Photography historian Deborah Willis on the images that define a movement
An aerial shot of marchers packed end to end on the Brooklyn Bridge. A black-and-white closeup of a young Black boy holding a sign that reads “My Life Matters.” An iconic view of protestors raising their fists outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the American flag obscured in the background.
These and thousands of similar photos have flooded social media feeds and television screens in the weeks since the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and racial violence in all 50 US states. The pictures have served as evidence of a growing movement that has pierced the public consciousness and kindled a national reckoning with America’s racist past.
But the defining images from the recent marches will look different from their historical counterparts. A majority of protestors now don face coverings and volunteers lug giant bottles of hand sanitizer through city streets, offering pumps to passersby. At vigils in the parks, attendees adhere to social distancing guidelines and kneel six feet apart.
With demonstrators continuing to fill city streets amidst a pandemic that has laid bare some of the nation’s deepest inequities, NYU News talked to Deborah Willis—University Professor; chair of NYU Tisch’s Department of Photography and Imaging; and director of the NYU Institute for African American Affairs and the Center for Black Visual Culture—about the role of the camera in documenting social movements and in the greater struggle for racial justice.
*All photos were taken by NYU Tisch Department of Photography and Imaging current students or recent alumni.
How has photography shaped public perception of these recent protests?
Photography is the ideal medium for advocacy—activists, artists, and community members are doing critical work exposing injustices using the visual voice. The camera means we are able to see history repeating itself. For example, in viewing photographs of social protest activities of human rights and civil rights movements, we are reminded that our actions today will affect the future, just like the actions of determined individuals who sparked change during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Photographers and citizens played a crucial role by documenting the movement and those images served as a powerful call to action, waking people up to the need for real and sustained change.
Photographers and citizens today are recording and publicizing the manifestation of systemic inequalities, including racial violence against Black people. Some of the earliest known protest photographs 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 from the 1920s to the 1960s. Today, the coverage of organized mass demonstrations by photographers and other media document the harsh realities of what it means to live in America and demonstrate why these recent protest movements are crucial.
What makes an image powerful?
[That’s] a difficult question, however, I would say [that a powerful image] is one that has the ability to galvanize a diverse group of people. We have seen examples of this through the terrifying image of George Floyd pleading for his life and the 1963 church bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little black girls died while in Sunday school, the same year we saw thousands of protestors flock to the Washington monument to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. We will never forget the searing photograph of young Emmett Till lying in an open casket, an image which helped force the world to reckon with the brutality of racism.
The images of George Floyd and other murdered Black Americans resonate today because cell phone videos, surveillance camera footage, television news crews, and magazine and newspaper photographers have 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 20 years, and longer.
How have iPhone cameras and social media changed the way activists use images to communicate?
Women, girls, men, and boys in black and brown families have experienced hostile confrontations—intensified in their communities—that have been witnessed by friends, family members, passersby, and news media. Now, because of smartphones and social media, they have established a language of testifying about what they see and perceive as “wrong.” Social media “reposts” and “retweets” empowered this new generation of image makers who are looking critically at events that they are recording. They are angry and at the same time, they are demanding change.
What’s your hope for the future of photography?
We all must continue to be reminded that photography can be empowering, that we will make change in/to the law even as we struggle to find words for this painful moment. I am inspired by the activism of our nation’s students as they bear witness, document, question, and reinterpret these moments. I see diverse portraits of new and older leaders, I see activists, I see artists. In photographs I see raised fists, t-shirts, diversity of hairstyles and dress—but all are voicing their displeasure with the plight of black Americans. I see the camera as a mighty tool in which to challenge the hate and affirm the love for humanity.
Read some of Deb Willis’s favorite inspirational words by photographers who captured significant racial justice images from the 1960s through today.
Photographer Bruce Davidson:
“In the spring of 1965, I return to the south joining the Selma march in Alabama. Hundreds of people were marching the 50 miles 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 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, New York: Agrinde Publications, Ltd., 1978, 12.
“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 dash poetry, music, and a matter of watercolor.
Gordon Parks, Arias in Silence, New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 9.
Carrie Mae Weems:
“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 [speaking of a project in NY Times article] 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 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.”
Andre Wagner writes:
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.”