Santa Clara University

What Do We See When We Look? Photography, Lynching, and Moral Change.

“The history preserved in those pictures, as well as the reality of the photos themselves, is one of the more complicated public secrets of this nation’s past. Everyone claims to know about lynching, yet there is virtually nothing about it in history or social science books.”

—Legal scholar Patricia J. Williams, “Diary of a mad law professor: Without Sanctuary” The Nation, February 14, 2000. 270: 6, 9.


In 2000, hundreds of people in New York stood in long lines for weeks in order to see a new exhibition at the Roth Horowitz Gallery. Witness: Photographs of Lynchings from the Collection of James Allen and John Littlefield documented numerous illegal lynchings in the United States from 1878 to 1960. Since its inaugural exhibition, the photographs have traveled around the country as Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. And the images are now available in a book by the same title. Visit the Without Sanctuary Web site for more information on the exhibit, the book, and to see a gallery of photos.


The display of these gruesome snapshots ignited public and private discussion over their very existence and the appropriateness of their subject matter for exhibition. The installation of these photographs has received emotional and mixed responses. Indeed, viewers, including myself, have been compelled to witness the photographs and have become saddened and enraged by them. The act of witnessing the photographs has become a kind of pilgrimage for many visitors. (In her article for The Nation, legal scholar Patricia Williams says she attended the exhibition partially out of a responsibility to see a part of American history that is rarely acknowledged.) Some have visited the exhibition with prior knowledge about lynching. Others have witnessed the exhibition in disbelief that this form of domestic terrorism was at one time common in the United States. Further, they are outraged that lynchings took place without legal or social consequences to the murderers.

What is the Function of Lynching Photography?

The popularity of the Without Sanctuary exhibit raises questions about the function of lynching images in our contemporary culture: What is the purpose of exhibiting images of lynchings? What are our responsibilities as viewers, consumers, and sometimes collectors of these images? A discussion of these questions provides an opportunity to examine the current and historical resistance and ambivalence to dealing with racial violence.


Although the act of looking at the photographs is difficult, learning about the history and continued expression of racial violence is a goal that can be accomplished using lynching photography as a pedagogical resource. Many viewers of lynching photography try to find a happy ending to this history in hopes of understanding and closure. Some want to resolve their troubling viewing experience by concluding that these acts took place in the past—before their time—and that we can all rest assured in the knowledge that this chapter of American history is over. One of the greatest lessons that viewers can learn from lynching photography is that sometimes history does repeat itself. Horrible crimes against humanity often go unpunished, and we will have to take an active role in making social justice a reality.


One of the ways that I have been able to look at the gruesome photographs is by organizing them into the following four categories: crowd, crowd with victim, victim alone, and souvenirs. I offer these four categories to you today not as a way to understand the photographs, nor to belittle their savage content, but to help find a way to analyze them in order to be able to look.

Photos of the Crowd
Two men are lynched in Marion, Indiana
Two men are lynched in Marion, Indiana. Click on image for enlarged view. (Photo: Courtesy of

In crowd photographs, most or all of the composition depicts the crowd of lynching participants. Most of the participants’ faces are turned away from the camera; their attention is focused on the lynching. Some compositions suggest that the photographer took the photograph with the camera raised above his or her head to capture an image of the desecrated body. Considering the lynchers (as opposed to the victims) as the subject of crowd photographs forces a series of questions for discussion: What did people choose to wear to a lynching? What age was appropriate to attend a lynching? Did members of the crowd know the lynched person? Why was this moment in the lynching process chosen to document?

Victims with Participants

Photographs in the second category, which show the victim/s and the participants together, are usually posed to deliberately create a moment for photography. This type of photograph shows the lynchers’ pride in their actions, often through joyful smiles. Others have serious expressions, perhaps communicating their power and dignity as keepers of vigilante justice. What may be most striking is the absolute fearlessness that is often expressed in their postures. Not only do most of them look directly at the camera, many stand on tiptoe and tilt their bodies toward the camera to ensure that their participation in the lynching is documented. They seem to feel blameless.


Body of lynched man hanging from tree
Body of lynched man hanging from tree. Click on image for enlarged view.(Photo: Courtesy of
Victims Alone

Photographs of the lynch victim/s alone seem to reinforce the lynchers’ belief that the victim was insignificant and anonymous. The black body is shown as the problem, and death is the resolution. It seems that victims were photographed merely to document the superiority of the white race, not to remember someone’s loved one. The absence of the crowd focuses our attention on its invisibility. Hidden from view, the murderers are unknown and unavailable.


Many lynching photographs have been preserved as souvenirs made specifically for sale and mass distribution. Souvenirs often display photography studio markers and the photographer’s name. Some examples have been printed as color-tinted lithographs. The printer’s attempt to show lynching as picturesque, artistic, and dreamy reveals a desire for a nostalgic Southern past. Colorful images of lynchings are depicted as lovely natural Southern landscapes.


Although thinking about these categories while looking at lynching photographs does not provide any real relief from the weight of their content, it does provide a critical tool to begin thinking analytically while feeling emotionally overwhelmed. These categories may provide some structure to cope with the emotional impact the content makes. Engaging with the long history of lynching and racial violence through lynching imagery is a difficult task; it can however be an important reflective learning experience. Analytical viewing experiences such as looking at lynching photographs can provide a foundation for contemporary viewers to understand the legacy of terrorism today and to engage constructively with it from an informed historical perspective.


-- Bridget R. Cooks is an assistant professor in the SCU art and art history department and the ethnic studies program.

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