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'Through a Lens Darkly': Thomas Allen Harris on Photography and Black Identity

By Tracie Lewis

Photography serves to inform and educate; record and preserve moments for future generations; evoke memories; and document different communities, lifestyles and cultures. Award-winning documentary filmmaker, scholar and artist Thomas Allen Harris has a clear understanding of the responsibilities of photography, as demonstrated in his body of work, which is based on sharing personal journeys. He credits African-American leaders from the 19th century for their insight and understanding of the power of the images. "African-American leaders Booker T. Washington, W.E. B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass historically were all very concerned with image and photography, especially in the early 19th century," he explains. "It was the new media, like the Internet is for us now. They saw this as offering a possibility for us, for our emancipation." The larger society has interpreted this role differently throughout history, with its photographic depictions, both demeaning and horrific, of African-American life. This contrast between black and white underscores the struggle among the African-American community with a legacy of pride and shame. Harris challenges and examines the role of photography in his fourth feature-length film, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

Harris explored issues of identity and representation in his earlier work. His 1995 debut  VINTAGE—Families of Value looks at three African-American families—including his own—through the eyes of LGBT siblings. He took this inquiry into identity and self-discovery further with his subsequent films, E Minha Cara (That's My Face) (2001) and Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2005). 

Harris opens Through a Lens Darkly with a painful personal memory: He describes his father wiping Vaseline off his face and saying, "Do you want people to think you are a greasy monkey?" Harris confesses, "I'd rather not have to deal with all of the pain in public, but it's a sacrifice. Someone's has to do it, so I had to step up." Realizing his father's comment was rooted in a place of fear and a distorted negative self-image, Thomas sets out to address these feelings, taking a complex look at image.

Through a Lens Darkly was inspired by the groundbreaking book Reflections in Black: Black Photographers from 1840 to Present, written by scholar and photographer Deborah Willis, also a producer of the film. Harris, along with Willis, interviewed a total of 51 people and did extensive research for seven years, identifying over 20,000 photographs. During the course of the 10 years it took to complete Through a Lens Darkly, the project changed many times. "The film became about looking at the family album and who was represented," Harris says. It was important for him to introduce the film with a quote from writer James Baldwin because he speaks specifically about stereotypical images and distortions that are deeply rooted in the culture. "The brilliance of James Baldwin is his poetic and insightful analysis," Harris maintains. "And when we opened the edit room, we knew we had to start with his quote to set the film up." 


Yo Mama's Pieta by Renee Cox. Courtesy of First Run Features 

The film presents a powerful, comprehensive visual examination of the African-American image from the beginning of the photography medium to the present. A community of African-American historians, artists, photographers and scholars, including Deborah Willis, Anthony Barboza, Lorna Simpson, Clarissa Sligh, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas and Lyle Ashton Harris, discuss the power of the image and how it is used. Over 950 mostly original photographs of African Americans are shown in the film to assist in weaving stories of representation, exclusion, pride, dignity, pain, shame, hate and stereotypical depictions that have been prominent in American culture. The film reveals the hidden history of black photographers, the missing images from the family album, the work of LGBT artists and untold stories of black female photographers. The artists honor the late artist/photographer Roy DeCarava, highlighting his book The Sweet Flypaper of Life as a must-have for serious photographers.

One reason Harris understands the role of photography so well is that he too is a photographer; his grandfather gave him his first camera when he turned 6. Harris is also featured in the book Reflections in Black. When making Through a Lens Darkly, he discovered how little the general population know about the contributions of black photographers. "The majority of people can't name a single black photographer outside of Gordon Parks, and that's a real problem," Harris laments.  


The work of Renee Cox, as seen in Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. Courtesy of First Run Features 

Harris also began thinking about conversations with people wanting to do something creative with their own family photos that would be of interest to their kids. He saw the potential to do an outreach project for Through a Lens Darkly through another medium, where families would explore their collection of photos. Working with producer Ann Bennett and the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) Producers Institute, Harris developed a prototype online project called Digital Diaspora. It developed into a concept that might be described as "Antiques Roadshow meets StoryCorps." After showing it around, Harris was asked in 2009 to present a "live roadshow" at the Integrated Media Association's Public Media Conference in Atlanta, at which representatives from the African-American community were invited to participate. "People started paying us to come and do the Roadshow, and out of that we began to get amazing images of African Americans dating back to the 1840s," Harris recalls. 

Harris and his team put Through a Lens Darkly on hiatus that year and shifted focus on the outreach project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR). "There is no way I can begin a new project at the end of the film, so we decided to do an outreach project that runs concurrently with the film," Harris explains. DDFR is a multimedia-driven social engagement project designed to connect people through stories and images to present a national family archive. "Several of those images made it into the film," Harris says. "We were filming it and creating social media with it and creating short pieces that we broadcast for YouTube." One project began to inform the other and both were moving forward. "In some cities Digital Diaspora Family Reunion is leading the charge and other places Through a Lens Darkly is booked first and then Digital Diaspora Family Reunion is brought in," says Harris. He is currently talking with partners and sponsors, and he anticipates big news for the future of the Reunion project.


Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris. Photo: Russell Frederick for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Filmmaker John Singleton became another supporter of the film. In 1992, he was the first African American, and the youngest filmmaker, to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, for Boyz N in the Hood. After seeing Through a Lens Darkly, Singleton states, "I was moved by the film, these artists and what their work means to me and to the world at large. This documentary highlights the ongoing battle that black people face defining themselves image-wise." After the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Singleton signed on as executive producer. "It's been amazing having John Singleton on board," Harris exclaims. "He's helped with opening certain doors and has been a consul of support, helping to strategize with placing the film."

At the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Through a Lens Darkly was well received by German audiences. Two days after that screening, Karen Cooper, head of Film Forum in New York, booked the film for two weeks, beginning August 27.  The film is distributed through First Run Features and will continue to travel to Chicago, Milwaukee, Columbus, New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Baltimore.

Tracie Lewis is a writer, producer and beginning photographer.