This photograph will shock you, but it's not likely to surprise you. It's both disturbing and disturbingly familiar. Images of black bodies in distress are depressingly common elements of our increasingly global visual culture. Maimed, diseased, emaciated, incarcerated -- you and I see them every day. Often we pass them by with a glace. This one stopped me in my tracks.
Yannis Behrakis' powerful image accompanies "Tortured, Detained, and Ordered Out: A Migrant's Tale in Greece", a Reuters story about the plight of Africans who have illegally entered the country in search of economic opportunities. It's impact on me and, maybe on you, depends on more than the brutal reality of the scars on Hassan Mekki's back. Some of its power stems precisely from its familiarity. This image conjures up a history that, for many of us, is profoundly personal.
REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis: Hassan Mekki, a 32-year-old Sudanese migrant, shows scars on his back in Athens December 5, 2012. Mekki, who fled conflict in his country in hopes of a better life in Europe, said he was attacked by a group of men holding Greek flags and left with the deep wounds on his back, throat and neck in August 2012, about five months after he illegally entered Greece. Mekki was walking in Athens with a friend from Mauritania when black-shirted men on motorcycles holding Greek flags and shouting "Go home black" and other racists insults came up and knocked him out with a blow to the head. He was covered in blood when he regained consciousness and only later realized that his attackers, which he says were likely tied to the far-right Golden Dawn party, had left large gashes resembling an "X" across his back. "I don't have the right papers, so I can't go anywhere to ask for help," Mekki said. "I can't sleep. I'm scared, maybe they will follow me and my life is in danger now."
The scars on Mekki's back remind me of the wounds on the back of a man named Gordon, an escaped African-American slave, who joined the Union army in the midst of the Civil War and fought to make his people free.
Mathew Brady Studio: Gordon, 1863. [National Portrait Gallery.]
Gordon served his people (some of whom were my ancestors) in at least a couple of different ways -- with a gun and as the subject of the of a photo that also battled against the slave regime of the South.
Here's what the National Portrait Gallery has to say about this photograph:
In the spring of 1863, a slave known only as Gordon escaped from a Louisiana plantation and, after a harrowing ten-day journey, found security among Union troops stationed at Baton Rouge. Before enlisting in a black regiment, he was examined by military doctors who discovered horrific scarring on his back, the result of a brutal whipping by his former overseer. Two local photographers created this image to document the harsh treatment Gordon had received. A searing indictment of slavery, Gordon's portrait became one of the most powerful images in the abolitionist cause. As a New York journalist wrote, "This... photograph should be multiplied by 100,000 and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye." Gordon fought in several battles, yet nothing is known about his subsequent life. The copy carte de visite displayed here is the only existing version known to have been produced by the Mathew Brady Studio.
Unidentified Artist: Gordon [wood engraving after Brady]. [National Portrait Gallery.]
Gordon's portrait circulated widely and was reprinted often in books, newspapers, and magazines (as engravings -- mass photo reproduction was not yet possible). It played an important role in persuading many white Northerners that ending slavery was as important as preserving the Union.
The scars on Gordon's back have been etched in my mind ever since I first saw his portrait many years ago. It's the first thing that I thought of when I saw the photograph that Behrakis made.
The images represent different things, of course. An economic migrant is not a slave. Street thugs and the institutionalized violence of a slave-owners' state are not the same thing. But the resonance is undeniable. It's in the racism and brutality directed at the weak and the marginalized as much as it's in the photos themselves.