This article looks at the photography of Kris Graves and the circulation of the artist’s images on his social media accounts as a way of promoting social progress and racial justice, with a focus on his 2016 A Bleak Reality photoseries for Vanity Fair. The series consists of eight images that address the haunting specters of police brutality against eight African American male citizens who lost their lives at the hands of the state. Looking at Instagram, I posit a threefold claim about the social media photograph. First, I argue against the association of the social photo with the everyday. I examine a photoseries that initially participated in an economy of art but then migrated across a network of social relations in order to enhance its visibility—its dissemination ushering in the social life of the photograph that undergirds Black Lives Matter. Second, I suggest that the affective residues of Instagram’s content linger in an indexical trace that transcends the transplatform network’s digitally composited, modified, duplicated, and distributed images. This dual focus illuminates how social media function, on the one hand, as a technology of race while they allow Graves, on the other hand, to document instances of police brutality against African Americans. Third, in so doing, this article locates A Bleak Reality within a genealogy of civic media in order to explore how the co-optation of photography’s reproductive affordances by African American photographers, artists, scholars, intellectuals, and abolitionists has allowed them to construct a counter-archive of Black cultural production around historical movements for racial justice.

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