationed in the Congo Free State, took this photo of Nsala of Wala with the severed hand and foot of his five year-old daughter murdered by ABIR militia, a result of King Leopold of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule. This was all that remained of a cannibal feast following the murder of his wife, son and daughter. Harris documented the atrocities with a Kodak dry plate camera and shared these images in slideshows across Europe and the United States. Ndongo District, Congo Free State. © 1904, Alice Seeley Harris, Courtesy Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP.

The visual documents are installed on a long 25-foot wall arranged chronologically and placed within small cutouts that require viewers to get very close and peer in to see what is going on it the frame. The nature of these images is traumatic, and so the show has been arranged in a way that makes viewing the documents intentional. You have to work hard to make out what is happening in these postcard-sized frames.

Bronx Documentary Center, New Documents
A woman checks out New Documents at the Bronx Documentary Center on opening night. © Jeanette D. Moses

“We should not overestimate the effect that this footage has on people,” Jackson says. “We wanted to be considerate of that.”

Each visual document is presented with a plaque that describes the circumstances in which it was recorded and what the outcome of the recording was. On the opposite wall of the gallery is a large poster that simply lays out the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the U.S. to record video or photograph things that are happening in public spaces. Jackson hopes that New Documents will help people understand that there are ways to fight back and bear witness against wrongdoing.

Tompkins Square Park 1988
On August 6, 1988, New York City police attempted to enforce a curfew during a rally held at Tompkins Square Park. The police violently broke up the rally; videographer and artist Clayton Patterson filmed the event on his VHS camcorder. His footage captured multiple incidents of police brutality, leading to the indictment of six police officers. Patterson later appeared on Oprah, held up his camcorder, and declared, “This is a revolutionary tool. Little Brother is watching Big Brother.” New York City, 1988. Courtesy of Clayton Patterson

New Documents will be on view at the Bronx Documentary Center through August 28.