At first glimpse, the Reuters photo above is acutely mundane. Taken outside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs,Texas, it shows a law enforcement officer securing a fence around the site of a shooting rampage that left 26 dead earlier this month.
There are plenty of reasons to erect a fence. It’s a crime scene. It begs modesty. It’s a buffer against pain. But I would argue that this photo defies those explanations.
Why? Because the image itself is quirky, the “split screen” effect a little artsy. The officer’s body language could be mistaken for someone craning for a view. Mostly though, it’s because the angle floats us, the viewers, above the partition—making the the photo less about the massacre than about the act of “fencing it off.”
There are many ways the photo speaks to the fencing off of mass shootings in America. Each tragedy evokes horror and shock, but for only a few news cycles. Conservatives screen out the subject by proclaiming each time that it’s “too early to discuss” gun violence as a systemic problem. Finally, the NRA’s hold over Congress cordons off an honest debate about gun control all together.
The walling off of gun violence and its effects can also be seen in how rapidly and fundamentally the Sutherland Springs church was restored after the attack. The image above of the church-turned-memorial circulated widely this week. Considering the public never saw the “before” picture, not even one still from the crime video, it’s actually disorienting to see this poignant “after” image.
In it, an individual seat for each victim allows viewers to picture themselves in the chairs, and the clustering of seats conveys how no one died alone. Still, like the fence, the scene cuts us off from the event and its cause. Bathed in white and scrubbed clean as a laboratory, it erases the social, political and historical context. And sanitized as it is, it could not distance us further from the gun scourge.