115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

'Every Dog Has His Day': The Canine Body in Bill Hudson's Photographic Representation of Race, Gender, and Power

Kristen Tregar, University of California, San Diego

This examination of Bill Hudson’s iconic photo of William Gadsden’s attack by a police dog during the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March creates an opportunity for consideration of how the dog’s body performs and reinforces specific racial and gendered social constructs and, in doing so, engages the viewer in a unique way.

Proposal: 

On May 4, 1963, a black and white photo taken by Bill Hudson appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Three columns wide, the photo appeared above the fold and was shot the previous day. It depicts two white male police officers using police dogs to menace black youth participating in an event now known as the Birmingham Children’s March. While many photos were taken during the police raid on the Birmingham Children’s March, this photo made such a dramatic impression that it has since been reproduced as a sculpture located in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, and has continued to appear in a wide range of media outlets, including a comparison with police actions in Ferguson, MO in 2014 and a recent appearance in November, 2016. In this photo, a young black man ‘s sweater is gripped by one of the police officers who pulls the youth closer, allowing the police dog access to bite the young man’s stomach. The youth, named William Gadsden, barely resists the attack, his left hand raised and clasping the officer’s arm in an attempt to repel his grasp. Beginning with a consideration of how photography allows the re-presentation of specific moments in time, I examine how Hudson’s photo serves as an exemplar of the intersection of performances of race and masculinity. I mobilize Judith Butler’s concept of “performing gender” and the relationship between State power and male authority as described by Fanon to engage critically with the image. Butler’s conception of gender identity as a constituted illusion rather than a preexisting fact makes it possible to consider what signifiers are being deployed in any particular moment of gender performance. Further, it becomes possible to see not only gender but also race as something conceived and subsequently performed.  While there are multiple elements of Hudson’s photo that contribute to an analysis of how both race and masculinity are performed, I place particular emphasis on the use and inclusion of the police dogs as signifiers of, surrogates for, and means towards enacting white male power.