Books

The Politics of Seeing, Being, and Visibility in Photography

Devin Allen, "Young boy standing in front of police officers at a blockade, North Avenue, West Baltimore" (2015). (All photos courtesy of the artist and Aperture Magazine)
Devin Allen, “Young boy standing in front of police officers at a blockade, North Avenue, West Baltimore” (2015) (all photos courtesy of the artists and Aperture Magazine)

Aperture Magazine‘s first issue dedicated to African American lives as represented by the medium of photography, “Vision & Justice,” was published last month. It doesn’t seem right to call this issue a magazine. It is a powerhouse book; it does so much heavy lifting. The artists involved include Dawoud Bey, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Sally Mann, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deborah Willis, Hank Willis Thomas, Deana Lawson, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Awol Erizku. Professor Steven Nelson wrote of Erizku in his introduction to the artist’s work, what can indeed be said of almost all the artists in this collection, that his strategy “lays bare the act of seeing as culturally contingent, and more to the point, racially informed.”

The artists’ keen insights are honed to even finer edges by the incisive criticism given by the scholars whose words compliment each set of images — including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Steven Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Teju Cole, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Margo Jefferson, Maurice Berger, and Cheryl Finley. This book equips one not just to see, but to see more. This throng of visual and written essays wants to increase the spectrum of what’s visible in the world around us. As the guest editor, Harvard University assistant professor, author, and curator Sarah Lewis writes in her introduction, we might see that “the endeavor to affirm the dignity of human life cannot be waged without pictures, without representational justice.”

Jamel Shabazz, “Cultured and Refined, New York” (2005)
Jamel Shabazz, “We Must First Be Brothers, Harlem, New York” (1997)

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Aperture took on this project. It had already published issues on complex junctions of artistic media and culture, including fashion, performance, and queerness. It occurs to me to ask why this issue on black life now? It is 2016, about 48 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, represent the crowning legal achievements of the classic Civil Rights Movement. It’s been almost 50 years since that transformative era, and on first leafing through “Vision & Justice,” I wondered whether black artists and scholars are still working towards affirming the dignity of black lives.

Radcliffe Roye, “Black Today” (2014-16)
Radcliffe Roye, “Black Today” (2014–16) (click to enlarge)

Lewis adds a complication to this question when she writes that “understanding the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of visual literacy.” But aren’t we already there? We have spent the last few decades learning to read the sophisticated messages of advertising so we know when we are being sold; comprehend the images in film shots that now average just 2.5 seconds; and parse the double code of images, abbreviations, and emoji squeezed into the 140-character confines of a tweet. We are quite visually sophisticated and literate. We know how to mobilize images to make money, careers, polemics, and wage media war. So still I ask: Why now?

This book does the invisible work that’s necessary to feel dignified. This, I suppose, is still necessary. To quote Maurice Berger writing about photos of the Obamas, these images “have defied stereotypes, established new role models, bolstered confidence and self-possession, and challenged expectations about political and cultural power.” But that’s not why this collection is needed.

Jamel Shabazz, "Cultured and Refined, New York" (2005)
Jamel Shabazz, “Cultured and Refined, New York” (2005)

Potentially voiding all of our hard-earned certainty is a certain terror that people of color still face. Kenya Barris, the creator of the TV show Black-ish, revealed in a recent New Yorker profile that a police officer said to him when he was 16: “You know, no one will care if you die.” Police officers around the country indeed frequently behave as if they believe this to be true, methodically beating black people until they die or gunning them down as they flee, as if no one will notice or kick up a fuss. “Vision & Justice” contradicts that officer’s dismissal of the life of a young, black man — and by extension all black men and women. It says that there is a community of artists, writers, academics, filmmakers, poets, dramatists, and allies who see each other, who bear witness to the significance of the lives of black folk, to their color and drama and uniqueness, and more, bear witness and call attention to the systems that undergird and enable the violence that arbitrarily ends these lives.

This book seeks to normalize and increase the visibility of black folks so our lives can bloom and flourish. This is necessary now because we know that if we do not compel others to see us, to really see black people as full members of the human tribe, we can die in a back alley or jail cell, forgotten and unmourned.

Lyle Ashton Harris, “Untitled (Face #160 Kara)” (2006)
Lyle Ashton Harris, “Untitled (Face #160 Kara)” (2006)
Radcliffe Roye “Ryan” (2014-16)
Radcliffe Roye “Ryan” (2014–16)
Jamel Shabazz, “Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class, Harlem, New York” (2010)
Jamel Shabazz, “Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class, Harlem, New York” (2010)

The “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture Magazine is available now. The exhibition Vision & Justice, curated by Sarah Lewis and tied to a class she will teach at Harvard in the fall semester, will be on view in the teaching gallery of the Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) from August 27, 2016–January 8, 2017.

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