“Uzzle Buzz” is a series of blog posts, written by various authors, that respond to or comment on some aspect of our exhibition All About America: Photographs by Burk Uzzle.
elin o’Hara slavick is Professor of Studio Art, Theory and Practice in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Art.
On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was executed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for selling CDs in the street. Eric Garner was killed in 2014 for selling loose cigarettes. Like so many others, their crime in the eyes of cops was to be black in a racist country. (Had they been white, chances are they would still be alive today.) No justice for Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.
All the men visible in Burk Uzzle’s photograph Mirror Image, Peace Demonstration, New Haven, 1970 are white—two civilians and police officers. We can imagine that if the two activists holding the mirror up were black, the officers would not be lazily leaning against a tree.
We assume Uzzle’s photograph is of peace activists protesting the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known in Vietnam). During that war, and the many wars since, the United States government and military (thanks to our tax dollars) are responsible for countless deaths, mostly civilians—from Korea and Cambodia to Iraq and Afghanistan. This action—of holding up a mirror so that men in uniform can see themselves confronting (policing) people just like them—did not bring about peace despite the activists’ sincere gesture towards a shared humanity.
I have often thought if we could just reach the gun manufacturers, the companies profiting from the sale of weapons systems, and show them how an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, we could end this perpetual cycle of war and violence. But I have yet to make contact with a gun or weapons manufacturer.
While these men frame the officers with themselves, reflecting their power position, in an attempt to reveal their common humanity, the officers appear to be unmoved. But who knows what stirred inside of them? No action is definitively futile. Every action or gesture in the name of peace is powerful (if only to lessen someone else’s madness by demonstrating that we are not alone). Certainly this photograph is powerful.
The activist on the left is masked by the mirror, his body partially re(dis)placed by a helmeted officer holding onto the strap of his rifle. The protester on the right stares directly at the officer but his face is split in half by the edge of the picture plane. One-eyed, he becomes a cyclops—known for brute strength and power—but a cyclops in the name of peace. The officer reflected on the left in the mirror subsumes the protester’s body from the waist down. Protestor and officer are one. The officer reflected on the right—the one nonchalantly leaning against a tree, arms crossed—is pictorially amputated from the waist down, unable to move, given an eternity to consider his position in relationship to these men facing him with possibility.
In an email exchange with me, Burk Uzzle wrote this about the picture, “Mirror Image seemed at the time the kind of surreal moment that reality can present—and I confess to loving the power of optical presentation of the almost unbelievable configurations that we as a culture present. I love working foreground-background layering as a method of doing complex subject agendas…Mirror Image was a lucky, found moment for a photographer wanting to both scream about war and empathize with its practitioners—people die no matter what side they are on, and we as a world feel pain.”
I find this picture to be full of empathy and disturbing visual magic. Decades after this photograph was made, the need is even greater for holding a mirror up to the soldiers, military generals, gun manufacturers, lawmakers, politicians, and ourselves to seriously question our role as passive participants, active citizens and critical voices amidst the hypocritical and complicated systems of power that maintain an unjust status quo. 1970 is now.
–elin o’Hara slavick