‘I can’t breathe’ – Brunel Johnson, London

“The invisible ones are claiming their power back. The Black Lives Matter movement is the only opportunity for us to claim our rights to be seen, valued and heard, with intention to finally obtain equity for us to succeed” – Estelle (pictured)

In this photograph we see the subject, Estelle, square on with direct eye contact to the viewer. Estelle is wearing dark clothing, a t-shirt,, jacket and leather beret. the outfit is accessorised with a. beaded necklace and cross amped ring. In her right hand is a long handle, it’s purpose unknown as it exits frame left. Over her mouth is a mask with the words “I Can’t Breathe” written across it. The whole image is presented in black and white.

I selected this photograph to read primarily for the focus of the mask being worn by the subject. It’s impact on the scene is reliant on the stark contrast created by the black and white treatment creating a harsh pop against the heavily subdues background, clothing and subject.

The mask is indicative of the period of time the photograph was taken. Both in it’s representation of the Covid pandemic but also in the words selected to be written on it, those of George Floyd the black male who was killed during arrest in the United States. This also indicates the world wide protests which took place shortly after his death.

The duality of meaning within these words was no doubt intentional by Estelle. People of colour, especially black people are disproportionally affected in health crises through lack of access to, education of and engagement with health services.

I feel that the recognition of these issues is more due to the photographs documentation of the subjects intentions and actions than through the skill, creativity of insight of the photographer.

This conclusion is one I came to through several observations within the image. Observations that, whilst I do enjoy and appreciate this image, I feel are problematic due to the subtle yet influential compositional and creative decisions made during the capturing and post production of the is portrait.

The first observation is the choice to present this image in black and white. There are three reasons I find this troublesome. First, black and white images have an inherent connection to the past. essentially all photographs through until the uptick in the use of colour film stock, circa 1940’s and en masse in the 1980’s, were black and white. This was primarily due to either the non-existence of colour or the relative expensive and difficulty associated with producing and processing the, in it’s inception, unreliable medium. As a society who have, in contemporary times, become accustomed to the widespread use of colour imagery the sight of a black and white image has connotations that hark back to the early days of photography and thus an association that black and white means old or historic. This connotations implies that even modern images of current events are now distanced temporally, a record or document of something that has been and is not ‘now’. This allows the viewer to say to themselves, “this wouldn’t happen now”.

My second observation coincides with this sense of being ‘out of time’. Whilst one can assume that Estelle has selected her own clothes for the day, being apparently part of the protests it’s fair the conclude there wasn’t a preplanned element to the portrait but a journalistic one, the choice by the photographer to use a black and white treatment has condensed Estelle’s appearance down to a silhouette. One which is made up of limited tones and textures except that of the leather beret and patterned necklace. The combination of compressed identity, silhouette and the historic tone to the treatment reduces the portrait to key indicators, key indicators which through their inherent generalisation evokes the image of the Black Panther movement of 1970’s America. This embeds the sense or temporal distance as the image now fits alongside images from that era but also plays to evoke the various emotions, stories and preconceptions around that movement. In its self, depending on viewpoint, that may not be seen as an issue but for me I find that because of the decisive nature of the 1970’s the image is falling into the trap of alienating groups were subtle changes could reframe the concept in a more unifying, contemporary and timely manner.

The final observation around the composition and treatment of the image is how the individual has been framed and presented, aside from the contextual issues mentioned previously. Estelle has been photography din a way which at first lance appears to place her front and centre of the viewers sights. But in actuality this framing has worked to diminish her presence within the frame. Almost the entire top third of the image is of background, couple this with the left third also being entirely void of subject leaves Estelle forced into the remaining third, both reducing her in height and width. In situations where the background adds to the overall effect of the portrait one could understand that creative choice but here the lack of interest merely adds to the sense that the photographer chose, either at that time or during post production, that this was the correct way to present his subject. One could argue that the desire to include her ring within the frame has reduced the ability to crop but that would be to ignore that myriad of alternative aspect ratios that would allow for both her hand to be included but also to Estelle some dominance over the frame. This demising effect is further enhanced by the subtle downward angle of the camera, an effect that enhances the sense of diminishment.

I feel that these points are all supported by the choice of quote to attach to this image. How much sway Estelle had on the quote given or selected we won’t know but “The invisible ones are claiming their power back” is clearly an important message for her, yet this image to me doesn’t fully represent that power. It may show someone seeking it but its treatment and presentation has undermined that message. I fully understand the intent behind Estelle message and no doubt it is an empowering reminder for those involved or what their motivation and goal is. I do however find that combined with this photograph and viewed from an outsiders perspective this message is one of obtuse meaning and militant activity.

Overall my impression of this image is that the goal of the photographer was to emphasise the importance of and empathise with those involved in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But, I do however feel that where the photographer may empathise, the source for their inspiration may be a background of photography which has been based primarily in images created for and by an agenda driven agency. One which sought, inadvertently or not, to support a narrative of white supremacy and illegality of protest. 

This may seem an extreme call but one has to remember that mass media has always been a driver of national and cultural identity, a responsibility which conflicts with the ideologies of those who fund and promote media outlets. In essence the perceptions of the majority are influenced by the easiest access information available which also happens to also be the easiest manipulated due to its form and function but also it’s anterior agenda to make money through sales or as in today world, views. 

I only draw my conclusions through my own shortfalls and perceptions but where some seek to recognise these influences and actively work against them, some, inadvertently create work which perpetuates these myths. Others may seek to reclaim or subvert these expectations, again something that this photographer may very well have looked to do, but this is also dangerous as the subversion may only be apparent to those aware of the subversion therefore falling into the trap of perpetuation.

I feel that by presenting this image in colour and either by photographing Estelle from a slightly lower perspective or using post-processing corrections to place her both in a way which filled the frame and slightly from below, the overall effect would be much more powerful and engaging. The connotations with and of the Black Power movement could be retained but modernised and humanised, allowing the viewer to connect and empathise more effectively as a document of our time and place rather than of the distant past.


I wanted to make a short addition to this post as I felt I had overlooked one potential aspect of the purpose of this image. That being the intention of rallying support for the BLM protests shrug evoking the sense of purpose attached to Black Panther movements. 

When viewing this image originally I set out to be an impartial spectator, an attepnmt to see the image from different points of view but in hindsight I feel that this approach, whilst being well intentioned, overlooked the perception of a Black audience. Being white I feel I have looked ta this image from the perspective of how can this image be perceived by white audiences and as such my advice in the final passages is essentially how to make the image more appealing and palatable for a white audience. This however overlooks the potential power of engagement and motivation it could create in a Black audience. 

Just as the use of symbols of British imperialism and WW2 sentiment are utilised to motivate white people against a movement of ‘antiracism’, the symbols of the Civil Rights movement can be used to engage the marginalised and under represented in their movement against racism. 

I do still believe that this image could prove to be problematic in evoking a perceived militant approach, through alienating the decision makers and potentially misrepresenting an agenda, however I do also now appreciate how I may not be the intended audience and therefore reacting in an unintended way.

Image Reference


Artist Acknowledgement


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