By Kimberly Juanita Brown
In this image by Mark Seliger we see a woman representing a son, now gone, her family, community, and the work of social justice still before us. Lesley McSpadden was thrust into the media limelight on an August afternoon in 2014 when her 18-year-old son, Michael Brown, was shot to death by a police officer on Canfield Drive in Ferguson Missouri. We have seen, perhaps, dozens of photographs of this woman from that afternoon. In those images she is agitated, frustrated, angry and vigilant, as the events leading up to Brown’s death became known. McSpadden was swiftly on the scene of the killing after a neighbor told her what happened to her son. She wanted to lay her eyes upon him. To see her son. This is thus also a photograph that is an indictment of the viewer, a visual elegy for a son lost, and the silent testimony of a woman who has had her only child taken from her. In the image taken by photographer Seliger, McSpadden is looking directly into the camera, her clothing matching the black background that frames her face in this spatial configuration of mourning. She is photographed in the center of the image, as the mother without a child, enveloped in her loss. Yet she is also the next of kin, the witness representing her son and friend. He who was taken from her by force. She is the photographic memory of his face.
Mark Seliger takes photographs of celebrities and models for magazines like Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and GQ. McSpadden’s photograph by Seliger is a master class in comportment. In it, McSpadden is composed, but serious, stoic, yet somehow fully and vibrantly present. The visual void encasing her face in the image is hers to negotiate through the viewer, using the photograph as her apparatus of legibility—her testimony.
The photograph thus renders the viewer’s engagement within, but more importantly, beyond the cacophony of that devastating afternoon in August of 2014. This image necessitates quiet. The kind of silent offering Black Americans rarely receive in a venue (photography) where they are often rendered as damaged subjects with very little agency. Over the past four years there have been many examples of the devastating immediacy that attends African American engagements with public space, and the photographic production of this engagement (from Trayvon Martin to John Crawford III, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile). For the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, there was not just Michael Brown’s violent death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, but also the heavily reproduced image of Brown’s body lying in the middle of Canfield Drive for over four hours. As we know, African American engagements with public space are always already fraught with the inference of violence—past, present, and future. Claiming space, therefore, is a claim to citizenship, community and human rights. It is a determination to be seen, and this determination often functions as the civic pulse of the nation.
In an image of a single face returning the photographic gaze, we have the inference of shadow against light, mourning, healing, and the determination to be present before the dark void of loss. McSpadden’s image forces the viewer to think about who is not present in the photograph: her only child, her son and friend, Michael Brown, Jr.