The image of a nation through a dark lens; The role of photography in the self-esteem of African Americans

“The predatory nature of official authorities in suppressing blacks became ineffective when they could no longer keep it hidden and out of sight. In the glare of the huge rotating searchlights, their brutality came across just as escaped prisoners often do. The shining light restrained the predatory spirit and showed the naked truth to the whole world.

Martin Luther King


Photography is a powerful tool to show social problems and struggle to change them. Stuart Franklin, a famous English photographer, says: “Documentary photography is a creative process full of contradictions about photography, documentary, reality and truth.” [1]

Before the advent of photography, it was writers who described social inequalities through their books, but something more direct and effective than words was needed, and documentary photography opened a new path for social activists.

In America, race and class are serious divisions. Since the beginning of the 20th century, black American photographers have taken important and effective steps to show these gaps.

By targeting and challenging racial discrimination, these photographers sought to overcome it, and used the power of photography to celebrate black identity.

Susan Sontag says: “Photographs transform and expand our ideas of what is worth seeing and what we have a right to see.”


Abolitionists and black pioneer photographers

Frederick Douglass, a black orator who traveled across America in the 19th century to speak about the abolition of slavery, was aware of the importance of photography. During his travels, he would go to the photographer’s house and take a picture of himself. These portraits slowly changed the American public’s perception of African Americans, who had previously been portrayed in a derisive and foolish manner.

Douglas says: “What was once a luxury exclusive to the rich and the great is now an advantage for everyone. Now even the poorest servant girl may have a photo of herself that fifty years ago, even the wealth of the kings could not buy.

“Frederick Douglass was very hopeful and optimistic about photography,” says Maurice Wallace, Duke University assistant professor of English studies. He thought that photography would change everything, including the lives of black people in the United States. He envisioned that these photographs would lead to social, political, and cultural progress, not just for African Americans, but for the nation as a whole.”

Black Americans were pioneers in the field of photography. Some white photographers took sympathetic portraits of black people, but it was black photographers who succeeded in creating portraits that had not only personal value but positive strains for all black people.

Perhaps that is why photography became a tool for change for black Americans. That is why, in urban or rural environments, “taking a pose” was considered a sign of black people’s ability and dignity. This “displaying and substituting” in front of the mainstream images that showed black people as violent, vulgar and promoting violence, played an important role in changing public opinion.

One of the first and most commercial methods of photography was “daguerreotype”. This method allowed photographers to print images on paper, which was affordable. Therefore, anyone could simply go to a studio and take a picture of themselves. When photography became a profitable and stable profession, blacks were among the first to open photography studios. The Goodrich brothers opened one of the first black photography studios in York, Pennsylvania in 1846 and moved to Saginaw, Michigan in 1863. Since Saginaw was an expanding town, they started photographing newly established city buildings and later recorded images of natural disasters such as fires and floods. This was perhaps the first example of black documentary photography.

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