“Observe the life moving like a river around you…and realize that the images you make may become part of the collective history of the time that you are living in.” Eli Reed, the first black photographer to be employed by the famed Magnum Agency
Last month in my email newsletter I wrote about images of a viral pandemic — something we do not control and that has forced us into self-isolation. A month later, the dominant images are of demonstrations about systemic racism — issues we do control and that reach beyond individual isolation to the life of our communities and society.
The iconic photographs of the 1960s Civil Rights movement are part of our collective history. The leaders of that movement counted on the power of photographs to force Americans to take notice of racial inequality, expecting that the images would persuade, engage and motivate change. Beginning in 1955, Mamie Till showed the world photographs of what the torture and murder of her 14 year old son, Emmett, looked like. The photograph above is the court room where two of the murderers were tried and acquitted. Photographs of the Civil Rights movement brought to life both the protests themselves, as well as the underlying causes – images that documented and exposed the public and private acts of racial segregation and discrimination. As early as 1956, photographic essays exposed the issues of inequality (See this 1956 Life Magazine story, The Restraints: Open and Hidden, page 98). Segregation was blatant and obvious. In that respect, segregation was “easy” to photograph.
When we look at the photographs over the last few weeks, from across the country, they show the demonstrations and the confrontations with police that have ignited calls to deal with race. They are images of peaceful protests, and some of conflict and unrest. Theses protests are forcing institutions and individuals to confront enduring forms of racial discrimination.
However, the photographs that explore, expose and bring to our attention the root causes of the demonstrations – systemic racism in justice, economics, housing, education and communities – are not being seen in the news of the day. The ubiquitous and insidious nature of systemic racism today makes the photographic story telling complex and sometimes less blatant, than the overt discrimination of the Jim Crow era. However, to give you a start at looking beyond the demonstrations and at some of the root causes, I thought I would share with you some web links to images that look beyond the demonstrations (see the links in the section below).
Also, when looking at the demonstrations or additional images in the links below, it is important to remember that photographing people in social conflict can have consequences. The family in the Life magazine story (mentioned above and seen in the famous Gordon Parks’ photograph “Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama” which shows two Black children looking through a fence at a segregated playground) were forced to leave their jobs and home after harassment from the white community. The mayor of the town said that that if the photographer, Gordon Parks, ever showed up in that community again he would have been “tarred and feathered and set on fire.”
“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did… most of whom were murdered or put in prison… but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so.”- Gordon Parks
Exploring Race in Photography Today
Pictured above is the Lee monument here in Richmond Virginia on the famous Monument Avenue. In the last few days I went exploring photo projects and links online that go beyond the protests to explore photographic stories and projects that relate to “systemic racism,” or at least explore the issues of race and how they are documented in photographs today. While hardly a complete inventory or even a perfect selection, it is an attempt to take a look at the photographic expression of some of the issues underpinning today’s demonstrations. Take your time and over a few days, hope you might find it interesting to visit some of these links.
PBS NewsHour aired this 7-minute Race Matters segment on the camera’s role over the past decades documenting social movements and how images shape and shift public perception. Here is a look at 100 years of protests and how images helped define civil rights and the current Black Lives Matter protests. John Edwin Mason writes about how photos can show protests’ complexity—or they can perpetuate old lies. He notes, “Racism persists, protest endures, and photography continues to play an important role. It can’t solve our problems, but it can keep them in our line of sight and encourage us to act.” He also has an essay about photographs today and how they are in keeping with Gordon Parks tradition.
Adrian Whites images grapple with, and document, the African diaspora in an effort to connect with ancestors. As he notes: “It is in the remembering that I believe that we can begin to heal. As evidence of how, when and where black bodies existed is erased. The remnants persist. My visibility is my weapon.”
Alanna Airitam’s photo project “The Golden Age” is about finding a sense of hope. She was working in a depressing corporate creative department where she had been hired as a senior designer and was given entry-level work. She would come home to news of unarmed black people being murdered or abused by the police. She wanted to see positive and strong images of people like her, represented in fine art, where they are often missing. She made them.
Daniel Edwards tells the stories of black police officers in the Atlanta Police Department who deal with the duality of life in their skin and life in their uniform.
The Washington Post ran a photo essay on “Visualizing Racism” in 2019. It features nine photographers taking on the challenge of depicting bigotry.
I have been working on a series that explores the roots of economic, political and cultural histories….its working title is “Scarred Places.” You can see some of this work in progress with related narratives on Instagram
I took the photograph above. It is Kehinde Wiley’s new statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. As Wiley notes, “In these toxic times art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose. This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are black and walking beneath this? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.”
Photojournalist Abdul Aziz places himself in the middle of white nationalist demonstrations and captures evidence of the manufactured chaos and violence, giving the viewer a more in-depth and honest understanding of who they are and what their stated objectives are.
Marcus Franklin’s photo project “A New Image of Black Fatherhood” challenges the notion that black families face a crisis of fatherhood. The installment includes a dispatch in which four dads challenge the assumption that all children of unwed mothers have absent fathers.
Aura Bogado’s photo project “A Day in the Shop” chronicles the efforts of one group of young men to hurdle the racial gap in skilled labor. New research shows just how profound that racial barrier remains for recent high school graduates, who are entering the worst job market since the Great Depression. It helps explain the dramatic unemployment numbers seen among black men and the spiraling poverty in black families.
Ted Goldman photographs the different emotions expressed by African Americans about what it’s like when they experience racism.
Nick Gregory’s “Split” photo essay reveals racial barriers still haunting Detroit. The idea for “Split” was born after meeting Detroiters who live behind the Wailing Wall, built in the 1940’s to separate white and black neighborhoods.
Derrick Beasley’s photo essay on Black (W)holes is an exploration of black holes as a way to understand the long-standing absence of holistic depictions of Black folks (Black Wholes), particularly in the South.
Kiyun’s project looks at everyday micro-aggressions using a series of images of her Fordham University classmates holding up placards with micro-aggressions that they’ve experienced.
Kay Rufai’s images of smiling 13-year-olds are about confronting damaging stereotypes of black boys and men.
Carlos Javier Ortiz considers contemporary black life in comparison to the ideals of the Great Migration, which took place from 1916 to 1970 when six million African Americans left the South to find new opportunities in the North. Illustrating socioeconomic patterns that pave the way for a cycle of poverty and violence, his two projects, A Thousand Midnights (2016) and We All We Got (2014), document youth and families in Chicago from multiple perspectives over the course of many years.
These Photos show the casual racism of everyday objects
Travis Fox’s “Scars of Racism” documents the lasting physical reminders of racism on the American landscape. The legacy of racism exists throughout our society–in culture, language, and economics. With these photos he attempts to highlight how institutional racism of the past lingers today on the roads we travel, the houses we live in and even where we dump our trash.
Jamel Shabazz in “Now More Than Ever” shows images of Black dignity and resistance because she wants to make photographs that go against the dominant representations of Black people.
Endia Beal’s “Am I What You’re Looking For” focuses on young women of color who are transitioning from the academic world to the corporate setting, capturing their struggles and uncertainties on how to best present themselves in the professional work space. It is an in-depth investigation into the experiences and fears of being a woman of color in corporate America.
Matt Black’s “The Black Oakies” documents a group of black migrant sharecroppers whose forgotten story proves it was not just white people that moved in the depression. These self-described “Black Okies” still live in several remote rural enclaves scattered amid the cotton fields of Central California. Though some 50,000 of them came to the San Joaquin Valley and worked side by side with Steinbeck’s Joads, no books or photographs ever documented their lives. Today, their struggling communities are one of the few surviving remnants of this forgotten chapter of American rural life.
Mary Beth Meehan’s installation in Newnan, Georgia arose out of a Neo-Nazis rally held there against citizens’ wishes. One year later, Mary Beth installed massive yet intimate portraits of community members on the streets of the city’s downtown. The work has resulted in community-wide conversations about such topics as race, religion, ethnicity, inclusiveness, and diversity