The recent spate of vigilante attacks in India has lent a new, nearly domestic familiarity to the word lynching. This, though, is more than just a shift in language: the nation’s visual archive itself seems be shifting, towards the instatement of a new normal. Within just a year the lynching photograph has moved to the centre-stage, filling mainstream news reportage and social media newsfeeds. The imagistic vocabulary of lynching has thus taken on a touch of mundane inevitability in caste and communal violence.

It began in March 2015, with the lynching of Syed Arif Khan in Dimapur, Nagaland. A month later, a young Dalit woman was raped, strangled and left hanging from a tree in Uttar Pradesh, just about a year after the horrific Badaun alleged rape and murder of two Dalit sisters, who were found hanging from a mango tree. Then, on September 28 last year, Mohammad Akhlaq was bludgeoned to death by a mob in his home near Dadri in what went on to gain notoriety as a “beef-eating incident”.

The following March, continuing in the rhythm of a scheduled sequel, cattle herder Mazlum Ansari and his 14-year-old companion Imteyaz Khan were lynched and hanged from a tree in Jharkhand. Most recently, on May 20, MK Olivier, a Congolese national in New Delhi, was beaten to death over an argument about an autorickshaw.

This is an incomplete list: it includes only those incidents that resulted in fatalities. In the same time frame, there have been at least a dozen other cases in which the victims somehow survived the end-stage public shaming, torment and lurid physical violence – in short, the ordeal of a completed lynching.

The lynching photograph

There is no lynching without spectators. In quite a few of these cases, photographs of bodies of the lynched have accompanied the reporting of these "incidents". The appearance and wide circulation of the photograph is no doubt a means to bring home the sheer brutality of the event, to shake us out of our stupour and help us empathise more proactively with the victims. Nonetheless, Susan Sontag (who has written with rare perceptiveness about photography) would have challenged the efficacy of this move, howsoever well intended.

In On Photography, she suggests that after a point, photographs of suffering become tired clichés. The more we are bombarded with sensationalist photography, the less it affects us.

Others like Judith Butler have contrarily argued that the numbness of our response does not belong to the photograph but to our politics. It is the enabling social contexts and mobilisations that make the images mean what they do – or don’t.

While such debates on the possibilities or otherwise of photography for triggering social change have their uses (and even their horrific fascination), my own interest here is a little different. I wish to consider the present saturation of lynching-affiliated photo-records in today’s India in relation to the long history of the lynching photograph from its early days.

Such a perspectival glance serves as a reminder that the lynching photograph was not born out of the ameliorative agenda to arouse righteous public wrath against acts of extrajudicial violence. In fact, in the early 20th century it wasn’t journalists who took most of these photographs. It was the perpetrators themselves who took them, in an attempt to convert a transient memory into a lasting material souvenir and trophy. The lynching photograph’s longstanding enmeshment in the history of slavery, colonialism and racial violence in which it was complicit, helps annotate its reemergence and redeployment in India’s contemporary politics.

In history

I first saw a lynching photograph six years ago, right before moving to Indiana, USA, for my PhD. My perfunctory research about the state yielded three notable facts: Indiana had a lot of corn fields, Axl Rose, the lead singer of the rock band Guns and Roses, was born and raised in Lafayette (the city I was moving to) and finally, that Indiana had been at the heart of the
20th-century resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

It was in this context that I chanced upon a 1930 photograph, taken in Marion, Indiana. On view are two bodies – those of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith – hanging from a tree, their necks broken, arms dangling limply by their sides, their clothes tattered and stained (with dirt, blood and faeces). The men and women who occupy the photograph’s frontline seem pleased (and not the least bit fazed) at having the camera record and ratify their attendance at a scene of violence. The gathered company’s brazen confidence, reflected in their willingness to stare, make merry and smile and point fingers at the hanging corpses, converts the lynching into an event, an entertaining spectacle, an evening out, a place to be…

It was regular fare for local studio photographers to arrive at lynching sites, take photographs of the perpetrators posing gleefully in front of the dead victims, and mail out the developed copies of the photographs to everyone who had paid for them in advance. Tracing these intimate linkages between lynching and photography, scholars have drawn attention to the celebratory and self-congratulatory tenor of photographic documentation of lynching occurrences.

From the perspective of the white executors’, these murders were worth memorialising, and photography was the means to do that. Even more, it turned the lynching into a floating portable memory of a shared history: of power, domination, and confirmation of one’s superior race position.

The camera at lynching sites was not therefore a neutral apparatus objectively recording what transpired. It was an actor in the catastrophe, one that normalised and prolonged the agony of the victim: the mob would often stop their torture in order to have their pictures taken with the battered, torn and quartered bodies of their prey writhing in the background.

Closer home, another, older photograph is worth revisiting. Taken by Felice Beato (a pioneering Italian photojournalist) during his travels in India in the immediate aftermath of the Revolt of 1857, this photograph is technically not of a lynching. The two men seen hanging from the wooden scaffold have not been beaten and strung up by an unofficial rabble. Their execution is a state-sanctioned affair instead – the colonial government’s public enactment of retribution against the mutineers of 1857.

Nevertheless, this photograph is useful in thinking about the long and complicated history of lynching, because it epitomises colonial force disguised as law. The immorality of coloniality forces us to notice just how thin and porous the line is between state-sanctioned so-called legal executions, and extrajudicial extreme punishments; between an ordered execution and an illegal, frenzied enactment of mob justice.

The stark and rather empty landscape of Beato’s “The Hanging of Two Rebels” (1858) with its overmastering presence of a large wooden scaffold that dominates the scene, the straggling onlookers, the marked absence of British personnel – those giving the orders – creates a dramatic contrast to the lynching photograph described earlier. The 1930 Indiana photograph feels cramped, filled by the gathered crowd – the distance between the lynched bodies and spectators is minimal.

The perpetrators are everywhere, crowding around, hogging the camera’s attention, totalising the show: no doubts exist about who the producer of this spectacle is or who its consumers are – it is the white folk strutting in the foreground of the photograph, even as the limply hanging black bodies recede into crumpled background.

In contrast, the Beato photograph evokes a strangely barren atmosphere heightened by the ghostly white expanse of its evacuated terrain. In this photograph, the hanging bodies are at the representational center. There is no escaping their centrality in the picture.

Ten Indians, in attitudes differing markedly from those of the spectators in the Indiana photograph, stand languidly by the scaffold. Most of the men on the right appear to stare downwards toward the ground in what seems a gestural confession of defeat; some gaze vacuously at something at eye-level. Only the three men to the left are looking at the bodies for sure, but since they have their backs turned to the camera and we cannot ascertain their facial expression – even their reaction stays uncertain and undefined.

It is unclear how much time has passed since the hangings and strictly impossible to gauge with certitude whether the men standing around are the execution squad or mourners for the dead. Or chance onlookers, perhaps? Does the lack of an obvious reaction imply the hopeless indifference of resigned apathy? Or has a quiet sullenness stolen upon the loose group underneath the surface insouciance? The photograph’s unfathomable quality places meaning in the range of questions that cannot be definitely answered.

Contrary to the expectation that photo-journalistic records capture an inarguable objective reality, this photograph pronounces, disconcertingly, the impossibility of arriving at ontological, political or ethical certitude. In fact, the very purpose remains questionable. This is very different from the lynching photograph from America, which we know was meant to clearly function as a memento of a spectacle – something white supremacists might take home to show proudly to friends and family unable to attend the lynching.

Beato’s photograph instead marks a rupture in colonial rhetoric. What ought to have functioned as a triumphal inaugural moment marking the reinstatement of British imperiality through the exercise of legalised violence is instead turned by a photography of non-signs into a dusty, empty and strategically doubtful image.

It is important to hold onto the inwardly fissured potentiality within the lynching photograph. It is capable of a double possibility. The purveyors intend to advertise the deed, and the victim’s abject powerlessness, and use the photograph to bludgeon us with terror. The photograph, however, can also quarrel with the intention of its production.

Moving in twos

To move in twos is to render oneself into something amorphous and open. It is to turn oneself from a solitary being, into an “us”: a syntactical shift that re-ascribes the locus of the self from “me” to that which lies in an inter-space, in some unmarked place between “me and you”. It is to become a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a worker. A twosome potentiates the capacity for proliferation, for expansion – into a countless collective, something beyond digits. A single soldier who disobeys military commands is just a bad apple – dismissible and forgettable (as much from the mind as from the ranks). It’s not so for two recalcitrant soldiers who quit together – two connotes a rebellion, mutiny, solidarity, camaraderie. It is not enough simply to discharge them, to merely heap dishonor upon their heads. Only publicly executing the partners-in-infamy, then leaving their bodies hanging for display will suffice.

Akhlaq – the lone man lynched in Dadri last year for his fatal if flagrantly confabulated association with consumption of bovine meat – elicits a different affective response – not less of a response, but different – from the case of a man and a child butchered for transporting cattle.

It is this affective difference I am seeking to probe here, for it holds the key to something crucial. Single deaths come to us as textual records, newspaper reports, narratives in words. Deaths in pairs on the other hand have a strange proclivity for arriving at our virtual doorsteps, packaged as photographs.

The question I pose is this. Why are two lynched bodies mutilated by mobs more photograph-worthy than a single body? In what way do the visual semiotics of twinned bodies hanging from some makeshift scaffold acquire a more efficacious and tenacious – and more terrible – semantic charge, one more amenable to imagery making? Why do perpetrators hang up bodies in twos? And, correspondingly, why do we most often photograph lynched bodies when they come in pairs?

To be killed as a couple, it might be said, is to be punished for more than just a flouting of the written and unwritten laws of the world. Figuratively, it entails being penalised for a greater infraction: the offence of inter-relationality. It is the audacity of seeking companions in one’s (mis)deeds. It is, to organise – that is, to corrupt and infect the hitherto loyal and submissive.

These two pairs – the executed soldiers in the 1857 photograph, and the man and his nephew lynched in Jharkhand two months ago – in challenging the colonial/majoritarian diktats in togetherness, commit a second implicit crime. Through their companionship, they allude to their own humanity, that is, to the whole unallowable network of human relationships they are embedded within – both things that the perpetrators must deny or extinguish.

What audacity emboldens a colonial subject to pretend to have a political ally? What makes a Muslim man presume to father a child (“yet another child”, in the scandalised and disgusted protestations of Islamophobic constructions)? How dare a teenaged child perpetuate his sins by playing traitorous assistant in the sacrilegious labour of transporting cattle?

Lynching in twos, then, does not just terminate lives but marks the banishment of dangerous liaisons. To be murdered as a twosome is to be punished not simply for a tangible crime, but for forging a bond that ties us unacceptably to another. It converts the very holding of an outlawed affinity – between soldiers, or among racially/communally demarcated men and women, or even a parent and a child – into a punishable offence.

Perhaps those of us who, in producing and circulating them as images, bear witness to these lynched bodies – perhaps we too operate under this unconscious, aphasic power of two-ness. The two-ness of the lynched bodies is precisely what makes them reproducible as forceful images. It is not just a question of numeric accounting, where two corpses inevitably mean something more or something worse than a corpse in solus. It is not a simple equation, where the presence of an additional or extra body shores up our fill of horror and, thus, makes for a heightened critique of colonial/racial/majoritarian excesses, multiplied arithmetically.

Instead, the longevity and iconicity of these photographs may be attributable to something else. The lynched forms pendant from trees or other ad hoc wooden structures unwittingly alert the viewer to a living relationality between two hanging cadavers. This awareness of a relationship that exists – had existed – between two silent, lifeless beings, no matter how co-alienated they might now look in death, is what makes the photograph at once more shocking but also, potentially, an entry point for a more radical politics.

A communion in suffering

It is not unlikely that the two lynched men would have caught harrowing glimpses of each other’s torment. Perhaps, each was even forced by the torturers, as a terror-instilling strategy, to observe the agony of the other. It is not implausible to suppose that each man grappled with his own extermination-in-progress through the mirrored screams of the other figure being strung up beside him. Even in their post-mortem postures they seem eerily equipped with an uncanny, imperceptible, even surreptitious propensity to swivel, so that they may very well end up facing one another. I cannot help but wonder if in the moments of their demise the men sought out the witnessing-capacity of someone other than their executioners, whether they turned to look or be looked at by the other body that suffered beside them.

Each of the photographs articulates this implicit glance of recognition: the process of a partnered-witnessing (watching each other die), which in turn produces an indelible consanguinity between the lynched men. Whether they are strangers being executed side-by-side for a coincidentally common crime, or close blood relatives killed for congenital-crimes, a stubborn affinity that springs up between simultaneously and cruelly murdered human beings. You’ll never recall just one of them; they will always and forever stand paired together – partners in memory, in pictures, in our nightmares.

Which brings me back to the peculiar nature of the twosome as a configuration. It is a trope that disrupts the singular hero/martyr/victim discourse that lone bodies are subjected to. At the same time it resists the dismissive flourish with which we refer to and forget the statistically effaced “hundreds and thousands” who suffer in distant, war-torn lands.

Two bodies are harder to forget. Two is too concrete; there is nothing non-specific or blankly generic about it. A twosome forces us to contend with suffering as something different from simply our transitive capacity to put ourselves “in another’s shoes”. When we shudder at someone’s death by transposing ourselves into his or her place, it is really our own death we fear, experience and mourn. Our bodies, however, do not have the magnitude to fill the shoes of a twosome. To meditate on the suffering of two people, to really apprehend their co-presence to each other at the time of death, is necessarily to move past this acquisitive tendency which appropriates someone else’s real suffering as an imagined proxy for our own hypothetical suffering capability. Witnessing two lynched bodies ejects us out of the indulgent equation and forces us to contemplate the horror of a death that excludes us; a death that is neither symbolically, not psychologically about us (even if socially we are implicated at every turn).

This is why, to me, the primary relationship of these photographs does not exist between the corpse and the audience(s) who watch the lynching spectacle, whether as live witnesses or in photo representation. Instead, the most important relationship here is between the two lynched bodies seen in the photographic frame.

What does this relationship entail? It involves an injunctive demand-command – namely, that each person acknowledge the truth of the other’s anguish. For in their very death they confirm the possibility of suffering so horrifically in the presence of another. Or rather, that one can suffer this horrifically only in the presence of another.

Here then is a crucial semantic shift – we move from a framework of two autonomous and separate bodies suffering in parallel, yet also in utter isolation (“I suffer, you suffer”), to a communion in suffering – “I suffer [even more] because you suffer.”

The third man

I recently discovered that there was a third man, named James Cameron, who was to be lynched alongside Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930. Cameron was beaten, even strung up from the tree along with the other two men, but miraculously escaped execution at the last minute. It is this third man who for me holds the key to a response to the recent incidents of reactionary vigilantism within our own borders. Cameron, the third man, did not retreat after the trauma but went on to become a fearless civil rights activist, fighting for the right to life, dignity and equality of fellow African-Americans across the American Midwest – the dead man walking as a real riposte to the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

It might be useful for those of us committed to a free, fearless, secular and equal India to start thinking of ourselves as this third figure that “got away.” The current dispensation has dispersed vulnerability on an unprecedented scale. To be sure, there is a difference in degrees of endangerment, and it would be foolish and unethical to ignore that some of us are more vulnerable than others.

Even so, to recognise that we live in an age where a man may be murdered for an Ambedkar-praising ringtone is to acknowledge (that is, if you’re not a purely self-preserving person of privilege) the tenuous and fortuitous quality of one’s supposed wellbeing. Cameron’s ghostly absence-presence (he was there and yet isn’t seen in the photograph) signals the unreliability and incompleteness of photographs as memorial testaments (they rarely give us the full picture), and the chanciness of surviving a supremacist politics. Cameron’s absence from the photograph should open up a door for us to enter, as the shadowed third body that may well have hung beside the other two.

May have, but did not. Therein lies the hope.

This article first appeared on Kafila.