Southern Visual Legacy seminar, Weds 27th

Wednesday 27 November, 4.00 pm
Room 106, University of Westminster, 106 Wells Street , London W1T 3UW

Christopher Lloyd, Goldsmiths, University of London
‘Looking at the “Southern Visual Legacy” in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke

What are we to do with images of death that remind us of, and insist that we recall, other deathly cultural memories? What ethical obligations do we have to see death in larger ocular frameworks? These broad questions frame my analysis, which looks at a selection of photographs shown in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. Charting Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, the film reveals the biopolitical life (and death) of Southerners in New Orleans and the Gulf region. More specifically, African-American life is revealed by Lee to be precariously entwined in the region’s historical and cultural contours. The images of African-American death that we see in the documentary, I argue, trigger visual memories of other pictures of corporeal trauma from the region’s past. If, as Katherine Henninger argues, ‘photographers and photographs in the South constitute a vast visual legacy: a complex series of continuities and ruptures that help shape southern identity itself’, then we must attend to such connections across Southern visual culture. My paper aims to contribute to this process, illuminating some of the memorative links between the photographs of dead black New Orleanians in When the Levees Broke with, particularly, lynching photographs and the image of Emmett Till in his coffin. In making explicit the ‘Southern visual legacy’ of Lee’s film, we might not only contribute insight into the debates on Southern identity and regionalism in the twenty-first century, but also signal ways of reading images of African-Americans through broader historical and cultural frames.

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