In the wake of last week's fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Missouri, hundreds of young black men and women have posted photos of themselves to Twitter with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The phrase is shorthand for the question many are asking themselves: If the police gunned me down, which photo of me would the media publish? These Twitter users post two contrasting photos of themselves, one that could fit the narrative of a “gangster” and another more suited to a "victim".
This Twitter campaign came in reaction to the US media’s widespread use of a photo in which Michael Brown, the young man who was shot and killed by Missouri police last week, holds his fingers in a manner that some interpreted as being a gang sign (although others believed it was a peace sign). The photo was taken off his Facebook profile page. After being criticized for choosing this picture, some media outlets, like NBC News, switched to another photo – also from his Facebook page – in which he gazes soulfully into the camera.
The question of how the US media’s choice of photo affects the public’s view of a young, black shooting victim is far from a new one. After Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012, some media outlets used a photo of a younger Martin in which he was smiling, while others published a more recent photo in which he was stern-faced and wearing a hoodie. This led to a debate within the US journalism industry about how photos can create the picture of innocence or guilt – one that is continuing today on Twitter.