Forensic specialists say that we can’t tell from her mug shot whether or not Sandra Bland is already deceased in the photo. Various news outlets have released video footage to debunk the rumors that she was not alive in her mug shot.

There’s something ironic about this conversation. What power Ms. Bland’s image holds.

When I first happened upon Sandra Bland’s mug shot as controversy, I spotted the photograph on Twitter, juxtaposed with one of her many bright selfies from day-to-day life. I began wondering, how can we tell when life does not appear present in Sandra’s body? 

The particular Twitter thread I followed on Sandra’s mug shot described the slack of one shoulder and the impossible straightness of the other, the unfocused, blank look in her eyes, the way gravity pulled her cheek flesh and locs towards the wall; and how the “wall” seemed actually to be the gray floor of the jail cell. Visual clues considered and fatal fact known, something just didn’t seem quite right about Sandra’s presence — it was chilling, even.

When faced with the image, I thought, “I am staring at you, Sandra, dead. Right in your face. I beg of you to tell me otherwise, yet I also want to give you space. ” Shivering in an unbelievably hot train station, I skipped a packed rush-hour train and leaned against the wall. I toyed with new music. I couldn’t look at her picture anymore. I wanted to feel like my destiny as a Black woman — capable of the most valiant joy and honest anger — was still possible somehow. I was desperate for the assurance of life. Unless only nature calls it off, wouldn’t you think that would be a most basic right?

Yet, for me to not look, to attempt to un-see, would beget both erasure and delusion. I would commit erasure through denying the fact of an image, anticipating a tragedy that screams. I would seek to un-see precisely because I visualize myself in Sandra, alarming me in its truth. Sandra’s mug shot sucked me in. I found myself listening.

Photographs mediate textures of life and death in ways that formulate beyond me, even beyond the visual. According to Frederick Douglass in an 1861 lecture “Pictures and Progress,” he said Pictures, like songs, should be left to make their own way in the world [.]” Here, Douglass disentangles photographs from the realm of human subjectivity, suggesting that pictures do something else. Our looking at pictures gestures towards a realm more expansive than representation and realism. Photography points us toward the edge of a different kind of understanding, transcending all that we think we can know. 

Looking at Sandra Bland’s mug shot envelops me into precisely what I cannot fathom: walking in death and staring into life’s betrayal. When we mourn her being through her photographs, including the mug shot, we beg for her life to speak back to us. We begin to utilize our own lives to make her photographs speak or sing. We replay her Black Lives Matter video and traffic stop footage to hear her preaching, laughing, yelling, anything. We are striving to piece together a story and decipher the immeasurable hum of death. Moreover, neither footage nor forensic expertise can supersede the ever-present fact of black and brown death in the crux of American society. The case is eerily reproducible.

Let’s consider Fred Moten’s piece “Black Mo’nin” from In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003): to look at a photograph is to be reified in a web of signification, trauma and inappropriateness. To look at a photograph is to fall among the infinite decomposition of that which held your gaze in the first-place: subject-hood, human life, the complexity of existence as being summed up in beings that you can identify.

Whoever looks at Sandra Bland’s mug shot becomes implicated in a motivation to identify in various ways. I seek to identify with her as a bubbly black woman activist who dared to actually defend herself. Forensic expert Dr. Michael Baden seeks to identify the photograph as, “an ordinary mug shot of a person who’s not happy about their situation.” (Daily Beast)  Our ‘looking’—shared, although entirely different–implies that we desire something for this photography. (Moten, 65) We tirelessly ask of what we can never certainly know ourselves. “Looking,” then is an impact of the lives through which we claim to already bear witness. “Looking” anticipates our impeding devastation of never being able to absorb and grasp the expanse of what we are really seeing.

What power Ms. Bland’s image holds. The sound of her happening can be both sweet and treacherous.

No matter the narrative anyone constructs around this mug shot, we cannot stop looking. 

I feel us courageously witnessing her mug shot amidst an echo of every injustice Sandra dared speak out against. If only in one frame, I see her in what she and so many others should never have to bear. How do we fathom the depth of such historical, reproduced, stale, and yet ever-potent pain?

With this photograph — this mug shot foreshadowing the sorrow of Black death as normal — I am reminded of Mamie Till’s demand to leave her son Emmett’s casket open:

“I want the world to see what they did to my baby.” 

Jovonna Jones is an MFA Candidate in Studio at Georgia State University. She reads, writes and photographs. In other moments, find her live-tweeting Black web-series and making smoothies. She can be found on Twitter at @marcoJovo.

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