Interviews

Unpacking the Relationship Between Images and Social Justice

In a recent course at the Brooklyn Public Library, professor Sarah E. Lewis asked: how have images both limited and liberated our definition of citizenship?

Sarah E. Lewis teaching her first “Vision & Justice” class at the Brooklyn Public Library on March 24 (all photos by Gregg Richards, courtesy the Brooklyn Public Library)

Last May, the relationship between ethics and photographs was made intensely vivid to me when Harvard professor and author Sarah Elizabeth Lewis guest-edited a special issue of Aperture magazine titled “Vision & Justice.” Through deeply insightful essays and arresting images, that publication demonstrated that seeing is very much racially informed and that the images we make and share are tools that can be recruited in the struggle for social justice.

In the fall, Lewis began teaching a class at Harvard on parsing how race, justice, visual literacy, and citizenship are interrelated. So when I heard that she was bringing a condensed version to the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) for three weekend sessions this March and April, I was enthusiastic to attend. Lewis led me and the other students through a series of focused, historicized readings of images that made their meanings unspool. For example, I came to realize that the photos of Frederick Douglass I had grown up with and largely taken for granted were actually ordnance marshaled in a pitched and ongoing battle for recognition of the worth of black people in the US. After it was over, I got in touch with Lewis to gain further insight into some pressing questions raised in and by the course — questions about visual literacy, civic society, and what it means to look at how we look.

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Seph Rodney: How did the “Vision and Justice” course that you ran at the Brooklyn Public Library grow out of your class at Harvard? Can flesh that out a bit more?

Sarah E. Lewis:  Sure. [At BPL] I taught three courses, starting at the end of March, running through the end of April. They were two weeks apart. I condensed my 24 lectures for the Harvard “Vision and Justice” course and also created the same assignment that I gave my Harvard students for the Brooklyn Public Library. The assignments [were] truly powerful: the level of rigor, care, looking at how images have liberated our notion of citizenship. Students chose images related to Brown vs. Board of Education, related to the Supreme Court case connected to Japanese internment, the Korematsu case. They chose extraordinary images that demonstrated the persuasive efficacy of photographs that go, often times, far beyond verbal argument alone.

Russell Lee, “Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley” (1942). This image was used by student Taiyo Ebato in his essay submitted for the “Vision and Justice” course. (image via the Library of Congress)

SR: From what I understand, Jakab Orsós, BPL’s vice president of arts and culture, essentially offered you an invitation to condense a course that you were already teaching and reach a different kind of audience — an audience that both you and he seemed to agree needed, or would benefit from, this kind of course.

SEL: I accepted the invitation not only because it was civic course, but because of the Brooklyn connection, a borough with profound significance for what has animated my work. My grandfather went to high school in Brooklyn and was expelled in 1926, in the 11th grade, for asking his teacher why the textbooks didn’t include many of the achievements of Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans. He didn’t accept his teacher’s answer that, in particular, African Americans had done nothing to merit inclusion. He was expelled for his so-called impertinence. His pride was so wounded that he never went back to high school and became an artist and jazz musician. To come back to Brooklyn as a professor at Harvard teaching on the nexus of images, race, citizenship, and power — namely, representational justice, the very topic he was expelled for asking about — felt like a form of redemption.

SR: Following on that, what’s your sense of why this course was needed at BPL? I understand that Harvard students would sign up for it partly to fulfill their requirements, but for people who are coming to the library, they’re not required to take it. Why do you think they were attracted to it?

SEL: It’s a great question. I truly am still pondering the answer, because I hope the thing you make vivid for your readers is just how unusual the setup, the course, the event, truly was. Right? It’s one thing to come out on a Friday night for someone whom you want to hear speak. It’s another to sign up voluntarily for a course on a Friday night. You actually have to work. You have to do some reading. You gotta write. And we didn’t have any attrition.

What are we realizing? That citizens, that civic society understands we need to a) create community b) learn a bit more, and c) with some urgency. I think we understand that we are in a moment in which not having visual literacy to understand the narratives that are being placed on various racial groups can have extreme, cauterizing consequences for lived realities, for policy decisions, for how it is that we come together as a society. [So] people are willing to spend their time, instead of leisurely ending their week on a Friday night any other way.

You know, the global photography archive has just become massive, and coupled with that exponential growth in photographic use is the way we are increasingly living in silos. I think part of the reason why people are there on a Friday night is because we’re now seeing that pictures, media are ultimately the ways in which we bridge the gulfs that are being created between us.

A packed house for the course at the Brooklyn Public Library

SR: I’m going to push back on that a little bit, because, given my own experience as an image maker and art critic, I’ve had occasion to look at a lot of images. And I suspect that sometimes images merely reinforce ideas, prejudices, assumptions that the viewer already has coming in. Just because one is exposed to images one hasn’t seen before doesn’t necessarily mean that new knowledge comes along with that experience.

SEL: Right, but that wasn’t the point of the course. So I agree with you, and I think the data — there are lots of studies that show there is a hardening of belief that occurs when you use, say, videos in court cases that have to do with racial violence. You would think showing an event like the Eric Garner case would have resulted in different outcomes. Typically they do not. Typically they just harden people’s beliefs. But I don’t think, in fact, that the goal of the course was to show the transformative role of pictures, necessarily. It was to ask a central question and allow time for us to consider it: How have images both limited and liberated our definition of citizenship? This isn’t a course about how to use images as a mode of activism. This is a course that’s looking at the way in which pictures have constructed our notion of citizenship.

And that was the work of the first class. It was looking at that construction process, of looking at enslaved African, African-born, and American-born slaves and showing how pictures were being used to somehow legitimize the subjugation of slaves. It’s looking at these in a case-study method, how, historically, we have liberated and limited our notion of citizenship through pictures.

SR: Right. So the question I was going to pose was: why run this as a college course? But I think you’ve answered that: in order to get at this deeper relationship between citizenship and visual literacy, it would make sense to have an interaction where you have people forwarding answers to questions and being able to rub up against answers from their peers, have a kind of back and forth where there’s winnowing of ideas and their articulation.

SEL: Absolutely well-said, and that’s exactly right. I would just add: Part of the reason why it’s a course and not, say, a set of articles that I’m publishing about visual literacy and citizenship (which I might as a book, just to go along with the course), is the course allows the students who take it to understand how constructed sight has transformed policy decisions [and] citizenship. Sorry, not constructed, conditioned sight. The way in which we have been trained to see one another, it is a process that one has to learn. The narratives that we place on other subjects have been largely done through pictures, and so, when you’re able to process that in a classroom, you see the way in which this is actually a skill. You know?

I don’t just want it to be a college course. My hope is that I can create a civic, even a K–12 curriculum around it. Because it’s great to get people at the age of 18 and upward, but really the middle school age, the high school age, that’s when it might be most beneficial for our young citizens to understand these ideas.

SR: I think, by the time you’re an adult in this country, you’ve already internalized many assumptions and your ways of looking at the world have started to become rigid. And I think this is actually the underlying premise of your course: you want people to look at the way they look.

SEL: But you’re reminding me, when I was in graduate school, I came across Olafur Eliasson’s work and this term he had, “seeing yourself seeing.” And that did ignite some of this inquiry to interrogate the act of sight as it relates to race and citizenship.

A participant answers a question from Lewis during a class at BPL

SR: In terms of public policy or cultural notions that might be linked to vision, why connect these with citizenship?

SEL: Well, I should say I really do connect them with justice equally. It’s justice as the first part of the title for a reason, I think. Why focus on justice first? Well, in part because the pathway through which we are able to arrive at a point of justice comes through a process of collective correction, right? The acknowledgement of failure is at the heart of justice. But why citizenship? It relates to justice. We, I think, take the expanded category of citizenship for granted. When you look at it with a historical perspective, you begin at 1790 with the Naturalization Act, and you understand that it was a term limited to those who were white and  able to hold property. You then have to start to ask yourself: Well, how do we arrive at a more liberated notion of citizenship? And is that narrative largely a legal one? What role have the arts played in expanding our notion of who counts in society?

What I hope my students take away, I hope they’re able to see that culture, the arts, do not merely reflect these larger narratives [or] offer us a way to gauge what happened in a historical moment, but actually have created these historical moments.

Vision & Justice: Photography, Race, and Power” was taught by Sarah E. Lewis at the Brooklyn Public Library (Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Heights) on March 24, April 7, and April 21.

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