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George Floyd’s family says his iconic selfie ‘symbolizes who he was’ — and helped shape the racial-justice narrative

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By Charles Passy

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“It’s why I love him so much. He’s not what he seems on the outside,” Ross said.

People beyond Floyd’s immediate circle speak about the power of the photo as well. Claire Raymond, a visiting lecturer at Bates College and the author of a book on selfie photography , describes it almost as a religious image, with little of the sense of self-promotion that characterizes, well, selfies.

“This seems to be almost a private moment,” she said.

At the same time, Raymond said, it’s not hard to see how and why the image might have helped galvanize the protest movement that followed Floyd’s murder. “You can’t look at this photograph and not like him,” she said.

Other representations of Black men throughout history have often been considerably less favorable. Scholars and social-justice experts point to numerous examples — including the lynching postcards widely distributed in the 19th and 20th centuries and Time magazine’s 1994 cover photo of O.J. Simpson that was digitally altered to darken his skin — that paint a picture of Black men as menacing at best, or less than human at worst.

Felix Kumah-Abiwu, a director of the Center for African Studies at Kent State University and a scholar who has written about the portrayal of Black men in the media , sees the Floyd selfie as a perfect example of a Black man showing his “pride and dignity as a human being.” In that regard, he also calls it an example of Black counter-framing — a way to combat the negative stereotype often seen in the mainstream media.

Kumah-Abiwu and others say that social media may have played a role in that framing. The picture’s apparently rapid spread via social channels made it difficult for any other image to take hold. In other words, some argue, the mainstream media were effectively shut out.  

“Maybe in the past, when these kinds of things happened, the gatekeepers would have tried to paint George as a criminal,” Kumah-Abiwu said.

For artists who have used the picture as a basis for their work, there’s often a desire to heighten the image’s positive nature — to play up the counter-framing, if you will. Or to put the image in a greater political context.

Nikkolas Smith, an artist and social activist who specializes in what he calls “artivism,” made a digital portrait off the photo , but with a decisive twist: He showed Floyd wearing a tuxedo. The idea, he says, was to create “a celebration of life” for a man the world knows primarily through his death.

Cadex Herrera, a Minneapolis artist, also used the photo as the inspiration for a mural he and others created at the site where Floyd was murdered. He wanted the work to speak to an “immense sense of injustice,” so he set Floyd’s face against the names of others who have died at the hands of police.

To this day, Herrera finds meaning in the photo, particularly in what he describes as its timeless aspect — as if Floyd is still speaking to us.

“You didn’t know if [the picture] was taken four years ago or yesterday,” he said.

Not everyone buys into the notion that the photo may have been a catalyst for the protests and calls for change that followed.

Jeanelle Austin, the executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial organization, a nonprofit Minneapolis group involved with preserving Floyd’s memory at the site of his murder, doesn’t deny the simple power of the Floyd selfie and how it speaks to people. But she says Floyd’s death likely resonated the way it did because of its timing not long after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Austin explains, many people were stuck at home and unable to go to their workplaces or schools. “There was nothing else to do but to pay attention to whatever came out on the news,” she said. And in late May 2020, they paid attention to George Floyd, then hit the streets in protest, even as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc.

“When you see people come out willing to risk their lives … to stand in defense of Black lives, that was more than the impact of a photo,” Austin said. “That was the impact of actually paying attention to unjust lynchings that have taken place.”

Still, there’s no denying that when people see an image of Floyd, it’s more than likely the selfie photo. And that begs a final question: Who owns the picture and controls its usage?

Attorneys who specialize in copyright and related matters say a photo is the property of the person who took it. Which means George Floyd’s selfie belongs to George Floyd — or, now, his estate. And that means there could be copyright claims filed on behalf of the estate in relation to certain uses of the picture, says James Sammataro, a lawyer and copyright expert with the firm Pryor Cashman.

So far, members of the Floyd family have not gone down that road. While they say it would be only fair for Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, to receive some of the money from those who have profited off the photo — say, a T-shirt producer — they also recognize the photo is now so widely seen and distributed that it would be difficult to monitor or control such matters.

In effect, they say, George Floyd now belongs to the world. And so does his picture. “It’s public,” said Philonise Floyd.

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