The horror of looking: Lynching and the empathetic eye

Greta Methot, University of Rhode Island


During the summer of 2000, the New York Historical Society enjoyed its "biggest continuing attendance of any exhibition in years," with a collection of photographs entitled, Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America (Valdez 88). The more than seventy images featured, all taken between 1880 and 1961, illustrate in gruesome detail, a vicious chapter in American history. This exhibit, which is still making the rounds at U.S. art museums and was reproduced on the Internet and in a $60 coffee-table book, offers tremendous opportunity for critical thinking about the intersections of race, spectatorship, and violence in America. My dissertation examines the production and reception of lynching photographs, both historically and present day, and investigates whether viewing these images might either stimulate humanitarian reform or perpetuate racialized violence in contemporary audiences. ^ I am interested not only in the existence of the photographs themselves, how and why they came to be, but also in the motives and reactions of those who see them today. What do we hope to gain by revisiting the wounds of lynching and, furthermore, what is at stake in such an undertaking? Looking at these images of degradation and hatred, with whom does the contemporary viewer identify---the lynched or the lyncher---and, to what extent is that identification informed by, or formative of, one's experience of race? I wonder, do these images of black suffering really work to educate the public about racial tolerance as some viewers claim, or do they serve to reinforce the racist ideology that created them? If in the past the photographs functioned as an extension of the lynching ritual, as terrorizing reminders of black subjugation and celebratory evidence of white supremacy, do they now, shown in this new context, act as symbols of racial reconciliation? While many scholars have suggested that viewers of violent images are confronted by a moral imperative to take responsibility for what they see, I investigate further whether or not these particular photographs are an effective medium through which to communicate the experience of another's pain. ^

Subject Area

American Studies|History, Black|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Greta Methot, "The horror of looking: Lynching and the empathetic eye" (2006). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3225322.