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Revaluing the Black Body: Changing the Visual Narrative Through Family Photographs

By Thomas Allen Harris

An untitled photograph by Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Thomas Allen Harris, as seen in <em>Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People</em>, a film by Thomas Allen Harris. A First Run Features Release.'Mama, Look, A Negro! I'm scared!'
Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Seven years ago I wrote a piece for Documentary entitled "Obama Nation: One Filmmaker's Journey Since the Historic Election." It was the beginning of the Obama presidency, the inauguration of which I watched in a condo at the Sundance Film Festival as I pitched a documentary entitled Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. I was hopeful at that time about the future of the country and the opportunity promised in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Little did I know that the election (and re-election) of the nation's first African-American president would produce a profound crisis in the country. A Black president and a Black in the White House shifted the visual narrative, underlying the myths around race, family and power that form the bedrock of the country.

It wasn't long before filmmakers, artists and intellectuals of color began talking with one another about the backlash—even before the formation of the Tea Party and violent rhetoric echoing in the halls of Congress. We witnessed violent consequences on the streets in the form of encounters between citizens and the police that ushered in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The writer James Baldwin, a trenchant observer of race relations, prophetically warned that we would find ourselves at the precipice of seeing our myths exposed and our identities called into question.

Many contemporary filmmakers of color have created work that excavates the lessons of the Civil Rights Era as a way to provide clarity and perspective on what's going on today. These films include Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Stanley Nelson and Laurens Grant's Freedom Riders and The Black Panthers, Grace Lee's American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs and Sharon La Cruise's Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, as well as my own body of work. Given the present fundraising climate where "social issue" films are principally the ones that are being funded, supported and promoted, that these documentaries got made and received the type of attention they have is no mean feat. Nearly all were supported by ITVS and broadcast on the various PBS stands including Independent Lens and POV.

Expanding American identity to include multicultural perspectives is a theme running through such films as Marco Williams' The Undocumented, Yoruba Richen's The New Black, Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson's American Promise, Jacquie Jones' series 180 Days, Cecilia Aldarondo's Memories of a Penitent Heart and Shukree Tilghman's More than a Month—the latter of which questioned the very concept of a Black History Month as being segregated and somehow not integral to the nation's history. Yet despite these award-winning films, there is a growing awareness, highlighted by Firelight Media's Stanley Nelson at a recent funders conference, that outside of PBS and the Minority Consortium, doc-makers of color are not getting the commissions for larger projects and support beyond their first and sometimes only film. Consequently, their industry numbers lag far behind their demographic representation in the population. Chicken and Egg Creative Producer Yvonne Welbon stated in an email, "While filmmakers of color comprise 62% of the current Chicken & Egg Pictures Accelerator Lab cohort for first- and second-time filmmakers, we feel strongly that not enough progress has been made to ensure that women directors of color are able to make the same strides as their white counterparts."

The issue of the lack of diversity within the doc world was also the subject of 2016 Full Frame's #DocsSoWhite panel, which featured filmmakers Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, S. Leo Chiang, Roger Ross Williams and Sam Pollard (all of whom had films premiering at the festival) and was moderated by Ian Robertson Kibbe, who opened with the staggering statistic that only 15 percent of doc makers were people of color—half the representation of narrative filmmakers of color. The panel discussed a number of issues impeding the diversity of representation of documentary makers, including commissioning editors tending to give projects to people who look like them or people they've worked with before, as opposed developing new talent pools. The panelists also discussed the issues of class privilege, access to capital and access to social and familial networks. The panel pointed out that it was up to filmmakers, festival programmers and funders to interrogate ourselves, to step outside our comfort zones and acknowledge our blind spots with respect to race, gender, sexuality and class. The panel ultimately stressed the degree to which our society and we as storytellers are influenced by the legacy of a colonial mentality that reduces "the other" to a stereotype, arguing that both optics and diverse perspectives matter in making change.

The question of "What does it mean to change the visual narrative of a country?" occupied my creative focus for the past seven years while working on Through a Lens Darkly, a documentary exploring family and nation, race and representation, through the lens of photography. Developed in parallel to the film's production, we created a multicultural community engagement project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, a live and virtual touring roadshow that invited people to explore the narratives within the family photographic albums while creating dialogues across cultures and between generations. Digital Diaspora Family Reunion would deeply impact the structure of the film.

Thomas Allen Harris, director of <em>Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People</em>, a First Run Features Release. Photo by Russel Frederick for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

In 1998, noted scholar and photo historian Deborah Willis, PhD, published a seminal book detailing the history of African-American photographers since the invention of photography, entitled Reflections in Black: Black Photographers from 1840 to the Present, which brought to light the rich and rarely seen world of thriving Black families and Black communities that had been hidden from view and absent within the dominant visual narrative of this country. This book was the inspiration for Through A Lens Darkly.

Within the film, I choose to look at the war of representation between the images of uplift and aspiration that African Americans created of themselves and the deluge of racial stereotypes dominant in the public sphere. Perhaps I was seeking an American version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by excavating the hidden and the difficult images that contributed to the formation of an American visual identity.

I chose to structure the film around the theme of the family photo album, as I had been exploring it as the leitmotif within my work as a way to unite disparate experiences, identities and communities into a semblance of wholeness—the families we are born into, the families we create and the families we desire. The family photo album—my own, a friend's or a stranger's—offered within this film a way to read Willis' book and the narrative of this country.

Writing about how photography was used in her home, cultural critic bell hooks observes in an essay entitled "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life," "The camera was the central instrument by which blacks could disprove representations of us created by white folks. The degrading images of blackness that emerged from racist White imaginations and circulated widely in the dominant culture…could be countered by 'true-to-life' images…More than any other image-making tool, it offered African Americans disempowered in white culture a way to empower ourselves through representation."

This battle around representation and its resulting legacies have been starkly framed across the landscape of popular American culture over the past seven years. On the one hand, there's the nearly ubiquitous image of America's First Family, the Obamas—wholesome, healthy and successful; the epitome of the American dream. And on the other hand is the deluge of images of Blacks as social pathology, the control of which leads to them being shot down on the street with official state sanction (or a benign acceptance of Black-on-Black violence, disenfranchisement and substandard education, etc.)

Just as the NAACP and the Black press appropriated lynching images in the first half of the 20th century to galvanize support around anti-lynching legislation, contemporary activists use the images of Black death at the hands of police (frequently recorded by bystanders using their cell phones and circulated through social media) as a call to action across the United States. As we were editing our film, a social media campaign had begun in response by the shooting of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a self-deputized security guard who saw Trayvon as a dangerous threat simply because he was young, Black and male. We witnessed the impromptu campaign where people of all races claimed Trayvon as a brother, marching in hoodies and posting images of themselves wearing hoodies similar to that which he wore, protesting the depiction of him as a thug somehow deserving of his fate. And when President Obama claimed Trayvon as family, stating that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, he was openly accused of being racist by members of Congress.

Our president had a war of his own. We've witnessed a relentless attack on his legitimacy to hold the office by calling into question his citizenship and his patriotism with invented narratives that have historically been used to rob people of color (as well as women and LGBT folks) of their rights as citizens and their patrimony. As many journalists have pointed out, one of the most vocal proponents of such divisive myths is the GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who recently pointed out a man at one of his rallies, saying, "Look at my African American over there…"

When you look at a Black person…when I look at a Black person…African…American…me…them…us…you… Who do I see? Who do you see? Do I see us now? Do I see us then? Do I see us in a time yet to come? Am I looking through a lens darkly?
- Introduction to the film Through A Lens Darkly

The work of Renee Cox, as seen in <em>Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People</em>, a film by Thomas Allen Harris. A First Run Features Release.

The title of my film is a riff on a well-known phrase from the New Testament passage from the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, "Through a glass, darkly." This passage spoke to me about the dimensionality of ways of seeing (oneself and the other). I felt compelled to use the visual narrative of my film to reimagine the capacity for "vision": How the emotions of fear and compassion determine what is seen and what remains invisible; how we see, and how much eludes our gaze. It seemed to me to point to the spiritual aspect not only of photography but also of vision itself, as the photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe discusses in one the film's online modules (Through a Lens Darkly: Short Shots).

Through a Lens Darkly hit theaters in the months following the police shooting of yet another unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, whose dead body was left like road kill on the street for hours, resulting in major riots in Ferguson, Missouri. It was the spark for a national movement, beginning on Twitter with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which participants uploaded two contrasting images of themselves: one as family member/citizen and the other in more ambiguous poses that might be re-cast in a negative light by the media or the legal system. The police officer who shot Brown said that he saw a "demon" coming toward him.

The resulting #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to grow with each new atrocity perpetrated upon unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police. Having toured with my film across college campuses over the past two years, I have witnessed the activism that #BlackLivesMatter has inspired. I have seen students respond to stereotyping, ignorance and insensitivity around them with demands for diversity and inclusion training, more faculty of color and a more welcoming environment for people of color as well as for people of various gender and sexual identities. This resistance to embracing diversity of who we are as Americans is like a disease in the country. But now a critical mass of Americans is no longer willing to drink the Kool-Aid, as we saw with the energy produced around the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

"Yo Mama's Pieta" by Renee Cox, as seen in <em>Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People</em>, a film by Thomas Allen Harris. A First Run Features Release.As I began production on Through a Lens Darkly, I knew that I wanted to create a companion transmedia project that would encourage ordinary people to engage with their own family archives in galvanizing ways. I'd been traveling around the world for 20-plus years with personal films that used my (extended) family archive to explore notions of family, identity and diaspora within larger social movements. Invariably, people would approach me after the screenings to share stories about their family archives and their desire to do something creative with them. So as we worked on Through a Lens Darkly, we also began to investigate how to create a structure for people to pursue their own historical and narrative investigations through their family archives.

Initially, we envisioned Digital Diaspora Family Reunion as a virtual community, but it quickly morphed into a live event at the request of some of our first hosts. We showcased the first DDFR Roadshow at the Integrated Media Association in Atlanta in 2009. It consisted of working with partners to outreach to communities and have them come in to scan their images and record their stories in one-on-one photo sessions, followed by a large town-hall meeting, in which audience members and special guests projected their photos and shared their stories with a live audience of strangers.

We happened upon this communal form of storytelling when audience members began to help participants tell their stories, filling in holes, pointing out overlooked information within the image, creating new linkages and ultimately transforming an audience of strangers into a familiar community united by a shared experience of discovery within the family photo album. It became a live touring performance. Little did I know at the time that we would end up sourcing many images for Through a Lens Darkly through these roadshows. Nor did I know that we'd be touring this project in over 30 cities, generating a database over 1,500 Americans interviewed about their family photographic albums, and collecting well over 25,000 images.

Was it a coincidence that this project evolved during the Obama era? As an artist, activist, journalist, educator and film- and transmedia-maker, I took to heart the essence of the idea of the possibility of post-racial America—one in which we could see beyond superficial differences to celebrate our common humanity. From the beginning, I saw Digital Diaspora Roadshow as a multi-cultural project—a way bring people together across age, race, religion and sex/gender orientation into secular yet soulful space.

Just as the family album has more forcefully moved from analog to digital during the course of film's production, I feel compelled to try to bring into existence living family albums, ones that provide environments for ordinary people to participate in the weaving and celebration our intersecting #1world1family narratives.


Thomas Allen Harris is in development on a new series, Re-Discovering America. He will be teaching an interdisciplinary course entitled Visual Memoir in Art Practice at Yale School of Art this fall, together with an exhibition and film series.