In Picturing the Past: Media History and Photography the authors write that photographs “are not mirrors of reality, but points of entry into an exploration into cultural experiences” that help to shape social discourse (10, 11). And that equal to what is shown in a picture is what is not shown (104).
What is not shown in the the above photograph of Sergeant Issac Woodard Jr. is the brutal beating he endured at the hands of South Carolina police on February 12, 1946, less than three days after he was honorably discharged from serving in the Pacific during WWII. He was decorated and in full uniform when they did it. While at a Greyhound rest top traveling home to North Carolina to be with his family, Woodard asked the driver if there was time for him to use the restroom. The driver reluctantly waited. At the next stop, the driver called the police. The officer who responded and used his nightstick to beat the soldier was Linwood Shull. He was acquitted of the charges by an all white jury – the case unresolved even until today. We can see the after effects of this tragedy, Woodard’s blindness, in this picture – but only if we know to interpret what we see in that way, otherwise he could just be wearing sunglasses. There are other clues to what happened in the picture. Read the text of the newspaper as it gets smaller. “Eyes gouged out” will appear. My stomach sank the first time I read that.
The authors also point up the importance of the context of social relations. This was the Jim Crow South where blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect and where few whites were ever held responsible for their actions. It was a place and a time where service to country mattered little to none if you were black.
The authors of Picturing also talk about the ways that photographs help observers understand and remember the past. (98) This is a picture of Woody Guthrie. He wrote a song about the tragedy called The Blinding of Issac Woodard. So lest anyone infer from this article that whites were always the bad guy, not so. But because Guthrie is not pictured with Woodard, with an appropriate caption, we can’t know from this picture that he was one of many whites who were outraged by the actions of Shull.
General Eisenhower, in reference to atrocities committed by the Nazis in Europe during WWII, called for the media to show the pictures — “Let the world see” he proclaimed. He did far less to draw attention to the abuses and murder African-Americans suffered during training in the South and upon their arrival home. Seeing may not always be believing, but at least photographs are a start in helping to make visible what others might prefer to hide.