Reel Works Students Explore The Importance of Black Photography

film forum
Reel Works students with Jamel Shabazz and Deb Willis.

Last week, a group of students attended “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and The Emergence of a People.” Documented by Thomas Allen Harris, “Through a Lens Darkly” is a compilation of still image, film, and music that chronicles the legacy of Black photographers in America from slavery until present.

How did Black photographers encourage creative freedom within their communities? What are the ways in which Black photography has historically been a force against racial oppression? Or for racial respectability? Throughout the film, students got a chance to reflect on these questions.

When asked why early Black photographers sometimes felt they had to present a perfect image of their race, Douglas Worthen (Fall 2013 Lab) commented “I think they just wanted White people to accept them.” Indeed, many Black photographers, such as Booker T. Washington, thought that images of well-to-do African Americans could prove Black humanity to the world. Despite the politics of respectability that some photographers submitted to, the students agreed that the quest for self-definition and creativity has always been a prominent feature of Black photography.

As the student conversations transitioned from photography to Black artistry in general, Kenny Champion noted that today’s young Black artists can express their identity in ways that previous generations perhaps could not have: “I can wear my fro, and not worry about what other people think. My grandparents probably would have gotten flack if they tried to wear their natural hair fifty years ago.”

In the end, “Through a Lens Darkly” allowed Reel Works folks to think about the ways creativity, photography, and racial struggle intersect. The film also shared an important lesson with the students: Regardless of negative images from others, people of color can create, and have always created, images that tell their truths.

-Angel Evans

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