Through a Lens Darkly

Director Thomas Allen Harris

<em>Through a Lens Darkly</em>
Courtesy Photo

Photographs have been shaping public opinion about African-American culture and life ever since the technology was invented, most often to fuel the fire of racism. Yet, as this documentary reveals, blacks have always been producing the same proud portraits and family albums as whites, and many civil rights leaders even used the camera as a tool to uplift their people and show everyone else the true side of their very similar lives.

What prompted you to explore this issue as a documentary?

In 2003, Deborah Willis approached me about making a film interpretation of her groundbreaking book, Reflections in Black: Black Photographers from 1840-Present. The groundbreaking book detailed the history of African-American photographers from the invention of photography to the present. My photographic work was included in the publication along with my brother artist/photographer Lyle Ashton Harris.

I’d known Deb Willis as a young photographer/filmmaker just starting out and our work around the African-American archive had paralleled. For over 20 years, I have been mining my family and extended family archives in my films, so I was eager to delve into this project. What I did not know was this project would take me on a personal journey to understand why it was so important for black photographers, both professional and vernacular, to make photographs. Indeed, through this journey I was to learn that it was a form of activism and a strategy for survival in America. These two legacies and the way they are express themselves through photography exist within my family.

Tell us more about your own family’s connection to photography.

My maternal grandfather, Albert Sidney Johnson, Jr., was an amateur photographer who spent his life creating a vast treasure trove of images. Photography, like education, was his passion and he was obsessed with taking photographs of his family extended family. Grandfather inculcated in all of the male members of the family the same zeal, including my brother and me, our cousins and his own brother. It was like a special right of passage. He gave me my first camera when I was only six years old and even today I carry at least one camera with me at all times, just like he did.

For Albert, photography was a means of unifying our extended family, knitting together the disparate branches and providing a means to connect one generation with the next. And they weren’t just his images. My grandfather’s living room was a gallery, filled with the images of famous black leaders as well as the images of our forbearers, interspersed with his own photos, and included precious photos bearing the imprints of legendary Harlem photographers James Van Der Zee and Austin Hansen. Like grandfather’s stories describing his great grandparents making their way out of slavery and building their lives into something despite the pervasive and crippling racial barriers they faced, the legacy of these photographic images proudly showed us who we were.

The second legacy came home to me through my father, Thomas Allen Harris, Sr. He never took any photographs of me, my brother, our family. One of the prominent memories I have before he and my mother split up was him furiously wiping Vaseline off my face saying: “Do you want people out there to think you’re a greasy monkey!?” Greasy Monkey. From that day on, I have been haunted by this image, by my father’s fear. It has infected me, put me on constant alert that I must somehow prove, (through my appearance, demeanor, representation) my humanity and my worth to some anonymous stranger who might look at me and simply see a thug or a nigger or a greasy monkey.

What was it that had so distorted our image of ourselves, as fathers, as sons, as black people in America? What secret wisdom enabled my grandfather to transcend this grotesque distortion of the spirit? And perhaps most importantly: Can these twin legacies coexist, in constant war with one another, in my body, in the mythic Black body, in the American body without tearing it apart?

This conflict set me on a mission to use my voice as an artist/filmmaker /scholar to better understand and to interrogate Black representation.

How many images did you look through to select the ones you used?

The photographers I selected to interview and profile are those whose work engages in history and representation vis a vis the African American subject. These photographers/artists were a combination of people whose work I have been in dialogue with over the years as well as people that came to us through producer Deborah Willis. Deborah and I were chiefly responsible for selecting the photographers to be interviewed in the film. Deborah is widely considered to be the Queen of Black photography and, I wanted to honor her and her work of 35 years of uncovering archives, assembling and promoting black photographers through her many books and shows in museums and galleries across the world. Many of the photographers, like myself, were featured in Deborah’s book and its accompanying tour show.

Building off of her work, our research team, headed by producer Ann Bennett, worked for seven years uncovering and assembling more than 15,000 images for the film from institutional archives and the archives of professional photographers. These were chiefly by regional African-Amercian photographers. We also built an archive of stereotypical images that were used to demean African Americans. These came from individual collectors, like the Without Sanctuary Lynching images. In addition, I went through more than 10,000 images from my family’s archive include my grandfather Albert Johnson’s Brownie camera images and extensive color slide collection as well as the images of extended family members to find images dating back to the 1880s and earlier.

It’s astounding that so many African Americans we’ve interviewed in our through our community engagement project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshowm have images that date back to the 1800s. Yet we rarely see these images or hear their stories — in school, in the press, or in popular culture.

Through the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, we collected another 6,000 images from personal family archives of people of all races but primarily African Americans, across the USA. Out of these we selected approximately 950 images to tell the Through A Lens Darkly story.

It was interesting to note how much early leaders, like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, an WEB DuBois, recognized the need to confront the mainstream images of black culture with a more realistic, everyday face. Do you think their efforts made a big difference?

WEB Dubois in the Soul of Black Folks wrote of the particular experience of African-Americans called Double Consciousness: the dissonance between seeing ourselves “the other” while knowing ourselves to be who we are. And photography starkly illuminates the distance between these two conflicting legacies have framed the way in which I see myself as an African-American. One is a legacy of pride and the other by a legacy of shame that is deep and terrible.

Dubois along with other leaders like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington knew that the battle of civil rights was a battle for representation not only in terms of one person one vote but also the ability to control one’s image in popular culture. They knew that if a minority is represented or portrayed as other than human, it justifies inhumane treatment by the majority, e.g. slavery in the 19th century and incarceration in the 20th and 21st century. I think their efforts continue to inspire the next generation of activists, artists, and educators so that we can continue to build upon what came before.

Looking back at the older photos, were these images strictly of upper-class blacks or do they represent a cross-section of the population?

Totally a cross section of African American communities. Everyone wanted an image of themselves to share with family members, to commemorate an achievement, a milestone in their lives and the lives of loved ones. The dressed up for these occasions know that they would last the test of time.

How would you gauge the image of black Americans today when it comes to how they are perceived in pop culture? Clearly, many are superstars, but there are also elements that may not be as complimentary.

I think there has been some change in the way African-Americans are perceived outside of the celebrities and super stars. But unfortunately not much. Many Africans-American males are commonly perceived and portrayed as criminals, thugs, problems. This legitimates the murder of black males and females, the lack of resources placed in education of lower income communities, and tolerance of violence within and spilling out of these communities. And unfortunately, the repetition of these images has caused many African Americans themselves to internalize this as truth.

It is my hope that when people screen our film they will begin to think about shooting another with a camera as opposed to a gun. This lead to the creation of the film’s community outreach project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion: One World, One Family (DDFR), a multimedia-driven social engagement project designed to provocate and stimulate many stories and photographic images that will serve to highlight our share humanity. DDFR brings together individual personal and family narratives within a context that helps to expose the commonalities of our shared experiences and the bonds of our universal values. Truly, we are One World, One Family and we hope that DDFR becomes like our universal refrigerator door, where we post images of the ordinary miracles that make life worth living. As we screen the film, we ask everyone join us our extended DDFR family and add your stories and images to our digital diasporic family album.

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