Guest edited by author, curator and Harvard University professor, Sarah Lewis, Aperture magazine’s summer issue reflects on Black America as we have imagined ourselves through time. In this issue, entitled Vision & Justice, we are guided through the thematic visual of the African and African American experience. Through a timeline of the Civil War to present day, Lewis discusses the transformative power of photography and imagery in depicting Black culture.
Shanice Brim: How did you first become apart of this issue of Aperture, and what compelled you to take on the role?
Sarah Lewis: I was fortunate to be invited by Michael Famighetti. What compelled me to do it is that this theme of vision & justice and art and citizenship is what animates my commitment to this field of art history. For me, it’s an honor to be able to explore the impact and significance of image making and vision for justice through the pages of the magazine.
Frederick Douglass, who inspired this issue and who was the most photographed man of the 1800s, believed in the transformative nature of photography. To what extent do you think Black photography has been a part of Black healing processes?
I’ve written about Douglas in The Rise and other articles. Douglass really anticipated the function and corrective force that photography could offer to cultural narratives about Black life. He was speaking about the power and force of an image on our vision of citizenship and humanity at a time when photography was being used as a tool for denigration as a way to sustain the platform of polygenesis. Douglass argued that the medium that’s being used to read African Americans out of the human family can be used to read African Americans back in. That transformative process is one of collective healing in the sense that it’s an argument for the need to have a fuller embrace of humanity as it relates to showing images with dignity and justice. In that speech, he’s creating an argument for representational justice.
How do you think photography has been or can be used to imagine Black futures?
I deliberately titled the issue “Vision & Justice” not “Photography & Justice” because of the role that images can play in shifting our vision for our imagined future. Again, Douglass was not speaking about one visionary photographer in particular. He was speaking about the way in which any photograph can shift our vision of the world and what citizenship in the future should look like.
In your Editor’s Letter you mention Devin Allen and how he has used his Instagram and social media timeline to chronicle the uprisings in Baltimore. Do you think social media has the potential to even the playing field in terms of who has access to and can become a part of the art world?
I’m interested in the democratizing force of social media. It can serve to balance out the weight that certain institutions have in terms of access and opportunities to photographers. I think that that’s fantastic and positive. I’m excited by it. Something I’ve been wrestling with on the other end is how the dissemination of images through social media can create kind of glut of images that can result in a bystander effect. I think we are living out the experiment of social media, and I think it remains to be seen whether the scale that is forged is not under cut by desensitization, but on the whole I’m very excited for the democracy that it affords.
I definitely noticed that when #Activism really started ramping up there were a lot images of people being brutalized by the police and even some cases murdered. There was even a move to stop spreading such images. What do you think is too much, and how do you think we can balance the photos and how they’re being used?
Part of the reason that this issue is impactful is that it reminds us that we look to our artists to be able to discern what event, image, and scene we need to shine a spotlight on for the sake of history. It reminds us of the visionary power of the artist. So, while we have the increased scale that social media has afforded that democratizes image making so anyone can put their work out there, this Aperture issue is meant to remind us of the incredible value that deliberate image-making has in cutting through some of the noise to be able to give to us an epiphanic sense, as in the sense of a detonation of a picture in front of us that gets us to see the world differently. It’s really an argument for the power of the arts.
Again, I think we’re living out an experiment as it relates to technology and image making. I think the very opportunity that it offers also presents a challenge. In addition to what I just described, one of the other things I’m thinking through is how deliberate repetition can counteract the effects of scale. I think deliberate repetition might be part of the answer.
The FADER published a much talked about article in which they went in-depth about the creative force of young Black people via the Internet. Young Black people are creating dances, words, phrases, and styles that are being captured via social media much in the same way Devin Allen’s photography took over the internet during the uprising. However, most of these young people are not being compensated by the brands and sites making money off of Black aesthetics and language. How do you think young Black people can get ahead of how their images and culture are being monetized without them?
I’m not an economist, and I think when you’re dealing with a capitalist system, as Beyoncé said “to become a Black Bill Gates”, it gets back to the opportunities that technology affords and its challenges for content creators. In my book, The Rise, I spent some time talking about dual functions of the artist. Especially because of social media we under value the time for privation, to keep something under wraps for a bit. That’s what I feel people that are a bit younger than me are going to wrestle with. I am young, but I didn’t grow up with social media. I grew up with a sense of knowing when something is embryonic it shouldn’t be exposed yet because it might be picked up and capitalized on prematurely. I think those are lessons that content creators are coping with right now. Part of it is the need to resist the temptation to make your work too public too early. I think that’s part of the conversation that hasn’t been discussed.
How do you think Black women in particular have used photography to document Black womanhood, and what are your thoughts about Black womens’ relationship to photography? Do you think there’s a difference in how Black people of different identities document their experiences?
We can’t deal with this question in one interview or magazine alone. The relationship to photography and the Black female body is extensive and multifaceted, layered and complicated. You have to approach it from every angle possible. What it means to in front of the lens as a Black woman and what kind of angle you have behind it. What I do want to emphasize is despite the many ways in which we know photography has turned Black female bodies from subjects into objects, there are counter veining practices by artists like Deborah Willis that have shown us images of Black female love, joy and grace. The platform that we are using through this Aperture issue and others are really meant to highlight both sides of the conversation.
How much do you think young Black people are influencing the world of art and photography, and how do you think it will be remembered?
My perspective is always about the now. My focus is on having an impact right now in part because I believe that nothing is really guaranteed. In a very positive way, I’m committed to this day. How do we capture the daily data, minute-by-minute data from social media? Will scholars 30 years from now be able to search on a given day to see what was being said about Kerry James Marshall’s upcoming exhibition or “The Kitchen Table” series that Carrie Mae Weems just published or will people not be interested in the tweets and Instagram posts? Maybe they will. What I’m most encouraged by is the way in which the exposure that social media is giving Black culture and Black artists is intensifying the moment that they’re in. It’s giving them more opportunities and more interest in what they are doing right now.
This is not going to be the last focus for Aperture on Black imagery. Do you think that you would focus on emerging photographers and how they’re capturing Black images right now? Do you think that there is room for that idea?
Absolutely. As a guest editor of the issue, I wanted to be able to show a range of photographers in terms of generations. So, we have younger photographers in there as well. You have Devin Allen, Leslie Hewitt and Awol Erizku all the way up to Carrie Mae Weems and Dawoud Bey. In the upcoming programs, exhibitions, and book, I certainly do hope to be able include even more emerging photographers.
How do you think photography of African Americans and by African Americans changed over the years?
To try to summarize it in a way without getting into all the different nuances of contemporary photography, the main thematic shift is going from photography as evidence of an argument about Black life in the 19th century, whether it was a deliberate move to show a denigrating cultural narrative or to offer a corrective to that narrative. For example, in W.E.B. Du Bois’ exhibition of American Negros in the 1900 Paris exhibition it is an evidentiary enterprise. It was effectively a mode of documentation as a kind of proof of one argument or another. I think the move out of that has become a far more celebratory exercise but still is slated with the weight of that origin moment.
Photography: Deborah Willis, Jamel Shabazz, Devin Allen, Leslie Hewitt