Nation, World + Society

Q&A: Prof. Robin D. G. Kelley on black photographers in history

|

Robin D.G. Kelley is a Distinguished Professor of History and the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in United States History at UCLA. He served as a consultant on the new documentary film "Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People," which traces the ways in which African-American photographers, activists and families have used photography from its earliest days as a means of personal expression, identity formation and political struggle.

Kelley sat down in the UCLA Broadcast Studio to discuss the film and how African-American photographers have “tried to re-represent black life and culture from the 19th century to the present.” Watch the conversation in its entirety above.

Kelley noted that in pre-Civil War America, engravings and other forms of racist representations were used “to justify slavery and forms of segregation” so when “forms of early photography emerge, African-American artists, and leaders like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass use that method to create portraiture” and demonstrate that “black people not only possess dignity by have a right to freedom and are real full complete human beings.”  After the Civil War, and into the 20th century, photography remained an important racial battlefield. Photography was “an enormous radical breakthrough” allowing African Americans to assert control over their own images but also, as Kelly pointed out, photography was used “to justify formal segregation, justify lynching and other forms of violence…to focus on the black subject as a problem rather than as a solution to the problem of democracy.’”

Kelley adds that this battle between images dignifying African-Americans and images discrediting them was further complicated in the 20th century by a struggle within the African-American community between the desire to combat racist images with positive images and the desire to portray the full complexity of black life. As Kelley noted, “the mirror image of a stereotype produces another stereotype so…as you move into the civil rights era and the post-civil rights era that struggle to produce, not the positive image but the human image, the complex image, takes over even more.”

The film continues the story right into present day, where visual artists are looking back at historical photos and using “the photographic archive as the new modeling clay to raise new questions about identity, about race and about power.”

Kelley will be speaking at a Q&A at the Laemmle Pasadena theatre tonight, November 14, after the 7:45 p.m. show. Thomas Allen Harris, the director of "Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People," will discuss the film at UCLA, in Haines Hall 135, on November 19 at noon as part of the Images in Blackness Film and Discussion Series.

Media Contact