Since furious protests erupted in Ferguson last August, the world has been looking at U.S. police brutality in unprecedented, long-overdue ways. We looked at Mike Brown's lifeless body, left for four hours in the middle of a suburban street. We watched Eric Garner gasp his last breath on a Staten Island corner. We saw 12-year-old Tamir Rice collapse, a bullet in his stomach, within seconds of a police cruiser pulling up next to him in an empty Cleveland playground. Thunderstruck—as one judge described his reaction to the Rice shooting—by what we see, it is easy to forget where we are looking. A stretch of suburb, a sidewalk, a playground—the unmiraculous sites of daily American life.
It's a point driven home in a new project by data artist Josh Begley. In "Officer Involved," there are no cops to be seen. Rather, there’s a grid of over 500 locations pulled from Google’s Street View, each haunted by officer involvement. Begley used the Guardian's database of people killed by police in the U.S.—545 this year so far alone—to pull images of the locations. The result provides a new visual index through which to look at America as a stage for deadly police violence.
I spoke with Begley, a longtime friend who works for The Intercept, about his methodology, reframing how we look at police killings and the challenge of counting and recounting.
Natasha Lennard: Looking at the pictures, there's a spread from the urban to the suburban. Your project is a corrective to the racist mythos that police are brutal only in the urban "jungle," in perilous gangland ghettos, etc.
And when you wait for the images to load down the page, and some squares remain empty for about a second, the impression is given of an endless possible series. I think this makes visual the tragic point that police violence does not stop.
Josh Begley: There's something unsettling about the way images of premature death circulate on Twitter. Particularly images of the black body. Claudia Rankine wrote about the notion of mourning recently and the condition of black life in the United States:
"We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against."
She continues: "We need the truth of how the bodies died to interrupt the course of normal life. But if keeping the dead at the forefront of our consciousness is crucial for our body politic, what of the families of the dead? How must it feel to a family member for the deceased to be more important as evidence than as an individual to be buried and laid to rest?"
Officer Involved is an attempt to hold both of these thoughts at once. To visualize the landscape of police-involved killings, and yet understand each space as a site of violence where someone's loved one died.
I like the title Officer Involved. It's an amazing term, doused in ideology—it seems to place cops in a passive, non-agential role. Why did you think it was the right name for this project?
Teju Cole actually named it. I initially put the project up without a title, without much language at all, and the next morning he wrote me out of the blue with some very generous words.
I'm a big fan of his work, so naturally I had read his piece Death in the Browser Tab the week before. [In this column, Cole addresses the unsettling phenomenon of watching deaths, like the shooting of unarmed black man Walter Scott by a South Carolina cop].
The line he arrives at toward the end, about setting tangents around a circle, felt like the closest thing to a methodology for me: He wrote, "If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself."
That got me thinking about archives, and other attempts at mapping landscapes of racial terror. In much of my work I'm interested in what is unknowable about a data set. What are the narratives behind the numbers? What are the things that can't be counted?
What do you think your visualizations add to the way we understand police brutality stories as events that involve human lives? What do you think the risks or benefits might be in focusing on places specifically, with less "human" narrative? Do you have an audience in mind?
The first time you and I met, you said, "you're the guy who counts things on the Internet." Despite evidence to the contrary, I don't think counting is enough. (Though I think the Guardian's project counting police killings is essential.)
I'm interested in work that helps me see things anew. To capture images for a project like Officer Involved (or Prison Map or Empire.is) [other of Begley's data visualization projects] I use a small script that appropriates Google's publicly available API (application programming interface) to take photographs in bulk. I give it a series of geographic coordinates and it gives me back a folder of images. So I'm essentially using satellites as a camera. Or in the case of Officer Involved, the nine eyes of a Street View car.
Almost by definition this removes (or obscures) human forms from the landscape. I think this has consequences. I wonder what the absences open up, what their emptiness might allow us to see.
(This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.)