Last week, Buzzfeed published a set of photos from a St. Petersburg LGBT march that was, like most LGBT street actions right now, set upon by nationalist groups and ended in violence and arrests. I ran across it after a couple of friends (who don’t have any particular connection to Russia) posted it on Facebook. I’ve been glad to see that this area of conflict has been getting some coverage outside Russia, even reaching people who aren’t in general tuned into Russian current events. All the same, the photos and their presentation followed a very common pattern in coverage of LGBT issues in Russia.
The image we start with, the one titled to suggest that it’s representative of the march as a whole, is of three march participants, one bloodied, holding each other and crying while riot police look on in apparent amusement. What’s the message here? Cops are insensitive jerks, while LGBT activists are vulnerable? Given the presumed audience–young tech-savvy Westerners, statistically very likely to support gay rights–it’s an image the post’s author almost certainly expects will attract our sympathy.
Compare that to the first image of “anti-gay protesters,” as Buzzfeed calls them:
In context, one can presume, the audience understands that this is the face of the enemy, or the oppressor–the one who inflicts violence, the one we are not meant to sympathize with. The young man’s posture, expression, his muscular arms appear aggressive, strong, perhaps threatening.
The rest of the photo essay continues in a similar vein, a sort of visual morality tale built on the assumption that readers side with the weak against the strong. 25 of the 36 images show LGBT activists in the vulnerable mode: held by police, grabbed or punched by counter-protesters, or with physical traces of an attack. No photos show counter-protesters this way. 6 images show the events themselves, and 3 of those include slogans and signs the participants carried, which incidentally is the only way LGBT activists’ own messages make it into the piece. 3 other images toward the end of the piece add a little bit of context, explaining some of what the LGBT activists were protesting. But all in all, the emphasis of the piece is very much on the physical violence activists have been subject to at the hands of police and counter-protesters.
Seeing this photo series brought to mind a comment one of my interlocutors made several months ago on a social networking site, in response to another instance where a photo of a bloody, beaten activist was used to represent his political movement. “How are we supposed to understand this?” he wrote. “A fascist’s face for us is so triumphant and smug, but the anti-fascist is always beaten?” Such images provoke sympathy, but in doing so associate righteousness with victimhood and vulnerability, and villainy with power. (This simplistic morality tale is another problem, but I’ll leave it for a later post.)
Images of physical repression–bloody noses and bodies being dragged off to jail–are attractive, easy to interpret. The victims and villains are obvious, and to those in the audience (likely the vast majority) who have never encountered these forms of violence, the images are shocking. This is of course excellent for pageviews! But this sort of presentation makes that violent repression the whole story, as if the important thing to understand about LGBT activism in Russia is that activists are routinely beaten up. The violence gives us reason to care, and at the same time distracts from what activists might want us to care about. Visible repression has a way of hijacking the narrative.