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Lynching Photography and the Visual Reproduction of White Supremacy

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This essay argues that lynching photographs constructed and perpetuated white supremacist ideology by creating permanent images of a controlled white citizenry juxtaposed to images of helpless and powerless black men. These images gained further cultural force because they co‐existed within a host of conventions and assumptions about photography, including the expectation that photographs revealed objective truth. I argue that although lynching photographs were conspicuously modern in many ways, for white southerners who photographed and collected them, they were also intensely local and personal. Within specific localities, viewers did not disconnect the photographs from the actual lynchings they represented. Through that particularity, the images served as visual proof for the uncontested ‘truth' of white civilized morality over and against supposed black bestiality and savagery. Indeed, once they were removed from their localities, these meanings became quite unstable, allowing antilynching activists to imprint, quite successfully, entirely different meanings upon them.
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Keywords: African–Americans; Lynching; Photography; South; Violence

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Assistant Professor of History at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois

Publication date: September 1, 2005

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