I strained my eyes in an effort to peel back the darkness and scan the expressions around the auditorium. Sounds of gunfire and yelling blared from the speakers above us all. No one was comfortable but we all soaked it in; the scenes of tragedy and struggle. This was our reality. It has been for decades. Tears ran down the faces of some and during the brief, thick silences between scenes, if you listened closely enough, one might overhear the pounding heartbeats of those in the room who had seen these things first hand. The youth in the audience coming to grips with the truth that the things we all were witnessing on the screen were not unlike the things we had been a part of in the weeks and month leading up to this day. A screening of Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s “LA ‘92”. A film that intimately depicts the realities of the Rodney King police beating and subsequent LA Riots.
Upon the conclusion of the film, we all sat in on a panel discussion that included renowned photographer Sheila P. Bright. Naturally, the conversation around the merits of pictures and video came up as they pertain to the current situation our country faces in dealing with police brutality and political injustices. I remember a young girl, about the age of fourteen standing up and mentioning how powerless she felt in today’s world when it seems that no matter what we do as black people in America, we are still at the mercy of white officers and a corrupt justice system. Now, with the “Me Too” movement and recent verdict in the Kavanaugh supreme court case, it would seem that those feelings of powerlessness are still being echoed.
I remember replying to the girl in regards to her perceived hopelessness that she was not at all powerless. We all have cameras. We all have the ability to broadcast things in real time to the entire world and while it may seem that in the moment, these images still fail to bring about proper justice, we are indeed in a position of power. These situations feel much like the slow burning, uncomfortable climax of a psychological thriller or horror film in which the conclusion is still unclear and the potential for tragedy is still very real.
It is true, though, that photography has helped shape history and change the public’s perception of otherwise uncertain circumstances. Take, for instance, the pictures of the Napalm Girl and the Burning Monk. These pictures shook something in people around the world and brought to light a startling revelation during the Vietnam War; This Is Wrong! There needn’t be any fancy jargon there. It was simple wrong and people were dying. The photographs made by journalists during that time along with those during Apartheid in South Africa, The Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement helped to change history and ensure that we would never need to make these pictures again.
Oddly enough, while these pictures have changed history, we are still making them. The tragic reality of mankind’s hateful and destructive nature seems to have changed very little in our lifetime. Pictures I’ve made during the Black Lives Matter protests and Women’s March seem not to differ at all from photographs made in the 1960’s. To me, this seems like a case of “same shit different toilet”. We may call the injustice be a different name but it would seem that mankind as a whole, has learned very little in the way of recognizing patterns. We seem to clean up one mess and make another.
My camera gives me hope in that some day, a picture I make will change someone’s life for the better but it is difficult to escape cynicism in the wake of repeated tragedy. While it would seem that life has changed very little when looking at the big picture, photographs really do have power. No one can say “that didn’t happen!” when the irrefutable truth is staring back at them in the form of a photograph. To me, the responsibility isn’t to end tragedy through photographs but simply to show the world that we are paying attention. We have a responsibility to each other to tell the story of US.
One day, my daughter will look at my pictures the way I look at the work of those who’ve come before me and she will know how things got to be the way that they are. I am not a politician or influencer in the capacity that I can change the way the world works. I am simply an observer of the way things are and am doing my part to contribute to the greater good instead of the tragedies and injustices that separate us. To quote the great Richard Pryor “Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman. The Invisible Man and Hercules don’t scare me. The FBI, Anti-American Committee, J. Edgar Hoover, President Nixon. President Johnson, Martha Mitchell and her husband or her man or her woman Ethel Kennedy, all the Kennedys. Bank of America, Chase Manhattan Rockefeller. None of these people scare me. What scares me is that one day my son will ask me ‘What did you do, Daddy, when the shit was goin' down?’ “