“I think of you Miss Reynolds as my hero and as such it is my hope to tell your story, not through an interview or documentary, but instead through a cinematic film-portrait […] ten minutes long and [which] would capture you silently seated, as you might sit on any other occasion. In my eyes this film would bring into focus your story, emphasised after the event of July 6th, recognising you as a person and foregrounding the audience with your survival after the tragedy that occurred in your life.”
This is how Luke Willis Thompson asked Diamond Reynolds to be the subject of his 2017 film autoportrait. Thompson’s words are full of wide-eyed sincerity; his faith in the project and in Reynolds is clear. His tentative expressions, clauses that edge around her tragedy, express a deep tenderness. And yet these winding sentences also reveal ambition, the ambition to represent Reynolds, to capture her. This drive, and how it clashes with Thompson’s sensitivity, presents the fundamental conflict of the film. That conflict reappears in different guises: between the ethics of care and discomforting aesthetics.
Installation view in Chisenhale Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist.
Before Thompson proposed his film, Reynolds had already become famous for hers. On July 6th 2016, she broadcast live on Facebook footage from her camera phone, after her fiancée Philando Castile was shot by a police officer.
The viewer arrives in a swell of fear, noise and confusion. Reynolds narrates the situation clearly and succinctly, explaining how she and Castile were pulled over by a police officer for driving with a damaged light. Upon the officer’s request, Castile reached to get his registration and license from his wallet. Whilst moving, he explained there was a licensed gun in the car. The officer, believing Castile to be going for this gun, shot him five times. Reynolds’ narration is interrupted by real time events—the officer, his voice frothing with fear, shouts at her to keep her hands where he can see them. She replies that she will, sir, no worries, she will. She is calm. He just got his arm shot off, she says. The officer replies: I told him not to reach for it, I told him to get his head up. You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license. She beats the words and the camera back and forth, each line of transmission fraught, explosive.
In autoportrait, Thompson takes this energy and turns the dial right down. The aftershocks of the event still reverberate, but it is as though in a vacuum: we see them roll over Reynolds’ face and body as she sits alone in the darkened room. The harshness of her film, the shaking camera, the voices sour with fear or rage, all of this is turned inwards in her trembling, tearful silence. Explosion becomes implosion. Swaying, mouthing wordlessly, Reynolds is locked in her own world, her story folded tightly into her body.
Thompson’s film also takes this internal process of grieving and projects it outwards. Like the Virgin or Mary Magdalene (whose private tears of sacrifice are cried for us unvirtuous sinners) Reynolds becomes an icon, radiant as a ghost and equally abstract. She is made the symbol of her story. Despite Thompson’s desire to foreground the audience with her “survival”, the tragedy swallows her. His mistake is to present her as the sum of the events that happened to her—he speaks of bringing her story into focus in a way that is contiguous with the camera’s focus on her body—so that she is only viewed through this lens. Thompson’s letter collapses Reynold’s story, personhood, and survival into each other. So does his film.
True, autoportrait owes its existence to the events of July 6th. The shooting of Philando Castile in front of his fiancée and her child is at the front of the viewer’s mind (we are made aware of its viral existence in the wall-text), attaching a certain amount of titillation to Thompson’s film. This is only furthered by the artist’s influences, namely Andy Warhol’s screen tests—films which, in their representation of B-list celebrities and the faces of the downtown cultural milieu, dabble in a register of notoriety. Warhol’s tests were in turn inspired by a 1962 booklet issued by the New York City Police Department, entitled The Thirteen Most Wanted. This makes for a sickening irony: Reynolds is represented in a manner resembling the police mug-shot. Thompson appears aware of this history, identifying that Warhol’s screen tests draw their power from representing white subjects as criminals or colonial subjects. However, he seems ignorant of what it means to represent a black woman in this way, and who precisely is empowered by inscribing Diamond Reynolds’ body with these visual connotations of criminality and savagery.
Neither Thompson nor Reynolds could use autoportrait to supersede the earlier film by which it is haunted, even if they wished to. However, Thompson’s choice to present Reynolds’s self as equivalent with her tragedy, and his film as analogous to hers (encapsulated in his coinage of the term “sister image” to describe autoportrait’s relationship to Reynolds’s footage), results in the subject’s reduction to her sensational back-story.
The Diamond Reynolds we see projected is static, unable to move forward after her trauma. She is forever reliving that day, four and a half minutes at a time. The filming process, which required Reynolds to sit uninterrupted in her grief, became too much for her to bear, and she and Thompson devised coping mechanisms to help her endure the performance less painfully. She could look down at her phone, or up to a member of crew who stood out of shot—anchors that provided her with vital support by tying her to the outside world. There is an irony in the fact that film, a medium lauded (and chosen by Thompson) for its ability to connect stories with millions, to bring humans into close contact with each other and promote sympathy, could give nothing to her but the blank staring eye of the lens.
The camera has its own cruel logic that even these distractions couldn’t soften. Thompson’s coping techniques take place off-camera. The fact that their existence comes as a surprise to the viewer, only revealed in third-party literature, confirms that these good intentions are in conflict with autoportrait’s indifferent aesthetic.
Indifferent might be putting it too mildly. In “Camera Obscura After All: The Racist Writing With Light” (2012) Jonathon Beller makes the case that a photograph is “an iteration of a visual-political system that extends in one way or another through the history of modern racism and colonialism, a visual-political system marked by gender as well as by race.” Thompson’s film, in its reproduction of early twentieth-century mug shots via Andy Warhol, is implicated in this wholesale. For Beller, there is no photograph that escapes racism—photography being part of the particular modern scopic regime that developed in tandem with slavery and colonialism, whose social vectors of objectification are inseparable from the cultural meanings and mysteries of the medium. But what can it mean that Thompson’s images trade so explicitly in these murky aesthetics?
In an interview with Emma Moore, Thompson justifies his use of 35mm film, saying that “in order to show up the consequence of Diamond’s video [he] wanted to work in cinema’s most canonical form; its high court.” He wanted to act on the testimonial quality of her video, bringing it as evidence before a court of justice. However, the implication is that Thompson seeks to place Reynolds’ video within an institutional context, one that has not historically favoured women of colour who have suffered violence at the hands of white men. In bringing her story to the courtroom, it is tested within and on the terms of this judicial system, this racist system that ultimately failed to give her justice.
The power of Reynolds’ original footage is its directness: its ability to make the whole world eyewitnesses to the crime. We don’t need the jury’s verdict—we watched it happen with her. In broadcasting the event she moves from being (to use Beller’s metaphor) incarcerated in the camera, to enlisting it in a powerful “J’accuse”. Her “poor image”-quality is a challenge to regimes both visual and political; in its cultural poverty and insignificance it can work on the sly to give agency to those previously objectified, voice to those who might be silenced.
It is telling that Reynolds was not interested so much in the appearance of autoportrait, but its preservation, its life span. Her concern was how the image operated; how it partook of certain systems and networks through its production and reception, now and in the future. She knows that autoportrait has the power to take her story further, and in certain ways it does do so, bringing the systemic violence and racism of American society into a space too rarefied to be soiled by such issues ordinarily, but implicated in the very same biases. Yet the formal elements of the film—its medium, its look—fight against this radical impulse.
Thompson might not be intentionally mobilising his aesthetic against Reynolds. He may simply not realise that his interests (and the interests of the work and the institution in which it sits) are in conflict with hers. This is what makes autoportrait so difficult to watch: it seems like Reynolds and her emotions are the ones on trial. And I, for one, am not worthy to judge.
Frances Whorrall-Campbell  is an artist, writer, and graduate of the University of Oxford and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.