Revista ZUM 21

Ongoing struggle

Deborah Willis Publicado em: 9 de February de 2022

Todos os garotos, perfil 2 (2016) © Carrie Mae Weems. Cortesia da artista e da Galeria Jack Shainman, Nova York

“I find it difficult to look at these photo- graphs without flinching from the memories and from the anger they invoke. But I must look. I must remember, as you must. For this was history in the making. Like it or not, you cannot hide from the camera’s eye.”

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS, foreword to The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68.

I grew up in Philadelphia in the fifties and sixties with a father who was the family photographer. As an amateur, he had a Rolleiflex. We had a lot of family events, reunions, and gatherings up until my first year in college, and my dad took most of the photographs. He had a cousin, Alphonso Willis, who had a studio about two or three blocks away from our home, and he took the official portraits with his big 4-by-5-inch camera. Our neighbor was Jack Franklin, who was a photojournalist for the black press in Philadelphia who photographed social protests, including the March on Washington in 1963. I also grew up in my mother’s beauty shop having the opportunity to look at news and beauty magazines most of my life, from Ebony to LIFE. That meant that I was always looking at photographs.

I always thought that our family stories weren’t visible in the larger white magazines, like LIFE and Look. Ebony, of course, had images of family life, cultural events, but mostly black celebrity families, as well as people who were successful in business, the arts, or in politics. When I was younger and heading to college to study art, I was determined to make visible some of the stories of the every- day experiences that I enjoyed watching in my neighborhood and within my family, like kids playing jump rope, playing ball, sitting at the kitchen table. And what I found was The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), the book by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes. It excited me, even as a younger child, seeing that book. Having family images in the living room, on the mantle, on walls – family photographs were our art form.

My family were life members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), so they had a subscription to its magazine, The Crisis. Growing up with The Crisis in the house and then going to university and learning about Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois and their impact on photography shaped my memory about early black photography. When I started to think about studying photography and the history of photography, I noticed that there were no black photographers in the history books. Even in the 1970s, Gordon Parks was not in my history of photography book, and I had already closely read his book A Choice of Weapons (1966) by then. So, I thought, “okay, we need to make a change in this.”

A professor encouraged me to do a paper on the topic. As a result, I started going through the black press, looking at black newspapers and ads, and finding city directories that had black photographers. I wanted to start at the beginning of photography, because I believed that they were there, that they existed. I knew it. I was lucky enough to find photographers who were working in the 1840s and 1850s, free men who were also artists, entrepreneurs, activists and abolitionists.

So that was the beginning of a research paper on black photographers as an under- graduate, when I was looking to fill in the gap in my classroom. In the black media, I found black photographers who were photographing black families and events. At that time, there were a number of degrading and troublesome, to me, visually – images of black people in stereographs and postcards that circulated in the larger public, while, at the same time, in the black communities, there were images of successful, proud, happy – not grinning, but happy – black people living through a difficult time.

As Abolitionist Frederick Douglass published in the April 7, 1849 edition of his newspaper The North Star: “Negroes can never have impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. And the reason is obvious. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy. We have heard many white persons say, that ‘Negroes look all alike,’ and that they could not distinguish between the old and the young. They associate with the Negro face, high cheek bones, distended nostril, depressed nose, thick lips, and retreating foreheads. This theory impressed strongly upon the mind of an artist exercises a powerful influence over his pencil, and very naturally leads him to distort and exaggerate those peculiarities, even when they scarcely exist in the original.” This passage situates the con- text about imaging black people from the 19th century to today.

Black photographers like Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet took their cameras into communities in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s to look at injustice and asked: How do we educate our children? How do we think about the future of our children?

Photographs helped to push the spirit of black people during that time, to think about the act of being photographed as a representative family member, to walk to church, to walk to school, to go to vote, to be activists.

© Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos / Fotoarena

“In the spring of 1965, I return to the south joining the Selma march in Alabama. Hundreds of people were marching from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. There were reporters, press, TV crews, helicopters, police and the National Guard, making the event seem like a parade. As I walked with the marchers, I photographed them by themselves and when they stopped to rest. I took pictures of them looking straight into the camera. They confronted an invisible audience with proud, determined looks. During the night that the march ended, Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit and mother of four [five] children, was killed by a shotgun blast through her car windshield. The next morning, I saw the bloodstained seat, shattered glass fragments and skid marks where her car had gone off the road. The violence in the South had reached into me deeper than my personal pain.”

Bruce Davidson
Photographs (Agrinde Publications, 1978)

As I reflect on photography and protest, I see it as my life in America from a lived experience to an act of memory. I am troubled by the images I’ve seen over the last months, and I have been asked – by various people – what these images mean to me.

Black death has been recently photographed, broadcasted, painted, recorded, tweeted, and exhibited. I looked for days at my television screen when a teenager posted footage of George Floyd’s murder. I spent nine days collectively watching George Floyd’s last moments of life, seeing a black man struggling and crying, while a white police officer digs his knee deeper into Floyd’s neck, the officer’s left hand slipped casually into his pocket. I watched in horror as the other police officer stood guard, protecting his fellow officer, while the person behind the camera screamed and pleaded with the officer to stop. I heard others begging for his life as George Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe” over and over again.

With his last words, included calling for his mother, he expressed his pain – “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts…”

It’s my face man
I didn’t do nothing serious man please
please I can’t breathe please man
please somebody please man
I can’t breathe I can’t breathe please…

In days the video went viral! Each time I watched the news, my heart ached. It is recorded thanks to cellphone imaging and surveillance cameras and, because of the camera, we see a history of black injustices repeating itself. A black high school senior, Darnella Frazier, recorded the video as she begged the police officer to stop. Some ten months later, she received the PEN/Benenson Courage Award for documenting this horrific act along with hate mail.

In March of 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky; in February, Ahmaud Arbery’s death was recorded in Georgia, and not until weeks later did the national news media report his tragic death. COVID-19 killed over 600,000 Americans, and their names appeared on the local news and some of their portraits were published in the newspapers. Activists, community members, students, first responders, essential workers, government and city officials, family members, and others have used the images to make change happen because of a history of injustices.

Grief grips my heart as I remember the words of my grandmother – “Baby, the dead never leave you.” More and more black men and women experience racial discrimination, physical and emotional abuse, economic rejection, and too often, death and we are all witnessing this on social media and in the press.

Andre D. Wagner. Cortesia do artista.

“My camera fits squarely into the palm of my hands and is black in color. I’m sure my black skin also had something to do with why a police officer thought I was carrying a gun a few weeks ago while walking down a Brooklyn street. During the recent protests in New York, I wanted nothing more than to be on the front lines, telling our stories. Yet as I walked circles around Foley Square in Manhattan, my heart and my soul just couldn’t do it. I had nothing left; I was so weak, the camera was just too heavy.”

Andre D. Wagner
The New York Times, june 19th, 2020

I started thinking about Black death well before the global pandemic and global lock- downs and measures of combating and coping that have become our everyday reality. I will never forget the photograph of the brutally beaten and swollen body of the young Emmett Till published in Jet magazine in 1955. Many young black Americans experienced episodes of hostile confrontation with the police that intensified over the years because of social protests.

Blacks were being killed, hosed, jailed, and subjected to unjust laws throughout the American landscape for decades. Photographers witnessing both brutal and social assaults created a new visual consciousness for the American public, establishing a visual language of “testifying” about their individual and collective experience.

On April 27, 1962, there was a shootout between the Los Angeles police and members of the Nation of Islam (NOI); Ronald Stokes, a member of the Nation of Islam, was killed. Fourteen Muslims were arrested; one was charged with assault with intent to kill and the others with assault and interference with police officers. A year later, Malcolm X investigated the incident and the trial. Noted photographer Gordon Parks remembered his photograph of Malcolm X holding the brutally beaten NOI member in this way: “I recall the night Malcolm spoke after this brother Stokes was killed in Los Angeles, and he was holding up a huge photo showing the autopsy with a bullet hole at [the] back of the head. He was angry then; he was dead angry. It was a huge rally. But he was never out of control. The press tried to project his militancy as wild, unthoughtful, and out of control. But Malcolm was always controlled, always thinking what to do in political arenas.”

I share this history, as I am always mindful of the past because of visual culture. I value this history, even though I am distressed by it – even more so because Gordon Parks High School was vandalized in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 28, 2020.

Gordon Parks. Cortesia © Fundação Gordon Parks

“The pictures that have most persistently confronted my camera have been those of crime, racism, and poverty. I was cut through by the jagged edges of all three. Yet I remain aware of imagery that lends itself to serenity and beauty, and here my camera has searched for nature’s evanescent splendors. Recording them was a matter of develop observance, a sort of metamorphosis through which I called upon things dear to me – poetry, music, and a matter of watercolor.”

Gordon Parks
Arias in Silence (Little, Brown & Co., 1994)

History!! James Baldwin said, “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” Twenty-twenty confounded me for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most because Baldwin was meticulous as a writer and did not spare words, thus his use of the verbs “learn” and “use” in the above quote are clear reiterations of this, of functionality. Learn to use art (image). And make history right. In 1987, Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, “And O my people, out yonder, hear me they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So, love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.” I connect these words to George Floyd’s death.

When considering some of the most powerful images of social protests, I think of the images that have the ability to galvanize a diverse group of people. For example, the terrifying image of George Floyd pleading for his life; the 1963 church bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four little black girls died while in Sunday School and the same year the view of the Washington monument as protesters from around the country marched on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. I will never forget the photograph of young Emmett Till! And, then, again a family photograph can also make a powerful image as it has the ability to project the hopes and dreams of the individuals posing for the camera.

Photography is the space where I find my voice as an imagemaker and curator. I also see it as the ideal medium for rights advocacy as it helps me reflect on the critical work that activists, artists and community members are using as the visual voice to expose injustices.

Because of the camera, we see images that motivated communities in the north and south, east and west, informing social consciousness, and aroused public opinion in the early to mid-twentieth century to now. In viewing these photographs, we are reminded that our actions today will affect the future, just as the actions of determined individuals during the Civil Rights movement changed the world for black Americans. Those images were a call to action.

Some of the earliest known protest photographs in the US include images of NAACP demonstrations against lynchings, segregation, KKK rallies and protesters outside of federal and state government buildings calling for the end of segregation in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Numerous photographers helped to elevate different stories of underrepresented voices in the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

Todos os garotos, perfil 2 (2016) © Carrie Mae Weems. Cortesia da artista e da Galeria Jack Shainman, Nova York

“I’m a reflection of the world around me. What happens to me, happens to you, me and us together. When I made these photographs in 2014, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the spark that has been lit by the public killing of George Floyd. His name now serves as a singular mark of change. Extraordinary… I encourage you to use your voice as a weapon against the violence of racism. To speak of it with others, to call its ugly name, to face it in all its horror, to renounce it, to chase it from your heart and home, to drive it from our midst, and to banish it to the far corners of the world; then we might know some kind of peace.”

Carrie Mae Weems
The New York Times, June 19, 2020

Again, today, photographers and citizen journalists are recording and publicizing inequities such as racial violence and voter suppression against black people. The images of the Trump supporters occupying the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, offer us a new look at inequities in social justice, as the Capitol police allowed mostly white Trump rioters trash, kill, intimidate and destroy offices in the historic building while a joint session of Congress was in progress to certify the U. S. November presidential election. These images show the harsh realities of why the social movements around the country are necessary.

The images of George Floyd [and others who died in 2020, including Covid-19] resonate today because a cellphone video, surveillance cameras followed by television news crews and magazine and newspaper photographers made visible the troubling narrative of abuse that mothers against gun violence and supporters of ending racially motivated deaths have been espousing for the past twenty years, and longer.

Women, girls, men and boys in black and brown families have experienced episodes of hostile confrontations that intensified in their communities and that have been witnessed by friends, family members, passersby and news media because of social media. Social media “reposts” and “retweets” empowered this new generation of imagemakers who are looking critically at the events that they are recording. They have established a language of testifying about what they see and perceive as “wrong”! They are angry and at the same time de- manding change.

Collectively, we must continue to remember that photography and images can be both empowering and ominous; they can help us make changes to the laws as we struggle to find words for this painful moment. I am encouraged by students’ activism as they photograph this charged moment, and at the same time, make photographs of the causes of inequities. I urge everyone to use this incredible energy to continue to vote; to document injustices; to be encouraged by the voices of the good people around this country, telling this story globally and depicting the faces of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd on their face masks, T-shirts, signs, and murals; and to ensure that this will be the last time. ///


Picturing Us, African American Identity in Photography, de Deborah Willis (The New Press, 1996)
The Sweet Flypaper of Life, de Roy DeCarava e Langston Hughes (First Print Press, 2018)
The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68 (Abbeville, 1996)

CAPTIONS p. 53: All the boys, profile 2 (2016). © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. p. 56: © Bruce Davidson/ Magnum Photos/ Fotoarena. p. 59: Andre D. Wagner. Courtesy of the artist. p. 61: Gordon Parks. Courtesy © Gordon Parks Foun- dation. p. 63: All the boys, profile 2 (2016). © Car- rie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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