How one photo provides a more accurate portrait of Baltimore

An image of a young boy offering a bottle of water to a Baltimore policeman in riot gear demonstrates the power of a photograph to rouse emotion and promote understanding. 

Over the past few days, most photos of Baltimore have featured the fallout of violence: Broken windows, looted stores, and cars in flames.

But one image – that of a young boy offering a bottle of water to a policeman in riot gear – helps paint a more complete portrait of events in the city, and inspires hope as it goes viral on social media. It also illustrates the power of a photograph to rouse emotion and promote awareness and understanding.

“One of many pictures that I captured today in the midst of helping clean up the city and it speaks volumes,” local pastor Bishop M. Cromartie, who took and posted the photo Tuesday, wrote on his Facebook page. As of Wednesday morning, the image had been shared more than 64,000 times.

Photographs have long played a critical role in conflicts both international and domestic. Some images – such as Huyng Cong Nick Ut's photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bombing or Bill Hudson’s picture of a black teenager being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Ala. – have helped put a face to violence and provoked horror or anger.

Others, like Joe Rosenthal’s famous Iwo Jima battlefield portrait and Bernie Boston’s image of a Vietnam protester putting a flower in a National Guardsman’s rifle barrel, deliver a message of hope and the promise of peace.

“Photography is an extremely valuable communication instrument because it is universally accessible and understood and it bridges socio-economic and linguistic barriers,” award-winning photojournalist André Liohn said while discussing his work in war-torn Libya with the International Medical Corps.”[P]hotography can support people’s struggles in dealing with the painful past, in designing a shared vision of the future.”

“Photographs are witnesses of the broken relations and can contribute to the healing of societies,” he added.

That power, bolstered by social media and the Internet, is evident in photos such as Mr. Cromartie’s, which have surfaced amid the “Black Lives Matter” rallies taking place as a result of tensions between the black community and police across the country.

Late last year, for instance, the image of a young black boy hugging a white police officer at a Ferguson-related demonstration in Portland, Ore., was dubbed by The Oregonian as “the hug shared around the world” after it was shared more than 150,000 times on Facebook in 24 hours, according to CNN.

“I thought, what a great scene. A powerful scene,” Johnny Nguyen, the freelance photographer who took the picture, told the network. “A scene with a message that needed to be communicated. A scene of coming together.”

In Baltimore, Cromartie told Bustle magazine that he sees his photo as “a way to show that Baltimore is not as bad and that the people who riot are just a handful, that clearly you have, statewide, people who actually care.”

Hashtags such as #OneBaltimore have also produced a number of images showing solidarity among community leaders and residents in the face of the violence that engulfed the city in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

Such photos, of course, can only do so much. As in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country, the riots of the last few days represent deep-rooted tensions and longstanding ills – such as police violence, underrepresented populations, and economic challenges – that won’t be cured by a few photos, no matter how moving.

Still, the images help to produce a more accurate portrait of Baltimore at a critical time, a portrayal that should also include those residents who are dedicated to peace, promoting the kind of understanding necessary to begin solving the city’s problems.  

“To really understand my hometown, you can’t just look at the rioters, the police or the politicians,” Farai Chideya, a New York journalism professor originally from Baltimore, wrote for The Guardian. “You have to see the people who make it what it is.”

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